La Belle Dame Sans Merci

One of my favourite shoots from my last Cambridge visit was the film noir photoshoot that Hannah Taylor and I did at Pembroke College. Our plan was to try and recreate the look and feel of the old movies. We did not have any rooms booked, and were planning on using a few outdoor locations and maybe some corridors. As we arrived we met Sarah Howden, one of Hannah’s friends, who was heading out for the yearly Cambridge Varsity Ski Trip. She kindly offered us her room for the photo shoot. The room overlooked one of the courts, which made for a great location. Sometimes luck strikes.

Hannah Grace Taylor looking out a window in Pembroke Colllege
Pembroke College has some spectacular views. I chose my angle so as to get the tower in the background to provide extra depth. Our goal was to do black and white film noir photos, but I could not resist including a few colour photos.
Hannah Grace Taylor by the window in Pembroke College
Hannah in an elegant black dress.
Hannah Grace Taylor smiling by a window
We pick our locations based on the view, not the smell. This is one of the public bathrooms in the college.
Hannah Grace Taylor by a window, eyes closed.
In film noir photos the actors and models rarely look directly into the camera.
Portrait of Hannah Grace Taylor
Colour, and looking into the camera. The first photo we took in Sarah’s room.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Ballad – John Keats 1884

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Black and white portrait of Hannah Grace Taylor
We still had a bit of daylight left here, so made the most of it. When placing fingers against the skin it can be good to have a very light touch, as too much pressure will indent the skin creating unwanted shadows.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

Hannah Grace Taylor in a beautiful black dress
A quick dress change. Hannah in a black wrap dress with a lace panel. (I am learning to speak fashion!)

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

Portrait of Hannah Grace Taylor and her elegant earrings
A slightly tighter crop, showcasing the earrings.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

Portrait of Hannah Grace Taylor drinking tea
We searched for some props, and found a tea cup.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

Portrait of Hannah Grace Taylor drinking white wine
In the nearby kitchen we also found a wine glass, however we felt it would be too cheeky to also borrow their wine. To make the water not look too obviously water we placed it with something dark in the background.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Hannah Grace Taylor in black dress, sitting on window sill, drinking wine.
I had left the flashes at home, so after the sun set we had to improvise and instead make use of a desk lamp, which provided a decent amount of light, but it meant a slightly higher ISO setting. The good news was the desk lamp was possible to aim in different directions, which was useful since we did not have a third person to aim it for us.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”

Reflection in the window of Hannah Taylor
Playing a bit with the reflections in the window.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

Portrait of Hannah Taylor
The yellow colour of the tungsten desk lamp had a different temperature than the very blue outside light. Luckily in black and white we do not really need to worry too much about that. It also meant that we can adjust the intensity of the two light sources in the black and white mix to brighten or darken the outside skies if we wanted to.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

Portrait of Hannah Taylor in a gorgeous black dress. Scene is lit by a single desk lamp.
One of the great things with using a backless dress is that you can play more with the shadows on the shoulders and back. By lighting from the side you get more shadows and depth.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

Gorgeous film noire portrait of Hannah Grace Taylor
This looks like it could be taken out of a movie from the 50s or 60s.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

Hannah Taylor looking at herself in the mirror
There was a mirror in the other room, which of course we could not resist making use of.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Hannah Taylor resting against a door frame
One final photo. Hannah in a blue Hitchcock pencil dress with a scoop-back holding a borrowed bottle of perfume.

Many thanks to Hannah for a fun evening. I am always impressed by her selection of elegant dresses. Also a huge thanks to Sarah Howden for letting us use her room which turned out to be a really great location giving us more time and freedom to set up our photos.

— Johannes

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