Mortonhall

Mortonhall --

Anyone following this project on Twitter – @MyVoyageuse – may have noticed a post about my recent visit to Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh that referred to ‘a recent fire’ – something of an irony given the building’s purpose. Last Saturday I visited Mortonhall, the last stop on a two-day shoot and while pointing my camera at the white concrete exterior of the main chapel, designed by Sir Basil Spence I noticed a person-shaped presence inside the building. With no permission to shoot, I was on high alert, anticipating how best to deal with the situation. After years of run and gun shooting my experience has been mostly positive though there’s always a risk of expulsion or worse, a run-in with security guards or the police.

Even in these camera-savvy times it helps to apply common sense and discretion when shooting in public spaces. Usually I’m humbled by the good faith I’ve encountered from strangers and only on rare occasions have I faced objections, once resulting in two bemused police officers arriving at my house one morning after an over-zealous security guard noted my car registration number but since no crime had been committed I was not arrested.

Fortunately, the presence at Mortonhall turned out to be Jamie Reece, the Crematorium’s Manager. After explaining how I was making a film about my late mother-in-law and why the building features in the story, unprompted, he kindly invited me to shoot indoors, adding that due to a fire the previous week access was limited pending an urgent roof repair. Could I return? After swapping a few emails we agreed on a date so this weekend I returned to the chapel where in addition to Jamie, I met Jim, one of the attendants who informed me that only two services were due to be held that day. He also told me how the Spring sees a fall in numbers, winter being high season for the departed.

Entering the chapel, I recalled the last and only time I was here – September 2003 – on the occasion of Erica’s mother, Vera’s funeral service, having passed away aged 94. Back then I was struck by the sparseness and simplicity of Spence’s design; with its pine benches and tall multi-coloured glass relieving the stark white walls and concrete platform and the wood-clad ceiling giving way to a dramatic triangular void, reminiscent of a futuristic film set. Opened in 1967, the multi-denominational chapel remains timeless though I’m told the flat roof is prone to leaks.

Due to a service scheduled for 10.00am, my access is limited so I do my best to capture shots that do justice to the building. Afterwards I’m offered coffee, doughnuts and stories of how the TV series, “Life of Grime” featured some of the staff. Packing to leave, I’m deeply touched by the generosity of those going about their daily task of tending to the bereaved. They didn’t need to help me, but they did so I’m very grateful to them for their trust.

Reviewing the shots, it occurs to me how locations have become a lucrative business. Most cities now have a film office and compete with others in attracting productions. These days it’s quite common for people to offer their houses to filmmakers in exchange for a sizeable fee. Many years ago I recced an unremarkable Victorian terraced house in London where the proud owner told me she rented her bathroom for £8000 a day. I once witnessed an entire neighbourhood removing its curtains from the windows and where the occupants stood on their doorsteps demanding cash when a Hollywood movie rolled into town. So it’s reassuring to know – especially on a no-budget film – that it’s still possible to gain access to places informally and for free. But for how much longer, who knows?

The photograph is a frame grab of the ceiling from Saturday's shoot, using a duotone effect.

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