The dark fairy tale photography of Gary Nicholls
PUBLISHED: 13:24 16 November 2018 | UPDATED: 13:24 16 November 2018
Inspired by steampunk and Photoshop, amateur photographer Gary Nicholls embarked on an epic challenge to create a trilogy of lavish photo novels
Reality is for people with no imagination. My brain is only restricted by my ability with Photoshop and a camera.’
So says the remarkable Gary Nicholls who, using a digital camera and photo manipulation software, has created a whole new world. Proving that creativity has no age bracket, nor indeed the use of new technology, the Buntingford 62-year-old who trained and taught as a technical draftsman before setting up an eco-building consultancy in Hatfield has produced a major collection of remarkable images for his epic book series, The Imaginarium. The first of the trilogy, Eva’s Story, has just been published. Each image in this lavish photo-novel has taken hundreds of hours to create.
A keen photographer since his dad got him hooked as a child, the idea for the project was sparked in 2012 when an article on an unfamiliar subject caught his attention.
‘A Photoshop magazine popped through the door and described how to make a steampunk image,’ Gary recalls. ‘When I Googled the term I discovered the Lincoln Steampunk Festival, booked tickets and met two people who became lead characters in my book.’
For the uninitiated, steampunk is a genre of science fiction – a world where modern devices are driven by Victorian technology and the characters dress in a Victorian-cum-Vivienne Westwood style. Think punk in 1877 not 1977.
Initially focussing solely on images, the artist says the written story – a gothic fairy tale revolving around the fairground attractions of The Imaginarium – developed organically.
‘I hadn’t written since I was at school. After about 50 images I started writing but didn’t know what order the images would be in. I linked sections to pictures on a spreadsheet then once it was all written I could move things around to make the story flow.’
The resulting Eva’s Story is a heady mix of fantasy and magic – showcasing Gary’s technical and creative skills. Collecting the component parts for the book took him to destinations as diverse as New York, Cambodia and Poland, as well as just down the road in Herts.
‘I try to find a location online to match the idea I have. I don’t sketch anything out. I’ve been all over the world to find places. I go there, take photos, come back and put it all together. I took 8,500 pictures to produce the first book.’
The individual images are the result of combining several locations to create new fictional places. For instance, 37 buildings and 150 people make up the New Town image, with between 14 and 17 Photoshop layers invested in each character depicted.
Gary explains the complex digital layering behind these attention-grabbing images: ‘I start with the buildings in the background and move forward. I put in a layer of white, blur it, then apply dust and drop the opacity right down, apply a mask and paint it the way I want. This gives a three dimensionality. The final layer is a teal and orange overlay which is what they do with cinematographic images – each layer is 100 per cent solid reduced to 15 per cent opacity, so you can see through it with only 15 per cent of colour sitting there.’
The settings of The Imaginarium incorporate many Hertfordshire locations. Wooded areas were photographed in Cottered and Ardeley, while Hertford’s backstreets, Baldock, Welwyn, and areas around Knebworth House also feature. For studio shots Gary hires village halls. He turns up with a shoot list, and models – he used 150 or so, all part of the steampunk community – bring their own fantastical clothes.
‘Fashion, styles and gadgets drove this project,’ Gary explains. ‘Steampunk is an amazing community. Be Splendid is their motto. They wear goggles because you have to be ready at any moment, and that could mean going up in an airship.’
He is equally indebted to Stevenage Photographic Society from whom he has learned technical skills, and to the Italian Renaissance artist Caravaggio whose interpretation of light imbues his work.
Another important factor in the creation of his books is a celebration of British craftsmanship, including the intricate work of crafstman Peter Walton who designed and created the remarkable gadgets in the images, costing up to £12,000 and months to build.
‘When I was a kid, Made in Britain meant something. My books are printed in Liverpool and spot varnished in Lancashire. Images from the book are also on printed on metal plates. There’s amazing detail and quality of colour. Like the old plate technology, they’ll last forever.’
With only a 1,000 print run, the elaborately bound Eva’s Story is a collector’s item. The second volume of the neo-gothic trilogy is currently in the making. Entitled Robbie Pertwee – Frankensteam it includes ‘time slips’, spells and a serial killer, but also clues and riddles which lead to a prize of £15,000 worth of Gary’s art hidden ‘somewhere in the world’.
Given the time and financial investment in The Imaginarium, has the first volume lived up to his quirky imagination?
‘It’s unique, exactly as I wanted. I like problem solving and I’m always trying to think of something that will challenge my brain. I’m 62 and in four years I plan to do this full-time. Several companies have approached me about making a film. But it’s my story.’
It’s his story and a huge labour of love driven by a vision that he sums up: ‘You’ve heard you need to think outside the box – if you think there is a box, you’re too late.’
For more on the artist and his work, visit g-n-p.co.uk