I have never regretted any day spent outdoors. My abiding interest in walking and in landscape germinated during my boyhood in the Scottish countryside. I look back on my early explorations of the shores, woods, riverbanks and moors of East Lothian with much affection; they were formative in so many ways. Equally, those weeks I spent in the Highlands during my youth made a deep impression, kindling a passion for wilder places. I felt the magic of mountain landscapes and became drawn to terrain that not only offered a physical challenge but also imbued me with an ineffable sense of peace. When the opportunity arose to join more adventurous expeditions to the Greenland Arctic, it met some inner need, opened up entirely new horizons, and encouraged me to become a more committed photographer. I believe that, in our increasingly urbanised and consumer driven world, the preservation of wildernesses is essential – both for our own well-being and for the sake of the plant and animal communities that inhabit them. I, therefore, actively support the John Muir Trust and I would urge everyone who cares about wild land to become a member.
To witness awesome natural phenomena at first hand is a privilege; such things remind us of our place in the scheme of things. They also teach us how Nature never stands still, a truism we seem particularly reluctant to accept today. In this respect, the fixed images of art and photography can be deceptive. Traditionally, landscape imagery has perpetuated mythologies about ‘golden ages’ and cemented into clichéd stereotypes what we think of as picturesque or beautiful, with all the concomitant baggage of romantic historicism. My search for images is, I admit, partly informed by my own background as a painter and art historian – and I am happy that my photographs are often described as very painterly – but I respond to places as I find them, never consciously seeking to impose on them ideals I am never likely to encounter in reality. It should be remembered, too, that no single image or artefact, however expressive, can ever reproduce, or be a substitute for the actuality of time and place, for feeling the unique emotions of ‘being there’. Even as a way of documenting one’s travels, photographs have limitations. In recent years, I have tried to balance the quest for images with the rewards of walking per se, content to come home empty-handed on occasion. Not everyone can paint, draw or deploy a camera creatively, but most of us can walk. In my experience, there is no better therapy. Whether on the gentle chalk of the Sussex Downs or in a remote mountainous region of Greenland, walking has been a powerful liberator of mind and body – and a perfect antidote to the stresses of modern living. I recommend it to you whether you are a picture-maker or not!
How we relate to our environment and specific issues about our landscape had begun to occupy my thoughts long before ‘green’ politics came to the fore. At first, I was moved simply by what I saw around me, affected by an adolescent sensitivity to natural beauty and a growing concern about current agricultural practice, in particular the widespread use of chemical pesticides. This was a time when public awareness of environmental politics was being sharply re-focused. If John Muir had been the founding father of the wilderness conservation movement by appealing to traditional pantheistic values, then Rachael Carson’s seminal ‘Silent Spring’ was the fountainhead of modern environmentalism that based its arguments on empirical science. I have been influenced by both the scientific and aesthetic aspects of this huge subject and regret that we find it so difficult to reconcile the many conflicting points of view within the environmental debate. Part of this problem, I suspect, is related to an ingrained ‘need’ to rationalize and control natural processes. The belief that it is our destiny to dominate Nature, a tenet inculcated in the western mind for centuries, is not easily dislodged. Moreover, we confuse naming things with trying to understand their significance. I have indeed become wary about the habit of Linnaean-like labelling by which my generation was encouraged to identify and classify every single thing they saw in the world. We have become victims of taxonomy in a caption-reading culture. There are many things under the sun that cannot be neatly categorised, that go beyond words, and, yet, one finds profoundly moving. When people ask what kind of photographer I am, I never know how to answer. If labels are required – and they are anathema to me – I might, at best, be described as a poetic documentarist who simply strives to make honest photographs that will have a resonance beyond their point of origin.
Perhaps some of the above explains why, after my early education at George Heriot’s School, I eschewed the opportunity to read the Natural Sciences, deciding instead to pursue a career in the Arts. I graduated from Edinburgh University and the Edinburgh College of Art where I studied fine art (painting), history of art, and philosophy for five years in the 60s. I was awarded a post-graduate Andrew Grant Travelling Scholarship.
My career as a lecturer began at Stourbridge College of Art before I moved to Brighton (in 1970) where I continued to teach history of art and, latterly, photography. During the Brighton years, my own creative practice evolved seamlessly from drawing and painting to photography, at first using a camera almost as an alternative graphic tool. Recognizing this change, I built my own darkroom, became more dedicated to photography, and began to re-examine the entire process of making a photographic image. The first time I exhibited photographs was in 1977 (10 years on from exhibiting my painting in the First Scottish Young Contemporaries). This was in a mixed media exhibition (with Peter Hawes): Coastlines was based on coastal walks at about 80 locations around the British Isles. By the late 1980s, I had had my first one-person show: Waiting for the Light. In the same year, I worked on The South Downs: a photographic survey with three other Sussex photographers – which led to the commissioned book – Photographers’ Britain, Sussex (Alan Sutton Publishing 1991).
In 1982, I had embarked on the first of many trips to the Greenland Arctic that were to become central to my growing career as a photographer. During the early 1990s, with a few like-minded enthusiasts including my wife, Fiona, I became a founder member of the British North East Greenland Group who explored remote corners of the fjord region of N E Greenland in a sequence of summer expeditions. These journeys resulted in a major publication of my black and white Greenland photographs. Beyond the Imaginary Gates: journeys in the fjord region of north-east Greenland (Dewi Lewis Publishing 2004). Signed copies of this unique publication and selected Greenland prints may be ordered from this website.
Twenty-five years after my first Greenland expedition, Fiona and I were still making journeys to the fjord region. Hill walking/photographic trips to the North-west Highlands had also become an annual fixture in our calendar by the mid 80s.
In 1988 I made the first of two Himalayan treks with my close friend and fellow photographer, David Paterson. Since then, I have regularly shown and published photographs of Sussex, Scotland, Nepal and Greenland and made many journeys with a camera, near and far. My photographs have been represented in jury selected and curated regional and international exhibitions and in a number of one person shows around the UK and abroad.
At the University of Brighton, in the early 1990s, I helped establish a new B A Hons photography degree course that led to switching my primary academic role from teaching history of art to teaching photography and eventually becoming Reader in Photography in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
In 2003, Fiona and I settled in Wester Ross, where I established a new darkroom. This move coincided with the advent of digital photography and my adoption of new methods of capturing and reproducing photographs has meant spending much more time at the computer than at the sink. In recent years, I have been photographing the iconic landscape near my home in the North-west Highlands using digital techniques – and hope to continue doing so for as long as I can. I am currently working on a long term project: Thirty-six Views of Suilven – one sandstone chord that holds up time in space.