Pyrenees Mountain Photography (3) Friday December 11, 2009

Sorting through the hundreds of images from my walking in the Pyrenees has been an interesting editorial process. I’m only just completing it, about three months later. When I was walking and photographing I knew some shots were very successful, and this energised and excited me transcending the physical reality of being there. The walking was a formidable and joyous experience, and yet making a good photograph made me think of being at home and enjoying an image – as a record of the moment, as a permanent aesthetic delight.

Walking to the Arremoulit Refuge from Pombie was quite hard for me; I still don’t know why I was so exhausted on my mountain adventure. I got enough sleep, so it wasn’t that. It must have been a combination of a heavy rucksack, unusual heat, and insufficient food. After toiling up a long and steep valley two Frenchmen asked me if I was OK: “Ca va?” “Oui”, I explained, “mais je suis fatigue”. I was staggering up the last section, and they suggested I might need food or water. It’s also possible I wasn’t comfortable at those altitudes; altitude sickness is fickle and unpredictable and while 3,000 metres is not tremendously high it might be high enough, for me, to feel debilitated.

Shortly after that conversation I spoke with a French couple about an impending dangerous area and whether to negotiate it: the Passage d’Orteig is a path traversing a vertical rock face hundreds of feet high. There’s a steel cable to hold onto, but the slightest slip from the narrow path means your inevitable demise: no more walking for you, or anything else.

They also told me however about a lake, Lac D’Arrious just before the Passage d’Orteig she said was beautiful. So I decided to walk that way if only to see the lake, and indeed it is beautiful. After a few shots I felt excited and happy that I had some great photographs:

That will be nice to see, I thought, when I’m at home. I stayed on the hillside above the lake for about 30 minutes, watching the clouds and shadows for their best effect. The only dissatisfaction I have with this shot is the strong shadow areas on the top right peaks, but this was impossible to avoid.

Another category of photograph is those you don’t recognise at the time for their aesthetic value. If you’re not used to mountain walking, it can be very disorienting. A couple once asked me, along the Red Pike and High Stile ridge above the Lake District’s Buttermere, what the route was along the top. They thought distant Pillar, soaring above the intervening Ennerdale Valley, was where they were going: the famous peak of Haystacks. I explained all they had to do was follow the clearly visible path and they couldn’t go wrong, that Pillar was nowhere near where they were going. The problem, for them, was they were disoriented and couldn’t read or comprehend the scale and distance of the hills. I’m not incapacitated by this, and have years of photography experience, but a reliable aesthetic response is not always or constantly possible in the mountains. Mountain walking is a physically demanding experience with considerable psychological effect. In a gallery, or looking at a book, your eye easily wanders over a picture weighing up shape, colour, balance and composition; in the mountains, this process is carved out of the impact of the terrain and your physical reality within it. Photographic aesthetic response is never easy or automatic; it’s more complex and difficult when you orient yourself in vast mountain terrain. This shot is one of my favourites, and I didn’t fully appreciate at the time how lovely it is:

A third category is the lesser photograph, that is not particularly accomplished but still worth noting. In the delights of the Pyrenees, not everything you see has the impact of a shot like this:

But images like this are still rewarding, like the body of a song where the dramatic visual moments are the chorus:

I noticed these sheep going up to Lac D’Arrious after I was coming down from it. The first shot of the lake is far more impressive in aesthetic terms, but the sheep photograph tells you another aspect of the story, descibing Pyrenees mountain walking.

I’ve spent many hours searching for Pyrenees photographs on the internet (how wonderful this is, and how we take it for granted), and very much enjoyed the images I’ve found which are broadly in this last category. They are not crafted aesthetic statements, but simple or even snapshot records of pleasurable moments: worthy in themselves, I have some regret I didn’t take a large amount of more casual photographs to record more of my walking. Instead I exercised my photographic response, constantly monitoring the colours, shapes and compositions for careful beauty. On the internet I’ve found images taken at the same location as some of mine, yet nowhere near as powerful. The photographer had seen a view, liked it, snapped it, with no thought or consideration for how to frame, approach, and balance it to best effect. I’ve seen people do this, with their cameras.

Such images are a worthy and pleasurable record of mountain walking, filling in the gaps and completing a story. It’s great fun finding an image similar or near to one of mine that I may have laboured over, that provides a different and supporting viewpoint: that slightly to the left, or with an obvious rather than a dramatic angle, the mountains looked thus. Such photographs are in some respects a better record of mountain walking, with views and experiences in which you are constantly immersed as opposed to dramatic aesthetic moments carefully balanced and crafted.

The final stage of my Pyrenees photography is sorting my catalogue of work for supporting shots, with this more rudimentary aesthetic appeal. I don’t regard these as photographically accomplished, but they are still worthwhile. Here’s another example, like the sheep image:

Not overly dramatic or beautiful, Pic Du Baralet does nonetheless have a shapely form, and you find it walking between Refuge D’Arlet and Candanchu at a significant junction where a Spanish valley suddenly opens up below you. It’s the kind of area I’d like to return to and scout around for an entire day to find its best photographic possibilities. I couldn’t do this on my multi day trip, and I could see I wasn’t making the best of what this area offered in photographic terms.

This is Pic Rouge taken from Pimene, near to Gavarnie, and again it’s not a notable photograph but it conveys what the walking here is like. Refuge Espuguettes is down the valley to the right:

I don’t often include people in mountain photography, but it sometimes enhances an image and makes it worthwhile. This is the track down from Refuge Ayous, Pic Du Midi D’Osseau in the distance (I walked round the back of it this day to arrive at Refuge Pombie), not a distinctive photograph but telling a little more of the story:

Finally, these are some of my favourites: photographs I enjoyed taking and knew were in the first category of accomplished images:

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book