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.
My family and I recently scattered the ashes of my parents on the slopes of Blencathra in the Lake District. Under beautiful skies, it was a poignant, but not sad day, full of chat and reflections and simple happiness at just being there. As my brother and I stood in contemplation in the breeze, my sister-in-law was astonished to see two ravens circling over our heads whilst we stood completely unaware.
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.
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.