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St. Magnus—Scene From a Graveyard

How do you take an original picture in a frequently photographed place? Jim Richardson tells a tale of gravestones and shadows.

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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.

It's a pleasant thing to stroll through an ancient graveyard, savoring the timelessness and order that the rows of stones convey. It's another thing entirely to come away with a picture that captures that rambling quality of gentle, casual tidiness giving way to muddled forgetting.

St. Magnus Cathedral towers over the surrounding graveyard right in the middle of Kirkwall, Orkney, off Scotland's north coast. The great, hulking pile of red sandstone is a Viking monument to the Earl of Orkney, who offered himself for martyrdom rather than bring strife to his people. Kneeling in prayer, as the saga relates, he was killed by an ax blow to the head. (Actually he offered a couple of other, nonlethal and less sacrificial peace possibilities first, but nobody took him up on the offer.) His shattered skull resides in one of the soaring columns inside the sanctuary.

It's never difficult to take an impressive picture of St. Magnus Cathedral. I've tried my hand at it several times, often framing it up with a few gravestones like countless other photographers before me. That always adds depth and interest, of course. However, making the whole graveyard the centerpiece of a photograph is a much greater challenge. Probably I would have preferred a gray, even foggy, day for the task—something to conjure up ghosts and long ago grudges. But it was instead a bright and cheery day, almost depressingly agreeable.

It is troubling to find yourself taking the same picture—and downright vexing to realize that you did the picture better when you did it before. That was precisely my state of mind as I stumbled among the well-used vantage points in the St. Magnus graveyard. Then I noticed the curious, fortuitous way that shadows of tree branches lined up with rows of old headstones. To me it suggested some bizarre, symbolic connectedness— more like roots than mere shadows.

My widest lens could capture some of the scene but in a cramped way; that framing was still just a dressed-up cathedral picture. I wondered if my panorama technique could sweep the whole scene.

I started out modestly with my first pans—just three or four frames to capture the church and shadows. Soon I was throwing caution to the wind. Why not start looking west and rotate through all the compass points to the east? In the end, that's what worked. The shadows added texture and meaning to the barren lawn and, with enough horizontal range, I included the larger monument to my right.

When I get home and have time to reprocess the image, I'll correct a couple of small issues. But for now, it is a pleasant surprise to find another, more meaningful way to capture a sense of space. Perhaps that is the true benefit of going back to old familiar places: They force you to see the world in new ways, and thus help you see more.

I never tire of Orkney and I'll be back there on assignment again next year. When I'm there I'll give a toast to old St. Magnus with a Skull Splitter beer. It's brewed in Orkney, wouldn't you know.

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