Over the past year I have been fortunate to spend six weeks exploring the Cairngorms National Park. During this time I have developed an incredibly strong connection to this landscape, indeed I could quite happily see myself living up here. For me, it's one of those places that just feels like 'home'. Over the years I've driven through and past the Cairngorms on to the seemingly more exciting (photographically) and jagged peaks of Assynt and the Isle of Skye for example. As we pass through the landscape on the A9 we see this vast featureless plateau and this is very deceiving indeed. The Cairngorms mountains are three times or more the height of those in Assynt. This is a landscape which rewards exploration. And whilst I've had the most magical time connecting with the pristine nature of this wilderness, photographically it hasn't been the most productive, yet. The reason for this is that one has to cover ground, and there is a lot of it to explore! I've spent many days hiking and biking through this wilderness and spotted some truly wonderful compositions to return to when the time, and the light, is right. Once we get into the valleys of these mountains the views are as epic as anywhere else in the Highlands. If, alongside your photography, you enjoy adventure and solitude, there is no finer location to enjoy a combination of those things. And I have to say that one of my own reasons for being up in the Cairngorms is to heal. I have some health issues which I've alluded to in the past and the powerful energy of this place resonates deeply. In no time at all you can find yourself in complete solitude, beside a crystal river, the mountain air fresh with smell of pine forest. And then there is the incredible array of wildlife. Without even looking for them I have seen red squirrels (of course!), mountain hare, snow bunting, pine marten, golden eagle, ptarmigan and heard the unmistakable sounds of capercaillie.
I've been sat with the images from my first visit for this project back in March '22, unclear of how I'd like to process them. And this is generally how all of my projects have evolved, very slowly! I know there is something, bubbling away, that there is potential for a story. It is not until the connection with a place really ignites that things become clear, and the spark required for this aesthetic realisation is always very sudden. An epiphany if you like.
In the above diptych; I shot the left hand photo on the March '22 visit. At the time I thought how magical it could work with another image of the scene in the snow. In March this year that realisation came true. It was difficult to know exactly where to stand, and in the right hand (snowy) image I was stood in 2 feet of snow, the wind howling and my fingers frozen even with thick gloves. The images are not identical in composition, but I don't mind this. I like the subtle differences. And, for me, when we start being too precise, we lose a lot of the 'feeling'. I'm a believer in the way things are meant to be, in life in general. This diptych is how it was always going to be. I wanted to create a diptych of the scene, which is the Allt Mor river, that appears as if to be a negative of the other. And this work is a statement with a narrative on several levels. Firstly as a visual representation of yin and yang, dark and light, softness and hardness. The way these rivers course through the valleys, they are the blood of the landscape. The scene is completely elemental, stripped back to the essence of this wilderness. Stood from this high up vantage point, my gaze following the course of the meandering river, I could powerfully feel the healing energy of this place. I began to feel grounded in myself whilst feeling a deep connection to the landscape and the elements. Life is energy, and movement of energy. We become out of sync in our usual daily lives. This place has the power to reset us, bringing us home to a more natural rhythm.
I also wanted this work to be incredibly meditative, a scene which we can spend time with. To contemplate the natural world but also the flow of our own lives. Can an image have the power to help us find a reset button within ourselves? I'm not sure but this helps me get close to that. Breathe, meditate on, and imagine the course of this river, exhale.
“This is the river. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”
The excerpt above is from "The Living Mountain", this classic by Nan Shepherd is also written about the Cairngorms and I highly recommend it for all lovers of nature and natural history literature.
Below is an entry to my journal the day the image above was made (March '22)…
“Earlier this week it was confirmed that I would go to Japan to lecture at Musashino Art University. This opportunity is now my reason for existing. Last November I was suicidal with the constant health issues, thyroid, fatigue, and to really finish me off, constant and very loud tinnitus. Yet right now I feel at peace, here in these mountains, I am smiling.”
I hope this brief journal entry evokes the healing power of this place which has begun to feel like home for me.
The idea of a traditional landscape scene hasn't really excited me for quite a few years now. My work tends to look a little deeper. Mystery, abstraction and the power of suggestion have become my tools for making engaging photographs, at least for me anyway. This simple reflection from Loch Morlich seemed to perfectly evoke the mood of the day, and one couldn't wish for a more suitable scene for black + white photography.
Trees, perhaps the most photographed and common subject for a landscape photographer. Originality is important for me. But more important is really portraying a scene which reflects one's own mood and feeling, and this isn't something that can be rushed. As I have said, it takes time, a long time, to get to really know a place. I guess I am fortunate that I do have this time. But there are a few things that can help you to connect. In the above images of these gnarled pine trees for example, for me, they really spoke of the primeval qualities of the ancient forests. It took me some time to find the right aesthetic in post processing, again, something which we should never rush. I find that journalling at the end of every day, or even on location, really helps with how I might process an image in the future. Take notes of how you feel, or how a particular scene may have moved you. It doesn't matter how vague, when we look back on these notes after the event they can be quite revelatory in terms of ideas, both for processing and development of your narrative.
Above is another river, the mighty Spey. Particularly legendary if you're familiar with this area's many fine whiskies! And I have to admit it was this scene that has set the tone and theme for this current Cairngorm project. Conditions were pretty awful. Poor visibility, snow and a biting wind. For me however, I really like those seemingly glum days when most people would prefer to be indoors, perhaps by a roaring fire with a whisky from this area. I find this image to be another meditative scene. The tonal range, the river flowing into the mist, it is elemental, simple, and raw in nature.
As well as the rivers which provide us with those scenes in which we can literally follow the flow, so the land has an undulating and fascinating quality with many layers to it. Perhaps more difficult to capture in a photograph, but as with anything in life, simplicity is the best approach. A touch of snow gives us a dramatic tonal range and enhanced those layers in the landscape.
On the last day of my recent trip I'd decided I wanted to do something that would really leave me with a good sense of the wildness of this place. I hiked out to Ryvoan bothy (a bothy is a mountain hut, a refuge in bad weather). It was only 7.5km but my legs were not happy. Ice and snow the whole walk and a ridiculously heavy backpack with more photography gear than I needed, plus all of the paraphernalia that one needs to survive in the mountains in winter made it hard going. It was hugely enjoyable nonetheless and I had the bothy to myself, where I penned the following poem...
Two steps at a time, you led me
Through the snow, beside the river
You took away my darkness
The screaming in my ears
The heaviness in my soul
The sickness in my veins
Cleansed my heart with purity of white
Mountains loomed by the crystal water
And through that dark ringing power
The endless hurt washed away.
I hope you enjoyed this update into one of my current projects, which will most definitely be long term. I have a few new and exciting things to share with you regarding Ambassadorships, but they will wait until the next blog post.
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Until next time!