Gas Works

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A photographic project inspired by visits to two of the three preserved traditional gas works in the UK: at Biggar in Lanarkshire, Scotland and Fakenham in Norfolk, England. Once a common feature of most towns, gasworks such as these produced coal gas for more than 130 years. There is often an unlikely beauty in industrial heritage, in particular with subjects such as heritage railways. Gasworks might seem a less glamorous subject, however, traditional coal gas works with their retorts, condensers, scrubbers, meters and storage tanks capture the design and detail of what was once an essential industrial process.

The work of German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher had a huge influence on industrial heritage and its preservation, confirming that what had once been deemed to be aesthetically indifferent, if not downright ugly, could be seen with new eyes. Their work invited us to look a little more closely to pay particular attention to design and detail – or, perhaps for the first time ever, to acknowledge that old and often semi-decrepit industrial structures had design and detail. In photographing these works, my aim has been to focus on those details, looking at the design of the works, and the interplay of light with the ironwork and decades of grime on the various buildings.

Industrial factories are not normally known for their aesthetic qualities, and gasworks are no exception. The buildings, gasholders and open spaces were created with function firmly in mind. However, gasworks do have a certain charm, particularly when one is able to wander around them and into the building interiors, which vary in light quality. At Biggar gasworks, the retort house, the largest and gloomiest building, has a particularly engaging atmosphere in no small part due to the faint whiff of coal-gas which still pervades the works.

Carry less, shoot more

I’ve found that FujiFilm’s marketing slogan rings particularly true on hot summer’s days when the mercury tops 30°C as it did this past weekend. As it was, I found myself carrying (lugging more like) both a Nikon D850 with 16-35mm Nikkor and the diminutive  Fujifilm X-E3 with 23mm Fujinon on a hot afternoon at Dungeness. Still, it was an opportunity to try out a small ultra-light setup and I have to admit I’m pretty impressed by the results. Sure, the wider angle of the Nikkor lens was useful in shooting the old boats at Dungeness, but the little Fuji more than held its own and looking at nice contrasty Arcos film simulations in the EVF was a pleasure.

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Photographing the photographed

Hermitage Castle, Scottish Borders

I once heard it said, I think by Brooks Jensen in his Lenswork podcast, that your best photograph is not a destination but a process. One of the problems of living at the busy end of a small island is that most ‘photogenic’ landscape locations have been photographed more times than Mrs Windsor. Every pier on the south coast of England, every lighthouse in Wales, every loch in Scotland has had its fair share of sunrise/sunset colour images and beautiful deep toned monochromes made of it by very accomplished masters of landscape photography. It would be easy to get rather jaded and think that it’s going to be real hard to create anything particularly original without winning the lottery and relocating to Iceland, the Lofoten Islands or wherever the latest trendy landscape photography destination is. However, I simply have to remind myself that I take photographs first and foremost for fun and my own personal fulfilment. So, does it really matter if the particular lighthouse, pier or in this case ruined castle have been photographed many times before? I don’t think so, but I have learned something important in the process of trying to make a better photograph in a well photographed location: it’s a tremendous learning experience in itself and just occasionally I feel I’ve inched slightly closer to a deeper understanding of that process.