On the Bolivian Altiplano, I photographed El Arbol de Piedra (the stone tree) around 6am.
I had to retreat to the 4WD and sit in the warmth because my hands had gone so cold that they had become unresponsive. I couldn’t operate my camera. It was a stunning revelation because I wasn’t aware of it being cold. I’m not sure if this was because I was suffering slight altitude sickness problems anyway, but at the time I thought it was just that temperatures at higher altitudes just ‘felt different’ from the cold I know so well in a Scottish winter.
I dug out the contact sheet of film yesterday and this was the one that really stood out. It was shot a little bit earler than the rest and the light was just a bit more magical. Wish I’d laid off on the polariser though, but all the same, I’m happy with this shot.
Dali was apparently inspired by this very location and now that I’ve been there, I can exactly see how.
I shot this with a Mamiya 7 and I can’t remember if it was wide angle (50mm) or standard (80mm). But I do remember not using a Grad filter because I found that the landscapes in Bolivia seemed to have the same luminance as the skies did. I don’t know why that should be.
Just one of the many strange things I found different about shooting this landscape, compared to any other I’ve done so far.
On my recent trip to Patagonia, a member of the trip told me he tends to try to ‘get it all in’. We were standing on a little bridge over to a small island in Lago Pehoe at the time.
What I recall about this little discussion was that I thought we had both ‘seen’ the same thing. I took my shot and then went over to see what he was doing, only to find out that he was trying to get the lake, the mountains and the hotel, situated on the small island into the shot. I showed him what I had composed (see below), and his comment was ‘you go for very simple compositions’. It was a concise point. He was concise with his words, whereas I tend to be quite verbose. But in terms of picture composition, he was pretty verbose while I was concise.
Lago Pehoe Curve
I think the strength of an image lies many times in what we exclude from it. Putting more things into a scene can often dilute the strength of the message. Keeping it simple is key.
With the image in question, what I was grabbed by was the sweeping curve in the dark sand in the foreground. I’m a sucker for composing landscape shots in portrait mode. I’m convinced this is because of how I actually interpret scenes, but also, because the 6×7 aspect ratio lends to this. I tried to compose the same shot using a 5DII while I was there and it simple didn’t work. Too much height – too much sky and too much forground. I find 35mm aspect ratio of 3:2 not conducive to how I think about objects and place them within the frame. But that’s just me.
Focus and isolating down to the barest components of a scene is the way forward to making a strong image. When looking at a scene next time, try to think about what it is you are actually drawn to, and whether everything in there actually needs to be there. Remove items and reduce. Isolate and improve impact.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what I’ve shot in Bolivia, but thought it would be nice to post the very first scan I’ve made.
This is the largest salt plain in the world – the Salar de Uyuni.
I shot this around 4pm in the afternoon. I was camping on Pescado Island and decided that since sunset was around 6.30, I should head out into the massive salt plain to see where the edge of the island was, so I could determine if I would have a good shooting vantage point facing east (away from the sunset) and of course west (into the sunset). Preparation is everything and I ended up walking a great distance.
I have to admit that I loved doing this. It’s not often I get the chance to stand in such a place and enjoy it on my own. I was completely alone for 3 hours, absorbed in the landscape and the far of distance signs of rain.
Now I’m back 100% to using film, I can’t help wonder sometimes if I’ve lost the ability to shoot quickly. With the participants of my tour of Torres, I was aware that there were shots I was not getting.
Here is one example. We were at the edge of Lago Grey, shooting the surrounding, all-encompasing Paine massif one morning, and I really wasn’t sure if Velvia film was really going to cut it. The light was still relatively soft, but I kept thinking ‘digital would cut this no problem’ whereas I only ever shoot Velvia in the very early mornings and late evenings when the light is very, very soft. So I felt frustrated…. damn, being using a digital SLR for too long and I’ve started to rely on the histogram too much. Plus, the Mamiya 7 sucks at telephoto support and fast lenses. I felt weighed down, I felt I wasn’t going to get my shot
And then out of the blue a fuegan fox appeared on the scene and litterally walked in from the right and departed from the left of my scene. My temptation was to have a telephoto there and then to get in close to the fox, but I’m so glad I was constrained. As much as the fox is tiny, the resulting photo I feel, works well. The mountains are commanding, they are certainly a major point of interest, and perhaps without the fox, the landscape image wasn’t really strong enough. Putting the fox in there, as small as he is, doesn’t demand too much attention – there’s no conflict between the fox and the mountains for attention. The fox is complimentary to the mountains by adding some foreground interest at the right proportions and from the foxes point of view, it’s good to have a background that can be used to convey a sense of scale. Sometimes, isolation, reducing down a photo to the most interesting element (fox) is too drastic. Sometimes you need to step back and let the entire landscape in. For that reason, I’m glad I was stuck with my Mamiya 7. I had to make use of what I had, and hopefully use it well.
Now I’m back shooting film, I’m certainly not going to even consider digital for the foreseeable future. It’s just been such a painful process for me to have to try to get the colours I like out of a digital system.
Here’s a picture of Boudhanath Stupa, the largest Stupa outside of Tibet.
I shot this one evening as the light was beginning to fade, while I was perched at the top of a cafe right across from it. This stupa is incredibly busy, and because of the white wash on it, it can be extremely hard to shoot properly.
I’m always looking for atmosphere in what I do, so I knew I had to shoot this at a time when no one is around. Mornings were ruled out, because quite frankly, I couldn’t seem to get there before the local Tibetans started to circumnavigate the Stupa as part of their daily ritual.
It is like a motorway, a congested one, in the small hours. So I shot this in the evening with a deliberate long exposure so I could get motion in the prayer flags.
I’m just back from my travels. Apart from being extremely tired, I have to report that the Bolivian Altiplano gets my vote for probably the most surprising landscape I have yet encountered.
Up until I went to Bolivia, Iceland had been awarded that distinction as far as I was concerned. Iceland is superb, surprising, and like another planet, but the Bolivina altiplano goes one step further. I felt I was on mars, but mars as painted by Dali. There were landscapes there that are reportedly what fueled on Dali with his painting when he visited. I can now see where he got a lot of his ideas from.
Due to the high altitude, I suffered AMS symptoms for a couple of days. But during that time I got to stand on the Salar at 5am waiting, in the middle of the largest salt plain in the world, watching the sun come up and present one of the best sunrises I’ve seen in a long time. And it just got better and better. Each night and day provided stunning sunrises and sunsets.
So I’m pretty confident that I’ve just made some of my best images to date.
I’ve too much film to work on, process, scan, edit. I’ve got a backlog of film from India and Nepal, plus new Scotland images…. I’m going to be busy. Plus setting up some new workshops : Who wants to go to Bolivia next year? Let me know….. and who wants to go to Torres del Paine in Winter?
Anyway, I’ve got a bit of sleep to catch up on. Until then…