There can be magic in photography
by Terry Wieland
One of my favorite times of year is the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Most people are lying low, recovering from Christmas frenzy and excess. The days are short and often gloomy, perfect for holing up, as dusk falls, with a Sibelius symphony and a good book.
This year, it occurred to me there were two Donald Dallas books about the great age of British gunmaking that I had read only once: Alexander Henry, Rifle Maker and John Dickson & Son. It’s been a while since I mentioned the Dallas books, so to refresh: Dallas is a Scots historian who has produced magnificent, large-format books about Purdey, Boss, Holland & Holland, the British gun trade between 1850 and 1900, and the eccentric Scots collector, Charles Gordon, as well as the two mentioned above.
What sets his books apart as much as anything is the extensive use of absolutely wonderful photography, much of it supplied by the large gun-auction houses like Holt’s. Auctioneers produce the highest quality photos for the simple reason that it helps sell high-dollar guns for the highest-dollar prices. Once a gun has been auctioned off, the photos are kept on file, doing nothing, so it pays the auctioneer to supply them, gratis, in return for a photo credit and mention in the “Acknowledgements.” In the U.S., Rock Island does the same for me when I need something, and is eager to do it.
One thing the auction houses have learned is that to excite the interest of buyers, their photos need to be sexy. This is different from the standard “product shot,” as it’s known in the industry, in which a series of photos are taken against a plain white background, with even lighting, no shadows, little contrast, and every detail standing out in equal boring measure. Sexy? Less than an inflatable doll.
Auction photos for something like an 1875 Purdey, however, are almost always taken against a black background. This not only makes the gun stand out, it imparts a certain mystery lacking in a gun-company catalogue. There is a play of light and color and shadow that great photographers have known about since Edward Steichen photographed the Flatiron Building in New York, at twilight in the winter of 1904, and created (in my humble opinion) the greatest art photograph of all time. (Don’t believe me? An original photographic print sold at auction in 2022 for more than $11-million.) Click here to see Steichen’s masterpiece.
The key word is atmosphere, and a highly detailed closeup of a fine shotgun can have it just as much as Steichen’s Manhattan, or a dazzling Ansel Adams black & white landscape of Yosemite. (https://www.maxfosterphotography.com/gallery/ansel-adams-black-and-white-landscape-photographer.)
A good photo makes you want to pick the gun up in your hands, run your fingers over the engraving, or imagine the craftsman who sculpted that bunch of grapes on the fences, which now look more real than ever, 150 years later. The specific gun I am referring to here is an Adams-patent Purdey, and the photo is on page 239 of The British Sporting Gun and Rifle.
Many excellent gun books were written long before such photography became available, but you realize how far photography has come when you compare the color photos in a book from even as recently as the 1980s, with the Dallas books post-2000. There is just no comparison.
Today, everyone carries a phone whose photographic capabilities make our digital Nikons and Canons of 20 years ago seem unbelievably primitive. And, of course, there is Photoshop and other computer programs for manipulating photos or correcting flaws or imparting sizzle where none existed. These have their uses (sometimes!) but are not, in my opinion, all they are cracked up to be.
A good gun photo requires things the average phone photog doesn’t have, including a tripod, light reflectors and diffusers, a suitable backdrop, a knowledge of apertures, depth of field, and shutter speeds, and a feeling for what needs emphasis, and what is better off without it.
In the end, regardless of detail, the photo must have atmosphere and romance. Both the Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams have both, in spades, to go with their technical wizardry. Obviously, neither relates directly to fine guns but the principle of what makes a photo magical is universal, and a magical photo is one you go back and look at, time after time, feasting your eyes. Sorta like Monet’s Woman with a Parasol or Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Magical.
Early in his newspaper career, Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, got serious enough about photography to realize he did not have that one essential: The photographer’s eye. Now, he just tries to keep everything in focus and take enough shots to get lucky once in a while.