If you were a student in the 90s you will no doubt remember Leftfield’s seminal reggae fusion EDM track, “Release the Pressure”, the first verse of which goes:
I’ve got to stand and fight in this creation
Vanity I know can’t guide I alone
I’m searching to find a love that lasts all time
I’ve just got to find peace and unity
It’s no surprise then that this was playing in the car whilst I was sitting watching the pouring rain in near zero visibility at the Quiraing on Skye at Easter.
Those on social media may have seen my tweets that weekend, all a mix of humour but the main theme being the poor weather on Skye. Some folks may see that as unfortunate whilst others may joke or even marvel at the apparent lack of expert knowledge of the weather and the Island. All landscape photographers are amateur meteorologists and geographers you see, or at least we like to think we are. Thing is, it would all be true if I described myself as a ‘fair weather photographer’, but as I do not then I should cut myself some slack. Truth is I (and others like me I guess) choose to put myself in situations where the weather is frankly appalling because it’s at the edge of this (and sometimes right in the middle) that the most compelling images can be realised. Transitions all too often happen so quickly, it’s blink and you miss it. What was a great shot once, isn’t any longer by the time you set your camera up. So, I’m often to be found under a dark cloud, often not getting the shot I envisage. Although on occasion…
Shooting under these conditions relies on a huge amount of luck, for that cloud to break at the right moment, and unfortunately that is what has been lacking for quite some time. Not only have the clouds not broken it seems, they’ve got heavier and heavier. On the whole it’s been a dismal winter.
Some good things have come out of that though, I started my little project, SlateForms…
That has been a complete departure from the type of landscape photography I most indulge in. I’ve also had to think less about the wider view and concentrate more on the details. I’ve almost abandoned photographing in landscape orientation, preferring portrait to really add power to the composition. I’m finding that orientation compelling. In fact I went back through my catalogue and I’d say that of all the images I have taken over the last 2 years, I could have improved about 25% of them by cropping tighter and shooting in portrait. I’ve also come to love a 4×5 ratio too. Virtually everything I’m shooting now is in this ratio or 1×1, unless I’m doing big panoramas. In fact that combo will do very nicely for the future I think.
So, here I was on Skye, sitting in the rain, in my car, really not fancying getting out. This lasted for two whole days. It wasn’t until the third day that I got my camera out. You don’t need great light to make a compelling photograph, great composition does that. Light helps of course, but for those first two days there wasn’t any. I ‘saw’ lots of potential, but even with what might have been excellent composition, many of the things I was seeing really needed that little extra, that light, at least I thought. This was it, all of this was the pressure.
Ever since winning OPOTY last year I’ve felt a need to justify it. Although I had to work physically for that winning image (above) and in the end I was the one that composed it, pressed the shutter and processed the image to realise a vision, I wasn’t there off my own back. That was down to Alex Nail who put in the hard work of researching places that ‘might’ under the right circumstances, lend themselves to something epic. We all got a little lucky on that day and it paid off, not least of all for me. Gradually over time I’ve been piling pressure on myself to improve my vision. First of all it was to try to equal, if not beat, the epic nature of the OPOTY image. In some way I think I’ve managed to produce a few images in that time that hold their own from an ‘epic’ feeling standpoint, be they Vertical Limit, The Reckoning, Vertigo, Falling Skies, or one or two others;
and second of all I started to think about taking shots like that to the next level, to make them mean something more or at least add more context by nailing decent fore and mid-ground composition rather than relying on the vista to do the work, considering the whole of the landscape before me and how each component interacts with the others.
When I visited Vietnam a couple of months ago we visited the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, it was an interesting experience in many ways, but one of the things that struck me was the exhibition detailing the stories of the various war photographers, on both the US and the North Vietnamese sides. One North Vietnamese photographer, Tram Am, was given one roll of film, just 70 frames, for use during the entire war. Just think about that for a moment. In our throwaway society, where memory costs less and less with each passing day, and even for those who might still shoot on film, how many images are just ‘throwaway’? Imagine only being able to take one photo a month? That is effectively what this guy had to play with. You see something incredible unfolding, it’s war after all, and before you press the shutter, you have to stop and think “is this it, is this THE moment?”. Ignoring the obvious horrors for just a second, I simply can’t imagine what that was like from a photographic standpoint.
So, this pressure I talk of has been there for some time and now that I am no longer OPOTY I feel it’s time for a change of pace. Enough is enough. What I was feeling was preventing me from just being creative in Skye, even in the face of the bad weather. I need to release the pressure. Some people in this situation simply put their camera down for a while and walk away. Others choose to refocus on other genres or simply absorb themselves in their main line of work. These days some take a break from social media, it has after-all invaded almost every facet of our daily lives. Given that social media has played such an important part in my photographic development, I can’t simply just walk away. What I can do however, is stop sharing my work to it. That means all online channels; Twitter, this Blog, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and even Behance, anything online essentially. So, that is what I’ve decided to try to do for the next six months. There is an abundance of over-sharing on these sites, I’m equally guilty of this of course, but it does seem that many people, amateur and professional alike, share their images for sharing sake at times. There is an un-talked about competition to get your images out there and get them out there before everyone else. I think this dilutes the quality on occasion and even those whose work I deeply respect and admire hit the odd bum note. Of course, there is actually nothing wrong with it, you guys go ahead. For me however, it’s all part of the pressure I referred to above.
Anyway, I’ll still interact on these sites, talk about photography, write the odd blog. I may even post some old photos again if the conversation goes that way. However, any new work will have to wait, I’m off to find my peace and unity and in the process hopefully start improving the imagery I produce, without feeling the need to post an image (other than iphone holiday snap type things of course), to Twitter, or Facebook or wherever. I want to really study the scenes before me and question them before I’ve even pressed the shutter, really ensure I can’t improve upon the image before I finalise the process, in a similar way Tram Am may have had to do. In fact I’ve already started…
Oh…But before I do have this little break, one last image, this one from Skye (well I guess I need to show I didn’t spend 4 days up there for nothing!), and not my usual fayre either. It may be complete rubbish, but I like it. Simply entitled…