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Ghost of Chilmark Woods – True Story

November 01 2014 - Blog, Gallery News

Every picture can tell a story. This is a true story of how I was able to capture a rare and very real photograph* of a lady ghost, as she sauntered through the misty woods of Chilmark.

There are many tales about ghosts that roam the meadows, over stone walls, and in the dense forests of this area. I would often drive along the country road that passed through, and gaze down narrow dirt pathways along the way and wonder about who might be living at its invisible end.  Had they ever laid their eyes on the Ghost of Chilmark Woods? Such thoughts inspired me to create this photograph.

Ghost Chilmark Woods Original Drk-webS


Chilmark, located on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, provides the backdrop for the summer homes and getaway places for the mostly upper east coast elite. But summer is not the best time to see ghosts. The optimum time is towards the end of October when the leaves are turning, falling, and when autumn rains chill the air have driven the holiday residents back to their city dwellings. This was the time to capture a photograph of a Ghost of Chilmark Woods.

The first step, as with most of my pre-visualized photographs to be staged, was finding the right location. After spending some time researching a location I came across a pathway off a main dirt road to fit this mythical illusion. In the plan for taking this photograph was using my 4X5 View Camera, and the place I had selected allowed me to position the camera just off the main road out of plain sight in the woods, but overlooking down the dirt pathway that began across the other side.Ghost setup001-webS

The placement of the camera had to be set firm and fixed. The shot planned required daytime and nighttime exposures on the same ‘canvas’, which for me is a piece of film.  During and in the interim, between daytime and nighttime exposures, the camera could not move. It could not move by slowly sinking into the damp soil or be disturbed by the capricious passing of wildlife. Had this occurred unbeknownst to me the resulting photograph would not have been successful.

Other necessary items needed for the photograph I had in mind were dry ice and a platform for the ghost to walk on. The dry ice was needed to generate a mysterious low cloudy mist over the road. The platform was a 12 foot stretch of boat dock I had at my home that would place on saw horses at the location.

My visualization of the ghost had it walking on air or floating across the pathway. This part of the photograph was to be taken at night in the complete darkness.  I felt that If her feet were shown touching the road it would spoil the illusion. To make this effect possible I had to visually levitate the ghost, and part of the solution was the platform raised on saw horses, providing a smooth foundation for my ghost model to walk on.  Another thing needed to make the effect work was a large piece of black fabric I had on hand to cover the platform and supporting saw horses.

Anyone care to venture to guess why the black cloth was needed?

Ghost CW DI smoke-webSDry ice was nowhere to be found on the Island. That presented a problem with scheduling the shoot as this ice dissipates by evaporation over several days’ time. I had to go to Boston for the dry ice and get enough of it in a Styrofoam cooler, well-sealed, to give me a window of a few days to take the shot. I made some calls and found an off-island outlet able to supply the need.

The weather had been dreary and wet much of the time that fall. I looked often at weather forecasts. This photograph could not be taken in a hard rain, but there was no sure way to avoid a weather risk, so I had to make a decision to set my plan into action.  After alerting my model, Ann, and an assistant to moving forward, and readying the other supplies and equipment, I scheduled the ferry reservation to the mainland to get the dry ice.

It was the third day after returning from Boston with the dry ice that rain eased, although the sky remained overcast and the air damp and dreary; perfectly ghostly weather to get started. In the afternoon I set up the View Camera and secured it overlooking that small side dirt path, covered with fallen leaves, through autumn Chilmark Woods.

I took some incident light readings and set the desired aperture and shutter on the view camera lens. Then crossing over to the pathway, I dug a small hole in the middle into which I place the dry ice. I poured water into the whole and over the dry ice and it began to churn out its low bellowing cloud cover.

I quickly, yet carefully, made my way back to the camera and with film holders** at the ready I inserted one, removed the slide, and took an exposure, replaced the slide, and repeated this process for several more holders. During this process I replenished the dry ice, but how often I do not remember. A breeze would also shift the smoke effect and I timed my exposures to when it appeared thickest.

That completed this first exposure sequence. I took some cut branches, placing them carefully in front of the camera to obscure it from view of a passerby. At that time of year, considered out-of-season, there is little traffic to speak of, nevertheless I took this precaution, and then went back to the home studio.

After getting something to eat, I contacted my assistant, Kenny. He worked at the Vineyard Haven Post Office, but could assist me in the evening on shoots as needed. The 12 foot long dock platform was about 30 inches wide with 10 inch sides all made from 1 inch water treated planks, in other words heavy. I needed his help in moving and placing it. When leaving to go back to the location I asked Ann to come around 8pm.

On location Kenny and I struggled putting the platform up on saw horses across the pathway. We placed it more on the right hand side, then made sure it was stable and secure to walk on, and then draped it completely with a black cloth.

The cloth was vital in creating this photograph. To the question asked earlier in this story as to its purpose, in addition to covering an unsightly platform, the answer is anything black will help prevent further exposure that, in this case, would be an unwanted edition to the exposure taken during the daytime.

Ghost CW single-webSFurthermore when the ghost figure, nude underneath a thin sheer white tulle, walks on this black draped platform she will appear as if to be floating over the road and the tulle’s lightness will help in adding her desired exposure onto the film.

Ann came and prepared, removed her street clothing and wrapped herself in the white tulle, then took her place at the far right side of the platform. I had the camera on a cable release. The film holder was already in place with the slide removed. I asked Kenny to open and close the shutter release on my direction.

This photo without the 1st right hand flash ghosting effects.

I had two Metz flashes. One in each hand attached to a battery pack on each shoulder. One in the right hand was set at a lower aperture and higher ISO to put out lower or weaker bursts of light, far less than a full flash exposure and in quick succession. The flash in my right hand was set to give a proper full exposure.

Ghost CWOriginal 3faded-webSAs I yelled “action” Kenny opened the shutter and kept it open while Ann began her walk on the platform. I popped the flash in my right hand 3 times in quick succession, and then popped her with light from the flash in my left hand for the final full exposure. She then paused and Kenny was instructed to close the shutter. The 1st ‘film’ canvas was now complete.

With the aid of a small pen light, I carefully made my way back to the camera in the dark and put the slide in the holder, removed the holder, spun it around, removed the slide from that side, re-cocked the shutter, therefor putting the next daytime exposure in place for its nighttime exposure addition, and repeated this for each of the half dozen holders.

Ghost CWOriginal MainG-webSWith each revolving cycle I took my place again on front side of the platform and on the left side of the pathway with flashes in each hand, and with the word “action” repeated this process with Ann walking the plank and Kenny controlling the shutter, until all the daytime exposures had added their nighttime exposures.

On the last exposure, after hours of shooting, and lots of planning and preparations we were able to celebrate cheers! I was relieved to have this shoot was completed! Ann went on home. Kenny and I loaded the equipment in cases, the platform and other supplies on to the truck. Then, incredible as this may seem, just as we were finished loading and sat inside the cab a tremendous downpour ensued and stayed with us on our journey home.

Of course, one final thing remained to be done. The film had to be sent to the lab. Both shipping (to a Boston Lab) and the processing have their intrinsic risks, but the real question was how well I executed my photographic plan. Film cameras had no instant LCD screen check and secure file. This is what made photography back then far more magical, and I kept my fingers crossed that I accomplished what I set out to do…capture the Ghost of Chilmark Woods, which among the Illusions was accepted by the renown Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Ghost Chilmark Woods Original Drk-webS


*Created in camera on film

**Before digital this type of shoot still carried its magical aspects. The certainty of success could only be determined after the film was processed. To insure increasing the odds of success on a difficult shoot I had a reasonable number of blank canvases to expose.