Four days in the hills – unity and beauty, life and death

I am not a great believer in destiny. Synchronicity, however, I view quite differently. I set off for the Lakes with an ambitious route plan, a number of photographic ideas to explore and a rather conquering vision of what the journey would accomplish for me. Within minutes of boarding the train the careful plans started to unravel in a series of apparently unconnected events which left me with a dramatically different notion of how I would spend my time in the mountains.

There is no music but silence

There is no music but silence

The first unsettling event was the death of a young man on the railway line outside Wigan which held up the train. I know not if it was suicide but as the train rumbled past a line of emergency vehicles I could not prevent myself from reflecting on how desperately out-of-kilter and unhappy someone must be to end their life in such a grim way and, while attempting to imagine how it might feel to see the world through a fog of despair on a grey June morning like this, I started to reassess what I would be attempting on my walk. Why try to do so much? Why not instead savour the freedom of being able to roam at will with no ties and no cares? Why not just enjoy being there, being alive? And so, rather than racing off in the direction of the summit of High Street, I chose to walk the gentler route towards the Langdale Pikes.

Once on the trail, with the sun unexpectedly beating down, a second realisation made it clear that, not having walked much since last year due to periodic bouts of chronic fatigue, things were going to be far more arduous than I had envisaged. What delusion made me think I could walk twelve or fifteen miles a day with a pack in the mountains! Psychologically and physically diminished, I modified the plan and picked a spot on the map for which to aim, somewhere close enough to reach but far enough away to allow me to be close to the peaks. I did not think of using my camera; the avoidance of pain and discomfort in legs, knees and shoulders was far more pressing. Not to mention the next, rather more urgent problem: finding water.

I am used to the luxury of abundant, clean streams in mountainous areas and had taken for granted that Langdale would be as I remembered it – wet and luxuriant with plenty of drinking water at regular intervals. This lack of water in the driest Lakeland landscape I have ever seen soon made its importance felt. Mid-evening had arrived before I stumbled joyously across a secluded, flat spot near a beautiful heart-shaped mountain pool. I pitched the tent, cooked, drank copiously and fell rapidly into a sleep of total exhaustion. Wondering about photography I drifted off. Perhaps I wouldn’t make any exposures at all, survival and thoughts of life and death seemed far more important after all.

As I woke 12 hours later, I knew straight away that I had to reassess my plan once more with shoulder and leg pains and a feeling of some exhaustion still. I was going to have to stay in this one place, no chance of roving with a full pack. But how beautiful it was to know that I had a whole tarn of drinking water to myself. A warm rush of security from this knowledge swept through me. A beautiful, small thought – one normally swamped by a life of speed and gadgetry – how precious water is and how exhilarating the certainty of survival which its presence brings. I noticed, too, that with this assurance the prospects for photography seemed to shine a little brighter.

Dawn over Fairfield

Dawn over Fairfield

There is a special quality to time spent in wild places in total solitude. I prefer to go without too rigid a plan of which route to follow or how to spend my time. I am happy to spend a minute, an hour or a day in one place and too much fixation on schedules kills the joy of being able to idle or roam at will. The prospect of taking the days slowly was becoming delicious and coming to terms with the idea of being much more static than I had initially intended to be, enforced stillness was being to grow in attractiveness. The coincidence of occurrences that brought me to this state of acceptance became apparent. Dawn. A metaphorical one today but a change of attitude that was to see me up and thrilled to be alive for the actual dawn on the next two days. As inside, so outside: the impulse to create was pulling now, and how fascinating that a number of unwanted circumstances had brought me to such a place of inner peace and external beauty.

Four days in the hills

I have enjoyed so many inspirations and experiences, some bordering on the life-changing, in just a few days in the wilderness that I find myself, several days after my return, still in a whirl of thoughts and emotions, trying to formulate them in my mind (difficult) and write them down in intelligible form (much harder). Just one thing is clear: I went to the hills to make images but came back with much more than photographs.

I have undertaken many journeys on foot over the years, some just a few yards in length, a couple extending to hundreds of miles. I have always returned with photographs of the trip, some good, some bad, but nearly all with a separateness about them. By which I mean that the photographs and the journey existed as distinct entities: there was the journey and there were also, just afterwards, the images – distinct, discrete and separate from one another.

The walk of some fifteen miles I undertook recently over the four days of Jubilee weekend has quite a different character – and I use the present tense because it feels that although I am now stationary in a physical sense I still have a strong, unquenchable sense of motion, exhilaration and connectedness as if the momentum has yet to diminish. The walking; the photography; the co-existing with falcons, finches, deer, clouds, frost, water, sun; the survival in inhospitable circumstances; the overcoming of physical pain (knees, shoulders, feet); the discoveries; all seem so inseparable, so integrally, tightly bound that I cannot write solely about the making of imagery. All are chapters of the same story, facets of the same diamond, clouds in the same sky, bogbeans in the same glassy, heart-shaped pool.

Bogbean - purity of form

Bogbean - purity of form

Over the next few posts, I hope I can crystallize and condense all this wordless sensation into something clear – much as the rising thermals eventually lift the morning cloud from the mountain peaks – about how the journey’s elements enmeshed: the landscape, my movement within it, the photographs I made, the shutter openings I rejected in favour of just looking, the encounters with wild animals and places, the predicaments and joys I experienced, the thoughts and emotions I discovered.

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

Yesterday was a rather dismal WPPD here in England with heavy rain and light levels more associated with mid-Winter than mid-Spring, but it is always enjoyable to participate knowing that thousands of others are doing the same, some in groups, some alone. I have been mulling over a few ideas for weeks now on attempting to depict time and impermanence through a new set of images – I must admit I often wish I was drawn to more straightforward subjects! – and WPPD seemed a good time to start.

I was aiming to play around with the movement of a pen across paper, with the text becoming fainter as the writing slowly advanced. The first challenge proved to be estimating the speed at which to write. Also I needed to decide when to stop writing but let the exposure run in order to retain some faint but legible impression of the words written towards the end of the piece.

I opted to include a clock to add to the feel of passing time, knowing that the hour hand would remain sharp while the minute hand would smear through the minutes of the exposure. What I didn’t anticipate was how physically difficult it is to write so slowly. Before more than two minutes had elapsed the muscles in my back and hand were tense and painful to such an extent the my handwriting became shaky. Having to fit myself around the tripod made things awkward, of course, but I was taken aback at how exhausting the apparently undemanding task of writing twelve lines could be. To make the process more arduous, the desperately low light intensity stretch the exposure way beyond what I thought would be necessary.

A final complication presented itself in the film stock used – Polaroid type 55 which expired in 1998, already slow at ISO 25 and probably slowed further by its age. (Certainly, the contrast and the smoothness of the developer of this beautiful but ancient film seems to have deteriorated since I last exposed a sheet a few months ago.) I attempted three exposures: the first was ruined completely when the developer sachet failed to burst in processing leaving a completely blank negative; the second worked but was poorly aligned and the transition time of the hand moving was too slow; the third 15 minute exposure gave an acceptable but imperfect printable negative (though barely, due to the very low contrast). I had by now run out of time and daylight was fading so I retreated to the darkroom to make a print.

In between washes, I helped my daughter Emma make her own pinhole image using a body cap on a digital SLR. After a bit of technical help I left her to her own devices and she came back a few minutes later, delighted with what she had come up with.

By now I was losing enthusiasm for the battle with old materials in difficult conditions. When I looked at her superb photograph next to mine, I did feel slightly uncomfortable to observe that I had made things far too difficult for myself by misjudging the prevailing conditions and sticking pig-headedly to the “traditional” route when some quick digital work would have made the day far more fun. I am not done with the idea yet but it will wait for a fresh surge of enthusiasm and good light.

RPS 155th International Print Exhibition

I haven’t entered for a couple of years but decided to re-work and submit a few of my pinhole images which I felt might do well in this high-profile and usually stimulating exhibition. I was pleased to hear this week that one of my images was selected out of the 2800 entries.

The process of choosing what to select led me to re-scan the paper negatives. Each time I do this a learn a little more about how to get the most out of the negative. By scanning at a higher resolution and by carefully controlling the values in the heavy areas I was able to get far more out of this image than from previous attempts. I also chose to crop as a square to work the composition better with the curves of the reflections in the water.

The version here is the newer and better of the two.

The one below is my initial “quick” scan.

Dream of Flight catalogue

A catalogue of my images from the Edinburgh Pinhole Photography Festival is now available from my online bookstore.

It comprises thirty-eight pages showing all eleven images plus an additional section with photographs and technical information on paper negatives, cameras, materials and studio set ups. The purchase price is £7.99.

To preview or purchase, click the image below:

Edinburgh Pinhole Photography Festival open

The festival exhibition at the beautiful Botanic gardens venue is now open and runs for the next two weeks. This excellent video by Alexandra Wingate of Edinburgh Napier University gives a flavour of what to expect.

Pinhole Photography Festival launched today from edinburghnapiernews on Vimeo.

Edinburgh Pinhole Photography Festival

Coming up in March is the Edinburgh Pinhole Photography Festival featuring work from Minnie Weisz, Justin Quinnell, Katie Cooke, Kenny Bean, Bethany de Forest and myself as well as beginners’ and advanced workshops and open darkroom sessions. The event runs from 5-17 March 2012 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.

More details available at the festival website www.pinholephotographyfestival.co.uk

Solar plate printing

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day at the Leicester Print Workshop learning the fundamentals of solar plate photo etching. The photos here show a print made shortly afterwards using my own press. This is much more prosaic and less stylish than the huge, gorgeous Harry Rochat press at the workshop but has given some excellent results. In fact I found the prints to be equally as good as those made on the big press. Surprisingly the Akua Intaglio water-based inks I use produced far superior, deeper blacks than the oil-based ink used on the course.

This is such a beautiful, tangible method of printing. The smell of the ink, the texture of the paper, the weight of the plate in the hand whilst inking and wiping, the turning of the press handle, the scope for altering the mood of the print by over or under inking. the sensitivity required to produce a correctly balanced print: all these elements make this a fascinating and viscerally engaging process.


The plate after removal of the print.


The resulting print on cartridge paper.


Detail of the print corner showing the tonality achievable from an aquatint=screened (but not half-toned) plate.

Scènes de la vie de Bohème

A favourite book photographed by a favourite 10×8 pinhole camera using a favourite medium – paper negative.

Cae Du, white sea and rocks

Paper negatives often surprise in the amount of detail and tone they are capable of reproducing. Of course, their inherent slowness also gives a beautifully extended exposure which allows one to not only render effects of movement and stillness but also to fully enjoy the moment of the creation of the photograph. Quite the opposite of the drive-by-shooting, hit-and-run type approach that the speed and ease of modern digital electronics can so easily engender. I had some concerns about the result I might get from this particular batch of paper which had been pre-flashed several months earlier and left unused. My normal, somewhat untechnical and fatalistic approach of experimentation and acceptance of total failure produced quite unexpectedly good tonal negatives! It has also answered a long-standing but untested doubt about how much paper can be pre-flashed in a preparation session. I feel happy now that making larger batches of negatives is viable.

Ilford Multigrade resin-coated satin paper preflashed.