Build­ing a new world

Bunt­ing­ford pho­tog­ra­pher’s re­mark­able steam punk in­spired photo nov­els

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: San­dra Smith PHO­TOS: Gary Ni­cholls

Re­al­ity is for peo­ple with no imag­i­na­tion. My brain is only re­stricted by my abil­ity with Pho­to­shop and a cam­era.’ So says the re­mark­able Gary Ni­cholls who, us­ing a dig­i­tal cam­era and photo ma­nip­u­la­tion soft­ware, has cre­ated a whole new world. Prov­ing that cre­ativ­ity has no age bracket, nor in­deed the use of new tech­nol­ogy, the Bunt­ing­ford 62-year-old who trained and taught as a tech­ni­cal drafts­man be­fore set­ting up an eco-build­ing con­sul­tancy in Hat­field has pro­duced a ma­jor col­lec­tion of re­mark­able images for his epic book se­ries, The Imag­i­nar­ium. The first of the tril­ogy, Eva’s Story, has just been pub­lished. Each im­age in this lav­ish photo-novel has taken hun­dreds of hours to cre­ate.

A keen pho­tog­ra­pher since his dad got him hooked as a child, the idea for the project was sparked in 2012 when an ar­ti­cle on an un­fa­mil­iar sub­ject caught his at­ten­tion.

‘A Pho­to­shop mag­a­zine popped through the door and de­scribed how to make a steam­punk im­age,’ Gary re­calls. ‘When I Googled the term I dis­cov­ered the Lin­coln Steam­punk Fes­ti­val, booked tick­ets and met two peo­ple who be­came lead char­ac­ters in my book.’

For the unini­ti­ated, steam­punk is a genre of science fic­tion – a world where mod­ern de­vices are driven by Vic­to­rian tech­nol­ogy and the char­ac­ters dress in a Vic­to­rian-cum-Vivi­enne West­wood style. Think punk in 1877 not 1977.

Ini­tially fo­cussing solely on images,

the artist says the writ­ten story – a gothic fairy tale re­volv­ing around the fair­ground at­trac­tions of The Imag­i­nar­ium – de­vel­oped or­gan­i­cally.

‘I hadn’t writ­ten since I was at school. Af­ter about 50 images I started writ­ing but didn’t know what or­der the images would be in. I linked sec­tions to pic­tures on a spread­sheet then once it was all writ­ten I could move things around to make the story flow.’

The re­sult­ing Eva’s Story is a heady mix of fan­tasy and magic – show­cas­ing Gary’s tech­ni­cal and cre­ative skills. Col­lect­ing the com­po­nent parts for the book took him to des­ti­na­tions as di­verse as New York, Cam­bo­dia and Poland, as well as just down the road in Herts.

‘I try to find a lo­ca­tion on­line to match the idea I have. I don’t sketch any­thing out. I’ve been all over the world to find places. I go there, take pho­tos, come back and put it all to­gether. I took 8,500 pic­tures to pro­duce the first book.’

The in­di­vid­ual images are the re­sult of com­bin­ing sev­eral lo­ca­tions to cre­ate new fic­tional places. For in­stance, 37 build­ings and 150 peo­ple make up the New Town im­age, with be­tween 14 and 17 Pho­to­shop lay­ers in­vested in each char­ac­ter de­picted.

Gary ex­plains the com­plex dig­i­tal lay­er­ing be­hind these at­ten­tion-grab­bing images: ‘I start with the build­ings in the back­ground and move for­ward. I put in a layer of white, blur it, then ap­ply dust and drop the opac­ity right down, ap­ply a mask and paint it the way I want. This gives a three di­men­sion­al­ity. The fi­nal layer is a teal and or­ange over­lay which is what they do with cin­e­mato­graphic images – each layer is 100 per cent solid re­duced to 15 per cent opac­ity, so you can see through it with only 15 per cent of colour sit­ting there.’

The set­tings of The Imag­i­nar­ium in­cor­po­rate many Hert­ford­shire lo­ca­tions. Wooded ar­eas were pho­tographed in Cot­tered and Arde­ley, while Hert­ford’s back­streets, Bal­dock, Welwyn, and ar­eas around Kneb­worth House also fea­ture. For stu­dio shots Gary hires vil­lage halls. He turns up with a shoot list, and mod­els – he used 150 or so, all part of the steam­punk com­mu­nity – bring their own fan­tas­ti­cal clothes.

‘Fash­ion, styles and gad­gets drove this project,’ Gary ex­plains. ‘Steam­punk is an amaz­ing com­mu­nity. Be Splen­did is their motto. They wear gog­gles be­cause you have to be ready at any mo­ment, and that could mean go­ing up in an air­ship.’

He is equally in­debted to Steve­nage Pho­to­graphic So­ci­ety from whom he has learned tech­ni­cal skills, and to the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance artist Car­avag­gio whose in­ter­pre­ta­tion of light im­bues his work.

An­other im­por­tant fac­tor in the cre­ation of his books is a cel­e­bra­tion of Bri­tish crafts­man­ship, in­clud­ing the in­tri­cate work

‘each of the images took hun­dreds of hours to cre­ate’

of craf­st­man Peter Wal­ton who de­signed and cre­ated the re­mark­able gad­gets in the images, cost­ing up to £12,000 and months to build.

‘When I was a kid, Made in Bri­tain meant some­thing. My books are printed in Liver­pool and spot var­nished in Lan­cashire. Images from the book are also on printed on metal plates. There’s amaz­ing de­tail and qual­ity of colour. Like the old plate tech­nol­ogy, they’ll last for­ever.’

With only a 1,000 print run, the elab­o­rately bound Eva’s Story is a col­lec­tor’s item. The sec­ond vol­ume of the neo-gothic tril­ogy is cur­rently in the mak­ing. En­ti­tled

Rob­bie Per­twee – Franken­steam it in­cludes ‘time slips’, spells and a se­rial killer, but also clues and rid­dles which lead to a prize of £15,000 worth of Gary’s art hid­den ‘some­where in the world’.

Given the time and fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment in The Imag­i­nar­ium, has the first vol­ume lived up to his quirky imag­i­na­tion?

‘It’s unique, ex­actly as I wanted. I like prob­lem solv­ing and I’m al­ways try­ing to think of some­thing that will chal­lenge my brain. I’m 62 and in four years I plan to do this full-time. Sev­eral com­pa­nies have ap­proached me about mak­ing a film. But it’s my story.’

It’s his story and a huge labour of love driven by a vi­sion that he sums up: ‘You’ve heard you need to think out­side the box – if you think there is a box, you’re too late.’ N For more on the artist and his work, visit

‘Steam­punk is an amaz­ing com­mu­nity. Be Splen­did is their motto’

The Pawn­bro­ker - Gary used a lo­ca­tion in Her­mitage Road, Hitchin for the ba­sis of the pawn­bro­ker’s shop Dr Wil­liam presents the Ne­ces­sitti – in the dis­tance is Sher­rardspark Wood, Welwyn GC

ABOVE: The Air­shipBE­LOW LEFT:A re­mark­able 37 build­ings and 150 peo­ple went into the cre­ation of New TownBE­LOW RIGHT:His­toric med­i­cal lec­ture theatre used in Life Saver – Gary scoured the in­ter­net for lo­ca­tions to pho­to­graph in the UK and around the world

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