darkroom based photography

Frederick Evans’ Steps

I have always been taken with the photographs of Frederick Evans, particularly his architectural ones. Recently, I found that several of my pictures are similar to his, at least in terms of subject matter. I am an avid photographic collector of paths, columns, statues, gates and, of course, steps. I knew that I needed to make a pilgrimage to the scene of one of his best-known pictures: ‘sea of steps’ …

© Frederick Evans, Wells Cathedral, Steps to the Chapter House (‘Sea of Steps’) 1903.

This early example of minimalism really struck a chord with me when I first saw it some 30 years ago. Evans used a long lens (19 inch) on a 10×8 glass negative, then printed it with Platinum. The long lens foreshortens the steps. A strong focus is evident across the picture, suggesting lens movements. The platinum printing gives it a subtle and extended range of tones. I have never seen the actual print, but would love to.

This wasn’t Evans’ first attempt at this staircase. Here is Evan’s attempt of 1900 from a different position.

© Frederick Evans Wells Cathedral, Steps to Chapter House, 1900

Evans was keen on stairways and steps. Here is a selection of other stairway pictures by him.

Of course, I had to have a go at the stairway at Wells Cathedral, even if only as a mark of respect for his wonderful skills.

I took my picture with a Walker Titan 5×7 with a 90mm lens at f45 for a 15 second exposure using FP4 film and developed in 510-Pyro. You can see the difference in outlook using a wide lens and a different vantage point. You do not get the same impression of a ‘sea’ of steps. Taking this picture re-enforced for me what a good eye Evans clearly had.

© Tony Cearns , Wells Cathedral, Steps to Chapter House. (scanned from negative)

I don’t particularly care for my picture. It’s flat and doesn’t evoke any emotion. This seems such a simple picture to take but in reality it’s tricky. Evans visited these steps over a number of years. He must have thought deeply about the scene and probably had several attempts which never saw the light of day. I read somewhere that Evans would inhabit a place for several days before taking a picture. There is a lot we can learn from his sensitivity and determination. My two hour sortie is just that: a sortie. It shows!

4 Comments

  1. Mike

    Great article. I think it highlights the many variables that come into photography and how these things affect the final image.
    To me your photo of the steps is a beautiful image, it has a lighter and more delicate feel to it where as Evans’ has a darker atmosphere. Both great photos, just different moods.
    Perhaps do some different prints of your photo?

    • Sidewayseye

      Thanks Mike. Yes I will print from this, probably in salt.

  2. Bill Barnes

    Really interesting. I knew these steps 50 years ago as a chorister in Wells Cathedral School Choir. I agree with Mike, I too really like you picture. Yes, it is different, but that’s good. I think one element that Evans captured very effectively was the unevenness of the steps, I think that really helps give the ‘sea’ impression. What I find interesting about that though is that it wasn’t something that occurred to me until seeing your picture. I really hope you print your own picture. Somehow I imagine that the print will have a quality that an ‘on screen’ image does not, and that will be really valuable here.

    • Sidewayseye

      Thanks Bill. Interesting that you were a chorister there!

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