Inside Fingal’s Cave: Frame 12,649

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Fingal's Cave first hit the pop chart in 1830 and soon rocketed all the way to No. 1. That's why I just had to be there, the place where I got frame 12,649 for my Outer Hebrides story.

Classical composer Felix Mendelssohn came to the Isle of Staffa in 1829 and wrote his famous overture, The Hebrides Opus 26, a year later. Popularly known as Fingal's Cave Overture, this music has been a popular classical favorite ever since, and a special favorite of mine since I first started listening to classical music as a teenager. The rhythmic swells of the music echo the natural sounds of the cave as the sea sweeps in and out.

I was not the first photographer to venture here. Even Joseph Banks, who is credited with the cave's modern discovery in 1772, knew that it had been a known place of wonder for centuries, if not millennia. Walking into Fingal's Cave is like walking into the heart of the Earth.

Here among the towering basalt columns, the visitor stands inside a lava flow. Magma that swelled up from deep in the Earth cooled so gradually that it formed regular octagonal shapes as it shrunk. Now the primordial heat is gone and the sea is at work, eating back into the island of Staffa to hollow out the cave that is now over 200 feet [60 meters] in extent.

It was Mendelssohn's music that elevated the cave to "must see" status. From then on, all the Victorians were coming here, including Jules Verne, Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Romantic artist J. M. W. Turner, and the most famous Victorian of all, Queen Victoria herself. All of them were overwhelmed by the sight and wrote effusively of how their vision of nature had been transformed by the experience. It was as if there were a contest going on to see whose gushing verbiage could top all others.

Something more important was happening, as well. For it was here in the Hebrides, and often here in Fingal's Cave, that much of the world was learning to see the raw side of nature as inspiring. Before this time, nature itself had been seen as somehow dangerous and evil, in need of taming and civilizing. Our modern sense of wonder in the face of natural splendor owes much to the emotions of those early visitors to Fingal's Cave.

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How, then, does a photographer come to such a familiar place—once so haunted by illustrious observers—and presume to do something fresh?

That was my dilemma and one that I worked over in my mind for a long time, perhaps as much as year. I had photographed the cave before and always run into the same problem: it's dark inside. Everybody who has ever photographed it has encountered the same effect. You want to photograph the depths of the cave but the farther back you look into the black basalt, the darker it gets. Set your camera for an exposure that captures the nearest columns? The back of the cave is impenetrably black.

Moreover, I didn't want to do just a record of what it looks like. I wanted to suggest the timeless inner works of the ever changing Earth that are so obvious inside Fingal's Cave. The Earth is all around you, changing all the time, full of transfiguring energy. If there were ever a place to read J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, this is it.

I finally fell upon the idea of lighting the cave from the inside. If light were coming from the back of the cave it would suggest the experience of early visitors who carried lanterns into the back reaches.

The technical problem is getting sufficient light inside the cave. The flat-black basalt just sucks up light, and with all the water sloshing around it's not the sort of place for high-powered flash units with high-voltage batteries. I would have to do the picture in near darkness, when my lights would be strong relative to the available light. I already had two each of million-candle-power flashlights to illuminate the cave. But because I largely work on my own, I had no one to handle the lights while I manned the camera.

My solution came from an unlikely source—the lovely little Argyll Hotel. I was staying there on the nearby island of Iona. Innkeeper Daniel Morgan suggested that two of his young staff were avid amateur photographers and would be glad to have the chance to spend some time in Fingal's Cave.

Thus, Rado, Digby, and I were climbing into Fingal's Cave at 4 a.m., long before the first light of dawn. Intrepid youth that they are, Rado and Digby headed straight into the bowels of the island. From there, the flashlights they were carrying stabbed out like beacons. I was thrilled.

The first images showed real promise. Exposures were long, as much as five minutes. Because it was so early, light coming out of the cave was an incredibly rich, predawn blue. Light from the flashlights was a glowing yellow-orange. As the waves washed in and out, I shouted instructions to Rado and Digby about where to shine the lights. Each successive picture taught me more about what was needed.

Then it turned into a race. Dawn was coming, and the outside light was getting brighter every moment. By the time we took this picture—frame 12,649—the exposure was down to one minute. By the time we could take another, the exposure was down to 30 seconds and the flashlights were no longer bright enough.

It didn't matter. By then we had our frames.

My thanks to Digby and Rado.

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Now let me step back a moment to reflect on something more telling than lighting and cameras. Technical prowess in photography is both necessary and a potential pitfall. It is a form of hubris that can often lead to the feeling that technical solutions can overcome all problems. But it is not the application of talent or technology that brings the joy of photography to me.

True landscape photography insight, at least for me, comes from engaging the subject on its own terms, letting the understanding seep in, setting my own clock to the time frame of geology, blocking off the rest of the world, and entering into a sort of communion with a place. If that sounds spiritual, I suppose in some ways it is. I know, of course, that the land is completely oblivious to, and has no need, for my presence and feelings. But I have feelings for the land and for the passage of time, and for the honor of being in its presence.

This is the source of my joy.

Tomorrow: Under the Cliffs of Boreray.