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Where Ravens Soar

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Well 2020 didn't go as planned then!

Everything feels a bit surreal as I sit here typing. With most of us slowing down and actually having time to think and prioritise the important things in life, I am looking to the positives that will evolve from the situation we all find ourselves locked into. I won't say anymore about it as I'm sure you all could do with a bit of escapism, after all I'm assuming you didn't click the link to read about the dreaded Covid-19. Let's talk photography :)

By the end of 2019 I'd noticed a distinct change in the types of images that I was enjoying making, moving away from the carefully crafted landscape photography that I'd been producing, which I guess mostly involved tripod and filter use. Carefully setting up for each scene and waiting for something beautiful to happen. Of course those types of images still feature but I'd spent so much time on the road and hiking that my photographic style started to evolve in a new direction. I've spent many weeks in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, where the weather is incredibly unpredictable. With trips planned months or weeks in advance, obviously we have no clue what the weather is going to do when we arrive. I recall one particular trip last autumn where it rained and I encountered 50mph winds for the entire week. In the past I'd have found that very disconcerting and it would probably have ruined the week. Not to be deterred I'd put on my waterproofs and head out no matter what the weather threw at me. I knew I wasn't going to get any serene, beautifully colourful shots; dark and moody was the order of the day. Additionally, I'd started heading out with very minimal kit. Conditions on occasion were so bad it would be utterly futile to even attempt a set up with tripod and filters. Also simply the act of walking, particularly on rough terrain and mountain paths, becomes ever more laboursome in challenging conditions with a heavy backpack. Because of this, my favoured kit was my Sigma SDQH, usually with the amazing 40mm Art lens attached, or sometimes the 24-105mm Art lens for its versatility. Or perhaps one of my little Sigma DPs. I'd also take a little Sony RX100IV, which is an amazing little beast to whip out for really quick work. However, Sigma have since released the world's smallest full frame camera, the fp. Obviously it's small size suits this minimal lightweight way of working and most images from 2020 have been made with that. This blog isn't about camera talk however, so moving on...

The above image is a particularly well known scene in landscape photography circles. I've seen so many images of this little tree on the Quiraing (Isle of Skye) over the years. On this day it was a really howling wind, low cloud with mist and rain. I wanted to separate the tree from the landscape; to do this I needed a particularly low angle. Scurrying down a waterlogged gully and hanging on to a tree root for dear life, I managed to get this shot with my little Sigma DP0 held out at arm's length. Amazingly, the image is sharp and the composition exactly as I'd intended despite the difficult conditions and precarious position.

The header image triptych and the above image of the tree gave me the idea for the title 'Where Ravens Soar', a title which perfectly reflects the brooding nature of these dark landscape scenes and a personal fascination of the mystical nature and folklore of the Raven.

Another factor in this evolving style has been my influences over the past couple of years. The main influences on my work have been in no particular order: Ragnar Axelsson and Japanese photographers including Masahisa Fukase (funnily enough his seminal work is titled 'Ravens' - a must for all Photobook collectors!), Daido Moriyama and Hiroshi Sugimoto among others. Something that a lot of the work by Fukase and Moriyama in particular has in common is the dark and edgy feel of their work; sharpness is not important. Mood and movement are expressed dynamically and in the moment.

I wanted to evoke the same sense of being in the moment as Moriyama, whilst also working in a similar way. Moriyama describes himself as a dog prowling the cities, capturing moments. So as a landscape photographer, used to setting up, sitting and waiting, I now find myself wandering the hills and valleys, leaping into action to capture the drama unfolding as I move along in the landscape. I feel more connected to the landscape in this way too. It's a more spontaneous and exciting way of working. None of the images here involve a tripod and filters (I can hear my tripod and filter sponsors grumbling as I type!), the classic tools of a landscape photographer.

The above two images as you can probably see were made in quite inclement weather. That is, very strong winds and sideways rain. But I just love the drama and excitement of capturing images in these conditions. It's brought a whole new direction to my work. The blurred image in particular, for me, has the uneasy atmosphere of a Moriyama work (not for one minute am I comparing myself to the great man). It was probably my least 'liked' image on Instagram, but do I care? Not even a bit, I love it and it takes me right back to when I clicked the shutter, intentionally blurring the subject. Also, don't you think the rock formation on the right has a look of a rather sinister mountain troll?! I blame Ragnar Axelsson for that, who often seeks out such forms in the landscape.

I like to evoke a sense of mystery in my work. Being out exploring in weather that other people may baulk at, I'm often subjected to some really unique conditions. I can remember taking the image above titled 'Obscured'. At the time I hadn't expected that it would be a keeper. When I got home however it was one of my favourites. The print especially pleased me. The detail in the snowy mountain middle section is wonderful, sat hovering majestically in the negative space provided by low cloud and dark foreground.

Titled 'Home' - the tiny village of Elphin on a suitably moody day with the mass of Cùl Mòr beyond.

Possibly as extreme as things can get. The above image was made at Clachtoll beach, in the North West Highlands during Storm Deirdre, or Dennis, I don't recall which but I was out and about for both over the course of two weeks up there. Here I sat huddled behind a rocky outcrop, out of the full force of the wind, something which I've become accustomed to of late.

The light over the sea, so dramatic, the horizon line here rough in the distance, not the usual straight line, alluding to the intense conditions. I am fully immersed in the energy around me; the act of photographing almost becoming an extension of my being. I'd reached that zen like place where everything becomes involuntary. The skills learned over the years come into play organically and all focus is on composing and experiencing the magical scene before me.

The 'Where Ravens Soar' series encompasses my many trips to the Highlands & Islands.

I've found that when I get back from these journeys I have two kinds of styles running through my work. I'm still producing the images that I intend to portray the beauty and interconnectedness that I feel when immersed in the natural world, whilst adhering to my 'visual mantra' ethos, those images being predominantly colour. It is this much darker series however that really gets my pulse racing. The images that you see here are a small selection from the collection that is ever increasing. I'm looking forward to putting these together in a handmade book very soon. The problem, as with any project is knowing when to stop, and I'm not sure that I can!

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Karl Holtby
Karl Holtby
Apr 29, 2020

Thank you very much for taking the time to read. I really appreciate your comment :)


Great photos Karl, love the atmosphere!

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