Sunday, 12 August 2012

Alnwick Castle Magic - Fountains

When we were in Northumberland at the Bank Holiday we promised ourselves we would return to Alnwick Castle to see the gardens in full bloom, and hopefully in warmer conditions. Well yesterday was that day. From a purely photography viewpoint I was quite looking forward to it because I felt the formal gardens – particularly the main fountain and cascade – would lend themselves nicely to the early exercises – and so it turned out.
I’d tried the obvious shot of the main cascade at our earlier visit – albeit without the fountains playing – and it illustrates my thoughts above perfectly:
The cascade is a very modern feature designed by Belgian landscape designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz as part of a £42million revamp of the gardens In format it seems much older being a very formal design which appears to have been laid out to accentuate the effect of perspective. The hedges close in at the top, the ‘waves’ of the sides of the cascade get smaller as they recede, and the fact that it is on a slope adds further to the impression of distance. The people add some handy scale and a bit of life to an otherwise still image, and the kids tractors add a final colourful and slightly surreal touch. This shot was taken on our first visit. This time round I thought I might try some alternatives. The view from the top if anything gives a better idea of the scale of the feature – although the relatively wide angle of the lens makes direct comparison with the first shot difficult.  The second view from the bottom with the fountains in full flow is taken at the same focal length, but oddly the effect seems to be the opposite – the fountain seems relatively compressed front to back, with the surrounding hedges seeming quite enclosing – not sure I understand this.
Fountains: Alnwick Castle (iii)        Fountains: Alnwick Castle (i)
The people in the ‘looking down’ photo clearly enhance the perspective – the couple in the ‘looking up’ are partially obscured by the water drops so that they really don’t contribute to the image. As a passing observation – it seems a bit of an omission on my part that I don’t have a more distant shot of the fountains in action – I’ll have to remember that for the next visit.
After this I went looking for a shot that might portray the fountain rather differently and came up with this angle looking up through the arches formed by the water from the fountains on the right:
Fountains: Alnwick Castle (ii)
Not quite sure if this works but it does have a number of the key perspective tools in – there’s diminishing perspective from the steps and the vertical fountains, at least implied diagonal lines from the right edge of the fountain and possibly the intersections of the arches and a kind of aerial perspective from the fact that the water spray obscures the far end. I tried this shot in vertical format as well, but I didn’t feel it worked as well – in particular I think the narrower format meant that it was not possible to include full arches from the water which reduced the effect of looking through a tunnel. There are no doubt dozens of ways this cascade can be photographed, all leaving slightly different impacts - in a family visit it is difficult to exhaust or explore those aspects as fully as you might like though – so time to move on.
As well as the main cascade the garden has a section full of unusual water features, many of which are made of stainless steel and so reflect and distort their surroundings – giving alternative perspectives to them. This one for example was shaped like a giant mushroom with an upside down cap – with surface tension making the water run down the outside, and the stainless steel surface producing an image with a varying vanishing point that depended how close to the edge of the visible section the reflected subject sits.
Fountains: Alnwick Castle (vi)
Viewed with the opportunities of hindsight and reflection (no pun intended)ait speaks perhaps of the way memory operates – with the photographer/observer foregrounded – and the surroundings having less and less importance – the whole slowly washing away with time.

The next two shots, taken in a different feature, show similar effects which remind me, at least in part, of shots taken in a mirror ball. Again the scratches, fading and strange vanishing points could be read as references to failing memory of a location or time, although in these examples the vertical distortion of the people is perhaps much harder to read.

Fountains: Alnwick Castle (iv)   Fountains: Alnwick Castle (v)

The good thing about a landscape like that at Alnwick Castle is that there is so much variety on display. The view from the main terraces of the castle looks out over what I assume to be the River Aln, which runs through a suspiciously manicured landscape.

Trees   Trees (ii)

I was hoping here to catch what I had observed on a previous visit Рsomeone walking in the landscape - and this lone do walker helpfully obliged. Although very small I feel they do catch the eye, and provide a measure of scale which even our background understanding of the size and shape of mature trees does not effectively convey. At the same time they are sufficiently small that the scene is almost timeless Рit might well have looked like this 50, maybe even 100, years ago (tree size notwithstanding). By featuring primarily vertical objects the viewpoint also works reasonably well in portrait format, and given the layout of the trees might even work in square format. The landscape itself is quintessentially British Рthe varieties of green, the fields and the mature oaks ticking all the clich̩/symbol boxes.

Another example of using a figure for scale is here, where the impression of solidity and massive is significantly increased by the diminutive figures on the lawn. I think this picture says more about why this particular castle has remained largely unscathed by history than any other I have taken in my two visits here.


Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of opportunities for colour in the gardens. I found a selection of shots that feature greens, colour contrasts and spot colours. As I observed previously, the easiest answer to getting strong colour in a UK landscape is to rely on flowers – many of which will be foreign to our soils – and where even those that are native have been cultivated to enhance colour over many decades. Given the formal nature of the gardens at Alnwick it was no surprise to me that I had a choice of material:

Spot colour   P8115684.jpg   P8115679.jpg   P8115678.jpg   Yellow and purple   Spot colour   Green

Given the dense nature of the planting it was possible to pick our some quite interesting – even eye-watering – colour contrasts. It was also relatively easy to pick out a range of greens and some nice examples of spot colour. Even the castle walls offered some opportunity, although it would have been easier to exploit with a longer lens. The relatively overcast day certainly helped with some of these shots, reducing the opportunity to burn out the relatively bright colours.


The sheer number of usable or relevant shots I took during this visit highlight the benefits of knowing what I wanted to shoot – in this case specifically shots for some of the early exercises – and understanding where I might find them in the chosen location. In other words it underscores the importance of research prior to pressing the shutter.

The other thing I’ve taken from this analysis in particular is the variety of readings and meanings that can emerge from a relatively simple set of shots, in this case from the relatively abstract thoughts about memory that the reflections prompted through to the evocations of history produced by the shots with people in them.

And finally…

I wouldn’t want to end without acknowledging that taking photos can be fun – so here are a couple that really don’t fit into this module, but underline the thought that it pays to keep your eyes open and take your chances. The first, of my daughter, was taken through a film of water pouring from one of the water features, the second is a result of simply experimenting in Lightroom with a shot taken from yet another of the stainless steel fountains.

I wish I’d had the time and the courage of my convictions to ask for volunteers for a series of portraits of strangers through the water.

Distortion   Vortex

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