On a recent visit to the Welsh borders I began to experiment with making sound recordings of the same length as the exposure time of the photograph. The descending flood waters combed all the strands of grass in a strange and uniform direction back towards the racing current. On a dull day using paper negative in a beautiful little oak camera, four minutes was required. Listen to the environmental sounds of the exposure below.
A good day’s walk makes you feel like your heart has overflowed, that it cannot be contained by the physical confines of the body. It spills out into the trees and hills, it is carried in the wind, winds its way through the air-blown grass like a serpent, runs at your heels like a happy dog. Joy is impossible to describe, for what lifts me may not have any kind of effect on you. But when I walk I feel a part of the world and not apart from it. This sense mixes with everything, I mix with it and, quite literally, en-joy.
Walking, when done in the right spirit, is creative, or at least fills me with the same ineffable sense that something essential, something visceral is happening. It is a feeling that anyone who has created something satisfying will recognise. Moving across the world slowly – from a distance little appears to change, just as an artist’s pencil second by second alters the paper insignificantly – it feels like the landscape and the walker have at the day’s end become a manifestation of more than the sum of themselves.
Travelling on foot gives so much time for mental release thanks to its basic slowness. It creates a psychic momentum which carries one’s thoughts and emotions onward long after the stepping out is finished. It gives a mental space, an openness, which is ripe for fledging ideas and firming up reflections. There is so much in its inherent, rhythmical slowness which is essential to the emotive understanding of all kinds of issues, problems and inspirations. Much of this is also down to the being there, wind on face, earth under foot, straining, feeling muscle and sinew as they negotiate a passage through the elements. The physical engagement transforms everything, makes our sometimes leaden lives golden once more – the philosopher’s stone for those of us who by necessity live our modern lives once removed from the elemental.
Working creatively, too, exercises the same attraction and endows what we do with identity and dynamism. In the hours of engagement with the work we make, our thoughts and actions have mixed so thoroughly with the physical elements of our day, whether they be rocks and air or paper and chemicals, that the result is not just something we have done or produced, it is part of us; full of heart, mistakes, retracing of steps, thrilling views and realisations, emotions, disappointments, challenges, and, with effort and luck, completeness and consummation.
Perhaps, this is why purely electronic media, whilst brilliant, can feel unsatisfying. They lack physicality. Unless their images are printed out, there is no molecular reality to the medium, no tangibility to the product. Like the sibilance of music on CD compared to the tonal richness of live music, it is impossible not to be aware that this is not ‘real’ but is manufactured from ones and zeros. I am strongly pro-digital (in music and in art) because it makes getting 99% of the desired result so wonderfully quick and possible. However, that final one percentage point is increasingly significant to me. In fact it is huge, impossible to ignore and explains why I am willing to spend days and months learning and labouring to get a version of an image which is right not just in its appearance but also in its execution.
The viewer does not care of course. This is the prerogative solely of the creator for only he or she handles the film holder, or winds the crank, and then at a later time with a head full of emotions and remembrances, sees the beauty of the negative held for the first time against the light of a window, later to convert that upside-down and back-to-front transparency into something physical for the world to see. When I have made a print, whether analogue or digital, I like to touch it, smell it, hold it aslant to the daylight to see its texture and appreciate the way that it seems alive as the light deepens the blacks, raises the whites to brilliance. I often take a print and sit with it in my hands, eyes closed, to appreciate its weight and texture in my hands. Without this sensuous appreciation I feel a gnawing sense of lack in what I make and do. Perhaps this love of the physical is misguided nostalgia but I feel rather that it is an acknowledgement of the real, the legitimate and the durable. The pursuit of these three qualities is what I think draws us into galleries when we can more easily view art online.
I for one want to be there as part of the experience not separated from it by signals up and down a phone line or round and round a whirring hard drive. In the just the same way, I want the walk up the mountain with its rain and wind, its sun and stars and not the simply the partial view of some vicarious armchair journey on my screen. The reality and the beauty we desire is not in the ‘elsewhere’ of which we dream. When we get out and place ourselves bodily amongst the sometimes uninspiring stuff of the everyday, it reveals itself everywhere and we can’t help but meet it at every turn. If we are wise enough to take the physicality of the world on its own terms, to watch it, smell it, touch it, describe it in the way that it feels most real – whether that is by walking it, photographing it, sketching it, sculpting it – this physical life and art become fused, indistinguishable and intoxicating.
It has been a slow and somewhat barren winter for me photographically. The snow which buried the early flowers in these parts was bleak but beautiful with its shades and textures. Paper negatives frequently handle subtle textures with difficulty but I was pleased with this quick (and very cold) experiment with my newest wooden camera. As ever, the best of scene proved to be in the subtle and delicate detail rather than the open vista.
The announcement that Cumbria council has rejected plans for a massive nuclear waste dump at Ennerdale in the Lake District brought to mind a week I spent there last summer. What wonderful news to know that Wordsworth’s “still, sad music of humanity” will still be audible where humans meet the melancholy beauty of the wild.
As I stepped through the boulders I began to wonder how much I actually see and feel of the landscape as I cross it. We hear great stories of bold treks across continents and jungles but very little of smaller more modest walks. Twinges in my knees had already planted the seed of a question in my mind: never mind big journeys, what if a walk to the shops was a physical challenge? What if to walk across a room was an impossibility? How differently would I see things then? And how lucky I am not to be incapacitated physically! Then the thought: what if here, now I could walk only ten steps? What would I see? How differently would I use my eyes? How much more significant would all this rock, heather and water appear if this were to be the limit of my walk today? I had been toying with the idea of short excursions of very concentrated image making for some days and now seemed an ideal time to make a first attempt. Ten steps and ten photographs. What would I see? It felt quite daunting. How could I possibly make ten photographs in such a small area? The only choice I gave myself was the direction in which to travel so setting off to the North, where the most variety seemed to be, I set out.
Walking through the bleak stones and peat in this way was as if to undertake a small parallel journey to the larger one which brought me here.
Made possible by the flexibility and lightness of the wonderful Populist cardboard pinhole camera.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this year I spent a week at the coast, the Welsh west coast which with each visit feels more like home. One warm, sunny evening I packed a sleeping bag and a stove and headed for a remote, inaccessible beach to spend the night alone under the starry Spring sky. It was necessary to pick the evening with care to fit with the rhythm of the tides which with an almost 6 metre range at that time of year left precious little beach between the surf and the cliff at its daily peak. The night I chose to make my home on the beach high tide came at around 11pm and, although I had checked the tide tables many times, I still waited a little nervously, watching the stars and listening to the alternate sibilance and bass of the incoming waves, half expecting an unusually large surge to swamp my tiny encampment.
Before nightfall I wandered up and down the undercliff seeking out driftwood and jetsam for a campfire but strangely for me I felt the disturbance of fire to be inappropriate on such a peaceful, sun-bathed evening. As I strolled across the smooth, hard sand at the edge of the surf it struck me that I would no more dream of lighting a fire here than I would in the nave of a great cathedral, that in some respect I was here on sufferance, a welcome guest; a guest with the responsibility of the pilgrim.
As the light faded, I lay on my back listening to the music of the ocean; the stereophonic symphony of deep booms from the sea cave to my right, and the higher, splashy, sweep of waves running up the sandy expanse to my left. A sound track to the dazzling vista of the Milky Way overhead with the familiar and reassuring constellations: Cassiopeia, The Great Bear, Auriga, Gemini. In my peripheral vision the soaring cliffs behind me framed the sky and stars and linked the just visible sea-horizon with the land mass I felt beneath my back. I lay there in an epi-centre of wonder at the vast, unfathomable beauty of the heavens, the land and the water.
I eventually drifted off to sleep, soothed by the sounds of the sea, to awake in the paleness of dawn, alone, or apparently so, on a new wave-smoothed beach. The sound track remained the same, just a little more distant now that the surf edge had retreated from the narrow strip of sand which separated the cliff from the high tide mark of flotsam, the sliver of earth which held me dry.
On rising, I noticed with a thrill of rising hackles that the beach had been recently crossed by a four-legged, clawed animal. It took a little while to work out that the prints were those of a fox and I cursed that I had not been awake to see this passing visitor. Nevertheless, amongst my store of beautiful, remembered mornings, there are few which equal the deep sense of belonging and harmony which this near meeting inspired.