I’ve been playing with the upper registers of tone lately. It’s been a progressional thing for me. I started out years ago with contrasty dark images, but some places just don’t suit that kind of treatment. The Atacama of Chile and the Altiplano of Bolivia are two such places.
I call them collectively the Altiplano as it’s a place that is void of borders for me; in my dreams and in my mind I only see one landscape.
This year was an El Niño year. It wasn’t by far the best year for those vibrant tones I often see at high elevation each sunrise and sunset. But there’s a danger in comparing a visit to a previous one and not running with what you’ve got. This year’s images seem to convey a different quality of light in that respect, and I can’t help think it’s because I’ve chosen to go with what the landscape offered me, than try to get it to submit to any pre-conceived ideas I may have had.
The Altiplano has been a love-affair for me since 2009. I visit the same places each year but I still feel I’m learning and growing. This landscape has taught me so much in terms of simplicity, but also in terms of listening to what it wants to say, and letting it dictate to me rather than me dictate to it. Because of this, it is a surprising place in more ways than I can convey.
Easter Island 2016
There are landscapes that we find challenging and hard, yet we find ourselves returning. It is as if we know there is something there, something worth shooting. It's just that we're not sure what's missing inside of ourselves to allow us to capture what we're feeling.
For me, Easter Island is just like that.
There's a starkness to this place. Black volcanic rubble litters the landscape and often times the light during the day is so harsh it seems that I'll never find the soft tones that I'm seeking in my photography. The light for me, is so different that I really can't make my mind up how best to approach it, so much so, that I've tried going back in different seasons to see if the light is more workable.
This June was perhaps the most successful trip I've had there to date, because it was also the most cloudy. With occasional overcast days that allowed me to shoot the statues and landscape with softer tones, I was happy. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was still very much in my own comfort zone, willing the landscape to conform to me, and not me to it.
It's been thirteen years since I first visited the island. During that time I've been to many places that have resonated with me, where I feel I was able to grow and produce good work. I've also built up a lot of shooting hours now, so I had high hopes that if I returned to Easter Island now, I may be able to work with it.
This turned out to be only partly true. What I did discover was just how much I've changed since that first trip in 2003. I found myself reflecting a lot on what my level of ability was back then from a technical stand point, but I was more interested to discover that I was really looking for very different things now. I felt as if someone had peeled back a curtain to show me more than I'd been able to comprehend on my first visit.
It was enlightening in more ways than I could have imagined.
Being able to look back at where I'd come from was one thing. But because I was in a landscape that conjured up memories and feelings of who I was back in 2003, I couldn't help feel very reflective about my life. So much time had passed, and rather than being someone in is mid-30's, I was now someone fast approaching 50. I couldn't help look within.
I've often attributed photography to being another way for me to meditate. When I am out there making photos, I become invisible to myself. Time disappears, and the present moment often becomes the only thing occupying my mind.
I am here. Nothing else matters. The past and the future don't even enter into my mind. But sometimes, just sometimes, when I visit certain landscapes they seem to act as a mirror, a time to reflect upon who I am, where I've been and what life has meant to me so far. Other times they ask me questions about where I'm going and what the future may hold.
The landscapes we get to know hold many memories for us. They record imprints of who we were and what we were thinking during our past visits, and they remind us of these each time we return. It's a beautiful and special relationship, and I am often reminded that we're not simply here to make great captures; we're also here because of what this exchange does for us on a more intimate and personal level.
I guess that's why I keep returning to Easter Island. It is a landscape that asks lots of questions through the history I have with it.
My previous visits to Patagonia yielded monochromatic, often dark toned imagery. I felt at the time this really summed up my view of this landscape.
Seems I may have been too quick to judge as this year I found myself confronted with a softer, lighter view of the place.
But I think this new lighter imagery came about because of what I'd learned during my recent trip to Hokkaido. It was there that I finally felt I came to terms with lighter tones in my work.
Since visiting Hokkaido in December 2015, I feel my images have been moving towards the higher registers of luminosity. Rather than focussing on the dark tones and 'drama', I now feel I've found a few more octaves of light to play with. I feel I'm in new territory.
In this new work, there is a mixture of dark tones and sometimes light, airy tones. The skill, I believe, is to marry them so they feel part of the same set.
I'm so fortunate to return to Patagonia on a yearly basis. I feel as though this landscape often sets me new challenges, new homework, something to help my photography grow in some way.
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
Puna de Atacama 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.