The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Macmath: The Silent Page

As Claire picked up her crying baby from the travel cot, the rest of the assembled gathering of some of Dumfries and Galloway's finest, internationally renowned, traditional musicians started singing lullabies to help Caitlin drift off.

It worked and we were able to resume the photo shoot.

There's a project underway called Macmath: The Silent Page, where the aim is to bring to life a series of songs, many of which will not have been heard for over a hundred years.

It all stems from the Macmath collection of songs, held in the archives at Broughton House in Kirkcudbright. To swipe from the blog where Ali Burns is writing about this project:

William Macmath, 1848 – 1922, grew up in Galloway before moving to Edinburgh as a young man and his huge and largely unacknowledged legacy was in helping the great American ballad collector and academic Francis Child with his definitive publication: English and Scottish Popular Ballads 1882 – 1898. Although working entirely in his spare time, Macmath worked tirelessly and meticulously over a period of almost thirty years, to track down and verify details relating to the Scottish ballads included in Child’s collection. Broughton House holds many of the letters between Macmath and Child written over their long association. More pertinently to our project there are also two books of unpublished songs and song fragments written down by Macmath. It is these two volumes that we’re looking at in this project.

I had been called in to create a photo that could be used for publicity and the CD cover, once the songs have been recorded.

Broughton House itself seemed the ideal location to shoot the photo and on an earlier trip there, Ali and I had explored the house and gardens to find the best spot. Fortunately we decided on an indoor scene as it was chucking it down with rain on the day of the shoot.

Arranging 7 people in a way that flows is not an easy task. This wasn't to be some all-in-a-line press shot, but an engaging photograph where the eye needs to be led into, round and through the ensemble and their surrounds. Given the historic nature of the project, I wanted the final image to have a feel of a classic painting with finely tuned arrangements of people, objects and setting

Wee pin-man sketches done beforehand will only get you so far. It's not until you put everyone together can you start to get a sense of who needs to go where. Not just due to height, but also where the splashes of colour of clothes, instruments and hair might compliment or clash.

Take a photo - rearrange the group. Take another - swap two people about. Take another - swap them back but move someone else. Take another - ask this person to lower their head and that one ro raise their left arm...

And so it goes on. Each time refining and finessing until you reach a point where you feel you're as close as you're going to get before mutiny sets in.

But that's just the first half of creating a photo such as this. There's still the editing.

Inevitably there is not a single photo that has all the elements just perfect. In one someone will be blinking; in another the fiddle is at an angle that throws the compositional lines out; in another someone's arm is casting a shadow over someone else's face. So the ideal combination has to be created from several photos. In this way it is much more akin to the processes used by the old master painters.

And then there are subtle tweaks of hue and saturation, brightness and contrast, levels and curves, while unwanted reflections are painted out from the glass panels on the bookcase.

Finally, to enhance the narrative I decided to overlay some of the handwritten text and music from photos I had taken directly of some of the pages of the Macmath volumes.

Click on the image for a larger version.

Left to right: back row: Emily Smith, Aaron Jones, Jamie McClennan
front row: Wendy Stewart, Ali Burns, Claire Mann, Robyn Stapleton

For more about this fascinating project, head over to Ali's website about it and read her blog posts:
Macmath: The Silent Page

Here's the image on the CD cover:


Theanne Crossett said...

What a worthwhile project this is for the Folk Singers and Musicians! I look forward to hearing what they create using this the collection of music Macmath assembled. I looked for your grandchildren...but got caught up in your reunion with "old" classmates and Rogan's Mohawk :)

Guyana-Gyal said...

Boo to people who think photography is just point and shoot with a good camera. It's an art.

The 'old' background with the 'modern' people - perfect for this project.

I'm fascinated by all the creative projects that take place over there.

hope said...

Makes me want to step in and see what they're looking at. Nicely done!

Kim Ayres said...

Theanne - I think they plan on recording early next year. As for the grandchildren, just keep scrolling back :)

Guyana-Gyal - There are creative projects happening everywhere - I guess it depends on which circles you move in as to how much you hear about them

Hope - thank you :)

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