Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Vigil at the Stones: Frame 9,068

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

Frame 9,068 came at around 2:30 a.m.

There by myself among the timeless standing stones of Callanish (photographing the "Edge of the World" story about the Hebrides for the January 2010 issue of National Geographic), I kind of lost track of time. The night's calm was as powerful as the stones. Around midnight, as the last of midsummer's light in these northern latitudes faded into a deep blue in the north, I thought: I don't need to be rushing around. I can stay here all night.

In the nearby village I could hear the occasional barking dog and an unexplained sound that I eventually attributed to the Earth adjusting itself to the passage of time.

It was peaceful. I was peaceful.

With that peace came the inner time to work on this picture—to really stretch my seeing and try to bring something to a photograph of a place that has been photographed countless times before (including by me).

After all, it's not like I was seeing something new that nobody had ever seen before. These stones were put up by the local folk sometime around 2900 BC. That's before Stonehenge! Without doubt there were spiritual structures here before the stones. Before that, this place had been sacred for a very long time.

The stones themselves are older still. The imagination boggles when trying to comprehend 3.5 billion years. But you can see time wrapped into their many folds, as the rock was thrust deep into the earth again and again, wrapping over itself in pleats of antiquity. The stone is called Lewesian gneiss and it is pretty much the oldest stone on the face of planet.

One need not believe in ghosts to feel the palpable presence of eternity in such a place.

So I set to work with the tools at hand—the stones and grass, deep blue sky and passing clouds, my Nikon and flashlight. One can do wonders with simple tools given purpose and time. My flashlight was that simple tool.

Frame 9,068 is a 30-second exposure. During that 30 seconds I used the little LED flashlight that I carry in my camera bag to "paint" the stones. Because the shutter is open and recording light all the time during the exposure, wherever you shine light, that light is added to the exposure. It's a very powerful way of lighting things because you can control just where the light goes. And you can move the light around during the exposure, highlighting certain objects and not others, and controlling how hard or soft the light is.

The photography of frame 9,068 went like this: I set the camera on the time exposure and fired it with a special electronic cable release that would give a ten-second delay. Then I would run over to the nearest stone and hide behind it, out of view of the camera. When I heard the shutter open I would begin painting the tall center stone. After about eight seconds of that, I would hide the light in my jacket and run over behind the tall stone and point the light toward the camera to light up the grass. In the ten seconds remaining I could turn around and briefly light several of the stones on the circle's far side.

You don't see me in the picture because I am hiding behind the stones. Even when I was running through the frame I wasn't in any one place long enough to register in the picture.

Hey, it sounds like I knew what I was doing when explained that way! But I didn't know this process to begin with. I did the picture over and over. I layered each new step on as I figured out what could be done and how to do it. I made a lot of mistakes. Shining the light for too long on one area results in a hot spot that doesn't look right. I made that mistake many times.

But then I was surrounded by the stones and, thus, the lesson from the builders of the stones who watched the night skies of centuries past to figure out the movement of the cosmos, just so they could line their stones up properly. That simple lesson in patience can bring its own serenity.

Well, I suppose that if you could have seen me I would not have looked serene. (I am rarely accused of being serene.) Running around the stones, over and over, I probably looked a little crazy. So about 3:30 in the morning a couple of guys from the village out walking their dog (really?) came down to see what was going on. They were both curious and amiable so I explained the whole light-painting process to them and they shared their love of the region and their powerful spiritual connection with the metaphysical landscape around Callanish (and the other stone circles in the area).

One of the guys had a great beard—it looked a lot like Lewesian gneiss itself—and so I took his picture standing among the stones.

By and by, the deep blue of near-night in the north slid toward the northeast and gradually brightened to gray before bursting into the brilliance of dawn.

That's the story of frame 9,068.