‘Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights... The Photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject… Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also on our own way of seeing…’
- John Berger - Ways of Seeing
Looking back, I believe my approach to photography today is deeply rooted in the early connections I made to the wild landscapes I was drawn to as a child.
Although I grew up in the home counties, school field trips to an outdoor centre located in the Brecon Beacons were what first opened my eyes to the wild beauty that lay beyond my suburban back door.
I still remember waking up on my first morning in Wales, heading outside and climbing onto a stone wall. From here I looked out across the valley below and stood mesmerised by the strands of mist that were strung out like giant hammocks between sentries of pines; custodians of the wilderness beyond. This is the first landscape shot I recall taking, and as I did so, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging. This was my first real call to the wilds and the beginning of a career I didn’t yet know I’d one day have the privilege and opportunity to pursue.
My first 35mm camera was a fixed lens Konica film camera that accompanied me on various adventures up mountains, down rivers, traversing rock faces as well as deep underground. Given the extreme environments this camera was exposed to, I always had a firm hold of it since access and exposure to such places invariably meant I was either commando crawling through cave systems, clinging onto rock faces, or paddling down rapids. It also meant that from the beginning, I was forced to shoot from less than ideal positions, composing shots from unconventional angles. Immersed in these natural surroundings as an active participant, I soon felt very much a part of them and began to photograph them from a more intimate perspective, intuitively from within, not just as a distant observer.
In those early days of taking photographs I was simply composing a shot, focusing and shooting; I knew nothing about the technical side of photography or indeed the creative opportunities that such an understanding could open up. However, when photography became more of an obsession than simply a point and shoot recording of my travels and adventures, I realised that it was as much a left brained science as a right brained creative process. So whilst I have had to grasp the physics that is photography, it’s something I have struggled with and I have always relied on a more intuitive approach to yield the results I have sought to capture.
Going Against the Grain
I doubt anyone would describe me as a conventional landscape photographer. I have a minimal amount of equipment and rarely use a tripod. I like to feel free, unencumbered and able to explore without too much restriction. Holding my camera in my hand, it becomes an extension of me as opposed to a separate entity and I feel far more connected to the landscape that way. My set up and composition is therefore dictated by the environment I have chosen to explore and what draws my eye. I also enjoy the challenge and rewards that being outdoors presents.
With my body contoured to the frozen ground or leaning up against a tree; the texture of the bark pressing into my skin as I brace myself against its limbs to take a shot, I feel better able to transfer what I feel and sense as well as what I see, to the image I then frame.
Time disappears when I am behind the lens; photography becomes a meditative process and one in which my interaction with and connection to the landscape is all important, intuitive and totally in the moment.
Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) and Multiple Exposure (ME) photography both lend themselves to shooting hand held and both enable me to capture not just an illustration of the world around me but create a visual interpretation of it.
When shooting ICM images, I take account of the light, colours, patterns, textures, contours, and often spend hours observing how the elements continue to shape, nurture, erode and embrace the landscape. Wild weather tends to go hand in hand with wild landscapes which in turn provides limitless opportunities for ICM compositions particularly when the wind is blowing. Time becomes irrelevant and I can enter an almost trance like state as I lift my camera to my eye and begin to capture not only what I see but also what I feel. I always shoot on manual adjusting my WB, exposure, aperture and ISO as well as adjusting both the speed with which I pan and the direction and angle in which I choose to move the camera. However, for me the process is not a formulaic one, it’s an intuitive one, dictated not only by the connections I’ve made to the landscape but also by what the landscape has decided to reveal to me.
There have been times when I have been so overwhelmed by a landscape that I’ve had to put my camera down believing that I simply can’t do it justice. However, this is where I found that ME images can help capture more of the complexities of an intimidating landscape by integrating and often reconciling the differing elements such as the light, colour, contours, tonality, mood and moment into an abstract expression for the viewer revealing its true spirit of place in either one or a series of related images.
My ME images are composed intuitively by eye, hand held and in camera, framing and overlaying the shots. Finding my subject, I let my eye guide me exploring the landscape through my viewfinder, locking into the flow of what feels like a very contemplative process where my way of seeing is ultimately shaped by that all important connection to the landscape.
My early exposure to such wild places together with my passion for outdoor photography, has instilled a deep respect and appreciation of the natural world around me which has in turn led to an increasing desire to want to conserve and protect it.
I believe photography has an increasingly important role in the conservation of our wild places and now see it as a way of connecting others – both physically and emotionally - to the landscape and encouraging them to want to conserve it for future generations to enjoy and explore.
This article was first published in the RPS Creative Eye Magazine although I have added a couple of different images to accompany the text here. Below is a link to the Royal Photographic Society Creative Eye Special Interest Group Home Page.