Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Youth In High Places

The Cairn On Mayar
This Was Made With The Rollei T With 16-On Kit.
Film Was FP4 Developed In Rodinal

Morning folks, well, in the absence of any photographic activity whatsoever, I was scrubbing me noggin, trying to think of something, and then came across this quote in the booklet of a recent CD by a Dutch musician called John Kerr. 
I personally think he is under the hammer of some ultimately fatal diagnosis, for (much like the uber-famous Klaus Schulze) his recent albums have had a theme of memorial to them - anyway, aside from that, the album is called "Requiem For A Dream"; it isn't the sort of music I listen to, just one of the artists we sell, but I was touched by what was quoted:

Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. 
Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.
Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924)

It's a brilliant quote isn't it.
There was something about it which resonated with me, and days later, there I was again in the preternatural morning light of Scotland, this time not with socks in my hand, but two recycling bins.
The sky was dark turning light.
I happened to glance up at the stars again and there, quicker than a thought, quicker than it took to register in my mind, shot a meteor.
It was an incredibly brief unzipping and zipping of the dark, like a shining through to some vast, bright beyond.
And again, like a distant gong, something resonated within me and I felt that kinship with my proto-me.

The always interesting Kate Bush once had this to say on the matter:

"I have a theory that there are parts of our mental worlds that are still based around the age between five and eight, and we just kind of pretend to be grown-up, Our essence is there in a much more powerful way when we're children, and if you're lucky enough to... hang onto who you are, you do have that at your core for the rest of your life." 

I think what she said has a lot of validity (though maybe everyone is different in which bit of their early years they most associate with). If I were stuck with The Blob (that was me, pre-teens) all I'd be interested in was 'Where's the food?' and farting . . oh and fishing . . .
So in my case, proto-me dates from my later teen years; a younger, hairier Sheephouse, who, despite the passing decades, is really (in essence [he's not changed much]) still here.

Fairly Typical Scottish Mountain Weather.
This Is The Foot Of Jock's Road Before It Gets Really Serious.

We're a funny pair, him and me - he's a bit mad; worried about his future and the mantel of responsibility that comes with leaving youth behind. He's also a bit in awe of the machinations of  nature; a bit bewildered by how his world could change on a sixpence and if truth be told, deeply sad . . not in the modern sense, but sad from sadness. 
He finds solace in peace, aloneness, and a deeply-tuned syzygy with the countryside that surrounds him.
That's him over there examining some lampreys and water nymphs.
He always yearned to get into the high mountain passes too, because he was fascinated by them; but the absence of transport/someone to go with/correct gear, meant he never did, 'til one day (in his late-30's) he said to himself,
"Feck it"
bought some boots and a map and got out there.
Anyway, before we go and speak to him, let me tell you something - he's got some thing.
I am jealous because I had it once too . . . (no laughing at the back) . . . 

There are numerous references in ancient literature to the 'third eye' - y'know, that place in the centre of your eyebrows where your uber-consciousness; your key to infinity, dwells.
He had one.
No kidding!
It was there like a subcutaneous feeling above his eyes, but weirdly, it was only a thing he discovered after long hours of outdoor solitary confinement.

Let me explain myself there.
Isolation can do weird things to a mind.
In my later teenage years I was isolated.
This wasn't really true loneliness - the two are very different things.
No, I was isolated in the middle of nowhere.
Sure there were buses (last bus to anywhere about 5.30PM) and even if I got there, what was I going to do?
Only two of my friends drove and petrol was expensive, so when I came home from school at night or at weekends, that was pretty much me on my tod.
I dreamt a lot.
I walked miles in open-air solitude.
Sure, I had aspirations and all that shit that people expect you to be thinking about for your futurebut in reality I really wanted to be a roadie (!) though what chance had I of that (despite the [no doubt] numerous bands whizzing up and down the A74 in their transit vans) . . . it would have (temporarily) broken my Mum's heart.
So all I could do was hunker down in the long grass, immerse myself in nature and dream of a time when I could get out into the world.
Circumstance meant that I was fortunate to be living at the top of a steep drop down to an incredible riverbank, and it was there I would spend long hours just sitting and watching.
I let the warp and weft of moving water enfold me in a richly contemplative peace.

Fish became somewhat of an obsession.
You've really never lived till you've seen large sea-trout lift themselves free from their fluid domain, urge themselves into the weight of gravity, take a passing insect and then crash back into the water.
Similarly in the languidity of summer, when all the water is as golden brown as the brown trout who wait, idle in the lea of river-stones, till some hapless fly or nymph floats by.
To watch trout rise, quicker than thought and see them repeat it endlessly, whilst the sun moves beyond the hills and the cold of the river meets the heat of the land, raising mist free of the fields, is something beyond the soul.
To see that mist rolling down to lay itself atop the river, like some sweet lover tucking their water-born companion to sleep, well, it got to me.
But then I guess that is part of what we are. 
Pre-industrialisation the world was a quiet place, leaving room for thought (if you weren't too knackered from the pressing activity of life). What was human consciousness like in that silent time? Was the third eye only there for some?
Was it a mystic and mythical thing for only those who could listen to nature?
Or was it, as I believe, some sort of inner natural link to a deep human past, sort of like a gut-instinct for the mind?
Who knows - all I know is that is what happened to me - I started to feel something I had never felt in my 16 years of living in London. 
It felt rather like an expansion of my mind, which centred around the middle of my eyebrows.
And one day I discovered that nature and me, were (like mist and river) entwined.

Peace - My River
Olympus MjU, Agfa 200 Film

Peace - My River II
Olympus MjU, Agfa 200 Film

BOLLOCKS! I hear you shout, but look at the pictures above - I can only tell the truth.

I felt so attuned to nature that I became a part of it - not a visitor - not a human really, just something natural, something that belonged.
I wandered freely without disturbing creatures. All was open to me: the patter of hedgehogs circling each other in a love dance; clouds of midges that refused to bite me; deer; fish; heron and kingfisher; coypu (!); mink and weasel and stoat; water voles; eagles; a myriad of flocking birds.
I was no danger to any of them.
We saw each other and moved on our way.

I so deeply belonged that when my Mum moved, my heart broke in two and my soul was cast to the winds of the world.
I was (very privately) utterly distraught.
Coming to college in a smallish city sealed thick concrete flaps over that 'eye'.
My mind was stuffed with cotton wool.
The deep awareness I had felt was smothered (even in the bits of the city that were relatively green, there was nothing to tickle my amygdala) and I have rarely felt that connection since.

OK you boring bugger, what has this got to do with photography, or even mountains?

Ah, I knew you'd ask eventually.
Well, my artistic leanings (with the encouragement of Joe McKenzie) and love of the natural world led me to admiring and trying my hand at landscape photography.
I was shit at it.
I tried really hard; I took lots of photos of rocks and trees and rivers, skies and distant hills and the rise and fall of landscape, but for all I tried, I couldn't do it, because landscape can be a double-edged sword.
It is at once awe-inspiring and moving and trite and bland.

There's not that many images which have ever captured the land in a way that speaks to my proto-me.
I don't wish to point any fingers, but go and pick up any photography magazine or go on any photography website and you'll see it in all its (in)gloriousness.
Work your way back through the billions of square inches of film, the googolplex's of pixels. I'll warrant that if you are being honest with yourself, there's some stuff that stirs emotion and a ton that doesn't.
I really don't want to be so horrendously damning about it, but I'm only talking from my point of view - there's an awful lot of 'landscape work' that makes me  go (in modern parlance) "meh".
I no longer look at the majority of it actually (including my own) simply because I can't.

So where are we going with this you pontificating git?

Ah, so glad you asked.
Well, y'see, I think you can squeeze something out of landscape, but it's difficult.
It's not a case of popping your tripod here and there and taking pictures of every incredible vista that assails your eyes.
And it certainly isn't worth playing the emulation card (poor Joe Cornish! if he had a penny for every bloody image that tries to be like his . . . )
So definitely don't just think:

"Ooooooo, wot pic am I going to snap next?
Ohhhhhh Buachaille Etive Mhor looks awesome, I know, I'll do that". 

Because it is EXACTLY THE SAME as that other utterly pointless human activity - ticking Munro boxes.
Not only that, but these poor majestic beauties of nature (hills and mountains) have been photographed more times than you've had hot dinners.
They are sleeping old bones.
Let them sleep!

To capture nature, you first need to understand it.

You need to observe it.
Stalk it as it were!
Just in the same way that motoring all over the country, ticking boxes on a list of high peaks you've climbed doesn't really give you much of an understanding of mountains, so aimlessly snapping away at anything scenic in the hope of capturing something profound, will not get you anything more than a chocolate box picture of the land, or, that dying pariah, the postcard.
It's like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant, slurping your way through each course in 5 minutes flat and then saying,
"Great, what's next?"

This land is vast.

Mountains are hard and difficult places. They need to be appreciated, and that can only happen with time and effort.
Revisit many times if possible.
Like a person, get to know them!

The marvellous British photographer, John Blakemore, back in the 1970's, borrowed a Bronica and explored and re-explored the same stream that flowed through Lynch Clough from Lady Bower Reservoir.
He did this with other places too, constantly re-examining the areas, to get the atmosphere and feel of a place.
And it worked.
Plenty of other photographers have done it too.
James Ravilious with his Devon essays being a notable example; even Bruce Robbins, friend and fellow blogger, who has been taking photographs in the Carse Of Gowrie (just outside Dundee) for decades. His constant re-examination shows. He has the feel of the place nailed.

Am I saying I've got it?
NO, I definitely haven't.
I still don't think I have captured something that has made me stand back, but maybe that's a good thing because it means I am still trying.

Anyway, some photos - if it is alright with you, I'll write a wee blurb under each one to keep us all right, alright?
The young Sheephouse would have delighted in these high places in his late teens. The older Sheephouse says:

"Here y'go Son - we made it."

You've maybe seen some before, but they're only here because I've not had time.

Hard to ascertain from the photograph, well maybe the icicles are a clue, but everything, including the tree, was frozen solid. Ground when it is like this is nice and easy to walk over as there is a very slight crunch and give underfoot, so you're not sliding everywhere.
Although I'd walked a couple of miles to get this at least it was mostly on the flat . . 
This was taken on the Sinar with a 150mm Schneider Symmar-S - the cheapest modern lens (nearly) that you can get for 5x4". It is a sterling performer. I think the film was Delta 100 developed in HC 110.
This would (I think) make a good very large print - I've got some 9.5 x 12" paper somewhere . . might just do that.

Lost Boulders.
These beauties were in a quite little ghetto of boulders cast aside by glacial movement, covered in dense forest, deforested, lost in the midst of modern conifer planting and now, in the past year or so, deforested again . . in other words they've been there for a bleedin' long time.
They're hanging over a helluva steep drop and it really does make you wonder about:

a./ The Mentality 


b./ The Stamina 

of the forestry workers who planted that hillside.
It is beside the path that takes you up to The Shank Of Drumfollow.
Camera was the Sinar F1, a Linhof tripod, Gitzo Series 5 head . . in other words about 15 gravities of weight . . but more on that for the next photo which was taken on the same day.
The lens was the under-rated CHEAPEST way of getting into LF photography . . the humble Schneider 90mm Angulon. It just covers 5x4" with no movements, but you know what, there's something about it that takes a really nice photo. It isn't overly contrasty and has a nice way of dealing with midtones.
I was hovered over the rocks with my body supporting the tripod - it was pretty damn steep.
This being said, I could achieve exactly the same (well, better, much better, but similar) result with the Hasselblad SWC's Biogon. AND I WOULDN'T HAVE TO KILL MYSELF LUGGIN' ALL THAT STUFF!

Honest, The Camera Was 100% Level.
The Shank Of Drumfollow. Well there I was, I'd got to the top of the Col between Dreish and Mayar. It was damn misty climbing up. It had taken me nearly 3 hours to do a walk I've done in 1 hour and 40 minutes. I got to the top - ate my second choccie bar of the day, contemplating heading to Mayar, and what happened? Yep, the mist got souper-thick. This is an extra level of thickness above thick. In other words you can't see a damn thing at all. 
The only way to find your way is to get your bearings with map and compass. Lugging a Sinar F1, Linhof Twin Shank Tripod, Gitzo Series 5 head, 10 dark slides, spare gear, water, and slogging a pair of boots that weighed 1275gms PER BOOT, I was fecking knackered. 
All my enthusiasm for picking my way across a plateau to top a Munro only to be surrounded by dank mist and silence, sent me turning tail and back down again. 
Coming down, I turned around and was astonished by the near 45 degree shape of the hill with all that mist floating around, so I set up the camera and took a photograph.
I kid you not. THE CAMERA WAS LEVEL.
The lens was the 203mm Kodak Ektar; film was original Adox CHS 100 in 1:50 Rodinal.

Cairn To The Witches.
Another uphill, down-dale and UPHILL again, though fortunately not carrying a 5x4 kit. This was my Minolta Autocord - it's totally battered and scratched to buggery, but still manages to capture something.
The cairn is on the shoulder of Cairn Inks, and it was from here that witches would throw boulders and generally have a good mess around with travelers on the Clova road which follows the line of the river in the distance (well, there's two roads in a circuit actually at that point, but below the Cairn it narrows down to one long and lonely dead-end one heading deep into the hills.
I've been to this point a number of times - the hill up to it is about 50 degrees of steepness and it doesn't get any easier.

The Watcher.
I could reveal where this is, but I'd have to kill you. The stone, to me, so resembles a human sitting, watching that I need to explore it more, so Mum is the word.
It was bloomin' cold, but fortunately I was only carrying the Rollei T, Screamin' Chimp (Hakuba tripod) and me. Film was Acros 100 and developed in Rodinal.
Contrast is through the roof,

Bones Of The Earth.
This is quite a common sight on hillsides - burning back old heather cover to encourage new growth which is favoured by grouses, grousci or even just grouse. It makes for a very weird texture, sort of crispy and brittle, but resilient and bouncy all at the same time. This could have been a better photo - if I remember rightly it was the Rollei T and I was stuffed for DOF because I was in close.
Must go back with the SWC.
This being said, aren't those distant hillsides impressive . . but I wouldn't like to climb them!

And that's about it really - where has this long ramble got us?
Well, if you are inclined to get out and explore nature, do it, enjoy yourself, but TAKE YOUR TIME. Munros and other mountains, countryside, hills and Corbetts aren't a competitive sport - they're for contemplation, reflection and exploration and maybe, if you're inclined to pick details, then they can be incredibly revealing of the nature of land and man's interaction with it AND ALSO your own place in that landscape and what it means/has meant to you.

The countryside isn't just somewhere you go through to get from A to B. it is a living, nurturing entity that can teach you a whole deal about yourself if you give it a chance.

TTFN, now where did I put my laxatives . . .