Photo: Ship figureheads

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photo: Photographer Jim Richardson

Photograph courtesy Jim Richardson

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

Once you go to Valhalla, return is not an option. But I have done it several times.

I do not refer to the mythological Valhalla of Norse legend, Odin's majestic "hall of the slain" wherein those who die valiantly in combat find honor in the afterlife. No, this Valhalla is a quiet museum collection tucked away in the Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly. Here the fallen are the poignant figureheads from ships wrecked in these treacherous waters off the English coast. Each one proudly graced the prow of some merchant ship or ship of the line that sailed these waters in the 19th century. In the day, ships were decorated and ennobled with personal character.

I'll never forget the first time I saw the collection, rounding a corner of the gardens, expecting yet another magnificent rhododendron or some improbable palm tree, when I seemed to step, without warning, into another era altogether. I was no longer in a garden but among lost souls. Displayed under a low roof, the light is soft on the statues; visitors instinctively speak in hushed tones.

There is the Mary Hay, which hit Steeple Rock and sank while returning from Jamaica with a load of rum and sugar. Over there is Palinarus, which met its fate at Lion Rock in 1848, her crew of 17 drowned. And here is the alabaster-white River Lune, gazing wistfully skyward but hopelessly lost in thick fog on July 27, 1879, when the lookout sighted rocks all around them.

They all have a story to tell. Thanks to Augustus Smith of Tresco Abbey, "Lord Propriety" of the Isles of Scilly, the man who collected them, their stories live on. In each face there is something of that age—of innocent optimism, stoic bravado, or even tearful foreboding.

I'd never managed to capture this element before. Always on previous trips my images had been big, sweeping, get-it-all-in shots that recorded everything and perhaps revealed nothing. So I set out to rethink where the soul of the Valhalla collection in Tresco Abbey Gardens could be found. To some degree I stepped back in reflection rather than observation. Mostly I looked into the eyes of the ships' figureheads. I thought I could see behind the painted carvings to the real people of another time. Or at least I might glimpse the hopes and fears, aspirations and inner doubts of another age.

Once that notion was fixed in my mind, the photography was simple. Just straightforward pictures, no gimmicks. Let the faces speak.

Back at the computer it was a (relatively) quick matter to resize them all to a common format, import them into Photoshop and construct a new document to hold the grid of images. A bit of playing with position and the interplay of light and dark images (and the juxtaposition of the dour and doubtful with the forthright and sinless) and the image was done.

It is not a simple image, yet it can be "read" at length and leisure.

Valhalla is a fitting name for this lovely place. The lost souls seem at rest here.

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