Style is derived from Relating to the landscape

Building relationships is key to everything we do in life. In the case of friendships and family, we have to spend time with them to let the relationship blossom and deepen. The same is true of landscapes. As we spend more time in certain places, the relationship deepens. We begin to understand them in ways that the casual observer does not. Similar to meeting people for brief moments although we get a rush of new impressions, the relationship is still too young to really know them. So too, with landscapes.

hrafntinnusker , Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2017

hrafntinnusker, Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

I'm lucky that over the past decade that I've been living my photographic-life, I've had the luxury of repeatedly visiting certain landscapes. They have become intimate, personal friends. Some I now know so well they are like old friends: I don't need to see them too often, but when I do encounter them, I know exactly where I am with them. Others are recent friends, I've known them for maybe a couple of years and I'm still learning about them.

We also define ourselves by whom we know. I think I define my photography by the relationships I have with certain landscapes. Iceland has been part of my photographic world for thirteen years, while Patagonia fourteen years. The Fjallabak landscape in the central highlands of Iceland is relatively recent as I have been spending time with it for around five years now. And then there is Hokkaido, a recent acquaintance of just over two years that I am still getting to know.

They have helped shape and define my photography, and my photography has contributed to who I am. So in a sense, these landscapes are part of me.

We should be choosy about whom we let into our lives. Invite those that are supportive and that you can support back, is my advice. Being around healthy attitudes and positive people is an ingredient for a happy life with room for you to grow. Similarly, choosing your landscapes wisely, by going for those that resonate with you and perhaps those that keep calling you back is vital, if you are to develop your own internal landscape.

hrafntinnusker , Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2017

hrafntinnusker, Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

The landscapes I work with have defined part of who I am. They have defined my signature. They illustrate not only what I resonate with, but also what appeals to my aesthetic. There is often a theme running through all of them. I do not just go anywhere. I am only interested in spending time with those landscapes where I know that I grow with each visit.

Choose your landscapes wisely and they will support you as a photographer. Work with those that resonate with you, because that is where any development in your photographic style will eventually occur.

Campo de Piedra Pomez (the pumice stone field)

Imagine a field with white pumice rock, in strange shapes and patterns, that goes on for tens of kilometres. This is where I camped for two nights so I could be there for sunrise and sunset.

The elevation is around 3,500 metres. The drive in from the nearest town of El Piñon is long, perhaps two hours, and not that easy to find again if you are trying to leave the Pumice field after the sun has gone down. A GPS system is very much needed.

But I chose to camp here for two very long days.

In the daytime the tents that my guide brought in would bake. They were like greenhouses with the sun beating on them, but to be outside was even worse. And there was no shade from the overhead sun. So I just had to open the doors of the tent and pray for a breeze. The final hour towards sunset would start of slow, but as the light started to change, things would happen fast. Too fast, and even though I had spent the afternoon scouting out potential locations that I thought had great composition potential, I still found the light didn't react the way I had anticipated. I had to change plan and react fast.

After sunset had finished, and after a few moments of wrestling with my camera because the film back would occasionally jam, the temperature would plummet. I'd return back to the camp site to find my guide Pancho had made a dinner for me, and we'd stare at the milky way (what a sight to see when there is no light pollution for many many miles all around!), before deciding it was now getting too cold to stay outside.

The mornings would be worse. Really, really freezing cold. Can you imagine having to get out of a nice warm sleeping bag to try and put on some freezing clothes? And then stumble around with a head torch looking for good compositions? My hands would be biting cold and sometimes I would swear to myself. It was painful.

Once the sun was up, I'd feel a sense of relief. The feeling had returned to my frozen hands, and I was now glad that the long wait was over: we could leave this place. As beautiful as it is, and as fascinating as it was to walk around this massive field of strange structures the size of houses, I was glad to be leaving for civilisation.

You have to put the effort in, to get something back. I had planned to come back here for two years and although the two days of hanging around here had been long, boring and uncomfortable, I had felt I'd managed to tap into the potential of this place. Often it's the places that are hardest to get to, that intrigue me the most.

The Labyrinth, Tolar Grande, Argentina

I went back to the Puna de Atacama this past April to do some further photography, because the first time I was there (2015), I saw so much potential but failed to capture what I saw.

This trip was more successful. And this is one of my favourite places - the labyrinth just outside the dust bowl town of Tolar Grande. It is remote, takes about 2 hours to get here from its neighbouring town and we drove out here two mornings and two evenings so I could get this shot. You see, it takes a while to figure out where the sun is going to hit the tips of the mountains of red clay, and then I only had 20 minutes (if that) to make some exposures. So it was all a bit of a rush, with long driving distances in between.

I'm just editing the latest collection of Puna images as of today and it's been very enjoyable to go back and relive the trip. The Puna is the Argentine section of the Atacama which comprises the Chilean section, the Bolivian Altiplano. But all three are different in some ways and the Puna has a few surprising locations that are not present in Chile or Bolivia.

More to follow soon.

Delving deeper

It's good to get to know a landscape. Well.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, April 2017
Image taken by my guide on his Samsung phone. My films won't be ready until the very end of May !

I've been back in the Puna de Atacama region of Argentina this past week making some new photographs. My first visit here was two years ago. It was only a fleeting six day visit to the area where I felt I was often in the wrong place at sunrise and sunset. Despite being pleased with my first efforts, the experience left me feeling I had only scraped the surface of this amazing place. So many locations were wonderful but I was often there during the middle of the day when the light wasn't good. This is often the way with visits to new places: the first visit is more about finding out what it is I want to photograph and the second visit is about photographing it!

I like to get to know a place well, and repeated visits are the only way to do that. I see photographing a place like a continual learning experience where I hopefully grow in terms of my understanding of the place, as well as in my photography.

Logistics are often the biggest obstacle in getting to photograph a place well. With the Puna de Atacama, the region is vast. So vast in fact that my first visit left me feeling frustrated because in the space of a mile or so, there would be so many locations that would be suitable for the brief 20 minutes of beautiful light at either side of the day. With only 20 minutes to play with before the light would be bleached out at sunrise, and only 20 minutes to play with before the light was gone in the evening, it made choosing locations very tough indeed.

On location in the Puna de Atacama desert, Argentina, April 2017

So this visit was more about finding those special locations, areas where I wouldn't have to move so much to capture different aspects of the landscape before the 20 minutes of beautiful light was gone. That meant a lot of day-time scouting and many hills were climbed to find vantage points where I would have better luck when the light was good.

Spot-metering the desert in Argentina, April 2017

Location scouting seems to be a trial of errors. Working out where the sun is going to be and how it might react with the landscape can be done to some degree with Stephen Trainor's wonderful TPE application, but there still needs to be a lot of walking and climbing done to find those beautiful compositions where shapes in the landscape form the symmetry and balance I'm seeking.

Indeed, standing still in one location that is (hopefully) the best spot I can find, sometimes reaps dividends. With the Cono de Arita (the volcano shot at the top of this post (made by my guide on his Samsung phone), it was a learning experience to see how the shadows of the surrounding mountains interplayed with the salt flat and the silhouette of the cone as the sun dropped behind the horizon.

I believe it is only by spending time, and observing how the light interplays with the landscape that I can truly learn to be a better photographer. To obtain the images I want, I need to put the effort in, and that often means re-visiting a landscape many times over. Indeed, any landscape that I fall in love with will often become a regular part of my yearly photography because it has the capacity to teach me so much.

The Labyrinth Desert, Puna de Atacama

I've often felt that the more I get to know a place, the deeper the connection becomes. Over the years I've been traveling and making images, I have slowly built up a collection of places I love and keep returning to for that very reason.

This summer I visited the Puna de Atacama. It is a new location for me despite being, on the surface, similar to the Bolivian altiplano that I know and love so well.

One place in particular that I really found most interesting is named 'the labyrinth desert' - it's yet another high elevation landscape, but it was so far removed from all the other kinds I've experienced to date in the Altiplano of Chile and Bolivia, that I felt it has been overlooked somewhat.

It's difficult to get some scale to this landscape, and you may be forgiven for thinking that this area only encapsulates the mountains you see in my shots. The mountains are actually small pink clay hills - approximately around 30 to 40 feet high. Not that big at all, and so the scale of these photos is maybe a little deceptive.

But what you can't gather from these shots is just how selective I was in making them. This is only a very tiny section of the entire area. Due to the limited time I had here - one evening of good light which lasted for about 10 minutes, I had to quickly make these shots with the time and limited positioning I had. 

Research is key to good landscape photography. I only feel I've just become acquainted with this place, and really need to spend a lot more time here - because it's the only way I will know where the best locations are for the kinds of light that I like to shoot in (often with the sun behind me).

The other complication to this landscape was its fragility. It is made up from a very soft pink clay and gypsum. The gypsum is scattered all across the surface like broken shards of glass and the terrain is really fragile to walk on - when you do go anywhere, it's like walking across the crust of a chocolate pudding. Each footstep breaks through the surface and seems to leave what I was convinced was a permanent scar on the landscape.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama

Today I just published some new work. This time round, from a place I've never photographed before - the Puna de Atacama.

I visited this high plateau early on this summer. Perhaps the most startling location here is the cono de Arita - a small volcano that is only 122 meters high.

I was really taken with its conical shape and the tonal contrasts - the white salt flat is at polar opposites to the dark tones of the cone. The place has a surreal, alien quality to it and I really wanted to convey that in the final edit you see here.

But it's a tough place to visit: at a high altitude of around 4,000 metres, and very basic amenities (more basic than in Bolivia), plus very very long traveling distances between locations - I found my time here a challenge.

I missed a lot of places because we were passing through at the wrong time of day, or because we simply ran out of time. In my minds-eye I can still see so many key locations that I failed to capture, that I know I really do have to come back. So I've already begun planning some time there again in 2016.

I love how photography has the ability to steer you in new directions and take you on new journeys :-)