Valley Spirit Photography Thursday July 21, 2011

It seems to me there are broadly two types of landscape. One is dramatic, elevating and impressive, and the other is ‘softer’ and comforting. In the Chinese Tao te Ching these are differentiated in terms of yin and yang, one nurturing and the other invigorating. The prospect of mountains expresses the latter and valleys and woodland typically represent the former. I gravitate towards mountains, both aesthetically and athletically; I find forest walking frustrating and claustrophobic because it is views, principally, I like to enjoy when I walk.

And yet, photographically, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the second type of landscape and in particular the work of John Wawrzonek. Two of my favourite books are Walking and Walden where the texts of Thoreau are juxtaposed and illustrated with Wawrzonek photographs: woodland images of leaves, grasses, streams and trees. Writing about his approach, Wawrzonek has stated he avoids the obviously spectacular and chooses instead to find satisfying images in overlooked patches of wildness, sometimes quite near to roads. Aesthetically I find this commendable, based as it is on attention to detail and carefully exercised observation. His subject is thus modest; here for example it’s just the colour of grasses:

I’ve done similar work wandering around Manchester parks and the Mersey Valley, the area of tracks, trees and rough grassland beside the river. I particularly like the first image here. It’s nothing special, but I like the subtle purple tones.

Anyone, it could be argued, can walk up Scafell Pike, Snowdon, or Ben Nevis, or take a camera to the Pyrenees, and be almost guaranteed some impressive images. Having done a great deal of this, I acknowledge that this is so. There is an element of skill in terms of composition, light, shape, viewpoint and deliberate drama, and it’s easy to take boring photographs of the most spectacular places. But even with limited ability the returns can be substantial whereby just swinging your camera around casually can produce random good images when the terrain has such impact and potential. Part of the significance of mountain photography is that you were there, that such places exist and your effort enables others to see what you have seen. This is implicit in all such images. The other type of photograph testifies to powers of observation, finding aesthetic beauty in a mundane outlook.

Mountain photographs suggest wildness, longevity, and mortality; always, if the situation is sufficiently formidable, they pose questions about our place in the world and of our own human nature: that some part of us corresponds to these lovely untameable places with their vast timescales. Valley photographs do something different. They may be environments outside our back door if we are fortunate enough to live in the countryside, or they might be gentle rambles available to sedentary or elderly folk. The message is thus different. Not so much these rarefied places exist and they expose and highlight certain human propensities, but rather that the natural world is a lovely consoling place in which we are implicated. In the mountains, we are invigorated. In a valley, we can nestle into its protective fold and feel cosy.

I enjoy both. Experientially, comparing a two hour ramble through a forest to climbing the second highest mountain in the Pyrenees, I know which I prefer.

And yet on a recent two day trip in Snowdonia I found one photograph particularly satisfying and it was the yin, nurturing, gentle valley category: not the terrific views in the hills above Beddgelert, nor clear blue skies and rocky compositions but rather, a valley path in the rain close to the road, thirty minutes from town.

The walking, when I took this second shot below, was subdued and modest; I’d done the rough stuff, the high stuff, the remote stuff where I’d seen no one and camped overnight beside a mountain tarn.

Back in the valley finishing my two day escape from Manchester I encountered several people along the path, taking a stroll in the rain, making the undemanding best of grey Welsh skies. I felt refreshed and at peace, but not exactly stimulated by all of this: the walk was over and I was now returning to my car, parked outside the pub. My route was along the back of Llyn Dinas and an area I’d spied a few times and wondered about. It was pleasant to finally explore it but not exactly bracing stuff compared to the previous day when I was romping across the hills gazing out to the sea, Snowdon, Cnicht, and Moel Hebog.

Then irrespective of all of that – this is the significant point – I noticed this lovely composition, from the gentle path, in the rain, which is more typical for Wales than crystal blue skies:

High mountain places are what motivate, inspire, and thrill me. The first image of the above pair testifies to that. Actually it’s not very high, just a modest hill above Beddgelert, but it illustrates my point.

And yet, for reasons related to the above but essentially just as a basic aesthetic response – I’m getting more pleasure from the second photograph which is a scene divorced from its modest situation and translated into a moment of beauty. It evokes the soothing comforts of the valley where we nestle and feel secure, different to the hill experience where we are slightly on edge, alert, mindful of its inherent dangers. It evokes fertility and growth, ‘female’ qualities, compared to the stern and ‘male’ energy of mountains. The slang word ‘quim’, referring to female genitalia, appears to be related to the Welsh ‘cwm’ meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘valley’. We refer to ‘mother earth’ but this connotes the ‘valley’ type of landscape rather than high mountains with their aesthetic power, suggesting opposite ‘yang’. Pleasant valleys with flowers, trees, grasses and rivers are more sensual than mountains and thus of the body, compared to the abstraction of the mountains corresponding, perhaps, to the mind.