I can’t remember when I first came across the eery photographs of Sir Simon Marsden. Black and white, whispy images, light as a feather in appearance, dark and sinister in effect, Marsden used infra red film to capture a world that somehow seemed to exist between this one and the next. His website, the Simon Marsden Archive, is full of otherworldly landscapes, brooding buildings, spectral figures and inviting staircases. It was inevitable then that a man with a love of capturing the uncanny should eventually turn his attention to the ultimate supernatural myth: the vampire.
A gloriously bound volume, Vampires: The Twilight World contains images taken in Britain, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, America, Russia and Romania. All the usual locations are here, the Carpathians, Wallachia and Transylvania, Dracula is referenced in Whitby and other literary figures such as Le Fanu’s Carmilla receive a mention. But there are other less well known, but equally forbidding places such Poveglia Island, the Isle of the Dead, in Venice.
What really sets this book apart from other photographic compilations is Marsden’s personal text that accompanies each photograph. As well as explaining the logistics of acquiring these shots, the permissions and guides, the tourist trails and beaten paths, we see a glimpse into Marsden’s own attitude towards the unknown. On numerous occasions he recalls how disturbed and unsettled a location would make him.
“This is without doubt a haunted place, where the souls of the departed may not always rest in peace, and as daylight descended into dusk I began to feel far too near the dead and too far from the living.” (Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris)
Marsden is no stranger to the supernatural. He grew up in two haunted houses, Panton hall and Thorpe Hall in Lincolnshire, a county noted for the flatness and isolation of its countryside. Wide landscapes unleash the imagination and a young Marsden grew up to take more than a passing interest in what was beyond rational explanation. It was his father’s gift of a Leica camera that set Marsden off on the path that ultimately led to Corvin Castle in Transylvania, Ardoginna House in County Waterford and Kampehl in Brandenburg.
What you won’t find in any of these photographs are human beings, unless you count the preserved body of the knight at Kampehl! Instead, Marsden’s images capture the memory, the essence or the effect of human presence as it once was. The legends and rumours in many of the places visited are as strong as the stone walls, almost as tangible as the memorials. At Snagov Monastery, he can’t persuade local boatmen to take him across the lake to the island where Dracula’s remains are said to be buried. He eventually makes it and after several minutes photographing Dracula’s tombstone, watched over by a nun he leaves. “As I walked to the door I turned once more and saw her making strange signs over the grave, gesticulating and waving her arms as if in a trance.”
The extraordinary sits alongside the mundane: Croglin Grange in the English Lake District, the satanic vampire’s Chateau Tiffauges in France. Every turn of the page reveals another weeping statue, another abandoned portico, another granite outcrop with its ghostly castle appearing unreachable, unwelcoming. Foliage glows unnaturally, skies are impossibly dark and light at the same time; all down to the magic of infra red film. There is even time to explore individuals who made their mark on vampire lore, such as Dom Augustine Calmet who wrote a controversial volume on vampires, a collection of testimonies of instances of vampirism that drew criticism from the Church. His words would be a fitting summary of Vampires: The Twilight World.
“There is very much the appearance of illusion; and even if some of the reality were mixed up with it, we may easily console ourselves for our ignorance in that respect, since there are so many natural things that take place within us and around us, of which the cause and manner are unknown to us.”
Sir Simon Marsden died in 2012. His work had been exhibited in galleries all over the world including the Saatchi Collection and the Bibliotheque National in Paris; testimony to his work’s technical excellence and his meticulous expertise in printing. It’s tempting to speculate where he is now, and whether he’s photographing us from the other side of the infra red veil.
Vampires: The Twilight World can be bought from the Simon Marsden website here.