The story behind that picture III: "The Living Museum"
By: Thorsten Overgaard [danish text]
This week I was finishing a photo shoot over two days for a special magazine about the The Old City that will be published in June. The Old City is a town and a park in the midst of Aarhus, Denmark, where old buildings has been collected throughout Denmark to be rebuilt to appear as an entire old city with streets, a theater, squares, a lake, gardens, wagons, bakery and all.
Living in Aarhus and having been driving by one or several times a day for many years, I may not have appreciated the uniqueness of this museum-town as much as I should have. Even in rainy and cold days hundred or so tourists will visit, and in sunny days it's thousands. In December there’s also authentic last century Christmas market, visited by thousands. Thinking about it, it's as remarkable as Disneyland, except this is the old days and authentic houses, furniture, tools, wall painting. All 100-400 years old.
My part of the magazine is covering “The Living Museum,” which is an odd concept in that it's real actors living in the houses, wearing authentic dresses, feeding the oven to keep the house warm, cooking in the kitchen like back when, and ... get this ... being in 100% character. So I've been doing a school class of 1864 made up of a current school class of 10 year old school kids dressed in the 1864-dresses, in character as poor or rich kids (rich sat in front, poor kids sat in the back), attending school where they were examined by the visiting priest who also briefed them about the (1864) current war that went on just outside the class room.
I also did a coffee table meeting of 1910 in an authentic house, having authentic cookies (made the day before in the 1910-owen), shooting three housewives singing and talking. What I'm doing is one single time frame from each period. It's tempting to make it a picture story of many pictures, but I simply make one single time picture. One still; from which you should be able to get the idea of that period.
What I also do, is interviewing those persons about their life. As they are very much in character, they are actually that (made up) person, living that (made up) life, and they got their story straight. It's almost an out-of-the-body experience interviewing a person from 1864 about her sons and daughters, when her husband will be coming home for dinner and what she’s been up to today. Because I'm actually interviewing a lady from 1864!
Which makes it so much easier to write the story though. For the tourists visiting The Living Museum it's the same. They are invited inside, have a cookie, ask questions ... and the person they speak to actually live in 1864 and in that house. Which they don't, but the tourists sure are in doubt.
Anyhow, I got a lot of nice photos and the above is the last one I did this week. It's from inside the grocery store, which back then was a farm in town with horses in the back, a store, a room in the back where the owner would meet with customers and trade goods. So he would buy stuff from travelers, incoming ships, etc.
In the kitchen there's two young maids, the housewife and the housekeeper. When I arrived to do shit shot I had just been 40 years up in time as I had done the boot-makers wife and living room up the street. And I was a bit in a hurry because I had to travel 119 years up in time and then take an 10 minutes drive to the kindergarten to pick up my daughter, in less than half an hour! Normally it takes an hour or more to do a shot and get the story, but here I had to get the story later and just do the shot. So I’ll be doing the words in this coming week.
In a way that's handy because I got this accidental shot of the youngest maid "alone" and looking. So that will be perfect for a text about that period and life; but also a small insight into her life. What is she thinking, what's her worries and hopes in life. I've done that with a few of the other actors where I have a portrait and then have a text where I'm sort of inside their thoughts and ‘write aloud’ what they are thinking that moment.
In terms of photography, shooting in the old houses has been a bit of an eye opener to light. I'll get back to light in a later article, and in that you will learn that "light quality" is usually associated with the amount of light (or rather how big the light source is in terms of square feet). Now, these old houses all have small windows whereas you can always get great light from very big windows.
The interesting thing about the pictures from these buildings is that skin tones, dresses, eyes, furniture and all "sparkle" and become very alive in this light. Without getting too technical, the best photography light is not sunshine as some assume, but soft and even light as in a day with dull and grey weather. That's usually what makes a picture sparkle and come alive.
One of the reasons I can come up with about the light in these pictures is the rather strong light coming in through the small windows, making each window as a light box (a big soft lamp), combined with the rather dark colors of the walls, the furniture and the low ceilings. So I'm actually thinking how one can copy that into a studio lightning; meaning one would use a few smaller light boxes combined with dark walls. Now, the colors also play in, because some of the late century colors are simply out of this world. There's a house where the walls are dark, dusty cobalt blue walls. They almost shine and vibrate! Another was a dark green which you don’t see anywhere anymore; a little bit more lively than racing green, but just as dark.
Especially here in Scandinavia where everything tend to be bright and white it’s a different world of contrast and colors you find in those old houses.
For the photography I used the soundless Leica Digilux 2 for those photo shoots where I wanted to be present without being noticed (the school class for example), and then the Leica R8 dSLR with DMR digital back. The shot above is the Leitz 19mm Elmarit-R f/2.8 lens at f/2.8, 1/60 second, 200 ISO. So as you can imagine, there's not as much light as it appear on the photo. I'm at 1/60-second exposure and using a monopod. I'm standing in the door opening and have the door open so I get some extra light in from that opening, having a little help by a gold 100 cm (3 feet) reflector to the right of the camera position.
I went manual and measured the ambient light coming in the window by the looking girls face, with a Sekonic L-758DR lightmeter.
As said, this will all be used in June 2009 after which time I might come back with more photos from those sessions.
- Thorsten Overgaard