The Puna de Atacama or Atacama Plateau is an arid high plateau in the Andes of Argentina. The term "Puna" (Quechua) means "Moor" or "Cool Earth".
I first came to know about it though a chance encounter in my dentist's waiting room about a year ago. A travel magazine featuring pictures of what I initially thought was either the Chilean or Bolivian Atacama grabbed my attention. So familiar was the landscape that I assumed I must know of it. But I had never been here nor heard of it until this very moment.
One picture in particular drew me in. In a double-page spread, I found myself staring at the oddest looking conical shaped mountain I’d ever seen. Cono de Arita rises 122 meters above the Salar de Arizaro, the sixth largest salt flat on earth. It is also quite a distance from the nearest village of Tolar Grande which is 70km away.
Cono de Arita is an arresting object to experience. The way the tones of its dark pyramid shape contrast with the surrounding salt flat is quite startling. From the moment I saw that first picture of it, I knew I had to come and visit.
All the images in this portfolio were made during a six day tour. Just myself and my guide Pancho in his little 4WD pickup truck. He had water canisters in the back and a collection of Argentine music in the cab.
We spoke of many things during our drive across the plateau - he of Argentine culture, the geology of the landscape and most importantly, of his love for his beautiful little daughter. I spoke of what it's like to be Scottish and my love for the high plateau landscapes of the Andes.
At each moment of our many conversations, we remained the only static things in the landscape while outside, the terrain was always changing. Sometimes the transition would be instantaneous, other times we would spend many hours with the landscape not changing at all.
For instance, the journey out to the Cono de Arita for sunrise, a mere 70km away from the town we slept in, seemed to last forever. Despite seeing the volcano for well over an hour from the front seat of Pancho's 4WD, we seemed to get no closer to it. Such is the optical illusion of driving over a large salt flat: things far away appear to be deceptively close.
But what I discovered in the Puna was much more than the tantalising shape of cono de Arita. The Campo de Piedra Poméz (pumice stone field) for instance, is a massive area littered with pumice rock as big as boats and shaped just like them. Each rock faces the same way, with their sharply defined bows pointing towards some imaginary destination, ready to sail.
I ran out of time. Six days isn’t really nearly enough time to do the Puna justice. The distances were great, and due to frustration of not knowing the places well, I missed an awful lot. I often felt I turned up at places that would be great during sunrise, but I was there for sunset.
Like I always say to people who ask me how I find out about where to shoot:
"I often go at least twice, the first time to find out what it is I should photograph, the second time to go and photograph it. And if I really fall in love with the place, I keep going back to delve beneath the obvious".
I am already hatching plans to do just that.
Hokkaido (北海道) 2015
Snow Country - Homage to Kenna
I was drawn here by the stunningly beautiful mono work of Michael Kenna. His highly personalised view of this island as a perpetual winter landscape of lone trees and fence posts, like brush strokes on a white canvas, left an indelible mark on my mind many moons ago. To my mind, Hokkaido is Kenna and Kenna is Hokkaido.
There is always value in following in the footsteps of those who influence you. You can learn so much from them. But at some point your paths should diverge as you find your own voice. This I believe only happens after some time.
I think I always knew I was going to come to Hokkaido. Like a rite of passage, I had to experience it for myself. I just didn’t know I would do it so late in my own photographic development, nor with the kind help of Michael Kenna himself.
I believe it's healthy to recognise my influences. Not only does the acknowledgement allow me to embrace them for what they have given me, but I also get the chance to consciously thank them for showing me the way forward. I've learned so much from studying Kenna’s minimalist style, particularly his Hokkaido landscapes. These lessons have been invaluable, and for this, I will always be eternally grateful. Thank you Michael.
Bolivian Altiplano 2015
Valle de Dalì & the Siloli desert Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Abaroa
The high altitude thin air and the light that accompanies it, makes the Bolivian altiplano like no other place I know. The landscape is surreal, sometimes exactly like a Dalì painting with colour palettes that I don't find in other landscapes. The altiplano is a place I find I can work on simplifying my composition skills. It is a vast, empty and strangely beautiful place to be.
These are a few of the hardships one may encounter while here on the Altiplano of Bolivia. At an elevation of 3,600m at its lowest point and 4,800m at its highest, it is a hard environment to exist in. But it’s not just the lack of air. The temperature in the shade can often leave you wishing for warmth, while outside in the sun, the UV content is so harsh that sunglasses and a hat are necessary, if not mandatory. Your down jacket remains on, at all times, like a permanent fixture to your body.
Is something that does not exist here. After almost three weeks at high elevation, my skin began to crack on the back of my hands. Abrasions appeared whilst taking my winter gloves off for brief moments to operate my camera at -17ºC. My lips were constantly chapped.
There were many times when I thought my camera had seized up in the cold of the morning, only to find that it was my mind instead, that had stopped working. I lost many shots because of user error, exacerbated by hands that would not, and could not work the settings of my camera at low temperatures.
A landscape full of light
But what light! The reason why I am here!
Every hardship that I experienced at high altitude was worth it - for those gorgeous rays of light that I witnessed each morning and evening. Like clockwork, always on time and never disappointing me, the light possessed a vibrancy that affected my Fuji Velvia film in a way, that no other landscape has.
I'd like to express my deepest of thanks to the following guides and drivers who assisted me over the three week period I was at high altitude:
Abel Valdivia Lopez Armando Mamani Flores Demetrio Chavez Vergara
Alvaro Oropeza Carbera Marisol Maydana
Torres del Paine national park, in the southern region of Chile, is a place that I've been going to since 2003. I love this place dearly, despite it being a very difficult place to photograph.
For years I've been seeking to shoot this place with a lot of colour in mind. I guess I have been drawn in by those red Patagonian skies. But things have changed for me recently. I've come to realise that some places have a character due to the coldness of the light they are bathed in. Torres del Paine national park is one such place. It is a beautifully stark place, and I feel I've only just begun to understand it.
About the last photo
I always find myself full of thoughts about where I've just been and what I've experienced whilst there. Each time I fly home from Patagonia, the glaciers and mountains are sometimes hidden by a bank of cloud. There's something quite calming about seeing an inverted horizon above the clouds with beautiful tones. It's a great way to say goodbye to a place that is one of my homes from home.
Weather, Light, Colour, Emotion
Most folk who live in Scotland find the weather during November harsh. It's often wet, windy and cold.
But visiting the isle of Harris when there are many winter storms coming through, has given me the chance to work with atmosphere more than anywhere else I know of.
Although the island offers little in the way of craggy coast-line or sharply defined mountains, I find this lack of attributes ideal, because it allows me to focus on the basic elements of colour and tone.
Harris is all about atmospheric changes.
Often overwhelmed by the space around me, I find I seem to tune in to the elements, so much so, that I can spend days here absorbed in it all. And days I must spend, because Harris does not offer up its secrets in one day.
The variances of light on the landscape change and evolve slowly over days if not weeks and I often feel Harris is all about the study of time.
Above all, the changes in the landscape seem to reflect the changes that I notice within me as a photographer. And I feel there has been a change. Perhaps I'm trying less to tell the landscape what I want, and instead, I'm more at ease with letting it tell me what it wants.
Bolivian Altiplano 2013
Sometimes I feel as though I really know a place, only to find that I've really just scratched the surface.
The Altiplano of northern Chile and Bolivia had many surprises in store for me in 2013. I had not anticipated snow at such a high elevation during the season that I ventured here.
I'm only acutely aware now, that the Altiplano figures largely in my future as a place for me to work on my compositions, and my understanding of light, shade and tone. It offers challenges that I have not experienced elsewhere on my travels to date.
The Unveiling of a Portfolio
I often leave large spells between a shoot, and the editing of it. I find the distance allows me to gain some objectivity.
While I was editing this body of work, I realised that leaving things too long, can bring on a feeling of creative blockage. It was such a joy to work on these images. Each one has its own personality, and now that they're all here, I feel as if I've always known them. Like they were always here, but just out of sight, waiting to come out and show me who they are.
I also enjoyed watching the entire portfolio take shape. As each image was completed, I felt as if the mood and tone and story of the portfolio shifted and changed.
Like an Arctic Tundra
Visiting the south coast of Iceland in January, was like seeing a familiar friend in a very new way.
We saw icelandic ponies, set like black silhouettes against the white backdrop of nothingness, and I often wished I could have made images of them. But it was not to be.
We had snow drifts and oftentimes the sky was inseparable from the ground that we were driving on.
The landscape still provided. I think in some ways, Iceland remains one of my best friends.
I took along a recently acquired hasselblad 500CM camera that I'd aquired from a dear friend. I love the square aspect ratio and I think it was great to come to Iceland, and see new compositions - suggested to me - by working with a new aspect ratio.
I think square has more of a graphic-art suggestion to it. I think this lends itself to influencing you to look at the landscape in a more abstract way. It's certainly something I wish to continue to explore. Sometimes, new (old) equipment can lead you in a new direction.
Tones & Simple Shapes
I didn't know quite what to expect returning back to Bolivia. Would I create the same kind of work as I did in 2009, or would I have a new way of looking at the same landscape?
I'm pleased to say that I didn't have an answer to this until I was back home, working on the new images from this trip.
I now see, that my first trip to Bolivia in 2009 opened up the door towards simple compositions and this recent trip allowed me to see how far I've come down that road.
It's been a beautiful journey so far and the altiplano is a great place to simplify, and think about tones and shapes only.
Vibrancy & Hues
On the altiplano, and particularly so on the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, one is forced to think about tone and colour only, because that's all there is to work with.
It really does make for a great lesson in 'less is more'.
But I feel that it's not just about improving craft.
The clarity of the light really does make for a very intimate experience. I do hope to continue to come here, as there is so much more that I have yet to explore.