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Light in darkness: Neil Silverwood

7 April 2014

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Adrian Hatwell chats with Neil Silverwood, one of the country’s very few dedicated cave photographers

The lightless void of a subterranean tunnel system may not immediately appeal as the best place to go exploring with your camera, but to Neil Silverwood nowhere is as ripe with as much photographic possibility as an uncharted underground cave.

“It’s something no one else is photographing, it’s my own little niche,” explains the South Island photographer. “The marble cave systems are quite remote and hard to get into — if you’re photographing in there you know it’s the first time that it’s ever been shot by anyone.”

The first thing the caver wants to make clear is he’s not talking about tourist-friendly caves like Waitomo, but rather the expansive and forbidding systems running through the South Island’s marble mountains — caves that can go as deep as 1000 metres and run to 70 kilometres long. Not the sort of expedition where a packed lunch and camera bag is all you need.

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“You go in for a week at a time, taking all your camping gear and photography gear and sleeping there, going days at a time without any sunlight. It’s a tough environment.”

However, for those with a spirit for adventure, these untouched regions offer a unique pioneer thrill, as there is still a lot of cave system yet to be discovered. “Last year alone we found about 15 kilometres of new cave,” enthuses Silverwood. “It’s amazing to be the first person through a new section of cave, it’s not something everyone gets to do.”

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In fact the photographer and his band of caving compatriots believe they are on the brink of a big find. Two years ago they discovered a new caving system in the Mt Arthur region, labelled Stormy Pot. Having put in many dark weeks exploring the cave, which is 14 kilometres long and 800 metres deep, the team is confident it will eventually link up with another of the region’s systems, Nettlebed. This would form the deepest cave in the southern hemisphere, at some 1200 metres deep.

And while traversing these days-long cave systems is an arduous task to begin with, choosing to go down to take pictures of these inaccessible caverns is a whole other challenge entirely. The pitch-black conditions are problem enough when it comes to photography, but simply getting around with photography gear takes exceptional effort, says Silverwood.

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“You’ll often be going through very tight squeezes where you have to take off all your gear, pass it through, unpack your pack, pass all the stuff through and then squeeze through yourself. So that’s quite limiting.”

The lights that cavers take down into the claustrophobic depths are generally of a purely functional variety and not particularly helpful when it comes to photography. So it’s up to the diligent cave photographer to load up his own, rather intensive, lighting kit if he hopes to illuminate these underground mysteries.

“I usually carry five flash guns with radio triggers and one slave, because you can’t use triggers underneath the water. I also generally have half-a-dozen flash-bulb firers, which are quite different — they put out an enormous amount of light.”

Though the technology might sound antiquated, flash bulbs can give off up to five times as much light as a modern flashgun and have a much slower burn time. Combine this with the excellent low-light performance of modern DSLRs (Silverwood uses a Canon 5D Mark III) and you have the ideal set-up for lighting up the total darkness of areas over 10 metres wide. Of course using the more obscure equipment presents its own particular problems.

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“I buy up all the old bulbs I can find on Trade Me because on an average trip I’ll fire off 100 to 200 bulbs underground,” says the subterranean photographer. And he’s always very happy to hear from anyone with flash bulbs to sell.

As effective as the bulbs are for taking photos they aren’t exactly a solution for general visibility, something most photographers would agree as being rather important when  contemplating composition.

There are things you can do to mitigate the darkness, says Silverwood, but in the end there’s just something of a sense you need to develop down in the black.

“You carry massive lights to get an idea of what it’s going to look like but it is really challenging to imagine how the final image is going to come out. You pretty much just set up your camera, you can’t see anything through the viewfinder, and you try and work it out as you go — imagine how it might look and shoot.”

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Though juggling light and composition in the trying environment of an underground cave would send your conventional photographer running for the escape rope, Silverwood says these unusual challenges only serve to make him a better photographer.

“You start with a blank canvas and go from there, you have total control over all of the variables so you can really create the image rather than going out to find it,” the photographer says.

“Caving is the only time light is taken away from you. In a strange way it helps with photography outside of caves as you can really see the beauty of the world after being underground for a week.”

Even in the relatively obscure field of cave photography Silverwood strives to go beyond traditional caving images and develop a sense of scope, dynamism and elements of the human experience in his shots.

“For me it’s about trying to create a sense of movement. A lot of the cave photography you see is quite static, with people holding flashguns in a row; I try to go away from that and have cavers moving in the shot.

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“Working with a team of four, I can have two people holding flashes, another couple of flashes stashed around the place and then I’ll have the other two cavers moving through the shot, doing what they do.”

Further developing this idea, the photographer says he has started experimenting without flash, shooting the cavers as they dig, explore and catch their breath — a photojournalistic style that gives the viewer a glimpse into what conditions are really like down there. Windows into a world most will never see.

And even with the enthusiastic cave photographer bringing back his marvellous captures of the world below there are still not as many people experiencing it as he would like. Over the last two years he has been doggedly submitting his caving work to magazines but would more often than not run into rejection.

“Editors would say their readers would not be interested in something so extreme, I think caving is hard for people to relate to. It has been a lot easier to get more mainstream work published such as landscapes, tramping, kayaking and skiing. This has helped a lot financially.”

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But one demographic where Silverwood’s images are definitely hitting home is with the cavers themselves — even if getting them on board to help create the pictures was a hard slog in the beginning.

“One of the tougher things is just finding people to go with you, because it involves a lot of standing round. Most of the shots I’m doing now will take 35 minutes to two hours to shoot. That’s a long time to stand around for a single shot, getting cold.”

Once the cavers started to see the images Silverwood was emerging with, however, they soon came around on the creative process. It was the first time they had been able to bring a piece of the beguiling underworld out into the light with them.

“In a way these images mean a lot more to cavers than non-cavers. They have been going through these places for years and they really connect with them and this is the first time they ever see images of those caves.

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“When you’re caving you can’t actually see a lot of these places because our lights only go four or five metres and the passage might be 50-metres wide. So when you shoot a photo using flash lights it’s the first time you can really see that whole passage.”

And in return Silverwood is just as appreciative of his caving friends, not just for the help they lend in getting the pictures made but in keeping the photographer safe while he does it. Being in untouched terrain means dealing with lots of loose rocks in a demanding landscape.

“We’re on and off ropes all the time — especially in the deep systems like Stormy Pot where we’re going down to about 800 metres, so you’re probably abseiling up to 500 metres a day and ascending it at the end of the day.

“I guess as a photographer you’re so fixated on what you’re doing it’s hard to focus on your safety at the same time. You have to stop and remind yourself to keep safe.”

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While Silverwood has been fortunate so far as life and limb go, he can’t say the same for his photography gear. “Each trip I’ll destroy at least one flash and one bulb firer, it’s amazing. Gear gets dropped in the water, dust and dirt gets into it. It’s a real challenge to look after your gear — I’d say a camera only has a lifespan of one or two years in those sorts of environments.”

But for this cave photographer that’s just the cost of doing business and the risks are starting to pay off — next month he’ll set off again into the system on Mt Arthur, but this time funded by New Zealand Geographic with the aim of creating an article on what could be a momentous caving find. Just another step in Silverwood’s grand plan to bring the majesty of the caves into the light.

“Most people have a perception that caves are dark, nasty places like coal mines and what I’m trying to do is show people what the caves really look like and how beautiful they can be.”

This article was originally published in D-Photo no. 52.