Capturing historic objects and their stories in sharp relief
This article was taken from the Autumn Breeze Article. You can read it online by clicking here.
By Ivor Wilkins
“It’s a beast!” declares internationally renowned photographer Rick Guest as he packs up his equipment following a brisk session shooting the America’s Cup. His comment is in no way an offense against the famous trophy, which he has travelled halfway round the world to photograph. Instead, it relates to the hours and hours of painstaking post-production layering and editing of multiple exposures that lie ahead before the unique quality and detail that characterise his images is achieved.
With a broad-ranging portfolio of advertising work for major international brands, along with acclaimed images of ballet, fashion, sport, Formula One, exotic cars, magazine covers, solo exhibitions and no less than eight portraits accepted into the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, the London-based photographer might be expected to travel with the world-weary hauteur of a prima donna.
Nothing could be further from the truth. He bursts with energy and enthusiasm, engages strangers with friendly chat and easy laughter, shares a host of funny insights and anecdotes, approaches each assignment with a wide-eyed curiosity and is quick to deflect acclaim. “I make it up as I go along,” he grins. “It is all smoke and mirrors.”
Outside of his commercial commissions, his latest passion project is photographing in microscopic detail a range of objects that have associations with historic or heroic achievement (Legacyandart.com). Among these are Ernest Shackleton’s battered chronometer, which survived the explorer’s incredible open-boat voyage in Antarctica following the destruction of his ship, Endurance. The stopwatch that recorded Roger Bannister’s sub four-minute mile. Robin Knox-Johnson’s sextant that plotted his course around the world in the first solo nonstop circumnavigation. Robert Falcon Scott’s wooden snow goggles from his doomed attempt to reach the South Pole. Herbert Ponting’s camera that chronicled Scott’s expedition.
The multi-function steering wheels of Formula One champions, and their race helmets. Everest ice-axes, items from missions to the moon, or from journeys to Challenger Deep, 11,000m under the sea. And now, the America’s Cup in its current pride of place at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
“Its incredible history is so alive in it,” Guest remarks, captivated by the trophy’s place in a continuum that began 172 years ago and will keep going long into the future. “It has the stories of its past literally etched onto its surface with the engravings of all the winners. It is a physical manifestation of all their stories – the great vision, effort and passion they have poured into winning it. The oldest trophy in international sport.” He shakes his head. “Wow.”
The seeds of this project were planted when Guest was photographing a recording session in the famous Abbey Road Studio in London. During the shoot, he got chatting to one of the studio technicians, who made a passing remark that every microphone in its inventory had its history documented. “They could point to a particular microphone and say, ‘John Lennon – Sergeant Pepper’. Incredible.”
Then, when Covid struck, Guest’s livelihood as an advertising photographer came to an abrupt halt. “It led to a lot of personal reflection: what am I doing with my life and so on. It was great to have time to reassess what I wanted to do.” The Abbey Road experience sprang to mind and he secured the studio’s permission to photograph its microphones. “That started this journey of photographing objects that carry a story,” he says.
“I truly believe these artefacts bear witness to the events they were involved in. They also carry with them some of the spirit of the owner, or the person who made them. I went off the deep end photographing objects. The Red Bull magazine Red Bulletin (redbulletin.com) became interested in the concept and will be publishing a series of features. Ultimately a book is planned with Guest writing short pieces to accompany each photograph, telling something of the object’s history and the often equally interesting story of how he came upon it.
Asked about how he approaches such a wide range of different subjects – each of which poses particular technical challenges, but also artistic considerations – he says years of experience provide the expertise to figure a way around difficult subjects, while intuition informs the artistic decisions.
“Any artistic pursuit always poses the question of why the artist viewed the subject from this particular angle and not that one,” Guest muses. “I don’t have a proper answer, other than it is part of your brain doing something you don’t necessarily understand. Everything I shoot is in service of the story we are trying to tell. I try not to unpick it too much. It is part of the magical mystery. There can be far too much post rationalisation about these things. I have nothing to offer on that but my own confusion,” he laughs.
In describing the two days of post-production work he expects will be required to create the final America’s Cup image, the purpose is not to smooth over its blemishes. The patina of marks and scratches from more than a century of polishing and over-boisterous victory celebrations are central to the story. It is more about dealing with the multitude of reflections and colour shifts that make polished silverware such a difficult photographic subject. The very act of recording the image also captures glaring reflections of the camera and equipment and surrounding environment, which intrude on the story.
For the technically-minded, the process involved the camera remaining in a fixed position throughout, but with six different lighting set-ups. For each set-up, there were 10 exposures with 10 different focus points, proceeding in equal increments from the nearest surface of the trophy to its furthest point, a distance of some 400mm. Each exposure produces a raw file size of 250mb, about eight times the size of a decent mobile phone image.
In post-production, the resulting 60 images are layered one on top of the other to ensure every plane, edge and undulation of the Cup’s topography is razor sharp, while unwanted reflections or highlights are removed – without compromising the clarity of every tap of the engraver’s hammer, or each mark of its illustrious story. It is a monumental task demanding great patience, skill and concentration. A beast, indeed, but something Guest undertakes with cheerful devotion in pursuit of his passion to reveal these extraordinary objects in a way they have never been seen before.