My work has necessarily and naturally evolved through a variety of fields, but the fundamentals have remained the same: press a shutter button, the reflected light from an object passes through a light-tight box and records on light-sensitive material. A fleeting moment frozen in time.
In late 1990 I left the Royal Air Force (where I had served for six years as a Ground Photographer) and set up as a freelance location photographer based in Birmingham. I particularly wanted to be a location photographer for two reasons: I didn’t want to go to the expense of setting up a studio, and I wanted to work outdoors where I have always felt at my most happy—I never liked being stuck indoors as a kid so why should I choose a career path that kept me cooped up as an adult?
As a sole trader, I had to become adept at many skills, such as marketing, communications, and finance, even before I considered what I pointed my camera at. I had to have diversity in my clients and the fields that I worked in to make a living. Over the ten years that I worked in the city, my portfolio grew to take in architecture, corporate brochures, editorial, marketing, PR and advertising. All of it good work and well paid, but I increasingly became disillusioned with what I was doing with my practice, and with how I was living my life. At some point it hit me: photography was a passion that had grown from a childhood hobby and during the ‘90s it had become just a job. I didn’t want it to be just a job.
Over the past ten years—since we got together—Harriet and I have been steadily working on projects/themes that interest us and collecting a growing group of partners who fund the kind of work that we do; but, just as importantly, they are partners whose ideals chime with ours. I have always maintained that curiosity is my greatest tool, followed closely by a camera. And the work that we do is built on good relationships founded over time. The best piece of advice I could perhaps give to someone starting in photography would be to follow your passion, use a camera to show the world as you see it, show what you feel is important and needs telling to a wider audience. I think it is easier to develop a practice if you are focused on what you want to say and who your audience is.
Very soon in our partnership, Harriet and I realized we wanted to focus our work around the environment and how we and others relate to the landscape. So it has only been natural that our sifting for ideas has concentrated in that sphere.
The internet is a wonderful resource and we can become lost for hours following threads of stories and ideas. Ideas are everywhere you care to look, but getting an idea is just a starting point. We interviewed the artist David Nash a couple of years ago as part of our project The Long View and what he said nailed it:
“when you have an idea, it hasn’t got any molecules until you’ve incarnated it in some way by making a sketch, or making a note to materially recognize the impulse. If you don’t do anything with it, the idea evaporates! It goes: you had your chance, it winked at you -you need to respond! This is why carrying a notebook, particularly for students, is very important.”
Here is a link to the article we wrote about our conversation with him: http://www.somewhere-nowhere.com/projects/in-conversation.
Ideas need to have momentum in order to carry them forward and that momentum can only come from within.
I have never had a problem filling my time with other things to do. If I’m struggling to nail something—such as writing this, since I’m not a natural writer—then I can easily step away to do one of a hundred other things that are on a to-do list.
In recent years, my work in part has moved from solely documenting a scene to conveying a mood or the feel of a place. A subtle difference, perhaps, but nonetheless something I am aware of. My work has evolved away from purely being a photographer to becoming an installation artist over the past decade. This has been a challenge at a lot of levels but also great source of joy and, dare I say it, pride. Of course, part of the act of placing a temporary installation in the landscape has been to record it through photography, so I think it blurs the lines a little between photography and art. But then, I have always considered photography as a form of art.
Our work looks at issues about our own local, our “here,” and how we and others relate to the space. The more that we have investigated the elements that make up a place the more that we have come to hear from others that our experience and understanding resonates with them, too.
This was tellingly illustrated when we toured the exhibition of our first project “Land Keepers,” which focused on the lives of hill farmers here in Cumbria. The exhibition showed in the Pavilion gallery of the Royal Geographical Society in London and we stayed in that space over the course of the week just to engage with visitors, many of whom were from overseas. They told us that the extended quotes that we had pulled out to accompany each of the farmer’s portraits could have been said by people who worked the land back in their own country, be it India, Italy or the USA.
I can only use my work to document my “here” but through doing so and by carrying out research I have come to understand that everything is connected and all of the world’s “heres” overlap to a lesser or greater degree.
Research is a huge part of my work. I like to find relevance to what I am trying to achieve through my photography with what is going on in the wider world, particularly concerning the environment. In this mixed-up world of fake news, it is vitally important to identify where the real facts are coming from and who the truth-speakers are. But I know that it’s also important to keep a watchful eye on areas beyond my own natural echo-chamber, to hear what other voices are saying, and what clever means are being employed to confuse issues and help keep the wrong status quo in place.
Research for me means embedding knowledge so that I’m able to speak with greater clarity and purpose about my ideas and the themes that I want to discuss through my image-making. I have come to understand that the twinning of words and images are far more powerful than either on their own, which is why I think that Harriet’s and my work are so useful in these times.
In a way what I do with my photography can also be seen as a form of research, albeit in a much less formal way. To spend a lot of time in the fells (Cumbrian mountains) is to understand it better and through my images be able to express the pressures on the land and how the challenges might be best addressed moving forward. I want my image-making to be relevant and useful, to play a part in the debate of how we treat the planet and other, non-human lifeforms who share this space with us.
Projects can take several years to develop and may change a fair bit during that time. The seeds of The Long View can be traced back to a trans-Atlantic plane journey in May 2010, but we didn’t actually start the material gathering until the autumn of 2015. In that five-year span we worked on several other projects and came up with new ideas, but The Long View still played at the edges of our thoughts. It continued to evolve and the seven trees we eventually settled on to work with were sought out and found over that time.
The detailed conversations had at the beginning of any project— we call them “meetings,” and they are sometimes held out of doors, sometimes in a pub over a pint—are crucial to define the direction of any project and the message we want to convey through our work. You need to set the stall out at the beginning in order to achieve the aims and objectives of any work. That is not to say that there is no room for spontaneity or tweaks to a project as it happens—this has to be there in any creative endeavor—but we usually stay true to the core of any project we set out working on.
I tried thinking about my own process of making images during a project. However, trying to mentally place myself back to times when I think I have made some good images I cannot recall what I was thinking then. My work feels instinctive, it’s almost like I am ‘stalking’ the scene, working with the subject and the light before settling into the ‘right place’ to frame what I want to show.
My editing process varies, depending on which method of image-making I am using.
For digital work on my Nikon gear I use Lightroom—which is a great tool—for downloading and any post-production of my work. I don’t tend to alter my files too much, but it is great for changing the mood of an image and helping to get a different “feel” across. Using this system as a tool has to some extent revolutionized my work and what my images are able to convey.
For my real-film, large format work, I meticulously edit in-camera as I always show the edge of the film—the rebate as it’s known—in the final print. I rarely make more than half-a-dozen real-film images of any one subject so I take care and time in setting the camera up. There is no allowance for poor composition and, of course, I cannot check until after I have developed the negative, which can be many weeks later. If it’s a static subject, such as a tree, or building, or one of our art installations, this is fairly straightforward. I just try and work out the right composition taking into consideration the light conditions. However, I have a different approach when I make portraits of people I have met on my travels to remote places, or who we have interviewed as part of projects we have worked on. On these occasions I tend to set the camera up to frame a background that appeals to me and is part of their story, then I invite the person (or persons) to step into the frame. I only ever give one instruction to them: to look directly into the lens. I want them to look directly into the eyes of whoever sees the final image, for them to connect virtually with each other across time, space and usually cultural difference.
We live in a rurally isolated community in one of England’s largest and least-populated counties. But within this region are a wealth of artists and creators each doing great works in their chosen fields. This is our community and it has been organically grown over the past two decades. We connect through events, creative gatherings, and just generally through socializing. Beyond the local connections I am a member of a number of organizations to help feed fresh ideas and thinking into my work, and keep me tapped into the world in a more general way: its politics, environmental issues, social problems. And I count my blessings daily that my life partner is also my working partner. We help each other all the time, critique one another’s work and push each other to extend the edges of our comfort zone and to try things differently.
As part of our current project, Sense of Here, we set down a challenging objective to do one wild camp for each month of last year and also to place 12 Poem Canvases in the landscape for each of those months. I remember strolling down off a high fell on the morning of December 19th having just finished the final camp. We had witnessed a glorious sunrise on a cold, sharp morning, the mountains to the north stunningly lit and a single raven coursing the crags behind us. That felt like a milestone.
These are moments of joy and they need to be savored and stored for when the good times are beyond the horizon. Such as now.