It must have been at least 4 or 5 months ago when I first saw that iconic staircase. i was searching the internet for photo ideas as I often do to keep up on the latest trends, and I stumbled across this image of a woman inside the arches of a giant stone staircase. The picture was titled Madam Sherri’s Castle. Immediately I thought “Just one more amazing set of ruins that Europe is hogging.” Then I noticed the meta data. Castle, woods, ruins, NH.
“What?” I said, more than likely out loud.
I started to dig deeper. Could it be true? Could these beautiful ruins actually be in my own backyard? It was. Lo and behold. The massive stone staircase, nicknamed “The Staircase to Heaven” by locals, the parlor, broken down, and over grown by fire and earth, the fireplace that had long since stopped giving heat, the arched foundation giving a view into the basement of the once great chalet mansion built in the 20’s by Madam Sherri as a respite, and place for her lavish parties. Now stood as mere ruins a house gutted by time and a fire, now supposedly haunted by the Madam herself. As I looked at the images, some in blurry black and white, others in crisp color, my imagination began to go wild as it often times does. I needed to shoot here. At about an hour and a half away from me, there was no excuse.
As summer was just gearing up, and with it the opportunity to be the
photographer for Shakespeare in Prescott Park’s/ Seven Stages Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet, I tabled this beautiful location in my mind. It would always be there, and I had lots to do. I met the cast of Romeo and Juliet (#ahranjay as it became known) and began to get to know them photographically. What an exciting time. It’s quite a different experience shooting those who enjoy being in front of a camera, and play to it. My imagination again came to life. The photographic stories one could pull from such ancient writings. A whole new aspect to something so beloved and old. It was in these new formed relationships that Madam’s Castle crept back to my mind. I had in front of my lens dancers, and actors, directors and costume designers just teaming with creativity and energy, and artistically we thought so similarly. So one day, I broached the subject with the group.
“So guys, I have this place that has become a bucket list location for me, but I am a people photographer, not a landscape one, so I would like to get some people together to do some pictures, what do you think? Would you be interested?” Immediately, people were on board, and word spread like wildfire. Dancer, actors from both NH and NYC, alike said they would lend their talents to me. Their excitement reignited my own for the project which was now thrust back to the front burner. I told them I would get the project together and get them dates.
The weekends of the show progressed, as did our musings of this shoot. During one of the shows as we were chatting about what became known as “Shades of the Past” We were discussing the genres that I had in mind for the shoot; Modern Formal, 20s (the era that the ruins were built in), Medieval, and High Fantasy (which is really fantasy with a touch of snobbery) 🙂 Zhana, the costume designer/stage manager for #ahranjay said “I happen to have a ton of costumes and period clothing from the 20’s that belonged to my grandmother, they are fragile, and falling apart, and I’d love to have them photographed. I’d love to be involved.” I was humbled, and excited. I almost feel like it was that moment that I felt, to quote Dr. Frankenstein, “It’s ALIVE!!!”
Meanwhile, in another circle of friends, a fellow photographer that I admire, and friend had just delved into the marvelous world of strobes. He had been looking for models and opportunities to use them. I found him on Facebook one day and said,
“So Matt, I have a shoot that is turning out to be something pretty epic, do you want to play?” Immediately he was on board, reveling in how much light (rivaling the sun I believe was his quote) we were going to bring to this event.
One by one professionals and laity were on board, donating time, talent, money, costumes, and props to my dream. Dancers, actors, hair dressers, makeup artists, creative directors,, videographers, LARPers, people I recruited from other shoots, all very excited, and fully committed to this project, 38 people in all. Overcoming many obstacles like no power or bathrooms, weather, and transportation, the day grew ever closer. We watched as the 10 day forecast went from sunny and beautiful to rainy and cold. It ticked down, and every day it seemed it changed.(Welcome to New England) Finally , it looked like we settled on high 60’s and overcast, which from a photographers perspective is amazing! From the perspective of models you plan to throw in the water…maybe not so much.
The night before Shades, my husband, daughter, brother and Zhana all crashed overnight at a nearby hotel to alleviate having to get up at obscene o’clock. (which we did anyway) I woke up the next morning feeling excited, anxious, and slightly overwhelmed. “What if people didn’t have fun? What if the weather didn’t hold? What if I didn’t get enough photos of everyone? What if this place didn’t live up to my expectations?” But despite my feelings of anxiety, the excitement won. We pulled up to Dunkin Donuts to get coffee and food, and chatted with the locals asking for directions. They too were very excited about our project.
We, with relative ease, found our site. As I stepped out of the car, and onto the ground, I felt a charge of excitement. I was here. It was all I could do to not run to the site like a kid on Christmas morning running to the tree. I helped unload the first round of the copious amount of stuff we brought, and with a calm I didn’t feel, I made my way up the path that I had only been on via virtual YouTube video, and as I went over the foot bridge, and around the path, my breath quickened, and then I saw it as I crested the hill, and my breath caught, and as corny as it sounds a tear came to my eye. If it was possible, it was even more gorgeous than i imagined. I dropped the stuff I was carrying and took out my camera and shot an image, as I reviewed the image of the staircase that I had seen so many times on the computer, the thought came to me. “It’s in MY camera now!”
For the first time I saw live many of the costumes I had seen pieces of or heard about take on life as my amazing models donned them. The beauty of the costumes and the majesty of the venue blended to make a seamless tapestry. The moments that I had built up in my head were not let down. In fact, real life was better than I had imagined. It took but a few minutes once the shooting began to get into our groove. Even the few technical difficulties that we had, were short lived if not in their resolve, in the amount of time we gave them. A strobe that wouldn’t fire, tourists, a wedding, and another photography group were among the things that came our way, but with gorgeous natural lighting, and plenty of venue space on our side Matt and I and Sean began shooting as a pretty cohesive unit. Grabbing different angles, sharing the strobe, moving models in a type of dance around the castle and the grounds. We even had the opportunity to have a published author in our midst. MA O’Connor was out for a “quiet” day at the Castle when she happened upon our “little” operation. It wasn’t long before she donned Medieval garb and posed for a few pictures with our amazing cast.
As the sun began to set, and the temperature began to drop, we wrapped up our day. Exhausted, and happy, excited about what we had captured, and ready for the whirlwind next two weeks of editing that end today.
This project keeps on giving, as spawned from it has come a gallery to take place in downtown Exeter, NH on Nov. 23, 2012 , and a spin off shoot in historic Portsmouth in January 2014. With such amazing people, and beautiful venues, Shades of the Past will with no doubt go far into the future!