Notes From The Mountains: Authentic Photography And The Lake District Friday February 21, 2014

I was recently struck by the above realisation. There’s a difference between writing, photography and video designed to entertain, and that which expresses something more personal and direct. Are you aiming for an audience or something more intangible? Trying to capture interest or inviting it? Serenity or action – and which is the more authentic regarding your experience of the hills?

I don’t think there are easy answers or any single definitive answer. Your work may have a little of all of it and in varying degrees at different moments. I think the questions however are worth some reflection. It’s comparable to music and how at one end of the spectrum you have pretty young people who don’t compose, play an instrument, and barely sing. There’s a nasal, whiny tone to it with flat modulation which never tests the voice. Compare ooh baby, baby, nonsense of Miley, Beyonce, Bieber and their kind with Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Oasis. “Everything’s choreographed now, it’s fucking rubbish,” Noel Gallagher once said very perceptively: it’s a quotation I’ve used before.

Flat tone itself is not necessarily bad: consider the talk singing of Jim Morrison, Captain Beefheart, and Hugh Cornwell. The Doors, Beefheart and Stranglers were in that respect similar but it was driven by artistry and was great music. Or you can have an aggressive, flat, angry voice like Strummer, Lydon, and the unnerving magnificence of PJ Harvey. If you know the song, I only have to write “no, you’re not rid of me” to invoke the chilling power of her work resting on something unforgettably raw wrested into musical shape.

I’m considering then, in some loose fashion, the nature of art and authenticity and how these ideas may apply to mountain photography. The photographic subject – I will say this outright – is actually very limited. We have hills, shadows, lakes, rocks, grass, trees, and sunsets. This does not mean however the subject is banal. Walk big places in the Pyrenees, Scotland, the Lake District, Wales, even the relatively tame Peak District – and you find drama and magnificence worthy of photographic capture. There’s nothing cool about sneering at this. There’s a scene in the Trainspotting movie where the anti heroes take a train to the Scottish hills. “I’m not going there!” they say, “there’s nothing there!” The reverse is arguably more accurate and constructive: there’s nothing back in Glasgow where they take their drugs. Nothing, that is, to feed the human soul.

If you visit the Lake District in particular you find it’s saturated with tourism which means books, postcards, and stuffed toy animals. Many years ago I bought a collection of books for the photographs; now I take my own. There is, undeniably, a percentage of these photographs we might describe as ‘chocolate box’ pretty. Ashness Bridge looking towards Derwent Water and Skiddaw, the jetty onto Derwent Water (you know where it is), the distinctive Langdale Pikes (you know the view), Great Gable from Wasdale, Wastwater from Great Gable. I’m considering these photographic subjects both critically, because I’m trained to do so, and photographically because that’s my artistic passion. There is some degree of reproduction, some degree of trying to capture the same image you’ve seen in a book for the fun and satisfaction of doing so. This may be conscious, as with the scenes cited above, or it may be unconscious. I’ve noticed how I absorb the photographic language of others and how it serves to shape my own work; and how sometimes I’m not immediately aware of this.

It’s also true the photographic potential of the Lake District is never fully realised. If you wild camp in particular, immersing yourself in the hills and experiencing all they offer – early morning, day, evening, night, rain, sun, snow – you realise even in familiar places there are sights and moments which have never before been captured.

You have to walk the hills, and linger in the hills, to understand this. You have to find it for yourself: despite the tourism and quantity of pretty shots, you can still explore the Lake District and discover satisfying and authentic photography.

From Snowdonia, to illustrate my point:

Lake District





Peak District

Chorlton Meadows