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.
I took a walk a couple of weeks ago along the undulating cliffs of Dorset. Not having walked further than the local shop for many months, I was uncertain how far I could go before my legs seized and I was morbidly curious to know when and how obviously the crash might happen. The sun beating down on the pastures, woods and pathways of the chalky terrain pushed the world into a drowsy, contented dimension, a cider-with-rosie dream of past and present fused by the buzz of insects and the unifying swish of the breeze in the twigs and grasses. I felt as if I were dissolving into the warmth and thrilled to the regular feel of step after after step through the chalk and turf of the undercliff.
On reaching the beach, briefly, and scrambling onto the rocks at water’s edge, the route, the challenge, the almost tangible motion of the world was not, I felt, up onto the downs where I had planned to walk, but along the switchback high and low rolls of the coastal path. As I gazed at the map and terrain together, a sense of possibility lit me up. There was only one option when this mood takes hold and that is outward, away from home, fervently, and with what the great walker John Hillaby called ‘ambulatory overdrive’ – the rhythm and drive that takes one beyond merely stepping and into a realm where mind, body and land all move together with apparent effortlessness. Although I had set out with no ambitions of walking far, I was gripped with the desire to just keeping going as if possessed by some previously unseen will. The chalk arch of Durdle Door drew me as if on a pilgrimage to a world apart, a place of wonder, beautiful in its hidden fold miles away.
I set out with the intention of making just one exposure on arrival and then immediately returning but I suffered a momentary lack of confidence. Thirteen miles of walking seemed a large stake to chance on what might result in a failed paper negative. A guessed exposure using a relatively untried pinhole camera in bright conditions (paper can be terribly fickle in such light) would be unlikely to be perfect first time and I bowed to the fear of returning empty-handed by making five or six exposures from the same spot. As always seems to happen, the first exposure served merely as an ‘unsticking’ event, doing little more than allowing me to tune in to the scene in a subtler way, with greater feeling than the smash and grab mentality of the conquistador. Having made this and fiddled hotly in the changing bag to reload a fresh sheet of paper, I began to see things more clearly in my mind’s eye. Ideas and feelings began to flow and I ended up making this unusually high number of exposures from one position.
The return journey proved just as fascinating as I wandered past cruising peregrines and hunting kestrels. I bowled along filled with a sense of a having made a real pilgrimage to a place of wonder and of having paid some homage to the ability of being able to walk unfettered and strong at long last; a sense of being able to use freedoms so often taken for granted.
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.
Sunlit dune and East wind (4×5 paper negative)
Just like anybody else, I am always dying to see the results of an exposure particularly when I have that intuitive feeling that the recently closed shutter has sealed something good or, dare I say, potentially perfect. And just like everybody, I have had my share of disappointing results.
My recently yoyoing health has virtually prevented me from producing anything photographic, and I have had ample time to think about what motivates me to work photographically and to consider what value I feel lies in an image or passage of text once its making is complete. It has been an uncomfortable experience to discover that some of my images seem to be pure peacockery, passingly elegant, sometimes eye-catching, often curious but ultimately irritating and only fleetingly worthwhile.
I have found it fascinating to observe that, thanks to my imposed inactivity, my productive cycle (if indeed anything so close to a flat line can be called a cycle!) has seen a progressively longer gap between the making and the processing, and an even longer one between the processing and the publishing. Now this is enormously detrimental to one’s momentum but strangely it has proved to be excellent for ripening and improving my critical self-view and more importantly allowing me to savour what is good about an image before it goes on display to the rest of the world. It has provided a slowness and a breathing space which the race to publish something often squeezes out. Not that slowness benefits anybody but myself of course but these fallow interludes really do seem to improve the experience of making and understanding the results. They successfully keep at bay external pressures and allow one to savour – and sometimes discard – what has been made in a beautifully meditative way.
The photo shown here is one which, if it had taken the usual rapid route from darkroom to screen, might not have pleased me. I almost certainly would not have understood it or enjoyed its making. In fact the negative was so uninspiring that I very nearly threw it away without printing it at all. But the enforced delay, the occasional reviews of the negative, the playing with the print, the very looking at it and periodically ignoring it brought me to the point where instead of seeing triviality and pointlessness I saw dignity and worth. I think this is intensified by the low number of negatives I have had to work with recently which has allowed an intimacy with each exposure which high-volume production simply cannot create.
So it seems to me now that having lots of images to work with and finding too much ease in their production, with the resulting visual and critical indigestion that this entails can be tremendously damaging to the enjoyment of making. Part of the fun for me in using pinhole cameras is the enforced discipline of slow looking and slow action. But until now I had not realised how much benefit slowing right down might bring. In addition to this, as one’s satisfaction increases so does one’s ability to discern. As in so many other life-enhancing activities such as cooking good food or drinking pot-brewed tea from a china cup, what starts out as merely good is elevated to the heavenly by the right approach.
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.