Notes From The Mountains: Photo, Video, Dreams Saturday February 1, 2014

About fourteen months ago I bought a Sony RX100 for two reasons. I wanted a video tool and preferred the ergonomics of a compact camera rather than a video cam as such. I wanted a back up to my DSLR which would also serve as a useful extension for photographic work. This meant two things: a zoom range beyond my Canon L Series 17-40, and inconspicuous size useful for street photography. Any compact camera gives you those advantages. I chose the Sony for its relatively large sensor making it the leading camera in its class. It’s capable of good quality shots when I can’t use my 5D making use of aperture priority control and RAW files. It uses plenty of pixels which helps again if you then reduce the size of your shot for print or editorial use. It’s an accomplished little camera and I enjoy using it.

I’ve made a lot of video which so far I haven’t edited very much; mainly just splicing clips together with a beginning title and end. I enjoy watching my own videos and some are well received by the YouTube outdoors community I’ve come to know: walkers and wild campers in Scotland, the Peak District, Lake District, Wales, and North America.

My Masters photography degree ran simultaneously in Britain and China. Tutors set us assignments we had one week to complete, modelling documentary practices. We published our work on the internet and exchanged comments, sometimes with Chinese students. The tutor told us not to discuss f stops and shutter speed. One colleague misunderstood this as if it were prohibited when it was sometimes a necessary part of observation. The point was we were not to indulge in conversation such as you find in amateur photography circles. This is sometimes described as ‘pixel peeping’ referring to obsessive interest in technical details. I don’t understand why, with an activity such as hill walking, so many people like to discuss gear above everything else. The video which has generated by far the greatest interest is this one:

Whereas I find this one more interesting:

There is a craftsman-like enjoyment of good tools for photography and the outdoors, but for me this is peripheral. I initially enjoyed my RX100 as such, jewel like, cradling it in my hand appreciating its engineering. Now I don’t think about it. It does the job as does my tent and rucksack. If I want to stimulate more thinking about such tools I would have to buy new items, representing a consumerist activity and an aspect of society I like to escape.

The hills offer antidote and counterpoint. I go into the mountains, the evocative phrase used by writer Nan Shepherd, to get away from toxic contemporary living. For me the hills are not about attainment either, which summit bagging represents, which I realised with greater clarity quite recently. Working on my Pyrenees 2013 photographs for two or three months, I noticed the quality of my memory. I examined each of them very carefully adjusting contrast, saturation, format etc as required. As I did this – which I enjoy but which is laborious – not once did I think about attainment.

Every one of my photographs – in the Pyrenees, Alps, Lake District, Peak District, Snowdonia, Scotland – captures aesthetic experience rather than achievement which in turn, for me, evokes philosophical reflection. The same applies with photography which is relatively tame, in fact it is paradoxically clearer, such as I’ve pursued along the River Mersey and at Chorlton Meadows: local nature conservation areas with the background hum of a nearby motorway. In philosophical terms, contemplating relationship to nature, there’s an argument whereby my local nature reserve is more interesting than the Pyrenees. I go into the Pyrenees mountains, into my second favourite mountains of Scotland, but then come back to the city. Most of us do. I love the mountains, capturing them photographically for later enjoyment. Their value is both distinct and rarefied, as symbol and representation of the natural world.

The feeling you have in such places is not confined to geography but has wider connotations about relationship, place, and nature which are relevant for a nature reserve ramble. Scotland, the Pyrenees, and Chorlton Meadows are enormously different. The difference concerns magnitude, effort, safety, navigation, exposure, drama, challenge, wildness, flora, fauna, altitude, and outlook. I hear the motorway at Chorlton Meadows. I hear fathomless silence at three thousand metres in the Pyrenees and in beautiful isolated valleys. If I twist my ankle at one place it will be a painful inconvenience. If I twist my ankle at the other place it might be dangerous in relation to cold, rain, food, sleep, and the nearest town. The two situations can however be imaginatively and philosophically woven according to the following:

Mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes

― Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind

Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame

― W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire

Lake District





Peak District

Chorlton Meadows