Caught in Time

Scapa Flow is a unique place – wrecks such as the Dresden and the Vanguard carry an otherworldy atmosphere that can’t be felt anywhere else, but they are being destroyed by the ravages of time. Tom Easop has captured them on film before they are lost forever

Propeller and rudder of the block ship Doyle
The Doyle is a block ship sunk in the Burra Sound between the Isles of Graemsay and Hoy. Many such ships were sunk to prevent submerged U-boats sneaking up on the fleet.


Scapa Flow has more shipwrecks in its naturally-sheltered waters than anywhere else in the world, and for Tom Easop, a 35-year-old New Yorker, recording the wrecks of Scapa on film has become a race against the corrosive forces of the North Sea that are slowly eating away at this underwater museum.

Last year, Easop based himself on the liveaboard MV Karin to carry out a personal mission. A dedicated wreck diver, he had long pondered how best to record Scapa’s eerie charms. Dissatisfied with conventional photographic technology, he decided to build his own large-format camera, which would take four-by-five inch sheet film.

‘I had been to Scapa six times,’ says Easop. ‘I wanted to photograph every gun I could find, because the ships there are really the last of their kind. They are the kind of ships that would do battle against each other with huge guns slugging it out, just as battles were fought in Elizabethan days. These were the last ships to fight in that way, before naval strategy changed and aircraft carriers arrived on the scene. But the crux of my project was that these ships are disintegrating – who knows what they’re going to look like in ten years?’

Using black-and-white 100 ISO film, Easop took exposures lasting from between 30 seconds and four minutes to capture the subtle mood of each of the wrecks. Such lengthy exposure times allowed him to swim around the frame (leaving the camera on its tripod), using a torch to ‘paint’ light on to parts of the wrecks. His exposures were so lengthy that even passing seals and divers do not appear on the final image.

‘One problem with this system is that you can’t see what you are photographing, so I used a conventional housed 35mm SLR as a viewfinder. The scene is composed and the light levels metered using the SLR, and then the large camera is swapped on to the clamp or tripod. The films rest inside the chamber at a preset focal point. During the average dive there’s only time to make a maximum of two pictures, which is fine since the camera only holds two sheets of film.’



8.8cm anti-aircraft gun from the SMS Seydlitz
The SMS Seydlitz was salvaged after the Grand Scuttle, and broken up for scrap (see left). Much of her deck hardware, including spotlights, rigging and the gun above, were sheared off as she was raised to the surface.



SMS Dresden
The wreck of the SMS Dresden dramatically shows the deterioration that all shipwrecks face. Here a deck plate is ‘peeling’ off the deck, and bending under its own weight, is headed eventually for the sea-bed. Since the wreck lies on its side and the decks are leaning out of the hull, they overhang the sea-bed, where time and gravity take their toll.


Breach detail of the C gun on the SMS Dresden
The breach of the standard 15cm gun on all of the German high seas cruisers is shown here from the bottom of the gun, but viewed from the side. The wreck of the SMS Dresden is unique in that it is the only cruiser to rest on port side. This is the C Gun on the SMS Dresden, a Köln-class light cruiser built in 1918.


Collapsed armour plate of the A gun on the SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm
The SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm used to lie upside down, but as time passes this great hulk of a wreck is rolling over. It is now resting on its starboard-side. As the ship settles by rolling away from its heaviest guns, which are firmly planted in the sea-bed, the turrets are pulled apart. The photograph shows some of the lighter plating, and some machinery inside the turret of the A gun.


FAA guns of the SMS F2 in the salvage barge hold
The F2 was a WWII escort vessel which was left neglected in Scapa Flow at its mooring. Eventually it sank. A salvage firm lifted her small anti-aircraft guns and placed them in the hold of their barge which then subsequently sank.

All historic photographs from the Lawson Wood Collection.

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