Nothing makes me madder than being told I have just taken a “lucky shot” — generally speaking, because on the day concerned I probably got out of bed at least five hours before my grudging critic.
There is a great story about Gary Player, the South African golf champion, hitting a hole in one at a tournament.
“Lucky shot!” exclaimed one of the gallery. “Yes,” retorted Player, “and you know what, the more I practice, the luckier I seem to get.”
A Challenging Assignment
For some months now I have been shooting for an exhibition to commemorate one of the great battles of the First World War. Fought in 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele dragged on for three months in terrible muddy conditions where many soldiers, when wounded, were unable to extricate themselves from the clinging mud and actually drowned where they lay.
The main cemetery at Tyne Cot near Ypres in Belgium is the largest British war cemetery in the world with almost 12,000 graves and the names of over 34,000 “unknowns” — men who were simply blown apart or who sank without trace into the foul morass.
As such, it is an essential shot for the exhibition: totally overwhelming in its scale and so obvious as to be impossible to shoot with any real sense of difference. With all those rows of white headstones I just wanted to somehow lose any extraneous detail to illustrate the statement of King George V who said, “I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
Working there has always made me feel like an underwater swimmer, as my senses are totally altered and I need to come up at regular intervals for air — so I had been trying to get my mind round this shot for almost three months without much success. Somehow the light never seemed right, and as the deadline was looming I was getting increasingly depressed about it.
My final foray involved an early morning start to catch a cross-channel ferry which landed me into France before dawn. As I drove north east towards the battlefield in the pre-dawn gloom, feeling bleary-eyed and in need of coffee, I suddenly realized that my windscreen was smearing not with rain but snow.
Suddenly the race was on. Anyone who thinks that landscape photography is contemplative knows nothing! It’s all about the need to get in the right position at the right time. I covered the 100kms to Passchendaele in the time I would normally manage in the dry, and by the time I arrived it was blowing a blizzard.
I always find snow the hardest weather state to work in: it swirls and drifts about so however you stand it gets into your gear, onto lenses, insinuating itself in the shutter box, and is a general nightmare. I have some great protective gear, but even with a large umbrella it was impossible to keep the lens clear for more than a few seconds.
The Magic of Snow and Light
But the light was magic — a mass of swirling snow with gravestones marching off into a white distance. All detail was gone, just shapes.
It’s at times like this when the shot is there, the light is changing and that adrenaline just kicks in so that you just forget about anything else. Changing a battery became a frustrating fury as cold fingers failed to manage the catch; I was just too damn slow. A lens change took fumbling minutes (not the word I used at the time!), and every shot meant the lens had to be wiped.
And then suddenly the shot was done. The joy of digital is that you can check the results immediately, so within 15 minutes with a steaming hot pot of coffee and the pictures on screen one could just relax, secure in the knowledge that a vital shot was secure.
That is one of the pleasures of being a photographer — the instant gratification you can get from work. One is not getting up early to “go to work” but to “get a good photograph.” And there in the midst of that silent city I had done what I had come to do — got a shot which I felt did honor to that place.
So yes — it was a lucky shot. But then I started at 3 a.m., drove 350 kms and did the shoot before breakfast. Which just proves that what Gary Player said is true: the more you practice, the luckier you get!