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Surviving a Near-Death Experience

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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.

OK, so this title is a bit of hyperbole. But that's the way it feels sometimes when I'm faced with a great opportunity that has seemingly insurmountable technical problems.

That's just the way I felt when I got the chance to photograph farmer turned archaeologist Ronald Simison in the Neolithic tomb he discovered on his farm in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. It's a great story. One day Mr. Simison sat down on a low ledge out in his pasture on his farm on South Ronaldsay and absentmindedly started poking around with his spade. Soon enough he discovered a hole in the ledge, which led to the realization that it was, in fact, the wall of a tomb he was sitting on and he had discovered the entrance. What's more, with a torch (that's a flashlight to us on this side of the pond) he could see bones scattered about and a skull or two!

Well, honest and diligent Scot that he is, Mr. Simison reported his find to the antiquities authorities, confident that they would come right out and excavate his find promptly. They didn't. Busy with other excavations, it turned out. Busy for a number of years, actually. Finally, Mr. Simison grew weary of waiting and set out to train himself in the ways of scientific excavation. And with a bit of luck a certain arcane twist of the laws of antiquities fell his way and farmer Simison was legally able to excavate the site himself. In the end it turned out to be quite important and is known as the Tomb of the Eagles, owing to eagle talons found with certain of the more prestigious burials.

It's just the kind of story I like and I really felt honored to get to photograph Mr. Simison in the tomb with one of the skulls he discovered.

But it was dark as a tomb in there, wouldn't you know. Besides that, the only way in and out is an extremely cramped passageway where Mr. Simison has rigged a sort of low trolley that you lie on and pull yourself along, very reminiscent of the Great Escape where the WWII prisoners were tunneling out of Stalag 17. Inside the situation is hardly any better. Those Neolithic folks were evidently darn short.

So there was no light, no space, and I'm about to panic 'cause I can't figure out what to do. This is where the British have it right with the stiff upper lip business. Don't let them see you sweat (or quiver).

Nothing to do but get started and then fill in the holes. First was to position Mr. Simison near the entrance tunnel holding the skull, and then to augment the light coming from the tunnel by laying a strobe on the ground shooting through an umbrella. (No room for light stands here.) Then I started seeing where I could put more small flashes to light up the tunnel. One went behind Mr. Simison, shining up on the wall behind his shoulder. That's an easy trick. You can almost always put a soft light of some sort shining into your subject and then define their form by putting a light on the wall behind them.

Then it was down the "corridor" of the tomb, looking for any little nook where I could hide a flash to shine on the opposite wall. This is where small flashes come into their own. And I mean physically small, something really little that can get tucked into some tiny crevice and not show from the camera position.

And so forth down the corridor. There are a total of six flashes lighting this scene. Some fun really and you can bet I was breathing a sigh of relief of getting out of there with a useable picture. Actually something better than useable. Not so bad, I think.

But here's the good part. This was predigital. On film. I was using a Polaroid back to do the light testing. I think I went through two boxes of film to get all the light levels right. Crawled out of there with about a trash bag full of Polaroid litter. Ah, those were the days.

So once again I walked away and lived to tell about it, and once again nobody discovered that I really had no idea of how to do the picture until it was all over. Nice timing, huh?

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