Professor David Abulafia / DIE ZEIT Literatur Magazin

Before Christmas, I received an interesting portrait assignment from DIE ZEIT picture editor Navina Reus in Germany.

I joined DIE ZEIT journalist Maximilian Probst, who had flown in from Hamburg to interview & profile esteemed historian and author Professor David Abulafia of Gonville & Caius College / University of Cambridge for DIE ZEIT's Literatur Magazin.

As Professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University since 2000 and a Fellow of the British Academy, David has built a influential international career as historian of Italy, Spain and the greater Mediterranean coastline during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

David's latest publication - The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean - has been critically applauded internationally both in and out of academia, as the book chronologically divides the Mediterranean's history into 5 sections from 22,000BC to the present day in meticulous detail, whilst still being an accessible read.

The brief from Germany was deceptively simple: 3 final portraits covering both a close up of David and a couple that offered a sense of his college environment. I arrived early for a scout around...

...preparation always pays off and I found a perfect spot to illustrate the age and majestic 'gothic' of Gonville & Caius College, which was founded in the year 1348 (original name - Gonville Hall before changing to Gonville & Caius College in 1557).

My plan was to 'mirror' position David with the statue of Dr Stephen Perse (1548 - 1615) who was an English academic and philanthropist who left his considerable fortune of £10,000 to the history library of the day - and as long as the rain stopped for a couple of minutes, I knew that the north-east location of the Waterhouse Building would look great. The rain stopped for 5 minutes and the subtle glow brought out the green flora superbly.

I then looked around for an indoor location but even standing in the oldest part of the college (the college Chapel) I couldn't find a suitable backdrop or contextually inspiring spot to shoot in. Upon meeting David, I outlined my idea to frame him in a more studious environment and he thought that the college's prestigious library, where he has spent a lot of time researching, would be ideal. 

Gonville & Caius College library has served scholars and students alike since 1441 and in 1996, the library's contents were rehoused in the glorious 19th Century, Grade 1 listed Cockerell Building. Split across 2 levels, the library's upper level contains a working collection of some 90,000 volumes, books and journals. This level is open to undergraduates and scholars.

The lower level contains the College's special collection of manuscripts, incunabula and other rare printed material. Access to the lower library is restricted to all and only accessible, under supervision and by appointment with library staff or a College Fellow. Luckily for Maximilian and I, we cleared security easily with a Fellow of Gonville & Caius - aka Professor David Abulafia.

In short, Maximilian and I were left speechless by both the library's selection and the building's extraordinary detail and timely presence. Originally designed by Charles Robert Cockerell in 1834 and extensively renovated (with refocus on C.R. Cockerell's details and space) to include modern computer and security systems by Donald Insall Associates in the mid 1990s, the library was a photographer's dream.

Whilst walking around and observing the shelves weighed down with ancient and significant manuscripts and sheepskin bound books, it became clear that David favored various sections of the library. Still seeking out the right spot to photograph David, I found a bright red step ladder for gaining access to higher shelves. Bam! - this 'prop' would serve as a perfect graphic counterpoint to anchor David within his scholarly surroundings.

So out came my trusty Profoto generator and D4 lights + gridded beauty dish and zoom reflector + 10º grid to ensure just the right amount of light fell on David without a) creating shadow on the column behind him or b) to give the 'illusion' that he was naturally lit from the window area. By the time we set-up, the light was falling outside, so I chose to really open the shutter up to 0.3 second to balance out the ambient light (awful mixture of window light and tungsten lamps) with the flash output. I also decided to add a little shadow to the lower part of the ladder to ensure it visually separated from the carpet and wooden floor.

As ever, I seemed to find my camera jammed into the tightest area within such a big building. I really wanted to show off the signature details of the building along with David and his ladder through a 50mm prime lens, as those light fittings and ceiling freeze really added drama.

I packed away while Maximilian continued with his interview. 

A truly memorable 'hands-on' introduction into the collegiate milieu of ancient history. Thank you David.