Ten years in the dark

Chapter 10 of 13

That sinking feeling

Tarquin in a passage in the limestone workings in Milwr Mine, Halkin Mine Complex. Flash by Tarquin, camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin.

Whilst surveying, the Chelsea Spelaeological Society had noticed the way into virgin passage in Luck Of The Draw. It was another of those little arches, this time poking out just over some mud. This new find was named Cantankerous Surveyors' Series and was reported to contain a stal formation so beautiful, it had been given a name; The Geryon.

My dad and I headed in there with our camera equipment. We had prepared two flashguns; our main flash which had the intelligence to check if it had released the correct amount of light and stopped when it had, and our little backup flash. We had been using these same flashes since we started with underground photography and they were showing signs of wear. The smaller flash always required the battery clip to be left half open for it to charge up, but the larger flash was fairly reliable. It required lots of batteries though as it was quite powerful, and drained four of them fairly quickly. The smaller flash required two but was always a bit slow at charging. We prepared a multi-pack of batteries, easily more than we would need. Because we did not trust it, we did not put any batteries in the main flash, but we put two in the weaker flash. We also had a new cable release preparing for its first use.

We reached the Geryon after about four hours. This was like a cross between the two types of helictite formations seen in Dogleg. Three short, fat stalactites hung in a row, the one in the middle about half the size of the other two. Maybe they were its parents ... Each stalactite had grown hundreds of arms which splayed about in all directions with 'hands' on the ends, with the arms that met those from another stalactite joining into one. This was a truly remarkable find and I could quite see why it had warranted a name of its own. We began to unpack the camera gear, cracking jokes about the aliens that had landed on the ceiling and settled down to hibernate there. A little family of three. Should we sneak around so as not to wake them?

My dad got out the main flashgun and asked me to pass the batteries that were in the Daren Drum container that I had. 'They're not in here, they must be in yours'. But they were not in either. This was a serious blow. Without our main flash, we would have to rely on the low power flash and hope we could calculate everything ourselves. With the low amount of light the flash produced, the iris would have to be large so we would have problems focussing. Then my dad hit on an idea. His emergency backup mini Maglite contained two batteries. Now we had four, we could put them into the main flash, and hope the emergency backup light would not be needed.

He set up the tripod and held the flash in his hand. The camera shutter was to be opened with the cable release so he screwed that into the shutter mechanism and I prepared for the photo. I stood on a tiny ledge sticking out from the wall, holding on to one slightly higher up. With our lights off, I remembered posing like this for Steve in Pant Mawr Pot, where in the final pictures, I had an odd look on my face and it looked almost like I was relieving myself against the wall. I made my face look normal. If I can look normal, that is.

'Ready? Open ..' The shutter clicked open and immediately closed. We put our lights back on so that my dad could switch the camera to the brief setting which would hold the shutter open as long as the button was pressed, as we assumed this is why the shutter had closed so quickly. The camera was already set on brief. Confused, we looked at the cable release. On its first use, the sheath had torn. Irritated with the manufacturer, and knowing that they would never replace it as we had used it underground and they would use anything as an excuse not to spend money, we attempted to fix it with a key ring. It was a strange setup, but it should work.

Back in position, we tried again. Again the shutter just clicked open and closed. The key ring idea had not worked. Annoyed but determined, the flash was placed on top of the camera for a final attempt. A handheld shot. I stood on my ledge again, lights switched off and highly conscious of the fact that one of the arms of The Geryon lay just a few centimetres from the end of my nose. 'Ready? Now.' Nothing happened. What on earth could have gone wrong now? The shutter had jammed firmly in place. Had it not been for the fact that I had seen Clive Westlake's picture of The Geryon, I would have believed that it was the unseen powers of the alien creatures themselves. Back on the surface, the shutter worked as normal, but needed servicing.

My dad later returned to photograph a nearby area of the cave, War Of The Worlds, where the helictite displays are not quite so impressive, but safer to photograph. Fifty of these pictures we had taken are currently on display on the internet, along with the full description of the cave. We have never tried to photograph The Geryon again. We just cannot afford it.

A few years later, my dad had been teaching some young club initiates to cave. One of these, Huw, was fairly good and together, we all headed to Ogof Pasg in South Wales, with the intention of doing a through trip to Ogof Foel Fawr and taking some pictures on the way. Ogof Pasg was surprisingly large for such a short cave, and we quickly used up a whole reel of film, taking pictures of the unusual passage shapes and the stal formations. This was the chance for me to pass on the art that I had learned; how to be a poser. Now with long hair, a beard and moustache, I did not look anything like the person who had featured in the pictures before, and it was time to train a fresh, young face.

It is only when you do this that you learn just what it is you do when you model for photographs. For front-lit shots, the facial expression is very important. Looking unimpressed will not make anyone want to look at the picture. Smiling ridiculously will also make the picture look a bit like a joke. The best way I found was to try a little role-play. Not in the dominatrix sense, although that would make the picture quite captivating.

While standing there, I told my understudy to imagine that he had found the passage. It is along the same line as a stone-age man who has just managed to light his fire. Proudly he stands beside it with his spear pointed upwards. When approached by another stone-age man, he stands up straighter, looks at the other and says 'Oom fire.' It was this stance that I was after. If a caver could imagine themselves standing in a passage, proudly showing it to the other cavers, then they will have the 'right' look. They will have a slight smile of satisfaction, and that is what I am looking for.

I had been doing this for years and for most pictures, I think this is the most successful way to model. If a rock is available, it may be a good idea to place one foot on it. This, I had seen used in old pictures of English gentry wearing a hunting outfit. We also tried a simple back lit shot where the expression is again important. This time, it worked best if the model appeared to be looking at something, without sticking their head too far forward. It was an interesting experience trying to coordinate someone with very little experience in cave photography. It helps you to realize what you had been doing yourself.

We had just set up a picture of a caver actually caving - something very unusual in the pictures I had coordinated - when the shutter jammed. This was a pity, as I would have enjoyed taking some pictures of me caving in water. We had one of my dad crawling in a low passage, someone walking in a large passage but none in water. Water presents its own problems; the model gets very cold and the water reflects large amounts of light back at the camera. The first picture would have been me in a duck. Well, more like a sump that according to the local expert would be no more than a 'puddle'. Hmmm. It would have probably been taken as my head resurfaced and I gasped for air with water pouring off me. Imagine it if you will, because we never got to take the photo.

The second picture would have been in the next section of passage where a section of thigh deep water would have made an excellent picture. I had planned to drop down on my knees and lower myself until my head and arms were out of the water then have someone fire a flashgun towards the camera from behind me. It might be cheating, but it would look good. Instead, we had to give up and headed out towards the Ogof Foel Fawr entrance. We followed a low crawl until we reached a chamber and the crawl ahead was taped off, showing the way on was into the chamber. In the floor of this, there was a hole down but this sumped. We knew this had to be the way on as there had been nothing about a side passage. We stuck our feet into the water and waved them around to see if there was an airspace. There was not so we turned around and went back out the way we came. The actual way out was through the taped off crawl. We were left to wonder why it was taped off when it was the way out.

Attempting to do some harder caving trips since the birth of my daughter, I joined my dad, Huw and his mate Adam on a trip into Draenen, to retake the pictures of Galeria Garimpeiros that we had taken before, this time in colour. Firstly, we headed for Old Illtydian's Chamber to try taking some pictures of a large chamber, something we had not attempted before. On a world scale, this is not a big chamber. In fact, there are several passages in Draenen that are larger, but it was good practice. Planning the set-up took us nearly half an hour. The main picture was to be of the whole chamber, which is both tall and steep. I stood one of our victims, sorry, models at the top of a large boulder slope and another to the right of the chamber where there was a slightly flat area. I perched on top of two large boulders in the centre of the chamber.

This brings me to the next great pose for caves. In large passage or chambers, the person in the centre of the shot stands with their legs apart and fires the flash in front of them, away from the camera. If they look up slightly, this makes a great silhouette. This was how I stood. I had one boulder under each foot. Both boulders had sharp edges on the top of them and it was incredibly hard work trying to balance there, especially in the dark. In front of me and behind me, it was about a metre and a half to the 'floor'.

'Ok guys, lights out. Ready? ... Open ... fire Huw'. The top end of the chamber lit up. 'Fire Adam', and so did the side. Now in the dark, I stumbled across to Adam and collected the main flashgun. Stumbling back with a tiny glow from my light, I only just stopped before falling off a drop. This was not fun. Now balanced again, I fired the flashgun. We attempted this several times with various set-ups. Sometimes I fired twice, having to wait in between for the flash to charge up without moving at all. Very difficult when you are perched on a boulder. I believe the best picture came from one where I started with a flashgun, and Huw and I both fired at about the same time. Following this, I stumbled over and handed the flash to Adam and got myself well out of the picture before he set it off.

We spent about an hour to an hour and a half in total there and my dad and I were acutely aware that our two models were getting cold and bored so we headed off to our main target. Another World was easy; we took pictures of almost every stal formation, all of which worked very well. These were simple camera mounted flash shots and required no work at all. We also photographed a beautifully round phreatic tube, about two metres in diameter. We produced two totally different pictures of the passage using both of the silhouetting techniques I described previously. Each one printed perfectly. Our final crowning glory was a picture taken in the Hearts Of Olden Glory streamway, where a section of passage echoes for several seconds with even the slightest noise.

The passage is shaped like an ice-cream cone with one scoop of ice-cream and the bottom of the cone cut off. I stood Adam in here facing the camera and then crouched down behind him. Aiming the flash towards him, I fired it, lighting up the passage shape, as well as the mist around him. The effect it produced was absolutely perfect. I did make two mistakes though; I could see myself in the photo behind him, although a quick computer edit removed that. I had also not realized just how much light would reach the front of him. I had told him to stand with his feet slightly apart and his fingers only just inter-linked at about waist height. These both worked, but he had left his gloves on, making his hands look enormous. Most men might appreciate this but it did not work in the picture. Again, the computer came to the rescue.

On the way out, we reached the waterfall that Chris Howes had taken a picture of for his book Images Below. I decided to go one wetter - not better - and stood directly under the waterfall. That is very cold. The flashgun was set off behind me, blasting light through the huge amounts of spray. It was an excellent setup and it looked fantastic, except for one problem. Have you noticed how there is always one problem? And if there is not one there are two? This problem was due to the lens that we were using. It was too wide an angle and the important part of the picture was very small in the print. For the same reason , there was not enough light, so the picture became washed out. Trusting in my computer editing abilities, I resurrected the photograph, and it now stands testament to the lengths that I will go to in order to get a good picture.