For me it is very easy to be enchanted by the larger landscape and when I am out by myself I am often taken in and soak up the huge vistas before me. All too often I concentrate on the open valley, the river cascading downwards or the distant horizon and fail to take much notice of the smaller world. This however is beginning to change. On a recent trip to Sutherland in Scotland I was revisiting some of my favourite locations and, once again, enjoying what they had to offer. But after a day or so I became somewhat challenged with finding something that I deemed to be different and I felt I was not breaking new ground.
I am a firm believer that you cannot exhaust a landscape of its photographic potential even if you have been there tens of times, because the light is constantly changing and this happens throughout the year and of course during every hour of the day. One thing that can happen however is that you can make compositions of the same subject matter from different viewpoints in different conditions. Considering I have been going to Sutherland for a long time and also many other areas of the UK I began looking at what was at my feet. I began looking at the simple things that can make an interesting close up or an image of the smaller environment.
This is where things certainly did begin to get very interesting for me to the extent that I was actually beginning to ignore some pretty spectacular light on the open landscape in favour of the smaller environments. I often bang on about giving yourself time to ’connect’with your surroundings and put down your bag and tripod and give yourself time to move beyond just ‘looking’ but actually ’seeing’.
Putting this into practice I began to see patterns in the vast seas of marram grasses in the dunes that I love to stand in at the coast. I saw wonderful patterns in sand left behind by the receding tide that I may have walked over in the past to get to a good vantage point with the aim of capturing that wide open beach photograph, and my experiences with grasses of late have almost sent me into a meditative state. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the first time I have ever pointed a camera toward the ground and it certainly will not be the last, but it does go to show that things can change no matter how long you have been honing your skills or enjoying being out there with your camera.
My coat has become a kneeling blanket so I can get down to the ground and get a ’worms-eye’ view on the world. Sitting on the ground has become an alternative to standing high with the camera on the tripod, and there is something so special about donning my Wellington boots and creeping around the edge of a small lochan or tidal pool.
The reason I like the fact I am taking more of these images now is that I feel I am getting intimate with the places I love so much. The thing with black and white photography is that it is a great tool to ’simplify’ the chaos in the landscape. Without colour we only have luminosity to play with, those subtle transitions of grey that draw our eye round the image and make us explore.
The other wonderful aspect of black and white photography is that it explores shapes and when we are in the small environment shapes within the composition are very important. My advice is to stop and stare. What you are looking at and what you will see from this staring may not be apparent immediately but give it time and with a little patience you will be rewarded
When your visualizations happen they appear before you and all of a sudden things that seemed scattered and random take on a sort of order and rhythm, which sends a bolt of excitement through you. Resist the temptation to dash through the grasslands and onto the beach, hold back when in the woods heading for the river and take a stroll and park yourself on a rock.
Those experiences in Scotland and near to home last winter have certainly whetted my appetite for more winter photography. There is something unique about the cold, the wind and the self-control needed to persevere in such conditions, certainly with a large format camera and regardless of the long drive and the long wait for the blizzard to clear, each time I look at the images they remind me of one of my most memorable trips with my camera.
They are everywhere, trust me. Rock pools, ponds, reed beds, sand, tree bark and boulders. If you give them respect they will reveal themselves and you will be peering into another world and before you know it an hour or two will have passed. As Ruth Bernard said, ’If you are not willing to see more than is visible, you won’t see anything’.
Looking into the landscape, identifying what is evocative within it can bring a new dimension to your photography. It can also provide great subject matter for those many locations you visit where the grand vistas are not so grand - often just outside your doorstep!
© Paul Gallagher