Petticoats, Gadgets and Dreams Coming True. An Interview with Steampunk Photographer Gary Nicholls

Gary Nicholls - All In Large

Gary Nicholls - All In Large

In 2007, after a few decades spent working in construction, Gary Nicholls decided to pursue his passion for photography and purchased his first professional camera. In 2012, a visit to Europe’s largest steampunk festival, The Asylum in Lincoln, UK, turned out to be the spark that lit the creative fireworks. It was there that Gary came up with the idea for ‘The Imaginarium’, an ambitious book trilogy that uses the medium of photography to tell an elaborate story of magic, Victorian gadgets, and the eternal battle between good and evil. Gary’s Kickstarter campaign for the publication of ‘Eva’s Story’, the first book of the Imaginarium trilogy, is currently live and you can offer your support by clicking this link. 

First, I’d like to ask you to tell us a few words about yourself and your story so far.

I started my working life as an Art and Design teacher in a secondary school in London. But a poor salary meant a change of career and for the next 35 years I ran a construction company. I have always been creative, especially in music and art. Both forms allow personal expression and interpretation. Now close to 60, it would be easy to think ‘I should be getting ready to retire’ but life is over far too quickly. Living every minute of every day to the full, means that I work as a sustainability consultant during the day and artist for the rest of the time.It is no hobby, it is basically two demanding jobs and I love both. This is what it has taken to bring this project to fruition, 40 hours a week for 4 years, over and above my ‘day’ job. I wanted to prove to the world that it is never too late to fulfil your creative dreams.

Gary Nicholls - The Conspiracy Begins

Gary Nicholls – The Conspiracy Begins

How did you become acquainted with steampunk? What was it that drew you to this particular aesthetic?

I am a Conceptual Photographic Artist. To that end, I am always looking for the unusual, the fantastic, the inspiring. I needed to unlock my imagination and after a chance visit to The Asylum, Europe’s largest Steampunk festival in Lincoln, UK, I realised I had found my theme. There is a huge draw to Steampunk. It sucked me in! Fantastic gadgets and amazing Victorian styling to the clothes means it is extremely stylish. It also allowed me to be very creative and dark in my story. There is an element of time travel in steampunk, which again allowed me to add a few modern day scenes, especially in what will be book two.

Your trilogy, ‘The Imaginarium’, is named after a Victorian fairground attraction. Tell us a bit about the setting. What kind of world does it take place in?

‘The Imaginarium’ tells an intricate, fantastical, dark but ultimately beautiful steampunk story through the unique medium of fine art images. This is not a graphic novel, it is a story in the same way that William Hogarth created sequential art. The ‘world’ is therefore Dark Dickensian Steampunk. In Victorian times an Imaginarium was a term used for the fairground attractions that formed a museum of wonder, for example, ‘The Bearded Lady’, or ‘The Elephant Man’. I wanted my art to provoke comment, even if you don’t like it, the fact that you will say “I don’t like that” means it has provoked a reaction. This was the same with the Victorian Imaginariums, which often had a dark sinister edge. Dickens’ tales were not pleasant, but always had a moral ending, which is true of my story.

‘Eva’s Story’ is the first book in the trilogy. What’s Eva’s story? Please introduce the plot to us.

Eva’s story has been very organic in its development. The plot is convoluted with very strong characters. In a Steampunk world of wickedness, betrayal, murder and greed, one lost soul stands out as Eva’s saviour.Eva Elizabeth Lovelace is born into a North of England workhouse, her mother dying in childbirth. After working all hours in the Mill, she is sold to work in a bordello at a young age, as a skivvy. When older, she becomes an Adventuress, working for a domineering, wicked madam, Regina Von Black. Treated badly, she takes to the bottle and her life spirals out of control.

Dr. William Percival Stockdale is a wealthy doctor and inventor. His wife Elise has died of consumption and he struggles to live without her love. After being saved by Chrisalisia, the Elven Queen, he roams the streets at night helping the sick and the poor. On one such outing he sees Eva and hatches a plan to save her using a device he invents called the Necessitti.

The owners of the workhouse Eva grew up in, the Abernathy’s, constant arguing lead to Captain Abernathy meeting a stranger in an inn, who seeks answers to questions about Eva. This stranger appears throughout the story, and is an integral part of Book 1. An object linked to Eva’s secret past is kept in a box held by Bella Donna Abernathy and it is this that the stranger seeks.

The Abernathy’s have an erstwhile son, Warren, who steals all their money to gamble it away, leaving them broke and ruined. Warren is linked to Eva, Captain Abernathy is linked to Dr. William, Lady Abernathy linked to Eva, and Eva is linked to the stranger. The death of Regina Von Black’s twin sister causes a spiral of revenge culminating in her mother, Corvus the witch, calling upon her powers to turn Regina into an all powerful Nemesis hell bent on Eva and Dr. William’s destruction and ultimate powerful domination.

"Friends with Attitude" © The Imaginarium by Gary Nicholls Photography

“Friends with Attitude” © The Imaginarium by Gary Nicholls Photography

The story is one of revenge, murder, and greed. It has it all, a hero and heroine, time travelling steampunk angels, a steampunk witch, a nemesis, an elven queen, a rogue and cad, a bully, a murdering sly old fox, an enigmatic stranger, a gun toting drunk, a social climber, a bordello, harlots and adventuresses, toffs, landed gentry, greedy gang leader and a flame throwing pawnbroker to name but a few! From wickedness, treachery, secrets and murder, the plot twists and turns, each character having their own story that builds into the final sections where all is revealed. With 36 characters, no main character in the story is who they seem, each having a past that is about to catch up with them.

What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of using photography to tell a story?

Everyone is capable of taking a photograph. Everyone can learn Photoshop but not everyone has the gift of imagination. Being able to use the two to create a whole new world of imagined reality is what has enabled me to create this story. ‘Think outside the box’ is a term quoted to try and get people thinking laterally, but the reality is that there is no box if you have imagination. The advantage of this being photography based for me is that all the people and locations are real.

They just might not exist where you think they do because I combine images to create a ‘real’ world that does not actually exist in that form. However finding the locations that match what I have in my mind can be difficult. ‘Angels over New York’ meant a trip to New York the week before Christmas when the Empire state is purple (due to Hanukkah) and a twilight ticket up the Rockafella centre to fight with the other ‘tourists’ for the shot I needed.

However, the wall I wanted the angels sitting on was at the Gaudi house in Barcelona! I do not use stock images, I need the control of taking the shots myself to control the light. I studied the way that Caravaggio used light with just the medium of paint and a brush, and apply that to my images. Light creates atmosphere and can make or break an image. The disadvantage to working in this way is that you have to master Photoshop, which is a long process. The trick is to only learn the technique you require to produce the image you are working on. One big advantage to using photography as my medium is that I get to work with some amazing, creative and funny, real people, and without this project I would never have met them.

Gary Nicholls - The Interrogation

Gary Nicholls – The Interrogation

My prints are on large scale Aluminium. The reason I have chosen only to offer metal prints is because the luminosity of works by painters, such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, was due to these painters’ practice of applying multiple, thin layers of paint to their canvases. In the same way, the layers of dyes infused into the thick, translucent coating on the aluminium plates give a similar sense of depth and luminosity often leading viewers to think the images are backlit. I have to know the techniques in Photoshop to create this depth, but after my first Aluminium print there was no looking back.

The people pictured in “The Imaginarium” are genuine steampunks. How did you pick the right people to portray your characters? Were there auditions? Or, were any of the characters inspired by the models’ real-life personalities?

As mentioned the story is organic. There were no auditions. Firstly, I got lucky right at the start by meeting Peter and Julie Walton. Peter is the genius prop maker for the story, who also plays Dr. William, and Julie is the dressmaker who plays Eva. Secondly, I met John and Karen, who run The Victorian Steampunk Society and The Asylum festival, and they have been an enormous help in keeping me on track promoting my art. Thirdly, I was contacted by Montague Jacques Fromage, a steampunk musician and rapper from New York. As soon as I saw him, I knew he would play a devious, dastardly character and he flies over for the shoots, which are always great fun.

My rule is that you have to be a genuine steampunk to be in the story. If I meet a Steampunk in an amazing costume, the character will instantly form in my mind, including their whole back story. It is like I have lived their characters’ life. The Steampunk community is amazingly creative and hugely inspiring, with no shortage of character possibilities, but it only works for me if I ‘see’ the character on first sight. There can be a stunning costume, but it won’t generate a character and that is hard to understand, but it is about connection.

I then work by asking the characters to act the scenes out, so I give them the back story and they become the character I have in mind. For example, in real life the character Adella Daw is a university lecturer and the nicest person you could meet. In the story she is a low life street criminal, with a temper. Seeing the character transform as the shoots progressed was amazing. She became really quite evil, and loved every minute of it! The story brings out the worst but at the same time the best hidden talents in the people involved.

Neophytes want to know: Does one have to be involved in the steampunk lifestyle or know a few things about it in order to “get” and enjoy “The Imaginarium?” Or, do you think the book could constitute an introduction to the subculture?

There is no need to be involved in steampunk to appreciate a good story, in the same way that you don’t need to be a Sci Fi fan to enjoy, say, Star Wars. A good story is a good story whatever the genre. However, steampunk is not considered a genre at all. There is no associated music to generate a genre. The only rule is ‘be splendid’. It is however an alternative lifestyle for many. You do not need to be involved in steampunk to ‘get’ the Imaginarium. The story is steampunk themed, rather than a genuine steampunk story. It could introduce the reader to the subculture, for instance by way of gadgetry and costumes that the viewer will see in the art. It is very Jules Verne in style, but more Dickens in story.

The next book in the trilogy is titled “Robbie Pertwee – Frankensteam” and it will introduce a new main character. Tell us a bit about how the plot will continue.

Robbie Pertwee is a geeky early teenage boy in present day England who is into steampunk. He has three friends (two boys and a girl) who are also into steampunk. All are bullied at school and spend their lunchtimes talking about gadgets, airships, and wonderous inventions. One Saturday afternoon, Robbie is left alone at home on the farm he lives on with his parents and obnoxious brother. He goes exploring in the outbuildings and finds an old crate in the corner of a loft space.

Prising off the lid, he finds paperwork and belongings inside that indicate that he is Dr. William’s great, great, great grandson. At the bottom of the crate is The Necessitti, corroded and bent. He spends a few weeks cleaning and getting the arms to move and wondering what on earth it is. Finally, all moving and polished he reveals it while at his friends for tea. Pulling the lever, the arms move, the orb glows green and all four of them are transported back in time to the point where the first book ends.

Dr. William is now building an automaton to take on the Nemesis. In this story there are a lot of new characters, for instance two body snatchers who steal mechanical body parts to help Dr. William build the automaton. I will also be travelling the world to visit steampunk groups in America, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, etc. to create one huge 4,000 steampunk image in the style of a Lord of the Rings battle scene. As you can imagine, this is a huge undertaking, hopefully financed by the first book for which the Kickstarter is currently live.

And finally – You’ve had to wait a long time to realise your dreams. What would you say to those who, for various reasons (e.g. age, obstacles or obligations) think that they cannot follow their dreams?

If you are a person like me, you may have spent your life doing things for other people. The key to realising your dreams is to be a little bit selfish and focussed, for once. This strategy is not without risk, but no project that is worthwhile is. Above all, be positive, never negative. Think ‘I can do it’ not ‘I might be able to do it’. You don’t want to be that person who says ‘I could have been’. Age barriers exist for say an Olympic swimmer, but not really for a creative. Obstacles and obligations often become an excuse. For sure, you will upset someone, but if they support you and care about you, the upset will not last. I had to wait for technology to catch up with my imagination. Without a hi-end digital camera and photoshop, creating The Imaginarium would not be possible.

Interview by Anca Rotar 

Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.

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