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Posts Tagged ‘historic’

In May 2007, I was at Rydal Mount, the house Wordsworth occupied from 1813, until his death in 1850. While I was there, I took this photograph:

Rydal Mount, May 2007

But cameras don’t take images the way we see them. They make a recording that might be faithful in detail, but not in the mood. That has more to do with imagination and emotion at the moment we press the shutter. For the technically minded, I used a 12 megapixel Canon A640, set on aperture priority, with the lens stopped down to F8. At ISO 100, the shutter managed 1/125 second. On the plus side, the picture is evenly exposed, and sharp, no clipped highlights – a thing to which the A640, in common with many digital cameras of the period, was prone. On the downside, it looks flat, and dull, and certainly not as I remember it.

What I want to do is go back in time, to 2007, take this old photograph and see if we can liven it up a bit, using the tools and techniques we have now, that I didn’t have then. I want to make it look more like I saw it, and felt it on the day. To achieve this, I’ll be using two pieces of free, but powerfully sophisticated software: Luminance HDR, and GIMP,

Of course, the common objection among photographers is that if we have to manipulate an image to make it shine, then we should have taken a better image in the first place. That’s fair enough, and I shall always bow to greater skill. But I’m an amateur, not a pro, and if I can salvage a picture from the mess I’ve made of it, it’s all good.

The world’s earliest known, surviving, photograph was taken around 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, using a technique called heliography:

World’s earliest surviving photograph – Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras.

Image manipulation began almost at the same time, either as an aid to overcome shortcomings in rudimentary equipment, or to enhance details for artistic effect. Film negatives or glass plates would have areas scrubbed with wire wool to blur them out, and make other details prominent, and prints would be hand-tinted. Indeed, without significant image enhancement, even this grainy image of Niépce’s is barely recognisable as anything at all. But back to Wordsworth.

He was nearly evicted from Rydal Mount, on the whim of the rentier, Lady Anne le Flemin, who wanted it for a relative. But by now he’d developed a deep love for the place, had invested much effort and emotion in landscaping the garden, and he was understandably desperate not to lose it. But he was up against the local Aristocrat, so had to fight canny. He purchased an adjoining meadow, and let it be known he intended building on it, thus spoiling the view from Rydal Mount. He even went as far as having designs for a house drawn up. The ruse worked. The Wordsworths kept their home, and their garden.

Nearly a century after Wordsworth’s passing, the house was bought by Mary Henderson, his great-great-granddaughter. It remains in the possession of the Wordsworth family today, and is open to visitors. I’ve been a few times since 2007, but something about that morning sticks in the memory, and I was never able to capture the garden again, without people in it. My digital archive goes back 20 years, and it was while browsing I discovered the photograph. What struck me was the gap between my memory of the day, and the image. Digital images do not fade over time, of course. But something clearly happens to memory, and it’s more complex than simply fading away. Perhaps it becomes more idealised over time, or those impressions that are important to us begin to crystallise more.

Anyway, first we take our original image and load it into Luminance HDR. HDR stands for high dynamic range, which we’re not going to bother with today. All we’re going to use are the tone mapping algorithms, and apply them to this single image. Tone mapping is a way of taking what’s there – the light, the tones, the contrasts, and amplifying them, simulating the wide dynamic range of the human eye and allowing them to be displayed on a screen or in a print. Not all images are suited to the method, but one that’s well exposed with a good balance of tones and brightness to begin with will usually respond well. Then it’s just a question of fiddling about to get the effect you want. It can be overdone, and I’m as guilty as all amateurs of overcooking images. But I think this is a big improvement:

It’s lifted the various greens, brightened up the rhododendrons, and the azaleas, even uncovered some detail and texture in the rendering of the house. I’d say we were nearly there with this one, but there’s more we can do.

The garden at Rydal Mount is very much in the Romantic in style. Wordsworth, along with Southey and Coleridge, were the founders and champions of the English Romantic movement. Wordsworth was the author of its manifesto, which stands as a preface to the Lyrical Ballads. One of the tenets of Romanticism is that we should not seek to command nature. We should cooperate with it, and learn from it. Hence, the garden is very informal, flowing with the lie of the land, using natural elements for decoration, rather in the fashion of the Taoist inspired gardens of China. Does the photograph capture that? Perhaps we’re asking too much. Perhaps we’re going to end up overcooking it, now, but let’s have a look anyway.

We can add a touch of the romantic to any photograph by adding a layer of blur, or soft focus. But having just restored all that detail, it would be a shame to lose it in blurriness. What we want is something impressionist, but not too much. So we turn to a technique mastered by the photographer Michael Orton in the 1980’s. Orton experimented with superimposing photographs of the same scene, one sharp, the other deliberately defocused. As a professional fine art photographer, he was aiming at something very abstract, but the method was thereafter widely adopted by others for the impact it can add to an image. In the days of film transparencies it took a lot of technical skill and a professional darkroom to make this work, but since the digital age, anyone can do it. If you have filters on your phone camera, the chances are there’s an Orton effect among them.

We’ll be using GIMP for this bit. GIMP stands for GNU image manipulation program. GNU means it’s free and holds to a certain standard and a set of egalitarian values. GIMP is an amazingly versatile tool for a photographer. Your alternative is something like Photoshop, which, last time I checked, you couldn’t even own. You have to rent it. No thanks.

GIMP allows us to take our image, overlay a blurred copy of it, then blend the two together. There are various ways of blending, and the best one depends on the image, so we have to experiement. I most commonly use the “Soft Light” merge, or sometimes just “Overlay” with a degree of transparency. Here I find the “Multiply” option works best, with about 50% transparency. It deepens the greens, and the shadows, and lends a more dreamy feel to the image, while preserving the highlights:

We’ve perhaps lost a bit of the crackle in the detail, though, and part of the joy of that garden lies in its textures, so we bring back a bit of sharpness and texture by blending in another layer to which we’ve added a high pass filter. This basically preserves all the sharp corners, like in a line drawing. Thus, we get the impressionist blur, while the detail is still there to draw us in. The difference is subtle, on a screen, but certainly looks better as a print.

If you’ve ever done the Wordsworth thing at Grasmere, you’d be forgiven for thinking he spent his entire life at Dove Cottage. He didn’t. He was there for fourteen years, and, having, escaped its poky confines, and its gloomy light, I can well imagine his delight at discovering Rydal Mount. The EXIF data embedded in my original photograph tells me I took the picture at 10:30 am, which suggests I left the hotel after breakfast and went straight there. I’m sure it gets busier later on, but for a good hour we had the house and grounds to ourselves. There was a timeless atmosphere. I could imagine turning a corner to find the man himself in dreamy contemplation. He smiles, he nods in gentle welcome, before wandering off, counting meter, in his head.

FAREWELL, thou little Nook of mountain-ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which doth bound
One side of our whole vale with grandeur rare;
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,
Farewell!–we leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.

I’m glad his ruse worked, that he didn’t actually have to say farewell to Rydal Mount, though from the depth of feeling in his poem, he clearly felt it was going to be a close run thing.

Thanks for listening. And enjoy your photography.

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The Yarrow Reservoir

So, we’re leaving the car by the Yarrow reservoir this afternoon, tucked into one of the cuttings along Parson’s Bullough road. It’s a cold sun sort of day, enough to tease us outdoors, but the daffodils are looking shivery, so we’ll need to zip up. There’s a good light on the reservoir, and the sun just low enough now for the contrasts to be interesting.

The Yarrow reservoir: late Victorian period, built to supply water to Liverpool and, along with its much larger neighbours, the Anglezarke and the Rivington reservoirs, it was all something of a tragedy if you consider the land and the farms and the homes that were sacrificed to progress hereabouts. But they’ve been an unchanging fixture of my own life and, as far as reservoirs go, they’re beautiful and have bedded in well.

This afternoon’s jaunt will cover about three miles, where we’ll find a varied and fast changing scenery of moors and meadows, woods and running water, also a few dark tales along the way.

yarrow reservoir mapWe start with a bit of quiet road-walking, first across Alance Bridge, which spans the tail end of the reservoir. You sometimes get idiot kids tomb-stoning from the bridge in the summer, but it achieved a different kind of notoriety a few years back when murderers crept out of one the darker cracks of Bolton and attempted to dispose of a body by dropping it over the side here. It’s not a story I’m happy to be adding to local lore, and it reminds me these remoter stretches of Lancashire are perhaps best not explored after dark.

Next comes the climb up Hodge Brow, eventually passing an old barn on our left. This is a queer building, marked as Morris House on early six inch maps. I’ve known it variously as a ruin, then a bunkhouse and more lately a millionaires des-res project that’s stalled and has now lain empty for years. It looks about another winter away from the weather getting in too. There are warnings of spycams. This is a bleak corner, the wind unchecked, roaring down off Anglezarke moor to rattle the tiles – pretty enough in Summer, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d want to over-winter here.

Past Morris’ we’re onto Dean Head Lane, a narrow cut of a road, water pooling in the reedy hedgrows as it drains from the moor. It’ll take us on to the pretty little village of Rivington eventually, or up by Sheephouse Lane and Hoorden Stoops, to the more populous Belmont. There are fine views of Anglezarke to the north and, further off to the east is Noon and Winter Hill – something shaggy and frigid about them this afternoon though, in spite of the sun, like they’re hung over or still grumpy after the summer heath fires.

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The path by Dean Wood

At Wilkocks farm (1670), we cut down the path along by Dean Wood which skirts the deep ravine in which the wood nestles. I’ve often fancied a closer look at the wood as legend has it there’s a fine cascade hiding in there, but this place is considered so precious to the region, it’s sealed off and managed as a secure nature reserve – access by permission only, and you’d better have a good reason for asking.

There’s something creepy about the path, an old story about a farm labourer coming along here in the early nineteen hundreds. He felt a “presence” behind him, then turned to see, in his own words, the devil “horns and all”. Terrified, he ran to Rivington and told his tale, swearing all was true. Three months later they found his body at the bottom of the ravine in Dean Wood having apparently fallen from the path around where he claimed to have had his near miss with old Nick.

It’s a story recounted first, I believe, in John Rawlinson’s “About Rivington” and I’ve been careful not to add anything of my own to it here. Writers usually can’t help embellishing where they feel a story lacks detail. What I will say though is reports of such Forteana tend to cluster in the liminal zones, and this one certainly fits that pattern: the open meadows coming down to the edge of the wood, and then the deep ravine itself forming a void of air, all of which  makes for a fine transition from one thing to another.

One theory is we “imagine” such apparitions, but that doesn’t make them any less real, at least not to those experiencing them. On a fine sunny afternoon like this it’s just a story of uncertain vintage – no names, no precise dates, so it’s impossible to research more fully. To my knowledge Old Nick hasn’t been seen again around Dean Wood, but would I come down here at dead of night? Well, let’s just say, I’d be tempted to go another way.

I remember John Rawlinson as a kindly and wise old gentleman – a leading light of the Chorley Historical and Archeological Society, also a good friend of my father’s, both of them a half century gone now, both legends in their own way and loving every inch of the moors hereabouts.

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Turner Embankment – Yarrow Reservoir

After offering us tantalising glimpses of the forbidden, sylvan delights of Dean Wood, and hopefully avoiding any diabolical disturbance, the path brings us out into open meadows and with a fine view of the Yarrow reservoir, overlooking the somewhat angular Turner Embankment, so named after the house that was demolished to make way for it. Rawlinson tells us the house was most likely salvaged, and the materials put into building Dean Wood house, which nestles in a cosy bower just to our left here. There’s something pleasing about the close-mown lines of the embankment, I think,  with the trees still bare against the sky and the foreground meadows all lit by late afternoon sunshine.

Now we’re off along Dean Wood lane, through a fine avenue of chestnuts, just coming into leaf, and there’s a clear brook tinkling alongside us for company. We can walk on to Rivington from here, perhaps have a brew at the chapel tea rooms, but that’s for another day. Today we’ll take the path around the Yarrow instead, which we could follow pretty much all the way back to the car if we wanted, but if you don’t mind, I want to make a bit of a detour because I can hear the rumble of water and I suspect the spillway is running.

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The Yarrow Reservoir overflow

The Yarrow spillway is a spectacular feature hereabouts, a series of cascading steps that takes the excess from the Yarrow and feeds it with style into the Anglezarke reservoir. It isn’t often running these days, but there’s a good bit of water today, and it’s always worth a photograph, especially now with the sun settling upon it and adding a golden glow to the highlights.

I try a couple of shots with the lens wide open and manage 1/2000th of a second on the shutter. This has a dramatic effect on the capture of water, freezing it and rendering an image that’s essentially true but something the eye wouldn’t normally see. There must be thousands of shots of these falls on Instagram and Flikr, and a good many of them mine, but I never tire of it.

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F1.8 – 1/2000 sec

Okay, it’s just a short way now back to Parson’s Bullough and the car. Then it’s boots off, and home for a brew. A pleasant walk in familiar territory, but always something a little different to see.

Just one last look back at that gorgeous spillway, and we’re done:

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