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Light in the Heart of Darkness

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

I got an email from Penglaz the other day. Penglaz is the horse in this picture, in case you didn't know.

Actually it wasn't from Penglaz himself. It was from Mrs. Penglaz, his wife. (Not their actual names, of course. Penglaz is a Celtic Obby 'Oss and his actual identity is something of a state secret down in Penzance, Cornwall, where I shot this picture.)

Mrs. Penglaz had been trying to find me ever since I shot this picture for National Geographic as part of our coverage of the Celtic realm. The horse skull is a truly ancient Celtic symbol of rebirth and the Obby 'Oss is equally ancient. Up the coast at Padstow the Oss comes out on May Day as he has for, perhaps, 1,500 years. A living piece of antiquity in the here and now.

Photographing Penglaz that night was no piece of cake. It was midnight when he stormed out of the darkness to run amok through the Golowan Festival band and those assembled to parade through the streets of Penzance. It was dark. So I had to adopt several procedures that I hoped would work.

First I put on my fisheye lens and set it at f/5.6, which promised to give me enough depth of field so I wouldn't have to worry about focusing. Put it on manual, guess that I'd be about five to eight feet [1.5 to 2.4 meters] from the horse, and shoot. From there I just kept going to a longer and longer shutter speed until the night street scene came to life. Mostly this was in the range of two to three seconds. Finally, I put a flash on a cord and held it in my left hand. The trick of this was waiting until the horse was in a dark spot (so only the flash would light him) and the background was lit by the dim streetlights. That long shutter speed meant that the background would streak, which was fine as long it didn't streak into the image of the horse too much. And the fisheye could lend a bit more to the surreal quality of the scene. Mostly I held the camera up high over my head so I could see the horse and then the crowd behind. (He's sitting atop the shoulders of a full-size man, after all.)

In the event I got an extra piece of luck. Just as the fiddler was making another lunge at the horse someone else's flash went off during my exposure. That's where the light is coming from, camera right. Mostly my frames that night were one disaster after another. You can't believe how many ways there are for a picture to get screwed up in that kind of situation. I breathed a sigh of relief after I got back that night and saw my images on the computer at about 3 a.m.

The Celtic world is a rich place, and that was a special night. I was glad to get this image. And I'll be sending one to Mr. and Mrs. Penglaz, now that I know where the horse lives.

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