about the historical re-enactment project
What I think makes my historical re-enactment project different is that it combines photography with my long-suppressed aspirations to be an academic historian, specialising in the English Civil War. In a sense, I’m trying to report and explain the war and its lasting impact on British history. Too much Don McCullin for my own good?
Originally this page was based on an article I wrote for Amateur Photographer magazine where I described the project on, its technical aspects and the creative choices I make. The article covered a holiday weekend when I was “embedded” with the Marquess of Newcastle’s Regiment of Foote, part of the Sealed Knot’s Royalist Army. For two days I took photographs, and then on the Monday I was kitted out, handed an 18 foot long pike, and marched onto the battlefield ….
I’ve always loved history and in particular the English Civil War thanks to three wonderful teachers at Bolton School, and when I went to Cambridge it was with the intention of a life in academia. But those undergraduate years enriched me with other equally-exciting interest and while I was still passionate about my subject I wasn’t so single-minded. Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher’s depressing government was hacking away opportunities in my chosen field, so I put aside the idea of doing a PhD and “got on my bike”, enduring a 2-decade career in accounting before eventually digging my way out via financial IT.
In my late twenties a teenage interest in photography suddenly became a passion, and I had my own black and white darkroom and slowly transferred these skills to digital. In 2003 that led to my first book on digital black and white and this new confidence in my photography meant I was searching for new subjects. One day I hit upon combining my interest in history with my photography, and in retrospect the idea seems so obvious that I can’t work out where it had been hiding.
The original concept was broad – recording how the past is kept alive by ordinary people. I was interested in depicting how they dedicate their spare time to running steam railways, driving vintage cars, and a variety of other activities. It was never intended to focus on military re-enactment though, not least because I like the old British tradition – a reaction to Cromwell – of being suspicious of the army and militarism. But as is supposed to happen in war, the plan didn’t survive the first big encounter with the subject…
Military Odyssey was a huge multi-period re-enactment event that sprawled over the August 2004 holiday weekend. From what I observed, the hobby seemed to fall into two very different scenes – those groups who into the twentieth century, and those who did earlier periods. The former often seemed to be more like militaria collectors, so the members of the 2nd Guards Rifle Division had taken advantage of the ready availability of original Red Army gear. The guys seemed more liberal/left inclined than one group with black Waffen SS uniforms – they also had a Tiger main battle tank. Others had more attractive contemporary overtones though, so I felt much more at ease with the Italophile surgeon whose two man Italian army kitchen re-enactment group was cooking ciabatta and pizza in a field oven. To service this very diverse market were stalls selling all sorts of medals, books, maps and other military paraphernalia.
The other half of the scene I detected at Military Odyssey consisted of groups who re-enacted periods largely before the twentieth century. I found these groups much more interesting, perhaps because the participants struck me a lot less materialistic and less into collecting. The exceptions were mostly amongst those whose periods were in living memory and where they had interesting personal connections, such as the Victorian infantry group whose members had ancestors who had fought in the Boer Wars and had inherited pieces of equipment or uniform.
But in general, I liked how this part of the scene (really more of a spectrum) seemed much more into the history for its own sake, and I saw every era from WWI to the American Civil War, back through the Napoleonic era and on into the Dark Ages and Romano Britons. The only group I’d ever heard of was of course the giant of the British re-enactment scene, the Sealed Knot. It re-enacts my period, the English Civil War, and that weekend fielded 3000 soldiers plus cannon and cavalry. Finding a great spot very close to the action, on each day shot so many pictures I filled all my memory cards and even had to switch to jpegs rather than raw format. Since that first encounter with the Sealed Knot I’ve photographed dozens of English Civil War musters.
the campaigning season
Each year there are a few dozen English Civil War re-enactments which take place all around the country, often in beautiful locations with connections to historical events. Some are on the original sites of the battle they depict.
Events vary in size. At small ones there might be just 50-100 participants, maybe one or two cannon, and a living history camp. These are less crowded and more informal, so you can smell the gunpowder and get nice and close with your camera. Larger “major” events such as Wetherby might have 2-3 thousand participants, cannon, and cavalry, and can be very impressive.
showing one’s colours
A very satisfying aspect of the project has been sharing the pictures with the participants (who of course can’t carry cameras themselves!). Immediately after the first event I attended, I had set up an online gallery and posted its URL in the Sealed Knot’s online forum. The resulting feedback was hugely encouraging – after all, you can’t photograph yourself when you’re in the 17th century – and I now create a gallery after every battle and leave it online for a few weeks. I gladly email full-res files to anyone who recognizes themselves, and occasionally sell prints to re-enactors. Not being too mercenary, and showing I shared their interests, I found it was a great way to introduce myself at other re-enactments and it soon led to opportunities to photograph private events or Newcastles Regiment’s invitation to join them for Wetherby.
While I am glad when people see themselves in my pictures, I’m very clear about not wanting to take photographs for that reason. A war photographer doesn’t shoot “team photos” and the pictures would soon become very different, more records of events. You need a certain detachment.
An English or British Civil War
I grew up thinking of the English Civil War, but over the last 30 years historians have increasingly interpreted the war in less Anglocentric ways and describing it as a more complex series of overlapping wars in the three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland.
This picture of a member of Owen’s regiment, a Welsh unit, shows how the war grew increasingly brutal but also illustrates its ethnic or national dimension. At the start of the war Protestant settlers in Ireland had been massacred, and in England there was a constant fear that the King would bolster his army with native Irish regiments. In fact Parliament passed the ordinance of no quarter to the Irish) as a deterrent. But Welsh and Cornish speakers were aware their Celtic languages meant they could be easily mistaken as being Irish. One atrocity was after Naseby when the King’s baggage train and large numbers of Welsh-speaking women had been captured, and later in the war many besieged Royalist garrisons delayed surrendering until they had received guarantees for the safety of any Welsh and Cornish soldiers.
I always arrive nice and early. For one thing, I like to see the battlefield and get some idea of what’s planned. I’ll try to decide where to sit, generally looking for where I can shoot into the light (to make the best of gunsmoke) and the background is also very much part of my thought process. Apart from not wanting the crowd in my pictures, it’s amazing how much modern junk we can overlook.
Arriving early means there’s time to raid the Living History camp where you find all sorts of contemporary scenes – cameos of Puritan preaching, candle making, music, and other crafts, soldiers relaxing. Also just before the armies march onto the battlefield, they usually get held up at a gate or some other bottleneck, and at these moments you can get nice and close – there’s often an interesting tension in the air.
a godly people, a godly army
Right from the start I sought to depict the wider history of the Civil War, not just its military aspects, and religious differences were a major reason for taking up arms. In England Parliament’s Puritan leadership opposed the government’s attempts to make worship conform to practices that some regarded as close to Catholicism, similar policies in Scotland caused rebellion, while in Ireland the native Catholic Irish rose up against the Protestant settlers. Once war began, the established church sought to uphold the King’s authority, Parliament remained in control of Presbyterians, while Puritan fundamentalism flourished in the New Model Army and grew it a crusading or at times revolutionary self-belief – or at least allowed it to attribute its victory to its godliness.
There aren’t many opportunities to capture these religious aspects of the conflict, so I try to seize every one. Puritan preachers and their High Church opponents sometimes perform cameos near the crowd line, or before a battle you may find a preacher in the living history camp. Very rarely you can get shots of ordinary churchgoing folk – the picture on the left was taken at the Sealed Knot’s annual church service.
Battles often show a historical engagement that happened in the area. The action lasts roughly an hour, and often deviate from their script – so a regiment moves left when it should have gone forward, or withdraws when it should have stayed close to the crowd line. So I’ll often move to 2-3 viewpoints. Fortunately I’m tall enough to shoot over spectators’ heads if needed.
Battlefield-wide scenes are impressive to the naked eye but are inherently chaotic. “Everything and the kitchen sink” doesn’t usually make a good photograph, so I’m continually seeking out details, individuals or patterns within the chaos.
I mostly zoom in with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, often with a 1.4x teleconverter and with the camera usually on a monopod. This brings the risk of only seeing whatever action is happening in the viewfinder, so I continually look up from the camera and scan the scene for anything interesting that may be developing – it’s a similar experience to sports photography.
Apart from my particular preference for the history of the English Civil War, there’s another reason why I like re-enactment of warfare in the period from the 16th century through to the American Civil War – gunpowder and all that smoke. Generally, musket or cannon fire looks at its best when you’re shooting into the light and the sun is coming through the smoke. The contrast range can be very high though and on sunny days you can also get extremely bright reflections off any shiny breastplates or helmets. I always shoot in raw format but I also tend to underexpose. Even if the pictures then look too dark on the camera’s LCD screen, I can then lift the shadow tones later on computer, knowing I’ve captured detail in the brightest parts of the picture.
This need for tonal range is why I only shoot in raw format. You also need a lot of pictures to be sure of capturing fast-moving action and gunfire. That imposes quite a logistical burden, because in a couple of hours you can easily shoot a few hundred 15Mb frames. There’s no time to review and delete duds in the field, so I now carry enough memory cards for 1000 shots and can also download pictures onto the Epson portable hard drive that I keep in my bag.
Powering all these electronics was a problem for the Wetherby weekend. As I was camping, I bought an adapter for the car’s cigarette lighter to supply power to my three chargers. I also bought an extra 4Gb memory card which held 250 raw files and feel that it was an easier solution. Spare camera batteries would be a good idea too. It all means more weight – luckily Beardsworths are built for manual work!
When you photograph muskets or cannon firing, there’s a fraction of a second between seeing the first sparks from the fuse, and flames shooting from the barrel. You have to be dead lucky to capture both in the same frame – and a moment later the entire scene will be lost in a mass of white smoke.
So you need to listen for the order to fire, or see the match being put to the breech, and then keep shooting pictures. My previous Nikon D100 needed to write the pictures to its flash card after only 4 shots, so I often missed the crucial moment, but Wetherby was my D200’s first re-enactment. It lets me blaze away at 5 frames a second for up to 21 frames – perfect for the heat of battle.
War on Photoshop?
I don’t do a lot of Photoshopping to the pictures. I will happily remove anachronisms like the 20th century telephone poles behind these Scots, and I’ll also dodge and burn just like in the darkroom, but I don’t believe in adding anything that wasn’t there.
However, cannon fire can be hard to capture because it happens so quickly. Your first frame may capture sparks shooting from the fuse, the next may freeze the explosion from the barrel, but you’re extremely lucky if you get both in the same frame. So what I sometimes do is blend two exposures in Photoshop, shift dragging one image onto another and then painting on the layer’s mask so I end up with the perfect combination. I don’t really see that as subterfuge or cheating, more “previsualisation” and the result of planning and technique.
black and white
Another early decision was to make the pictures black and white. Partly my own preference, this was also a nod towards the great tradition of war photography which I’d grown up admiring – Capa or Baltermants’s WW2 pictures, or McCullin’s work in Vietnam, N Ireland and other conflicts. I wanted to apply a reportage style to the 17th century and b&w seemed ideal.
Another factor was that my school and university English Civil War textbooks were illustrated with contemporary lithographs and woodcut prints or greyscale reproductions of Van Dyck’s paintings. I only saw colours much later in London’s National Gallery and I still feel I subconsciously dismiss these paintings because they show the rich and powerful, not the ordinary reality of the period. One Sealed Knot commander, who in the 21st century is a graphic designer, immediately spotted what I was aiming for when he said that for the 1640s black and white is simply “authentic” (a doubleplusgood word in re-enactment circles).
I don’t just photograph the English Civil War though, and I extend this concern for visual authenticity to other periods. To my eye, sepia and purplish tones work best for the American Civil War, while the earlier Napoleonic era seems inconceivable in anything other than bright colour.
For the black and white era pictures, I use Lightroom or Photoshop’s black and white adjustment layer, in the latter case often using more than one adjustment layer when one conversion mix doesn’t work for the whole picture. I’ve tried Silver Efex Pro a number of times, and I do like it, but I don’t really like its preset-driven interface and I consider it overpriced.
The final prints use special paper and inks – Permajet paper and their pure MonochromePro inks.
the reluctant knotter
This project started in 2004 but it was only when it was still going strong in 2007 that I decided to join the Sealed Knot. I still have no inclination to become a re-enactor myself, and I have only been in kit twice – once was for the studio shot for the magazine cover. The other time was for real at Wetherby when the Newcastles kitted me out, armed me with an 18 foot pike, and marched me onto the battlefield. I’m not at all ashamed to say I made a poor soldier – I don’t like being ordered about, pike blocks crushing into each other was too much like rugby union for my taste, and the battle was in the middle of a storm. Shafts of light were coming through the clouds and the swirling gunsmoke, great action all around, and all I had in my hand was a wooden pike. Never have I missed my camera so much!
Another reason for a reluctance to join up was that Knotters generally camp near the events and there’s a big element of socialising around a beer tent (the Sealed Knot is nicknamed “the armed wing of Camra“). Much though I like my real ale, I like to be independent and camping holds little appeal.
But the key reason for my eventually joining up was photography and wanting to get closer to the action. As Capa said “if it’s not good enough you’re not close enough”….
Some people join particular regiments because they were recruited by friends, others were literally born into theirs (the Knot’s been around for 40 years), and others simply feel drawn to the Cavalier or Roundhead cause. I’m one of that last group whose conscience determines their flag. So is that King or Parliament? Well, that’s probably where I experienced the danger of being embedded with the military in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I worked hard to ensure the Newcastles, a fiercely Royalist regiment, never uncovered my true Parliamentarian sympathies. You know, I’m rather lucky I didn’t meet a premature end with my head on a Royalist spike….