Corsets and cogwheels, leather and lace: what would the Victorian era have looked like if electricity hadn’t been discovered and steam technology had prevailed? Throw in a little fantasy, a little science fiction, and you have the steampunk movement – a weirdly intriguing combination of Victorian aesthetics and industrial steam-powered machinery. That’s the world that artist Gary Nicholls is exploring in his ambitious trilogy The Imaginarium, a staged ‘photojournalistic’ series that offers us a glimpse into the fictional life of Eva, a heroine and adventuress from the fantastical steampunk world of Nicholls’ imagination. Each photo is a composite of multiple, sometimes hundreds, of images, with the finished look seamlessly stitched together in Photoshop. I had the pleasure of speaking to Nicholls at the Talented Art Fair this March to find out more about his work:
Why have you chosen to photograph the models and the background separately, rather than the whole scene at the same time?
Mostly because they couldn’t all make the shoot at once. I rely on people who make time for the shoot - I don’t pay anybody for this because they want to do it, they want to be part of it. And it’s consistent because all of those people in all of the images are acting - I tell them what to do, and they take on the character.
Tell me more about the backgrounds.
I’ve taken 8 and a half thousand pictures just to get the hundred and fifty that are in this book. It’s not just about picking the best image, it’s also because of the places I go to. (Points at photo) That place doesn’t exist. It’s made of all the different places I’ve been to and photographed. I take elements from each one and put them all together.
Do you ever photograph your subjects in the landscape?
No, always separately. That way I can control the light. I studied the way that Caravaggio and Vermeer used paintbrushes to create light. If you look at any of their works, the background’s not out of focus as it would be with a camera, it’s detailed. All my backgrounds are detailed. The only reason why you look where I want you to look is because of the way they’re lit.
That’s very interesting. So it would actually be more detailed than you were taking a photo from the front, with a camera.
Yes. I’m known for my detail. And again, these prints are printed on metal - it’s called Chromelux. The light goes through the image and gets reflected back, making the images look like they’re backlit.
And why steampunk?
I was looking for a theme, for just six pictures initially. I actually read an magazine article about how to create a steampunk image in Photoshop, and I thought: People must do this for real. Googled it, found the Lincoln Steampunk Festival (now the biggest in the world) and went there in 2012 and met loads of people. We created some images together and I thought, this is bigger than just 6 images, maybe I’ll just expand it into a little short story. And now it’s ended up as a 450 image trilogy!
Wow, that’s amazing.
There will be a film or a TV series at the end of it too. It’s been mad. Really, it’s about using your imagination to create something that captures someone else’s imagination. Not everybody will like this, that’s for sure, but if it makes them stop and think, then - at least it’s got a reaction. It’s also about all the people that I meet.
Your models, are they people from the steampunk scene?
Yes. So every person in my story is a genuine steampunk, that’s my rule. Can’t be in it if you’re not. You have to be a steampunk because if you are, you get it. You understand what I’m trying to do, and therefore when you’re acting, you take on that character.
And do you feel that you’ve joined the steampunk community yourself?
Oh yes. Absolutely! I wasn’t, but amazingly, the Photoshop magazine that I first read about steampunk in - they just did a feature on me and my work. So it’s sort of gone full circle.
Amazing. And after the trilogy is over, will you still continue with steampunk?
Yes. My next project is going to be a steampunk post-apocalyptic story. And even before that, in my final book, I’m going around the world to photograph 4000 steampunks from different countries, and combine them into a huge Lord of the Rings style battle scene.
What a massive project.
Yes. I’m completely mad. It is good though, I really enjoy it. It’s just that my art takes a long time to produce because so much time goes into each image.
Any final thoughts?
If you have something inside you that you really want to do, whether it’s to write a book, paint a picture, compose music – whatever it is, be a bit selfish about it and go and do it. Because time passes by too quick. Be selfish with yourself and go and do it. It’s never too late.
If you’re interested, Gary Nicholls’ work can be found at g-n-p.co.uk, or on Facebook at @GaryNichollsPhotography.