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Seen: Full Steam Ahead

It turns out that steampunk is about a lot more than big hats and Victorian-era costumes, so, to find out from an expert, I threw a few questions at the UK’s top steampunk photographer Gary Nicholls, hoping the answers wouldn’t go up in steam. Get it?! I’m so funny. No, but really, this is some serious science fiction for you to all get quickly obsessed with.

For those who don’t know what steampunk is, can you tell us a bit about it and where the term comes from?

The term “steampunk” was first coined by author K.W. Jeter in a letter to Locus Magazine in 1987. It was a tongue-in-cheek joke referencing his “cyberpunk” novels (and those of James Blaylock and Tim Powers), together with newer works set in a “gonzo- historical” world of Victorian Britain. It was something of a flash in the pan with a batch of novels and a couple of games leading to a throwaway definition of steampunk as a sub-genre of science fiction. Who would have thought that in the early years of the 21st century, steampunk was going to explode into popular culture like a meteor from a distant world?

Papplewick pumping station 3

What was the spark that got you so interested in this movement?

I bought a copy of a photoshop magazine in 2012 which had an article on how to create a steampunk image. I needed a theme for a small collection of images, and a visit to the Lincoln Steampunk Festival in the UK that year made me realise I had found what I was looking for. I loved the style and, more importantly, the gadgets!

The main aspect is the creativity, plus the fact that the first and only rule of steampunk is to be splendid; in other words, be a gentleman at all times. Steampunks are fabulous people and I am now very proud to be one of their number. Little did I know it would end up as a 450 image trilogy! The Lincoln Steampunk festival is the world’s largest and is run by The Ministry of Steampunk, for Steampunks. The festival gets bigger and greater every year and they have been kind enough to have supported me in The Imaginarium project from day one.

The Imaginarium is a series of books. How long have you been working on that, and how many Steampunks were involved?

During Victorian times, a visit to an Imaginarium would mean lots of stalls where each one had a wow factor. I wanted each image to have that, hence the overall title, being The Imaginarium. Eva’s story is the first of three volumes that are part of the overarching main story about a secret artifact in a wooden carved box. I wanted to create a fine art story and the last time that was done was Hogarth.

My trilogy involves over 150 genuine Steampunks, not just from the UK, but from all over the world. For instance, Montague Jacque Fromage is from New York and travels over for my shoots. If you are not a Steampunk, you cannot be part of it.  I exhibit and attend festival and events and give talks all over the UK about my art and what it means for me to be part of the steampunk scene.

Newark 1

 Let’s get technical. Your photographs look, at times, like paintings. So why not paint it all? What’s the benefit, if any, of using a camera to capture your images? And, how much time is spent manipulating the images after they have been shot?

I love the technical aspect of the old masters’ work being layer upon layer to create luminosity and depth. Studying this has enabled me to replicate the techniques used by such artists as Vermeer and Caravaggio, but with studio lights and photoshop. I print on metal plates, which gives a similar luminosity to their work. I have been called a latter-day Leonardo; not because my work is like his, but because it is so technical in every detail.

All the props are made for the art and some have taken a year to produce, just for me to photograph. I am known for my attention to detail as every image is heavily detailed. I am an artist with a camera, not a photographer.

However, painting requires skills I do not have, but in my younger years, I was a pen and ink artist. Using a drawing tablet is a similar skill and photography allows me to capture real people and immortalize them in my creations. Their skill at creating the gadgets and costumes is celebrated in my work. No digital creations, just captured images. All the props are hand made, some taking a year to produce and costing £12,000.

I spend months working on one image, with the street scene, for example, being created from 37 buildings and 150 steampunks to create a scene that only exists in my mind. Angels Over New York involved a trip up the Rockefeller Centre at twilight to take the Empire State. The angels are then sitting on a wall from the Gaudi House in Barcelona as there is no wall as such at the top of the centre! I then had to come up with why they were sitting with an art deco building in the background yet in Victorian times. Simple, time travel!

Cambridge London Belper Doncaster Leammington Chatham

 What is it about Charles Dickens, his life, work or the time period that is so inspiring?

Dickens has the good, the bad, and the very bad of society in his tales; however, the bad always get their comeuppance. I love the images his stories conjure up and the state of Victorian England at that time. In my second volume, I have seven time-traveling kids and a time-traveling serial killer going back to the time of the first book. That gives me licence to use their reactions to what they are seeing in comparison to present day. The saying is you need to think outside the box. However, if you think there is a box, it is already too late! Dickens is the style of my art, steampunk is the theme, but imagination is the key.

 Other great authors who inspired this movement are H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, two great Writers with wild imaginations. Do you read a lot of their work, or are you inspired by other authors? If so, which books do you recommend?

Actually, I read crime fiction mostly, as I find it fascinating that the authors can create a chilling scenario that will keep a reader on the edge of their seat. In my case, I have read the Steam Smoke and Mirrors books by Colin Edmonds and have contacted him to suggest that in my next volume, his two main characters make an appearance and, similarly, in his next book, characters from my story are referenced. This will expand both our steampunk worlds and make it more believable.

Colin’s books are told in the manner of your best friend telling you a story over a beer, fantastical yet believable. The Imaginarium has not been inspired by another author. I cannot actually say where it came from, just that I feel it is what I was put on the planet to do!

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You were the head of technical drawing and teaching art at Spencer Park School. How would you describe technical drawing, and how is it different from other sorts of drawing?

Technical drawing is engineering drawing, so, for instance, drawing the plans to enable a product to be made. It is also graphical communication, which is the kind of graphic drawings you see in instruction manuals. This is where my skill with pen and ink drawing developed and allows me to this day to have very good eye/hand coordination needed to use a graphics tablet.

If someone wants to see your work up close and personal, do you have any shows coming up? Book signings or anything of that sort?

 I have ten shows in the UK this year. I have had three images in exhibitions in New York and Miami in 2014, but nothing there since, due to my commitments to UK and European shows. My plan is to have further shows in the USA, as there is a huge steampunk following there. Approaching New York galleries is also on my list!

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