By Jay St John Knight.
A short story written as a creative response to Eva Figes’ novel Light.
The noise of the waves lapping against the beach drowned out the crunch of the shingle under his feet as he got about setting up the tripod. He extended the three slender black legs and planted them firmly into the lose stones with a stab. Next, he moved over to his rucksack, unzipping the main compartment to reveal the tools he had at his disposal: three separate camera lenses within their padded compartments, along with two camera bodies in their respective cells, and several boxes of film of varying grain. The sun was low on the horizon; already the golden sky had streaks of scarlet running through it like a celestial hand had squeezed a blood orange and its juice had splashed across the sky. Judging by the sun he had about twenty minutes to work with before it would fully set and darkness reclaimed the world and, with that in mind, he picked out the larger of the two bodies, his cherished digital camera, and felt the surprising lightness of it considering the camera’s size. Without much thought he reached into the bag for his favourite lens: a wide angle Nikkor that he’d spent several months working late shifts in a supermarket to save up for. He delicately lined up the pins on the mount and twisted the lens into place on the camera body before securing it to his tripod.
With care and precision he fractionally adjusted the position of the camera with each short glance through the viewfinder until he was happy with the composition of the image. The waning sun sat just above the gentle swell of the sea on the horizon; two sheer cliff faces jutted out to sea on either side and boxed in the beach, creating two diminishing lines where the cliff met the sand which led down to where the waves crashed meekly on the shoreline. A slight twist of his wrist adjusted the lens to fourteen millimetres and the diminishing lines opened up before him as the wide angle lens distorted and transformed the composition. He took his first picture, a short exposure to capture one low range of colours and tones, and continued this process, taking a range of images at different steps of exposure so that he had an array of colours and tones that he couldn’t have achieved with only one single photograph.
The sun descended slowly behind the waves and for a brief minute the air shimmered, the sun giving out one last defiant show of majesty, before night crept over the beach. He packed up his tripod and cameras, carefully placing each one back neatly in its individual compartment, and strolled off along the shingle bank towards the path home. By the time he had reached the path leading off the beach the light had faded to an uneasy equilibrium with darkness, the sky was still partially illuminated and the ground around his feet deceptively murky. He paused at the gate to the beach whilst his captivated eyes drank in the Ansel Adams photograph around him before pushing on home.
Steam danced out of the spout of the kettle and into the air as the noise of the kettle’s rumbling boil died down. He noticed the tungsten light bulb in the kitchen gave everything an amber cast as he poured the boiling water into a mug, and droplets of condensation formed on the cold window like gilded tears. He took his cup of tea and walked down the silent corridor to his room. It was late, nearly one in the morning, and everyone was either out or asleep. The only noise that could be heard was the quiet hum of the refrigerator and the occasional car passing by outside.
Inside the room he sat in the pale glow of his celestial fairy lights that sat atop the black canvas that was his bedroom window at night. Discarded clothing lay strewn on the floor like lifeless puppets. He started flicking through the images he’d acquired on his laptop, selecting the best exposures and placing them all together in a single folder. Each individual photograph was a vessel of information on a small segment of light but, when amalgamated on his laptop with the other images, they would come together as one rich and dynamic spectrum that neither organic and artificial lenses could capture. High dynamic range photography fascinated him; the idea that hidden everywhere around him there was a richer image just waiting to be discovered filled him with excitement. The concept that light exists on multiple dimensions unperceivable to the vast majority of people made him giddy. Each time he melded his photographs on his laptop he got something completely new, something unique. He was both an explorer and an alchemist, capturing a whole unseen world by gathering dull, base images and transmuting them into photographic gold. Slowly, he ran his fingers over the unspoilt duvet on his bed as his laptop processed the images, watching the fabric ripple outwards. Just beyond his fingers, tiny on the other side of the room, the reflection of the little fairy lights above his window studded the varnish on his guitar, radiated a cosy and welcoming glow like the dying embers of a campfire.
Time seemed suspended in the darkness around him but he glanced at the clock on his laptop and looked out of the window. It was a cloudless night and the stars were defiantly bright in the sky, perfect weather. He closed down his laptop, pulled on a heavy blue woollen jumper and went to the kitchen to fill a flask of tea. It was just passed two in the morning now and still quiet. Outside the kitchen window the hill was a patchwork of illuminated orange squares stretched across darkness, each lit up window advertising some kind of nocturnal activity. The flask of tea fitted neatly into his packed rucksack and he quietly slipped out of the kitchen, pausing briefly to flick the light switch before walking off into the night.
He was far enough away from town now that the roads were no longer lined with streetlights and he had to rely solely on his own vision. The tarmacked road he’d been following for the last twenty or so minutes had snaked up the headland away from the town and towards the nearest main road. If he carried on along the road for another twenty minutes he’d probably be able to see the roundabout that marked the beginning of the dual carriageway, but he turned off the road and up a public footpath towards a small wood that was silhouetted against the night sky. The further along the path he went the more overgrown it got; brambles reached out and snagged his jumper every now and then but he pressed on. The treacherous walk would be worth it.
The bramble path finally ended and the woods began. Thick trees blotted out the light from the moon and the stars which made picking his way through the undergrowth difficult. After five minutes of slowly clambering through bushes and navigating treacherous tree roots he eventually emerged from the woods into a small, circular clearing. Moonlight shone through the gap in the canopy and the ground beneath his feet turned to soft grass. He’d found the spot a few weeks before whilst on one his spontaneous ramblings about the countryside and instantly pictured the photograph he wanted to produce. Waiting the last few weeks for the perfect clear night so that he could give form to this idea was torture, every time he closed his eyes at night he could see the circular star trails and the black silhouetted trees in the clearing, giving the photograph the perfect natural vignette.
It took no more than three minutes to set up the equipment and he methodically began taking readings of the available light to work out the best exposure. Astrophotography required as much effort and meticulousness as HDR photography to create an image but the results were always spectacular. Celestial circles blazing through the night sky that made the entire universe orbit around the camera’s lens. The white lines were stellar tyre tracks across the tarmac black night sky. He checked the composition of the image through the view finder; the moon was directly behind him and far enough away from the composition so that it wouldn’t ruin it over the hour he needed to create this image. Everything was ready. At this point any tiny movement of the camera would ruin his photography so he placed the shutter on a timer and stepped back from the tripod. The scraping noise of the zip being undone on his rucksack seemed to echo around the clearing as he took out his flask and poured himself a lid full of tea. The shutter would need to be open for two minutes and he would then need to repeat this process at least another thirty times to make the best possible image.
The camera bleeped several times to signify the end of the countdown and the shutter snapped open. It was like the initial brushstrokes a painter places onto his canvas to break through the unspoilt white. He was a painter of sorts, a painter of light, and even though his tools were different he still went through the same processes. To him his tripod was his easel and his camera was the canvas mounted atop it. The camera, like a canvas, was the medium between himself and everything around him and through this he expressed what was impressed upon him. Like a painter he had brushes to work the paint on his canvas but his brush was the lens of his camera and, like paintbrushes, each one produced a variety of different effects on his canvas. He looked up at the still branches of the trees lining the clearing; the light from the night sky flowed down through their black outstretched fingers and embraced the cleared bubble. It lingered around the dew on the tip of each blade of grass and clung to the steam rising off the lid full of tea, creating a living ethereal creature swirling and twisting in the night air around him. The shutter clicked closed and he crouched next to the camera to gently check the fruit of his first attempt without moving the tripod. Already there was a hint of light’s cloaked activity: each star looked warped, ovular, as its position had moved in the composition of the camera. With another thirty of these images layered on top of each other, the night sky’s secret and vibrant nature would become visible. He activated the timer on the shutter again and went about his work.
The first hints of light started breaking through the tiny slits around his blinds as the sun slowly awakened from stasis. Each piece of furniture in the room was no more, instead replaced with anonymous indigo shapes that rose out of the darkness and grew in intensity as the sun clambered further and further towards the horizon. Outside, a seagull lifted its head up in the eerie morning glow and let out a shrill call; other voices joined in and the sound echoed throughout the town, bouncing off the sheer surfaces of buildings and cascading down the gentle streets. He lay motionless in his bed, dormant, silent and waiting as the sun rubbed its eyes and stretched across the land.