Psychological Photography: Mountains And Escape Thursday April 3, 2008

For a year or two now, I’ve been working on a Lake District photography book. After many years tramping those fells, I’ve got a good portfolio more than good enough to make a book. The problem is how to manage this, market it, publish it, and organise the material. The problem is not that it’s not good enough; I’ve got a collection of about forty Lake District books and my work is the equal of anything and, frankly, better than much of it. Some people just have the right connections, the right whatever, and like girl bands being passed off as “music” they hit the market whereas others like myself don’t. Yet.

But I’m in no hurry to do this; my motivation is not actually to hit the market but to produce something beautiful and interesting. The rest follows from that, not the other way round which is sadly how much of commercial art, music, whatever actually works. Hit the market, get the publicity, be famous for being famous, etc. We live in the best of times said Dickens, we live in the worst of times; one thing true now is we most certainly live in hyped up bullshit times.

Alongside my photography, I’m producing some written philosophical reflections. The style of this, and to some extent the content also i.e. the intellectual interests I have, can be seen reflected in my Words here. I find mountain walking an energising and wonderful experience, and think it has both psychological and philosophical significance. Why do we do it, why do we enjoy it, what can we say about it? People like Wordsworth waxed lyrical and romantic about this, and this is typically how the subject gets treated. The landscape becomes one big poem and words like ‘spiritual’ get used – in my view – like cheap confectionary. Get a grip, is my feeling about that. Which doesn’t mean the mountain experience has no subtle, poetic, or psychological meaning; it most certainly does. What it means is use good, strong, but subtle thinking about this, not the conventional schemas and language that makes far too many glib and unexamined assumptions.

One of the topics I’ve just considered i.e. been writing about is the nature of ‘escape’. I walk in the mountains to escape; everyone does. Escape from what? From the city, from noise, from other people and their overwhelming density in this overpopulated island. There’s a wonderful moment in the second Crocodile Dundee movie when Mick Dundee first encounters New York. Seeing the huge numbers of people swarm the streets, he remarks that New York must be a very friendly place if so many choose to congregate and live closely together! Nice irony.

More than that though, I and others roam the hills as a form of psychological escape. Stripped down to survival basics, food, water, protective clothing, we become simultaneously unencumbered by daily life. Money, job, work, whatever, such things are back in the city and not on the fells. We walk there for what’s not there, as much as what is.

Which got me thinking a little about the nature of photography. There’s also a form of escape in taking pictures. What was it Blake said? If the doors of perception were cleansed, we’d see infinity? Dude, get a grip – there you go again, you crazy romantics. Infinity! But, the fella had a point: there was some truth in that, i.e. that our daily perception gets dulled, habitual, and ground down by life. Without getting all sombre and crusty about it, it’s what happens as we get older and our capacity to see things is increasingly opaque. The freshness of childhood is long gone, the buzz of adolescence a distant dream, the strong maturity of adulthood no longer evident. Some elderly folk are wonderfully astute, active and sharp, but many if not most are not. I think of someone like Doris Lessing for example, born in 1919 who in 2007 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve not any read any Lessing novels, I have to do it some time, but I’ve seen some of her writings elsewhere and heard her speak. I heard that when she was approached with news of an accolade – probably the Nobel Prize though I’m not sure – her reply was “oh, no!”, because she is a) not interested and b) knows astutely what nonsense this celebrity, worshipping, hello-darling society we live in is like. If a novel is good, it’s good – what difference does it make if The Establishment says it is? Similarly, at a film awards event Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was asked his views about it and described it as “self congratulatory nonsense”. Dude!

Perception does though slow down and dull in most of us, Blake was right in that respect, and photography is a psychological corrective; or at least it can be. Not for old age or approaching old age, but for anyone: it’s the nature of perception to get habitual, which means familiar, which means muddy. It’s the nature of photography to notice the unnoticed, to capture the elusive, and in portraying it to escape, thus, the confines of normal experience. It’s not some revelation of infinity (dude, get a grip!), but it’s most definitely a small, subtle feature of the photographic art based on a form of observation which is not intrinsic to or automatic for human experience. If I walk to work, I’m intent on dodging pedestrians and arriving on time. In that process, I will fail to notice the colours of spring sneaking out gently from winter slumber. Conversely if I’m roaming with my camera looking for nice stuff to photograph, I will notice it. More than that, I’m looking for it. So in that respect, the outcome of pursuing photography is a kind of escape. A good escape, a healthy escape, that nourishes a part of me otherwise perhaps neglected, i.e. a form of escape that is actually creative and constructive from that which is not.

Lake District Photography


  1. Marie Randaxhe · Jan 10, 09:46 AM · §

  2. James Lomax · Jan 13, 10:44 PM · §