Vision

As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the natural world. At school it was simply that I preferred being outdoors to in. In class I’d choose the seat whose window framed the best view, ideally of a distant hilltop. Through my teenage years I had so many hobbies it became a joke amongst my friends – climbing, fishing, camping, sailing, natural history, photography, falconry even. All took place outdoors. At university I studied Geomorphology – how the bones of the landscape had formed and where they might be going.

As I got older some interests waned, others strengthened, and along the way I began to understand the common thread and what I was seeking. All served as a tool to engage with the landscape, a way to connect with the elements, the rock, soil and the life that grew out of them.

Climbing steadily became my obsession. I loved the movement and the thrill of heights, but most of all the special places and the way the climb connected me to them. The climbs themselves soon became less a reason than an excuse; a ticket to dally, move slowly, to sink into the landscape and absorb the details. Somewhere like Tremadoc in spring perhaps, the climb starting deep in the dense undergrowth with the adders, the fecundity enveloping and ennervating. Gaining height, the views open out, a raven fledgling clumsy in the oaks. The fear-heightened awareness and close physical contact of climbing were the catalyst at first, but over time the door stayed open. I understood that for any other creature this state - a deep, constant connection with the land - was simply everyday life. Civilisation has given so much, but did we lose something along the way?

As a tool for that connection, I soon found my camera had potential too. Photography offered the same excuse, with the kick that it might be just possible to capture a bit of that atmosphere, to bottle those feelings for a later date. Months later, whilst rain lashed the window from the November darkness, I could pull out the lightbox, put my eye to the loupe and sink back in.

As my interest grew it took me in a new direction. Whilst climbing takes me to many of the places in landscape and edges in time that make for great photographs, it is generally coincidental. A great sunset is a bonus for a bivvy, or a spur to hurry home, but not the driving force. With a camera, my presence in the landscape has become (perhaps ironically!) less focussed, my goals more abstract; essentially I'm in pursuit of one thing – beauty. Its a tricky thing; more beautiful subject matter makes for more beautiful pictures, but how to find it? Either you can spend a fortune travelling to the photographic meccas of the world, or you can try to develop a greater awareness of beauty, and actively pursue it in whatever landscape you have. I'm a great believer in the second approach. The kick is that the more beauty you can experience, the more sensitive to it you become, and so the more you see. Hopping from one great location to the next may give immediate satisfaction, but staying put and going for a deeper appreciation of my surroundings has given me more lasting insight.

At first, photographing climbing held little appeal. Alone, each was involving; but combining the two felt like spectating. In magazines I saw nothing to inspire, they put the climber first, with the landscape, the rock or the experience itself a firm second. Climbing is innately a photogenic sport, and with modern equipment it’s very easy to take highly publishable photographs that say little about place. I didn’t want to churn out posed shots of logoed-up heroes on rehearsed ascents. That changed with a few of Ray Wood’s photographs, and discovering the writings of the American climber and photographer Galen Rowell. Ray’s photos put the land first and the climber second. Galen explained his art as participatory photography. He photographed his fellow climbers at moments that expressed how he felt to be in that landscape, and showed that it was possible to combine significant, hard climbs with photography of enduring worth.

As time goes on, I’m learning to relax and not agonise over what I photograph, or in what style. I’m finding the key is to try to switch off the chatter of the conscious mind and let the pictures be a product of simply existing. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also the mind state which works best when I’m climbing. There is a lot of common ground between unlocking a difficult move and resolving the conflicts within a composition. A soft approach perhaps, but the alternative of forcing the issue has rarely worked for me.