by Ash Mills
In early 2019 Salisbury Cathedral asked their Visual Arts Advisor Jacquiline Creswell to come up with ideas for a new Nativity Scene to replace the paper mache figures created by Peter Rush which have been used since 2004.
Jacquiline approached me to produce a proposal for a large scale photographic Nativity Scene to be displayed at the crossing of the Nave for over Christmas time. After 10 years working with Jacquiline at Salisbury Cathedral I was thrilled to be involved with her on such an important centrepiece for the Advent celebrations, and was eager to produce something for the Cathedral befitting the space whilst being grounded in the present.
We were keen to produce something that would be beautiful and impressive without being brash and discussed how best to use photographic banners. Between us we came up with a concept involving layers of semi-transparent voile panels that would put the Nativity scene in the space at a suitable scale without dominating the architecture, allowing viewers to look at the scene without it hiding the building behind. I made up a mock up image as a proof of concept, and chose a material that would be most suitable to be ethereal and floaty enough, whilst allowing the image to be seen.
I decided the best way to achieve the sort of “Renaissance Revival” look that we both were drawn to would be photograph the scene in small elements, rather than as a single photograph, building it up in layers blended together.
Originally the plan was to have the scene at ground level at a human scale, with the ability to walk amongst the layers, but the necessity to see the pulpit for the duration of its display meant we had to raise the scene 4 meters off the ground. This made the use of multiple layers unnecessary, so the design was adapted to 3 panels, splitting the scene into a triptych with the side panels angled backward.
Participants for the scene were chosen from within the community as far as possible, including using three of the Cathedral’s Volunteer guides, a Canon of the Cathedral, the Clerk of works and one of the masons. The sheep were to come, along with two of the shepherds, from my home village of Sixpenny Handley.
Most of the costumes were from the Cathedral itself, with additional hats, bits of fabric and other props from local shops where possible. The cathedral shop provided the golden gift for Jesus, with the box of balms from my Mum’s house.
When the shoot days came the plan was to photograph the elements over a few days with shepherds, magi and sheep all coordinated by Lisa Pearce, the cathedral’s 2020 Project Manager and Christine Keegan, the Volunteer Officer.
I set up a space in the Morning chapel at the Cathedral, blacked out and arranged so it could provide the different angles required to make it appear that subjects were consistently lit, either by the star, the warm glow inside the stable or by light emanating from Jesus himself, on a far larger “stage” than the confines of the set.
There was quite a buzz in my little studio setup when the cast started to arrive. Along with Jacquiline Creswell providing Art Direction, Helen Russell left her usual role running the cathedral’s shop to apply makeup, and head guide Tricia Glass helped with costume. Susan Branch of Cathedral Flowers had dressed the crib basket beautifully, which gave the participants something to gaze lovingly at, even if the baby Jesus would not be along till later…
I photographed each element of the scene against a black background, using studio flash techniques; with large softboxes and panel reflectors to emulate the modelling famously achieved by artists like George de la Tour and Caravaggio.
This proved quite good fun, so much so that I couldn’t resist photographing a self portrait as a character to hide in the shadows as a shepherd while I was finalising my settings.
The first character to be photographed was Tricia Glass, Deputy Head Guide at the cathedral, who did a brilliant job acting to the empty scene.
When it came to the Magi the Cathedral’s guides Kayode and Mike were transformed with copes from the Cathedral (thanks to the ever-patient Anthony Lewis) and other drapery and props to give them the gravitas and “bling” they deserved.
Gary Price, Clerk of Works at Salisbury Cathedral, came next as a Shepherd. Gary (who also oversaw the rigging of the installation) had kindly allowed his stubble to grow for the shoot, which I believe he has since decided to carry on sporting to this day.
Mary and Joseph were next up, to be modelled by Emily Howden, and Christian Sullivan, both employees of the Cathedral, in the Comms and Works departments. Their motivation became much easier when the baby Jesus arrived (Freddie, grandson of Steve Abbott, Senior Lay Clerk in the Cathedral choir.) Freddie seemed very happy wrapped in swaddling in a cosy basket while I photographed him, and left the shoot after only a few minutes in the highlight.
Ed Probert (Canon Chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral) came separately but certainly appeared perhaps the most at home bedecked in long robes.
The sheep (they don’t have names) were brought in by Rob Jesse, from Sixpenny Handley, with his Grandson Arthur. They had never been to the Cathedral before, and I think his sense of awe of the place helped his acting as a shepherd.
It was a technical challenge to keep on top where the light sources should be, where people’s eye lines should be and to keep the perspective correct for when the elements were moved around the canvas later.
When it came to capturing the Angels I was very keen to have them flying, for them to appear consistent in look, and have as much joyous energy as possible. I looked into using dancers, able to leap gracefully skyward but in the end I decided on using an aerial acrobat – Maia Ayling, who I had seen performing at Messums art gallery. I photographed Maia performing aerial acrobatics and striking poses whilst she hung on silks, suspended from the lighting gantry of the Blackledge Theatre at Godolphin. One of the angels was also modelled by Jake Reynolds – one of my son’s favourite teachers at Salisbury Cathedral School, as he was keen to try on the feathered wings.
In post-production I gradually combined all the shot elements in Adobe Photoshop, starting with the background, which I created from photos I took around the cathedral. I wanted to create an environment for the characters that was fitting to the cathedral where it would be hanging, as well as cosy enough to be slightly familiar as a stable. Beyond extracting the individual elements from their background and pasting them in the composite I added many layers to provide shadowing and highlights and diffuse reflections.
I used parts of the cathedral cloister, including the side wall of the west cloister, the archway into the cloister garth and a round window from the east cloister and the largest arch on the west front to provide the architectural elements I needed. I had to either wait for the sun to be placed correctly or light the spaces specially to match where they would sit in the scene.
Photographer Ash Mills standing by his work. Image by Zach Culpin.
After several tests were produced the scene was printed onto 45gsm voile by at 11m high on three banners, overall measuring about 7m wide.)
Finally, as the artist for this project I would like to particularly thank Jacquiline Creswell and all involved in this project behind the scenes for their time and efforts to help produce this work.