What is it about vampires and nasty things that lurk in the night? The most famous of vampire tales, that of the dark and brooding Count Dracula, brought Transylvania to inoffensive little Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. It was a happy day for Whitby
Bram Stoker1 chose to shipwreck the earthy bloodsucker on the shores thereabouts back in the 1880s.
Over the years, also, Whitby has become a cultural epicentre for the Gothic movement. Theme weekends take place several times a year. The steampunks, however, are
I went along with my Nikon Df and the handy little Leica X to find out what gothic charms were to be found at this year’s event in sunny July.
The Goths can chart their event origins back to 1994, when forty pen
Historically, the events centred on the Whitby Pavilion on West Cliff. But the two Whitby Goth Weekends have now grown into four weekends because of some internal organisation disputes. Only the Goths know who or how. Now we are spiled by two fully-fledged Whitby Goth Weekends and two Tomorrow’s Ghosts gatherings. That’s the breakaway group’s new moniker.
But the participants who aren’t complaining about all this name changing and proliferation are the photographers. Where could you find so many people dressing up in such fantastic outfits so many times in a year?
Bram Stoker festival
In recent years a few other events have sprouted on the Whitby calendar. The Bram Stoker film festival is now around ten years old. This is another excuse for the town to be invaded by hoards of cape-wearing Dracula wannabes or Vincent Price lookalikes.
Hammer House of Horror has a lot to answer for and it became a firm part of my childhood and those of many others of my generation. There are also two steampunk weekends, one in February, and one in July.
The last two summers I have had the good fortune to pass through Whitby during the steampunk festival weekend. Trust me, I am not there to wear fantasy clothing with a hint of the science fiction macabre about it, nor a frock or corset for that matter. But I do enjoy mingling with the community, camera in hand, to capture the moment. What more could a photographer ask for, classical backdrops, with streets and people clad in all manner of colourful garb?
Abbey, lots of steps and Aussie icon
For those readers who have never been to, nor heard of, Whitby, it is a small fishing port in North Yorkshire, England, famous for its amazingly photogenic Abbey, One Hundred and Ninety Nine steps, Captain James Cook, Whaling (back in the 1800s), Whitby Jet, Fish and Chips (best in the world) — and a certain vampire book mentioned above. I am writing this article while sitting in the studio flat at the house where Bram Stoker spent six years of his life in the town.
The steampunk movement is a science fiction sub-culture with a nod towards old vintage science-fictional lore focusing on the worlds of Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. The inspiration and dress for the community come from the Victorian age, with a hint of the mythical and inventive about it.
Let’s be honest, there is a little bit of everything here in Whitby during a Steampunk weekend: Cosplay, steampunk, goth and, well, just a weird mix of the entire lot. This year saw the first Morris dancing team turn up — no doubt that could increase in coming years, more so with the clifftop procession. Before we know it there could be another Rochester-style steampunk sweeps’ festival in a seaside resort. Now there is an idea.
Opportunities and headaches
On this occasion, I had both my Nikon Df and X, with my iPhone 7 Plus in my pocket for backup. This arrangement gave me both options and headaches. The Df is a beast, but I still own just the one lens, the 50mm 1.8G. This lens is superb, and good indoors or out. Occasionally, though, I find 50mm to be a little restrictive to work with. With the X, while it has a fast 35mm-equivalent lens, sometimes it disappoints in autofocus speed. And if the light isn’t decent it can occasionally struggle to focus.
The steampunk event centres around Whitby Pavilion, and as this is dimly lit inside, I chose to shoot main with the Df. At last years event, the X proved to be not up to shots inside the pavilion, and I felt the Df’s wonderful sensor would pull off some decent shots – and it didn’t let me down.
I only have one bit of advice for shooting this type of event: Get to know the crowd and get in there among them. It’s no different to a wedding, or an
Engage and enjoy
This works for me because once I get talking to the community, they turn out to be very engaging and willing photographic subjects. It’s a fact that most people who dress weirdly tend to enjoy having their picture taken. But some of these shots would not have happened without discussion and a degree of posing. My wife, Liz, managed to find out about one couple’s steampunk clothing business, The Design & clothing Company, which they started after joining in at an earlier event a few years back. They are now taking orders for steampunk clothing and looking to expand into Goth wear.
On the first day of the event, I spent most of my time on top of West Cliff, and around the cobbled streets of the town. What Captain James Cook would have made of all this frippery, could only be guessed at, but his statue on stood over the proceedings.
Sadly I missed the steampunk procession along West Cliff as I had sloped off for fish and chips. Food tends to come before all other forms of art. I did manage to catch up with the community as they finished the procession though. This led to some interesting photo opportunities, while the entire community loitered around the Whale Bone Arch and the Cook monument. Both made interesting backdrops for casual portraits.
Terry Pratchett once maintained that “the trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”
I found the steampunk community to be very gregarious and open
I spotted many Canons and Nikons but undoubtedly it was the smartphone, of all makes, that gets the first prize for the
Sense of fun
This is also a community with a huge sense of fun, the zombie face pose (above) came after they had done a series of normal professional poses for the cameras. It all started with one of them shouting out, “right, ladies, zombie faces.” This event has that sense of fun about it.
On the second day. I managed to capture a serious number of Steampunks gathered for what I can only describe as an orchestrated group shot at the end of Whitby’s longest pier, similar to those taken at weddings. The steampunk community was about as disciplined for this shot as I recall most wedding groups; basically, it was like herding cats. I take my hat off to the one photographer who managed to corral them all to the end of the pier. It took several attempts, and it did eventually come together.
I managed to get a few decent shots of this unique ensemble with the X, by leaning over the top of the official photographer – he was very gracious, and jovial about my presence, and didn’t seem to mind at all. I switched to the X as its 35mm focal length is better for the wider shot. Plus the light was decent.
Glancing around, it was clear that most of the serious photographers were toting professional 24-70mm lenses attached to either Nikon, Sony or Canon gear. No one had thought about using anything else and sometimes we are such an unadventurous bunch, sticking with what works most effectively and efficiently. Who can blame them?
The majority of photographers who walked out this far were all around my own age, or perhaps older. Maybe this is were the camera companies are going wrong. The younger generation is not mass purchasing the pro and semi-pro systems as the manufacturers sometimes like to image. In reality, they are now selling to smartphone photographers who have developed a taste for something more professional and to the traditional, older market.
As an aside, for this type of event, I have moved away from usual my manual set up. I’m slowly drifting towards aperture priority as a basic mode. This is largely thanks to editor Mike and the Aussie Macfilos contingent trying to help me get the best out of the Leica X.
I keep the Df and X stored in my bag with the aperture set to f/8. The ISO is set to auto – in the case of the DF, from 100 to 6400; and with the X, from 100 to 1600. My rationale is that I can quickly dial the aperture to where I want as things unfold around me, but leave the camera to take care of the rest. I also tend to prefer manual focus on the X, but invariably use autofocus with the Df. The only exception is that in low light I manual focus all of my gear. I use a single focus point, on the X it stays centralised, on the Df I tend to move it depending on what I am shooting.
All in all, this was an excellent event, with possibly the best crowd I have been among for some time. I am pleased with the images, and
- Abraham “Bram” Stoker was an Irish author, best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as the personal assistant of actor Sir Henry Irving, and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned. ↩