Story behind the image

14 September 2016

Hands of time

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It is hard to describe the hands of Lawrence MacEwen, Laird of the Isle of Muck, in a way which does them justice, perhaps the best metaphor I read recently by Polly Pullar (Author of A Drop in the Ocean) suggests that they are "maps of his island" which is not far from the truth. As Laird, Lawrence's roles over the years - alongside sheep and cattle farming - have included being Muck's special constable, firefighter, electrician and grave digger to mention a few, and there is no doubt that his hands have worked every yard of his 1,500 acre island in one way or another.

I visited the Isle of Muck, part of the Small Isles and Inner Hebrides, for the first time with my camera in early spring 2010. The sparsely populated Small Isles intrigued me after kayaking parts of the west coast and I wanted to produce a photo-story about this unique lifestyle. Using a medium format Bronica 645 camera with 15 shots per roll of 120mm film, this was a project which I was photographing slowly as I got to know individuals on the islands. Whilst I had known Lawrence since my first visits to the Small Isles (and I had taken other images of his hands) it was nearly six months later that I took this photograph.

Getting up at 5am to walk across the island and spend time with Lawrence whilst he tended to his much loved cattle, the dark morning provided its photographic challenges, which led me to help Lawrence where I could, whilst he hand milked the cows. Stopping for a coffee, made with fresh milk, I spotted the opportunity for this image as we were chatting in the doorway. I asked Lawrence if he could keep holding the cup exactly as he was but just move slightly so that he was positioned facing out of his doorway towards the first hint of morning light, and with the darker interior to his back.

I remember looking at the image through the viewfinder and just hoping that I could keep my hands still enough in the low light, as even with 400ASA film my lens was all but wide open and shutter speed was below the 1/60th of a second I'd consider minimum to get consistent hand held results on such a camera. I took a series of exposures at 1/15th and 1/30th of a second and felt pretty downhearted and sure that it wouldn't come out... with the aperture wide (to up the shutter speed) I thought I wouldn't have enough depth to show the detail of the fingers and with the aperture as I wanted (and shutter speed lower) I was sure I wasn't steady enough. I was gutted and in hindsight couldn't think why I hadn't carried the tri-pod across with me that morning.

Needless to say, it's a happy ending, as the negative developed happily ever after. But I do remember putting off processing that roll, thinking that I'd see some slightly blurry fingers resembling what could have been a great shot in my mind. From a particularly prolonged disappointment I was elated when I inspected the negative on the lightbox, and fueling up with a coffee I got to work in the colour darkroom.