Scotland: For A' That : An Exhibition in Kirkcudbright

The lovely people at The Whitehouse Gallery in Kirkcudbright in the Scottish Borders invited me a while back to participate in their first exclusively photographic exhibition and it's amazing how quickly that time has come around... for we open on the 10th February 2018 for a month.

We're a diverse bunch on show, with some truly exceptional documentary photography rubbing shoulders with a variety of landscape work, the aim of the exhibition being to illustrate the people of Scotland and something of the surroundings that have shaped them. Please click here for the gallery link

Kirkcudbright itself is lively historic town and fishing port on the River Dee with a vibrant art and craft making community that has put the town firmly on the map for those seeking to invest in fine arts and crafts... well worth a detour if you're in the area.

The four pictures I have on display there, I've entitled The Aquarelle Quartet, though they do feature in my Skye and Eigg galleries here on this website.

They have a watercolour quality about them and were captured in some of the most challenging of weather conditions I've ever experienced: high winds, driving rain, and often hail or snow. But it's the fleeting moment of wonder that I seek out, that spectacular glow over a mountain through driving squall, the wet rocks amid an incoming tide and distant mountain backdrop... and Scotland rarely fails to disappoint, the volatile weather, light and dynamic paintbox hue variations pull me back again and again for challenge after challenge. Never are the conditions the same twice and taking these pictures has required a certain patience and physical endurance... one that I relish especially when I am rewarded.

The Aquarelle Quartet


10th Feb - 10th March 2018 | Mon-Sat 1000-1700 | free admission | preview opening 10th February 1100-1700   

The Whitehouse Gallery | 47 St Mary Street | Kirkcudbright
Dumfries & Galloway | Scotland | DG6 4DU

01557 330223


Reflections in Windows, the Duomo, Trams... And a Car too many... A Sojourn in Northern Italy

"And the road gave me its songs,
that know the grain that swells in the ear,
the flower that whitens the olive groves,
between the blue of flax and the narcissi " 
    Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968)

I’m not sure why I’ve found it so difficult writing this particular entry...  but too much of a good thing can be positively overwhelming, and with every turn on this trip to Lombardy and Piedmonte, there was always something that could be captured in the view finder... with reflections in the urban architecture, a series of doors in a mountain village, pictures of alpine villages, pictures on a frozen lake and waterfall, a Renaissance town, Milanese trams... even the graffiti on an old railway wagon was artistic with its arcing red and cream aerosol streaks and delicate rusty punctuation over an arial fonted majuscule... 

This was my first trip to Northern Italy. I had done a little research before, but with friends' local knowledge, I decided to just go with the flow to fit in the obligatory coffee stops...  and like a gentle post cappuccino jaunt along the street, I thought I’d share here  some of my many many observations and creative musings:

1.  The age of things...  Italy might have always been at the forefront of the fashion and car industries - but its coats are thin contemporary veneers holed like emmenthal cheese, the marvellous antiquity and ugly decay gaping through in equal measure ( the Italians I met were very quick to highlight their grumblings about the corruption in the political system as they saw it and the societal and intellectual poverty as youngsters continue to leave the country for better economic prospects ).

2.  And away from Milan and Turin, to the north, a landscape of lakes, mountains with their shrines and winding roads, and to the south, arborio rice paddies which struck the visitor on her inbound flight to Milan - neat neutral toned rectangular abstracts - which when irrigated in spring would become steel and silver toned watery blocks...  natural mirrors... 

3.  Milan and Vigevano, too, are fascinating cities with contrasting histories - and roots that architecturally at least, demonstrate elegant Renaissance flourishes, with a strident angularity and Futurist sharpness coming to the fore in Milano.  

From a photographic perspective, what became obvious to me however was that as we crossed from the most manicured of urban landscapes into the wildest of idylls, Man’s influence was still to be found... for the landscape appeared to be touched, if only transiently, with a crumbling ruin or shrine dotted here or there on the steepest and remotest of mountain sides...

Somehow, I felt I needed to pay hommage to this activity in some way, in my endeavours to capture a regional ‘thumb-print' rather than adopting a raw isolationist perspective, seeking out the pure and untainted.

4.  So I decided to embrace the Human and as I wandered the Milanese streets, I realised that even the sky was not untouched. The blue was sliced up into a beautiful geometry of triangle and parallelogram bordered in black. Occasionally these would be shot through by a spark, or a mechanical winking light halting, or giving the tram and its pantograph permission to move onwards. What an extraordinarily fascinating anachronism these trams were, the clanging sounding a warning that an antique wooden and wrought ironed carriage on tiny wheels - faces pressed against condensation obscured glass - was rattling and wobbling its precarious way over even more antiquated polished metalwork in the road. Around the cathedral (Duomo), the trams passed, Beaux Arts stonework and balconies framing them beyond these limits... and pedestrian traffic was channeled, assisted and obfuscated by them...  as the Milanese, known for cutting the hastiest business deals in Italy, swept from street corner to corner in fur coat, suit and phone at the ear +/-  dog in toe, or in bijou carrier. 

No time for this was more evident than the ‘traditional’ weekly evening parade of Italian glitz and ostentation...  the ‘Passaggiata'. Here people looked each other up and down like boxers ready to spar, gauging weak points in one another's couture styling. Most were respectfully admiring from afar, enjoying the excuse to be out in one’s finery, but these events can mark the locality’s pecking order and tempers and teeth can be borne in the rush to get in line. Fights break out over parking spots...  serious stuff for the ardent fashionista.

5.  Glass glass every where... the reflections. A world in reverse order like Leonardo’s hand dimmed by vitreous imperfection or city residue. A shop or café window reflected world that framed in my mind some of what enshrined this part of Italy. And yet the view was an intimate one I believe, each pace changing my world view completely in tone, shadow and hue... coffee cup, crucifix and hand-bag melding with spire, and pastel drawn grand façade, a scene so transient with the interruption of noisy shadows clickclicking past...

 

A Visit to New York City in Autumn 2016

"Over the great bridge, with sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."  F. Scott Fitzgerald

New York is a city of anachronism.  As I wandered the sidewalks for the first time in September last year, a sense of deja vu prevailed. The sights and smells were strangely familiar though until now, I had witnessed through other’s senses and not my own. But there I was one morning at twilight on the perimeter of Central Park, walking over metal grills that resonated with the thunder of the subway trains beneath. Vocal strains of station announcements drifted through them to meet the clouds of steam that billowed from precariously sited chimneys in the road. As the sky developed its first inky blue tones of the day, runners, dog walkers and boxy yellow school buses rattling hard along the street began to increase conspicuously in number. Occasionally one would lurch to a halt, a door flying open to swallow up a young person, before flying off perpendicularly into the adjoining street to continue on its way.

Unlike the school buses, the shape of the yellow cabs had evolved a little since the 50s... only a little, morphing into sleeker dynamic advertisements with roof top fins that cut through the sea of traffic like metal sharks. A low slung motorcycle with expansive chrome, leather panniers and a number plate that simply read LUV NYC was parked opposite the El Dorado Hotel. Was I an extra in a movie? If I was then I was joining a team of street cleaners, park attendants and steady commuters… and the set illumination was coming only from the street lights overhead which were soon to flicker off.

I pinched myself... No!  I was in Manhattan for real at the behest of two dear friends rather than any movie company. 

As the sun rose, I walked through a succession of shadows punctuated by roads with frenzied beeping traffic. Whilst my backpack weight made its presence felt and my pace slowed, I could not fail to appreciate both the vertical Y and street length X axis dimensions which seemed immediately improportionate. Steel and concrete structures occasionally touching the clouds had become the ostentatious material representation of a wealth which had, generations before, been solely in the mind and Babel Hebrew scriptures. But this city had defiantly disregarded the messages of Old in its relentless drive for financial growth and renewal with ever bolder architectural, artistic, commercial and political statements… in fact, the spirit of New York had become over decades the aspirational flame that attracted the eyes of the World, terrorists in 2001, and most recently, the voice of political resistance to President Trump’s contentious legislature.

"A hundred times I have thought New York a disaster, and fifty times, it is a beautiful disaster." Le Corbusier - architect

    My trip to Manhattan in September would not have been possible primarily without Steve and Andrea Sholl but I should also extend heartfelt thanks to new friends Tony and Lynn, their car driving neighbours. Together we explored new parts of the State seeking vantage points that conveyed old and contemporary urban Americana... the glitzy stone and glass, the old industrial dockside heritage, the more deprived lo-rise clapboard suburban expanses. I witnessed something of the nickel and dime working culture endured by many in an effort to make ends meet and at the time of writing, I now pause to consider the added impact of the withdrawal of basic Obamacare medical provision from these people by the current administration. New York is a city built and in some respects, fuelled by a significant immigrant population/generations of immigrant forebears. This history is celebrated and runs through its very core and although I had come to the city as a Photographer and cultural tourist, I had arrived open to all experiences... My  senses were on overdrive and wherever I went, I chatted... to the financier in Grand Central Oyster Bar, the firefighters, bus drivers, cabbies, park dog walkers... each had their own story of course and as far as my photography went, it took some time to consider the story or take I had to impart on the subject matter... I had principally wanted to capture some of the iconic architecture but wasn’t sure what approach to take… What was important however was that these buildings be set in context with their neighbours without them being dominated by contrasting competing details... to let the buildings and fine masonry speak for themselves.

"There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless."  Simone De Beauvoir

In a city that reputedly never sleeps, I was also keen to convey a sense of the continuous and anonymous human flow around the buildings and decided to experiment with a variety of shutter speeds and multi picture layering. The necessary dark filter combinations attached to my lens and tripod attracted considerable attention from passers by who were keen to understand what I was achieving. Interested curiosity also resulted in some novel opportunities for picture making as I was invited to join natives on roof top locations that offered alternative view points of my subjects. 

There were too many highlights to mention on this trip, but I think photographically at least, the most memorable of all was in witnessing the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) firework display over Manhattan from a particularly aesthetically pleasing vantage point in Brooklyn Bridge Park…   alone…  the only photographer...  a totally unplanned serendipitous experience that was all over in a matter of 15 minutes or so…  a fitting final skin pinch moment recapitulated after standing at twilight in Central Park on that first morning. 

As I left for the airport in a Yellow Cab, I listened to Mohammed tell me his story - an immigrant from Pakistan 25 years ago, unable to afford to live in New York himself. The situation in London is little different but in the absence of welfare, the disparities in the US seem much much greater and unfortunately I fear are likely with the new administration to become greater still. I was not won over by the ostentatious veneer so much in evidence - there clearly is a great deal of wealth, as there is in any city -  but it is the melange, that melting pot of human voice and experience that gives a place soul rather than the megalithic structural edifices to wealth that survive us. Stunning though the architecture is there, I will remember New York more for my friends and acquaintances... and for a woman who takes a lot of photographs in wild remote landscapes, this is a soulful admission.

I’m not Jewish, but somehow, Rosh Hashana and this trip to Manhattan did feel like a new beginning on many personal levels...  a New Year, truly.



How a dongle saved the day

 I went to give a photographic presentation yesterday to the Yorkshire Monochrome Group, a most appreciative lot who turned out in force in diabolical weather to hear me talk about the wild weather I choose to find myself in to capture moody imagery. But the set up did not get off to a good start. I had earlier checked to ensure lead compatibility (HDMI) and was assured we wouldn't have any problems...but it turned out that their lead was for a VGA input and I don't have this on my Mac laptop. It was my good fortune that several new people had attended that day...and one of them had brought his little dongle which enabled me to plug in my computer. Phew! After the further stress of the projector settings, we were good to go, but without this little lead, there would have been a picture light talk focussing on a few prints held up! I have since purchased one of these handy little devices to avoid being in a similar situation again. A recommended purchase for anyone who gives presentations.

A Thunderbolt VGA dongle


Journeys Exhibition with the Open Studio Photographers 8-14/2/17

After our successful workshop in Mellon Charles last March, most of us meeting for the first time, our group decided to organise a future collective exhibition at the Horsebridge Centre, a beautiful community arts centre in the centre of Whitstable in Kent. How quickly it has come around!

The work on display illustrates something of the journeys we have undertaken individually since that time from both a travel and methodological point of view. The theme has been broadly interpreted and there is a variety of work on display from monochrome documentary shots of Scottish island communities and standing stones to ICM birds in flight and intimate glaciated landscape studies. Usually working in the wilds, I decided to submit as a contrast, my New York cityscapes "After Steichen & Stieglitz"

Please click here to see a little presentation I have produced to illustrate the images that I will have on display there.

The Horsebridge Centre, 11 Horsebridge Road, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AF

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 0900-1800, Sun 1000-1700



A trip to Western Ireland

The expectation was there. I had planned this trip as far as I could aiming to explore this picturesque part of Ireland and get off the beaten track. I knew there was the potential for some truly dramatic photography if the elements were to play ball in providing me with some interesting light to pick out details and invoke moodiness. I expected some rain - Ireland is famous for and owns the moniker the Emerald Isle for very good reason - but what I did not expect was a relentless rain presence and overcastness that clung to the landscape with an unshakeable grasp for all but one day of my entire 13 day trip.

Some would argue that there are only bad clothes, not bad weather, but when one is suitably equipped AND trying to perform an added meaningful creative endeavour in those conditions, then I would disagree, especially when the gaps in the rain total no more than a few minutes a day. Of course, in the pursuit of taking landscape photographs, unless one is out in such weather, one cannot take advantage of any positively changing conditions - a moment of sun breaking through the cloud or a rainbow for instance, but it’s tiring, remaining constantly vigilant in the face of such adversity in the hope that a reward is on offer...if only one waits long enough. And, if this is the only opportunity to visit, then what other option is there other than going all out? 

Many saner people would perhaps retreat to a log fire, a pint of Guinness and consider cutting their losses and moving on but I guess I’m just an optimist in remaining and renewing my efforts.

Nowhere was this sentiment felt so strongly than when I was on the Aran islands, a archipelagic trio in Galway Bay, long associated with seafaring and intricate cable knitwear. The Easterly storms that run straight off the Atlantic bring turbulent conditions to these wee low lying islands and in the absence of mountains, the weather pattern contrasts strongly to that of Connemara to the North. 

I was trying to take pictures on the western side of Inis Meain and revisited over 4 days with the aim of trying to capture something spectacular of the precipitous coastal scenery. Each day, the weather was largely the same regardless of how long I could endure it - horizontal driving rain and spray with squalls rolling in sequentially from the South-West. 

Thank goodness for Synge’s seat, a C shaped stone wall enclosure large enough to accommodate an Irish playwright or a woman with all her photo gear. This refuge high on the cliff edge faced outwards to the North-East and Inis Mor. The waves cracked like a ballistic team below me whilst I could make out the changing frothy turquoise sea patterns at lower levels. I could feel the wind and occasional rain droplets penetrate the occasional wall gap, but it was largely dry, the squall driving so fast that the rain passed directly overhead - or into my face if I stuck my head over this rocky parapet to survey the situation.

I struggle to sit down usually, but here I was positively forced to plant myself for some time and reflect, just as Synge* would have done. No tourists came my way despite this being a popular spot, the vile weather having deterred them. My internal silence was given an opportunity to be heard. It is usually drowned out by the conscious dialogue of life. I thought about this place, the island life and the tenacity of the people here to hold onto their cultural heritage through Gaelic speaking and continuation of some of the old ways in farming practice and fishing. Subsistence. Simplicity. Living with what is available. A fine restaurant there has a similar ethos - making beautiful food from what is freely at hand foraging, rather than sourcing that that is not.

I did not think for one moment about taking pictures but took time to listen to my surroundings and experience a certain spiritual awe.

It felt a long way off from the strife of the world and recent BREXIT mayhem that I’d left behind in the UK.

My concentration was ultimately broken by the distant voices of some approaching American tourists. When I stood up, this bedraggled bunch clad in leather biker jackets, chains and blankets could be seen making their way across the rocks in the rain - some of the most inappropriately attired people I’d ever seen. Then reality hit home - I was suddenly aware of my own dampness and with no change in sight in the weather, I knew I needed to retreat to dry out and take aboard some physical nourishment. I was profoundly tired and despite the calmness of the location on one level, needed to attune both body and mind.

I thought about what pictures I’d taken that day, and in the preceding days on the island. Without reviewing them, I knew I had enough. I would make do... the search did not need to continue. 

Simple. 


*John Millington Synge 1871-1909 was an Irish author and playwright (’The Playboy of the Western World’ among others) who used to spend summers on the Aran islands before his premature death from Hodgkin’s disease at 37.

It is the timber of poetry that wears most surely, and there is no timber that has not strong roots among the clay and worms
— JM Synge

Making an argument in favour of an occasional blue cloudless sky to keep creativity fresh

I have a prediliction for capturing moody dramatic pictures and travel at inhospitable times of year (for most tastes) to maximise my chances of working with the volatile weather patterns that the British Isles is known for worldwide. These conditions can be exhilarating and trying in equal measure but often present the tenacious photographer with much greater opportunity to capture varied imagery…in fact, when one is REALLY lucky, merely planting the tripod and standing in the same spot with the shutter release in one’s hand pressing the button at intervals is all that’s needed to capture such a positive confection of light and tone that you’re left smiling and pinching yourself afterwards. Did I really witness that? I’m betting that most landscape photographers will all have had those experiences at some time or another and neurophysiologically, it’s these very moments that trigger our dopamine systems so completely that we crave to repeat them and get us out there again and again.

When it all goes to plan, visual feasting can be so easy and satisfying … and that banquet table be positively overflowing with opportunity. 

But what about being confronted with the diametrically opposed weather setting to this? The calm blue sky…the sky that draws people out walking in the landscape and puts a smile on faces? The sky with an absence of cloud even to suggest the possibility of rain later? The sky which outpours bright bright sunshine? 

Such skies are born in the morning of an increasing cooling of seamless pink - red tones melting into orange and then after the sun has risen, into a blue palate  that becomes intensely cobalt with polarisation. Against such a sky, other colours and tones sometimes compete forcefully - green especially. It can be a challenge to work with such light, especially as the luminance and contrasts increase to peak midday. In such conditions, if one is determined to take pictures regardless, then seeking out graphic compositions, shooting in black and white or softening the light with diffusers/shadow introduction to work on detailed shots is probably the order of the day for the landscape photographer. Although this necessitates a determined and focussed eye, actually choosing to experience such weather from time to time I believe is needed for me to maintain the hunger for visual satisfaction. My umbrella might be put to a different use - casting shadows, but for once it won’t be used to keep everything dry and this can be very nice… it certainly makes me appreciate the tempestuous times when everything has come together with greater ease visually but what greater physical endurance has been needed to put me in the right place at the right time to experience that?

As such blue sky days pass too, the cloudless uncontaminated twilight colours transition seamlessly again from warm to cool and darkness again before distant stars appear. These skies are wonderful for reflective coastal scenes when the water is usually so calm that water ripples placidly and the gentle gradation provides the foil for the other image components to resonate with and the space for the subtlest elements to speak unhindered. 

As for the photographer who likes bold drama, it imposes on her an unfamiliar palate that demands embracement. It may not be the raw ingredient that one feels entirely at home with, but with sufficient open-mindedness, the recipe need not be any less tasty. 


Skye: capturing the fresh - an artist's dilemma

My Skye trip had been a challenge, elements aside, in the drive to visit a popular location but to return with something entirely new. Whilst many people have a bucket list and want to create similar images captured by other established photographers, that is the absolute antithesis to how I choose to work myself. 

Of course, some locations are popular for justifiable reasons in that they have an intrinsically beautiful universal aesthetic that demands attention…and how can one not visit such a location when one’s travelled such a great distance and that area is so subject rich? It’s like visiting England from afar for the first time and not venturing into London after all… but it’s about avoiding cliche and laziness I guess. When one sees prior compositions that work, it can be all too easy to carry those image memories in the mind when visiting a spot for the first time. Of course there are so many variables that prevent these shots from being recreated…light, tides etc, but that pictorial memory can be a powerful blinkering mechanism that prevents one exploring the wilder landscape beyond what’s already been admired from the armchair.

Elgol is one of those iconic locations. I’d seen many pictures taken from there and knew it had all the ingredients for some wonderful photography. As I drove down the steep road after rounding the bend at the top, my heart skipped a beat. The anticpation had been phenomenal and I felt as I think a hunter might feel out on the chase…tremendous excitement. As I headed out over the beach and clambered over the boulders keeping an eye on the weather, my eye was on overdrive looking for compositions…and there I saw it…a circular erratic boulder juxtaposed next to a wedge shaped fissured rock with the Cuillin backdrop. It seemed familiar, and unfamiliar at the same time. The tide was out and the composition was wrong…the water needed to be higher. I decided to revisit that spot and moved on to others. I simply felt drawn to it and revisited that spot 4x in total at the exclusion of other places along that coastline. (BTW, I did get a shot I was very happy with indeed, see below). 

On my final visit to Elgol, I bumped into another seasoned photographer who showed me another stretch of the coastline that had I think even more potential than where I’d spent time focussing.

And it was when I got home that I saw a couple of renditions of the boulder and wedge. Very different from my own I might add, but I recognised where the draw may have come from at a subliminal level at least. I had not gone out to look for the scene (and of course had no idea where to search even if I had!). 

Equally of course, as I had been drawn to that composition, other noted photographers had been drawn to it too…because of the fundamental aesthetic I’m certain, and not to copy another’s idea.

On a recent workshop and website review, I was advised by one tutor to remove that particular composition from my portfolio as he felt it invited potentially negative comparison with other exisiting imagery. The other tutor was horrified he’d suggested this as he conversely felt the image was fresh, compelling and ultimately a completely different take from other versions.

It was interesting to see how such an image divided opinion with permissible/impermissible subtle copycatism when this had not been in my mind at all when I created the photograph!

But the inner angst at the time and workshop experience since does make me think about image research before trips and how much to do?…will it affect my ability to respond to the landscape intuitively if my eye has already been filtered through the work of others? Perhaps it’s unsurprising the draw to discover new uncharted terrain, not just from a commercial sense perhaps in delivering new images to the market, but to enable our inner artists to run free reign over what we see before us


Shoot and run

I love to snap pictures on my iPhone. There’s a real sense of disinhibition about doing it…I blend into the crowd and can snap almost anything without drawing attention (not that I go incognito anywhere, but in London the tripod police do make life wearying), not to mention keep my back in good shape with the absence of a heavy bag to encumber. These simple ones though are part of a vignette series that I call my ‘strollers’…local images of things shot in passing, sometimes whilst on a recce but often because I love putting the pics through the Snapseed app and producing something quite unique.


A twilight wander at Halloween around Heptonstall

 

I am frequently out at twilight until the final light dissolves from the sky into darkness. It’s the change in colouration towards the blue end of the spectrum and  rapidly dropping light intensity (with added artificial light in areas of habitation) that I love to witness and although one has to work fairly quickly to capture the transience, there is always light, even in the dark. 

I wandered around the two Heptonstall churches this evening. They are separated by an expanse of tombstones lying on the ground like a undulating stone lake of words. Not far away lies Sylvia Plath, her grave frequently covered in pens left by her literary followers, but I was not there for her. It was the crumbling stonework of the medieval St Thomas a Becket watched over by St Thomas the Apostle that I was keen to explore in a different light. Golden leaves blew from the silver birches one by one whilst their delicate branches caught the moving air…occasionally landing on me, but more often adding to the orange mosaic on the ground. The silence was broken at one point by several girls with flowing wigs, white ghoulish faces and blood stained dresses running along the path towards the village houses, and then at intervals by the words “Trick or treat”. 

After discovering the most beautifully carved pumpkin nearby, it was time to head for home leaving the trick or treaters to labour on for their sticky delights.


A trip around the Royal Mews (HRH The Queen’s Stables and Coach Houses) - a quick study

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the London Buckingham Palace area in my wanderings and decided, being an equine fan, to visit the State Royal Mews for the first time. The horses are largely out at grass at windsor during the summer, but a couple of Windsor Greys are held back for tourist duties where they perform general stable posing. The state carriages are all there to see and a walk around audio guide will inform visitors about their history, including the James Bond approving details of the newest which has hydraulic pistons to ensure Her Majesty has a comfortable ride. Here are some shots which give a flavour of the place…somewhere I would love to revisit.


Marching on....

How quickly the year has marched on. The clocks went back yesterday and the nights are drawing in. The autumn colours develop by the day and I am praying that the leaves are not lost too quickly from the trees with frost and gales. Word is in the air about this winter being expected to be a dramatically harsh one. I’m not sure how these predictions arise, but it is certainly making me think about where to spend Christmas. A spectacularly harsh winter will make travel around Scotland a bit dicier…maybe I should head somewhere warmer? I simply can’t decide! I love experiencing all the elements can throw at me and trying to capture the sense of that in my images. I am drawn to moody, dramatic photography and this demands being out in extremes…but it can be so hard dealing with the wet, the cold and the harsh wind trying to wrestle one’s possessions from one’s hands… 

And while I contemplate whether to try somewhere warmer, here are some recent images from North Yorkshire which convey an autumnal presence


Old boats

Boats of all shapes and sizes are, in my opinion, an artist’s dream. It’s the combination of those sinuous curves and proportions needed to make them suitably wave faring and cut the waters that imbue them with a added gritty romance in the mind of this observer who tries to imagine the nautical miles covered both horizontally and vertically.

And when these venerable old ladies of the sea are retired out, they recline on shores at a tilt akin to wooden Henry Moore sculptures where they embark on new journeys of gentle dereliction through disrepair; the slow elemental ingress as the layered paint peels results in a steady, deeper decay of the fabric of the boat and new transient textures and colours are revealed.


On being alone and witnessing Orca whales

 

I recently spent a week on the Isle Of Eigg, one of the smallest and most remote of the Scottish Western Isles just south of Skye and a ferry hop away from Mallaig. Eigg is one of a cluster of four islands collectively known as the “Small Isles” and its community history is an interesting one in that the decision was made by the population of 79, after years of poor laird stewardship, to establish the Eigg Trust and buy out the island for future generations.

The single local shop and absence of a fuel station mean that life there is more than a lifestyle decision. Crofting is still the main activity although tourism is on the increase, the island being visited for the spectacular landscape, the eco activity (the island generating its own power through wind,wave and solar power), island bagging or simply to get away from it all.

Eigg’s weather is always unpredictable (neighbouring Rum’s weather is the wettest of all the Scottish isles) and after 9 months of storms daily, the locals’ endurance of relentless rain was unsurprisingly frayed. I was worn down more quickly with my mettle and zeal for working in the landscape from predawn to twilight being challenged not only by the physical endurance needed to hike but to remain constantly vigilant to the dynamics of water and seek what little cover there was when needed. A steely determination to make the most of my time there with the hope of capturing wonderful imagery meant that one had to be out there to be open to the possibilities, even if this did result in battling with an umbrella and getting drenched. My body and equipment certainly took a pummelling and a rest was needed when I finally returned home physically. Emotionally this landscape challenges too for I found my inner psyche driving the body forward to experience awe and wonder despite total exhaustion, as well as feeling disappointment when hopes for the scene did not materialise. When opportunities unfurled before me, the joy of being there and feeling at one within the scenery was unparalleled and one dawn morning, I was to feel disappointment transform into spectacular amazement even though I came away with no images whatsoever…

The initial colouration had looked hopeful but did not last and it wasn’t too long before the sky bleached an unexciting white at 5 am. But then I was suddenly aware of the sound of large sea creatures circling and leaping with blow hole water sprays and communicative grunting. A pod of seven Orca whales had swum into Laig bay from the US (they visit annually) and were herding their prey. For more than an hour, these amazing beasts jumped like dolphins revealing their white bellies and seemed to be in a state of ecstasy. It was one of those sights that made me simply gaze out and drink in through my eyes. I didn’t have the long lenses needed to capture that wildlife, and neither did I feel the need to try. I simply felt drawn to observing for the joy of witness to nature.

I returned back for my hearty breakfast later feeling incredibly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. Those pictures of natural beauty are indelibly etched in my imagination.

Despite my early starts, I never witnessed them again and neither did the fellow occupants of my B+B spurred on by my suggestion of seeking them out for themselves. In my mind however, I see them again and again, jumping higher and higher still.


A wee exhibition at the Arran Distillery - up at last

It was a great feeling to walk away from a body of work printed and framed beautifully, transported to a Scottish island, and then hung on the walls of prestigious distillery for visitors to see. The exhibition had certainly been a challenge to organise - mentioned in my last blog - and it could easily have been scuppered by bad weather halting the ferry service (it was actually hung in semi darkness during a local powercut!) …but in the end… Intimate Landscapes had made it onto beautiful Arran where it will be resident on the walls until the 2/6/15.

Now I reflect on the week spent on the island that previous January when I had taken these photographs and the awfully relentless rain and homogenous grey skies that I felt had so limited my efforts in photography at the time. What propels a landscape photographer forward despite such challenges is that perpetual optimism that a brief magical break might occur…and unless one really is out in it such conditions with the camera, sometimes sitting it out for good periods of time watching the skies for a hint of light change, one could not bear witness to such magic otherwise.

Brief moments of wonder did occur despite everything and three photographs have have been recognised in two national competitions in the last six months - which is very humbling. Such mentions really do drive one to strive onwards to maintain the persistence and tenacity to capture better images still.

Revisiting Arran photographically at the beginning of March this year was a great opportunity to consolidate my portfolio, both in strengthening some of the subject material and in filling gaps. Fortunately, the elements played ball more of the time on this occasion providing me with plenty of harsh stormy weather and some intermittently beautiful light illuminating my focal points. I hope that you will agree as you glance through the Arran land and sea portfolios.

I will be heading back to Arran in June and this fills me with great excitement…seeing the island in a different season all-together - and expereincing an inner landscape of different colour and wildflower presence


Exhibition preparation

I am currently getting everything together for my “Intimate Landscapes” exhibition at the Arran Distillery in Lochranza, Scotland due to open on the 2nd March 2105.

I’ve not organised an exhibition North of the Border before, and managing the logistics virtually from 400 miles away has, and is proving challenging… Infact it’s a bit like a ballet, with prints arriving for signing and numbering (working within the vagaries of the postal system), email exchanges over card proofs, newspaper advertising and of course practicalities with my generous hosts at the Distillery. And then there’s the exhibition transportation and hanging to consider. Will it all go in my Clio? Will I need to take my drill? What order to hang the images in to ensure visual flow? Lots of decision making made. Lots more to do!

I am very excited about seeing fifteen of my loveliest pictures behind glass hanging for visual consumption and contemplation. The richly textured Arran landscape is something very special. Although battling with the elements - rain mostly - it really struck a personal chord with me when I stayed last winter and I hope that even seasoned visitors will see something new and beautiful in the familiar in my photographs on display. 

Of course, whilst I’m on the island, I cannot let the opportunity slip by of extending my portfolio by revisiting some of these locations and exploring new ones if the weather permits. So please do revisit my website and check for updates from time to time.


Christmas in the Hebrides

I spent Christmas this year in the Outer Hebrides, the northernmost Western Isles off the coast of Scotland, the largest of which is Lewis and Harris.

Lewis, famed for its chessmen and Callanish stones, has a peaty heartland with windswept beaches of sand and rock chiselled by the Atlantic ocean in the west and the Minch in the east, whilst Harris in the south has a more mountainous landscape with shores of rock, sand and dune. A small town called Tarbert links these two land masses and the Isle of Skye via its ferry terminus.

In weather parlance, all four seasons in one day is an understatement here. The skies and light change from minute to minute as clouds bearing rain roll in from the Atlantic and cascade down onto the land and seas below… it is this very meteorological volatility that makes this terrain such an exhilarating challenge to capture photographically as the winds whip up the seas into a untameable frenzy of action and acoustic resonance, and pelt the photographer with icy water in all its forms…a particular umbrella challenge.

I love the sea and am being drawn to it increasingly. Perhaps it’s because I live so far away from the ocean in West Yorkshire that I yearn it so much, but I believe that there are certain features within the landscape that the species homosapiens in our very cores appreciate.

Day 1 after arriving in Tarbert, I drove southwest before sunrise in the dark along an unfamiliar road. The windscreen wipers stroked the glass smoothing the rain momentarily before my view was obscured once more by the rain hitting me hard, and this mechanical whir was suddenly broken by the awareness of cracking waves. I stopped but could not see anything. I wound down the window momentarily to be hit hard with the rain necessitating rapid repositioning of the glass. I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t lost as such as there was only one road, but I had no idea how far I’d travelled and could only guess what lay below… but within 10 mins, as my eyes became accustomed to the twilight, I could see that my momentary parking spot overlooked the Sound of Taransay and some formidable rocks below. My heart raced with excitement…I knew I had come to somewhere pretty special.

This image was captured at high tide at Bagh Steinigidh with the uninhabited Isle of Taransay in the distance beyond. The golden tones in the sky came from the early dawn rays blotted by the approaching storm clouds and the wave action is conveyed by choosing a slower shutter speed. I had been on the beach a while before this opportunity presented itself. The wind had been strong and the passing rain squalls had hit me several times leaving me cowering behind rocks with my umbrella praying I didn’t lose everything to the elements. Patience paid off thankfully and eventually provided me with the wonderful opportunity to capture this beautiful oceanic vista


And a highly commended in 2014’s Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year to boot!

fruits of their labours to date, weighing up their chances of success in competition A over B, paying the sum and saying bye bye to scaled jpegs, uploaded and dispatched for judge scrutiny.

They’re a lottery, no doubt about it, and the winning shots will invariably divide taste provoking shock and delight in equal measure. One simply cannot predict what the judges are looking for…is it that dreamy mist rising from a lake (as won LPOTY 2013), a sunset/rise…classic shots..or is that really unusual take on the familiar or a capture of something entirely new?  

There’s no brief as such for the 10,000+ entrants who submit their images in the hope and belief that their work may have the edge over someone else’s. And as the selection process is usually lengthy, when the shortlisted yay/nay arrives in the inbox, the frenzied forum activity reaches the first of its peaks with elated and disappointed candidates airing their grief and reflections on a shared joy or frustration of yes!/why/not? The second peak occurs when the winners are announced and further shortlisted hopefuls are rejected. It’s a harsh process. One definitely needs to have a hopeful laisser-faire attitude about the whole thing…there’s only so much reflection one can do on one’s successes and failures when you’re unsure on what criteria you are being judged. Certainly assured technical competence is a given.

Twelve months ago, I decided to enter my first photographic competition (Landscape Photographer of the Year) and came nowhere. I’ve had several letters of rejection since, and will doubtless have many more in the future, but for now, I’m happy with this, my first success.

I’d submitted a range of work for all tastes…some of those classic shots…but it was this one that judges thought had particular merit.

Here’s the story:

Iceland had blown my mind on the geological stakes, and when I realised that Arran also had features of outstanding geological importance, I was keen to visit and explore. Pirate’s cove is an area of fossilised sand dune with interesting concave linear textures scooped out by the erosion of the sea. The rock is intermittently covered by the tidal waters and at dawn and dusk with a low light and shadow play, the rock assumes a redder tone and the detailed textures are made more visible to the eye. I revisited these rocks on several occasions and was drawn to the abstract patterns more than the global features of the beach. I was keen to produce a sequence of images that were about the pattern elements alone and with a tilt-shift lens, was able to obtain a pin-point sharpness from the most proximal to the most distal elements of the frame both vertically and horizontally. Such lenses go some of the way to overcoming the depth of field limitations in conventional lenses but cannot compete with the  flexibility of the view camera which is capable of much greater rise/fall/tilt and swing movements. Put simply, with my other lenses, the blur I would have had from both limited depth of field and diffraction aberration (due to stopping down to maximise that depth of field) would have defeated my creative intentions.

Have I hinted that using a tilt-shift lens is time consuming? Oh yes! One simply cannot rush taking photographs with this lens set-up…but that’s one of its pleasures…it really forces you to slow down and do things carefully…in the framing, the metering, the focussing…

Yep, my pictures taken with this lens (Nikon 45mm f/2.8 PCE for those who are interested) are definitely produced with love!

Here is the web address for the Landscape Photographer of the Year winners:     http://www.take-a-view.co.uk/2014_winners.htm


Coming down with a bang - what happens when you take your eyes off the ball (or road in this case)

My camera, tripod and I were perched precariously on top of a cold dry stone wall at dawn recently trying to capture the most spectacular of mists caressing the Calder Valley when it happened… Wonderful rays of light were streaking through the cloud like a delicate and dynamic comb across Mytholmroyd below, gently illuminating the features of the church with its characteristic tower. It was chilly. Hands in gloves. Good hat on. My eye was locked onto the camera screen, finger on the cable release…click, click, another shot, wow the light getting better by the second…

Then  SLISH….BANG….A slithering flesh gouging sound issued behind me as a cyclist’s body hit the road tarmac and slid 20yards down the steep decline past me on the bank above.

I helped him up. He checked himself and his bike. Couldn’t stop looking at the view he said. Slipped on the ice. Shaken but not hurt he said. Only another 20miles to go before work that morning. After straightening out his brake levers and pedals, he climbed back onto his steed and freewheeled down the hill. What mettle I thought.

And what suckers we are for a good view. I continued to gaze at the scene unfolding which he had only glimpsed before his wheels lost their grip. Click click. And then it was over…the sun had fully risen and the mist was melting away…and then was gone…just like the cyclist into the valley below. I will forever remember my vantage point there with the pain the cyclist must have felt in falling, coupled with the relief that he was lucky to be unharmed. It made me consider how to fully absorb and enjoy a scene, one probably has to suspend all but observation alone for this very act demands not just passivity, but conscious activity to perform.


“Feel the fear and do it anyway”

 

It’s a phrase coined by one of those motivational self help guides that espouses us to break our familiar habits to be open to experiencing potentially rewarding new opportunities. A visiting friend related it to me and when I decided to go to Arran, whatever the weather after the recent tidal surges, I thought I would either pay the price with my stupidity or have an amazing time.

I was definitely nervous as I drove from Glasgow to Ardrossan about not being able to sail as most ferries had been cancelled in the previous 10 days. A mainland Plan B was mooted, but it did not get beyond the conceptual as I simply could not think of anywhere else I wanted to go more at that time….a “Scotland in miniature” with its mountains, glens and rocky geologically varied coastline was what I craved.

As I crossed on a mill pond, I sensed the portents might be in my favour. Of course it rained…a lot… but I expected that and daily prayed for that cloud-on-cloud action that lifts a mundane photograph to something almost transcendental; whether I got that is debatable but I did have fun chasing rainbows and sunbursts at every opportunity and drove from one side of the island to the other on one occasion when a golden hue emerged from the daylong raincloud grey over Goatfell signalling the possibility of a great sunset. (Yes it was worth it, if only to experience for a few moments only as the golden disc dipped behind Kintyre).

I simply could not have worked harder that week in my efforts to find photographs, and when I glimpsed an otter at Kildonan munching on a newly landed fish held between its furry paws, and the pair of golden eagles soaring across the glens several days later, I knew my experience already complete enough without me attempting to attach a telephoto lens and capture those scenes too.

Arran is a spectacular island that calls me to go back at another season and experience with fresh eyes once again. Visiting has definitely highlighted the merit in my friend’s anti-fearful paralysis maxim…Do it anyway!