Decamot of the month

28 Feb 2019-The Perfect Shot

Decamot inspired by following items: winkle picker, house, weeping willow, mobile phone, Nuclear Reactor, bicycle, The Cairngorms, lighthouse, teddy bear, carpenter

The Lord of the Cairngorms stood proudly in the early morning mist of a crisp March day. Steam billowed through his nostrils as he exhaled. He was a magnificent beast with a perfect set of near symmetrical antlers, undamaged despite numerous battles. He had a fine thick coat still in its winter shagginess and a steely grey-blue gaze that brokered no weakness of purpose. He had just completed a tour of his territory, scent marking as he went and now emerged into the clearing where he could see the whole of the mountainside that was his domain.

A figure, clad from head to toe in camouflage fatigues watched it all, prone, from the cover of a weeping willow not more than 50 metres away.

She had awoken before dawn, left her house silently and hurried down the lane, only switching on her bicycle lights when she was a safe distance from her sleeping parents. She had carried everything she would need on her back in a large army-style kit bag. She had left her bicycle propped up against a fence half a mile away and proceeded to the clearing on foot.

She had chosen this spot with precision having tracked the stag the previous day. She had followed his hoof prints and the slight scratches that his antlers had made as he pushed his way through the dense woodland. When she had emerged into this clearing she knew that this was where he would start each day, not from some romantic notion of the beauty of this rural idyll, but from the physical evidence of his droppings and the pungent odour of his urine. She knew that this was the very spot that he would start each day just as did the herd of hinds that he coveted and the stags that dared to be considered rivals. So she also knew exactly where she would need to be to get the perfect shot.

Shortly after 1am she had spread out her groundsheet under the weeping willow. She had edged far enough forward to see out without allowing herself to be seen. Then she had waited. And the wait had been worthwhile; she had her shot; how surprised would her father be?

She held her breath, a pragmatic action instilled in her by her father when he taught her at the firing range. "Stop all unnecessary movement. Remain comfortable and still. Slow your heart rate. And when you're ready to take your shot, stop breathing. That's the last movement that could make the difference between a hit or a miss."

The stag stood staring out across the valley as she firmly squeezed with her index finger. He instantly turned his head directly towards her. Without even thinking about it, she flicked a lever with her thumb and squeezed with her index finger a second time. Two rapid fire shots within a fraction of a second. The stag turned away and trotted back into the forest.

She rolled over onto her back and lay there for several minutes exhausted. She then carefully folded up the groundsheet and crammed it into her kit bag along with her camera. She was elated. She then jogged back the way she had come as fast as the undergrowth would allow, retrieved her bicycle, and pedalled furiously home.

Her parents were still sleeping when she snuck back into the house. She crept upstairs to her room in the attic, dumped the kit bag onto her bed and started to prepare.

She took the camera and placed it on the table by the bed, and removed several bottles of chemicals from a cupboard over the sink and placed them on the table alongside the camera. She then closed the windows and pulled down the black-out blinds that she had fitted herself during the Christmas holiday. She then went over to the door, locked it, switched off the main light and switched on the special red light that she had installed. Her self-built dark room was ready for action.

She had had over two months experience using her dark room to develop her own photos. She had started off simply by arranging her books, her globe and her teddy bear on her desk and experimenting with numerous light settings and exposure lengths. When the weather improved, she had ventured out to find unusual subjects to photograph. She'd found an abandoned nuclear reactor that had become overgrown as nature had started to reclaim the area; she'd found a lighthouse precariously balanced on the edge of an eroding cliff; and she'd found a stranded winkle picker awaiting rescue clinging limpet-like to a rocky outcrop off the coast of Morecambe Bay. They were all great shots, but, to her mind, a little mundane. She wanted something special, and now she thought she had it.

But she also had a dilemma:

Should she develop both negatives and create two photographs and select the best? Instinctively she knew both were great shots. The first would show the proud stag in all his glory staring out across the mountains, lord of all he surveyed. But the second shot would show a moment of vulnerability, the Lord of the Cairngorms caught off guard, staring down the barrel of a telescopic lens. The pair together would tell a great story, but the competition she intended to enter allowed only a single submission.

Or should she combine the two negatives to create a single, composite image? This was a technique that she had read about and that dated back to the early days of photography. By taking two near identical negatives and superimposing one over the other, the early pioneers of photography had been able to create a dynamic element to a static image. Her favourite had been the apparent progression of the moon across the night sky. This particular picture had only been possible because the artist had used his skills as a carpenter to construct an adjustable wooden platform on which to mount the camera to take successive shots of exactly the same portion of the night sky. This technique would only be successful for her if the two negatives were identical except for the movement of the stag. If there had been any slight movement on her part between the first and the second short, the composite image would merely be a blurred mess. If she attempted this highly tricky procedure should would, of course, not be able to go back to the original negatives. She would risk losing both shots. Had she moved even a fraction, or hadn't she?

It all depended on whether she felt lucky, and on this particular day, she did. She decided to take the risk, and in so doing made a decision that would change the course of her life. The end result was quite extraordinary.

With the sun just breaking through the trees, the stag appeared to be bathed in warm golden spot light. Because of the snow, the shadows and the start, leafless branches, the background of trees appeared to be monochrome in contrast to the stag whose coat was a deep russet brown, antlers were a dull, almost mossy, grey-green, and whose eyes, staring directly into the camera, were a steely blue-grey. And whereas the background was ever so slightly out of focus, the image of the stag stood out sharp and clear. There was no doubting the subject of the composition.

But what really made the picture unique was the appearance of a second head. The stag was both staring out over the valley and looking back at you. An extremely talented technician had managed to capture the exact moment of surprise when the all-conquering, all-powerful stag suddenly senses his own vulnerability. He turns to face the adversary who has caught him off-guard.

This was in 1982, before mobile phones and selfies, digital photography and PhotoShop wizardry. What she had produced was quite extraordinary. When they received her submission it was automatically entered in to the senior competition and judged alongside entries from professional photographers. It was only when her picture had been selected as the winner that the age of the entrant was discovered.

One critic commented that "The mastery of technique on display belies the age of this precocious talent".

"Zenda Goldman's Lord of the Cairngorms is a modern day answer to Landseer's Monarch of the Glen, and will become as iconic," said a second.

A third critic said simply: "The Perfect Shot."

Zenda's career as an award-winning photographer was underway. She was inundated with job offers even before her picture of the stag appeared on the front cover of the National Geographic and was hailed the magazine's Nature Shot of the Year.

When her father saw that issue, all he said was: "What a wasted bloody opportunity!"