When I began my photographic journey, the photographs that I made were completely random. If I came across a scene that caught my eye I would simply stop and take the time to compose an image, all for my own pleasure. This is going way back to when I was a child, as photography has always been a part of my life, I spent many happy hours in the darkroom with my Dad from around age 7. Fast forward a few years to save this blog post from becoming an autobiographical piece; when we begin to take our photography more seriously, we believe it important to find our own voice.
Indeed, on the workshops that I run and in general conversation with other photographers, it would seem that finding a style, or aesthetic of one's own is of huge importance. Whilst I do think it is important to develop an aesthetic, in my experience this can, in itself, become quite restrictive.
I guess at the point where I decided to take the plunge and pursue photography as a full time career in 2016, the fact that I'd developed an aesthetic gave me confidence. The 'style' I'd developed was this kind of minimal, stripped back approach to landscape photography, a 'Visual Mantra' as I referred to it. People would tell me that they could recognise any new image as distinctly mine. This style often involved long exposure, which creates negative space in which to isolate the forms of the subject. I found this kind of image calming; creating them was an immersive and meditative exercise too. The use of all the gear, camera, tripod and filters is quite a technical, clinical way of working.
This black + white image made in Portland, Dorset was probably the peak of that long exposure, Visual Mantra period. It was a popular image which was used to promote Sigma UK's newest camera at that time. I was of course thrilled that it appeared monthly in several high profile magazines. I felt very proud, that I'd really been rewarded for all the hard work. I was using long exposure but keeping it subtle. There's a time and place for everything and long exposure techniques are often overused in land/seascape photography in my opinion. Quite often we try to use long exposure to create a mood out of nothing, to add an air of excitement to a flat scene, which can never work. Mood or feeling must come from within ourselves. Or to put it more correctly, the mood of the subject should evoke an emotional response from you, the photographer. If you feel that something has moved you, your image needs no further validation. I'd be lying if I said that my work from this period wasn't about 'me'. I was creating these 'Visual Mantras' to get myself through a turbulent time in my personal life.
This photograph from Unst is a good example of how work from this period was more about my own feelings than the subject. In this scene I was encountering 70mph winds - that's hurricane force! Yet you'd never know to look at this gentle, subtle, 60 second exposure. What does this say about the location? It doesn't tell us the truth, that is certain. Why travel all this way to document the power of nature if you're not going to be truthful? Well of course I could be over-thinking these reasons but I guess I am looking at this image reflectively. At the time I was very pleased with the image, high-fiving myself for pulling off a 60 second exposure in 70mph minds. No mean feat I can tell you! And I do still like this image; it sits well with the set from this trip. But things change over time. Our influences, conditions, our emotional state, even our beliefs evolve. This is why rigidly sticking to an aesthetic can become restrictive. Many photographers will churn out the same style of image time after time, year after year. And maybe that's ok, you've found your style, perhaps it's popular? As long as you're enjoying producing the images, that is the most important thing. I do however think that a truly creative mind is a restless mind. Constant evolution of our work and of ourselves keeps things interesting. When we come up with a new idea, a spark, that excitement is crucial. To be genuinely passionate about your work and ideas means you are on the right track. I'll just say one thing which is a separate subject to this blog, and that is, NEVER measure social media reaction as any kind of gauge as to the value of your work. The works that I've had published in magazines or gone on to develop into bodies of work have not necessarily gone down too well on social media in terms of the dreaded 'likes'. But if you're a serious photography aficionado, you know this already! I just think that social media affects a lot of photographers these days in an unhealthy way.
Getting back on to the point of this blog post, from 2018-2020 I was lucky to have the freedom to travel to the Highlands & Islands of Scotland so frequently that it was beginning to feel like a second home. During the first few trips I was becoming very frustrated about the conditions. I was spending a lot of time, energy and money on my trips north and not getting the type of images that had previously satisfied me. The conditions were generally truly awful. I remember spending almost an entire week holed up in my B&B as the weather was so bad. Constant wind, rain, flat grey skies with no structure. When this happens on multiple trips and you don't come back with those glorious landscape standalone images, as a landscape photographer, one tends to get a little frustrated.
Something had to change. I was already feeling a little bored of the more traditional style of landscape photography. New influences were creeping in; Masahisa Fukase, Hiroshi Sugimoto, RAX and others, not just landscape photography. I could feel that I needed to change my way of working. With conditions being so appalling I'd decided to simply go for a hike; taking pictures would be secondary. I'd travelled all this way so I had to start enjoying it! Instead of the filters and tripod, I hiked light, a blessing in high winds. Just one camera with a prime lens, filters would have been impossible anyway, and at times even the tripod in the howling gales. As I let myself wander the mountains and coast of Assynt, I really connected with this landscape. After a while on a hike it becomes meditative. Your worries and inhibitions slide away. We begin to realise that nature is in charge; the ego dissolves, bringing clarity of mind. As I've previously described in B+W Photography Magazine, all of a sudden and quite involuntarily, I reached for my camera in the pouring rain and ferocious wind and began snapping away. I'd finally embraced these conditions and what's more I felt more energised than ever, with regards to the direction of my photography.
I let a body of work develop over time. For 'Where Ravens Soar', I'd already amassed a catalogue of images over the course of around 18 months before I came up with the title and a clear direction. It was this minimal, misty shot of the Quiraing which sparked the theme. When I took the image I didn't think a great deal about it, I was so in the zone. I'd just imagined that the raven would be impossible to see with the 40mm lens. When I returned home and opened up the file however, I knew that the image was clearly evoking the mood and nature of this rugged landscape. What's more, the raven, although small, is perfectly visible, and had kindly positioned itself beautifully. I like that the raven seems untouchable, it keeps the air of mystery. In fact, my work as a whole aims to convey a sense of the mysterious. Whatever the subject matter I try to suggest that there are other forces at work. There is a metaphysical theme running throughout. I continued with this project until last year. I travelled back up to Assynt with the aim of continuing the series. When I arrived however I felt completely differently about the landscape. I knew I had done enough on this series. I took one image all week which serves to be the closing picture of the project. We know when we are done and it's time to move on. Our instinct tells us quite clearly.
Over the years, all of my projects have evolved in this way. I head out with a very vague idea and let it develop organically. There is both an excitement and a kind of masochistic frustration in not knowing where an idea is heading. Perhaps you need more structure than this? For me, I go with the flow. Most important is that I feel in tune with the environment and that the subject is exciting me enough to record it.
The reason I think that rigidly sticking to a style is restrictive lies in the fact that I think each project should have it's own aesthetic. Rather than thinking in terms of developing your own unique voice, think in terms of the project dictating the aesthetic. For example, in Where Ravens Soar, the conditions meant that I had to kept things simple. One camera, one lens. This way of working keeps the project aesthetic consistent. Another example could be one of my current works in progress, 'North Sea' (working title). For this project I'm shooting with a medium format Bronica RF645, predominantly using Kodak Portra. Again, this keeps an aesthetic, project-based consistency.
Another point of note is that actually I still use the techniques from the visual mantra period in all of my work. So despite each project adhering to a certain aesthetic, which has been deemed by the conditions and the kit choice, my own voice, or rather way of seeing, is fairly evident.
We are all unique individuals. Nobody sees or feels the world the way that you do. With time and patience, your way of seeing will develop into your unique voice. This is slow work that cannot be rushed. By setting a few parameters such as the kit choice and the conditions for a project, thus simplifying your way of working, which in turn frees your mind to focus fully on the subject, you will find that a body of work will develop coherently over time.
I'd like to finish by saying that these days, the work is not about me. Of course it is my voice, my ideas and vision. But ultimately I try to let the subject matter hold dominance. I find this a more honest, truthful way of working. In the spiritual sense I want it to be without ego.
I hope you enjoyed this piece. Any feedback is most welcome.
I couldn't sign off without saying that I am available for workshops. Both for groups or 1-2-1.
Additionally if you'd like coaching with anything via Zoom we can arrange that too. Perhaps some help with projects? Get in touch if you'd like to discuss any of your ideas.