Please find below the article (a few of the images may differ) just released in the fantastic On Landscape digital magazine. Thanks as ever to Tim and Charlotte who run an amazing visually stimulating and intellectual read.
Our planet is a paradise of endless, unimaginable beauty and as a landscape photographer, I have been privileged to have been able to visit just a few of the treasures it has to offer. I have gazed, literally mouth ajar, at sites of both natural and manmade beauty, be they an overwhelming wonder such as the Grand Canyon or Machu Picchu or an intimate shaft of dawn light shining through a cobweb laden with overnight dew in my back garden. Such sites never fade or dull, each remaining a part of my combined experience. But both my senses and subsequent deliberations were left genuinely reeling following a recent visit to the unimaginable world of the Carrara marble quarries.
Here amongst the towering peaks of the Apuan Alps, man intervenes with nature with apparent disregard in an overtly brazen manner. And yet the consequence is magnetic, staggeringly captivating and eerily mystic. The accumulation of some 700 disused and modern operational quarries – excavated over 2000 years – has left a multitude of deep and seductive, yet horrific, scars across a previously pristine landscape. Our guide consoles us nonchalantly that they are only allowed to excavate 5% of the “hills” as the range is protected by UNESCO. I look around me and ponder the figure, it seems pretty significant in the context of an entire mountain range to me!
We had travelled to Tuscany for a friend’s book launch and decided to return home through the hills. As we exited the tunnel at the top of a pass, I could but stop, stand and stare. The scale of the scene was in every sense simply breathtaking as I looked across a mountain range shrouded in intermittent clouds towards the Mediterranean glistening far below in the distance. Quarries dotted various slopes which have been mined as they provide the source of the purest white (and other) marble on the planet. Michelangelo’s David and other magnificent statues, cities and palaces across the globe have sourced their raw material from this unique place. As you drive up the steep winding road towards the huts of various tour operators, shops selling an infinite choice of marble eggs, chess boards, tables, statues and lights line the route.
I become overwhelmed as our Landrover crawls up the 45-degree incline and I look both down and ever upwards to immense, smooth cliffs of neatly cut rock set into the surrounding natural landscape. Cavernous holes in sheer rock with ignored no entry signs as tourists seek to touch, explore and live this unique environment.
I am in a Tolkienesque scene of fantasy madness – huge excavators and lorries with wheels twice the height of a man appear as Tonka toys against the endless quarry faces which in turn are miniaturised by the scale of the hills themselves. An entire ridge hundreds of metres long simply removed. A hillside of rock sliced away. Tourists as ants against the backdrop. All I can do is reach for my camera and begin.
As we drive away too few hours later and over the following days and weeks, my thoughts begin to reflect on what I have seen and wander in many different directions. I am reminded of the colossal majesty of the 7 year long “Workers” project by the matchless Sebastiao Salgado where he explores the lives and working conditions of the people who dig, mine and excavate for our everyday pleasures such as sugar, gold and oil. I begin to ponder what I have just seen in a similar light against everyday products bought in the shops, where they are sourced and the impact each has on some part of the planet remote both spatially and often in thought. The discord of both immense and yet in the 27 years since Salgado completed that immensely questioning work little appears to have changed.
I wonder what will happen when the quarries reach their 5% limit for extraction. Will the companies tidy up and walk or will they chip away for just a little more. And then a little more again, arguing consumer demand and local economic justification, and they would be far from the first industry to do so. I later even argue with myself over whether I should submit this article and in doing so potentially encourage vanity travel and the carbon footprint of others as they hop on a plane for a long weekend to capture their own interpretation of these remarkable edifices. (I am happy that I did at least think on this and determine the benefits of raising awareness over the potential costs made my actions justifiable though I recognize nothing is perfect).
The quarries have left a profound impression on me. They undoubtedly reinforce many questions on a wide range of issues including beauty, greed, consumerism, society, environment and personal responsibility. They have reminded me to never stop thinking about how I might proactively answer and address such questions both through my work and with respect to my own lifestyle and in questioning others. As a such, they have been as inspirational a venue as I have ever visited, though as I now reflect, maybe not for the reasons I thought as I first drove through that tunnel and looked out in wonder.
CALL TO ACTION
Carrara represents my current “Voice”, thoughts and reflections on consumerism and climate change and the dilemma of my own carbon contributions vs my work as a landscape photographer. In this, as some will already know, following much soul searching Morag and I will stop running all our flight based photography workshops at the end of current commitments and will cease flying wherever possible as part of our own contribution to take personal responsibility.
This has been a very difficult decision to make and how each of us responds will always differ but I am sure I am not alone in recognising the urgency to act. In this regard these pages have already seen the excellent articles on this subject fromJoe CornishandNiall Benviegiving very different personal perspectives on the subject. Personally I think we have to each take responsibility for our own actions and together bring politicians and “corporates” to account, I believe that images can have a profound effect in helping to raise awareness and to change attitudes and would like to thank Tim for giving us all a forum to commence the widest possible discussion on the subject.
I am very excited to see what “Voices” come forward and invite everyone to contribute their own Voice, together with any ideas as to how we can take the discussion forward.
Who could resist the thought of a lunch date with a wild clematis? Not me, that’s for sure.
Zed and I got packed up and headed up the road through Nava and Ormea before climbing up to Chionea to start the walk. The first section unravelled pretty much the same as last time we were in these parts, a steep burst through the top village, flower meadows and vegetable gardens. The path forms a kind of small gully between two walls here, which seemed like the designated meet up spot for all the butterflies in the area.
We turn up onto the rocky and tree covered ridge and see the vibrant orange lilies are out in force. I’m sure this is where they belong but it’s still startling to see such a showy flower out in the high mountains.
A little further up as we come across the first pasture I’m chuffed to bits to find some arnica, for someone who manages to hurt themselves as much as I do it’s a brilliant ally. I leave this in the ground though as it’s not abundant.
The roses are just starting to appear too, in numbers, although they are no match for the azaleas (yet).
(A lizard has just scampered up to the window to watch me while I write, tapped his foot a few times and then buggered off. No, me neither).
Legs are a bit tired today and its slow going, the top of the hill looks ominously cloudy though, although it’s a bit brighter when I take my shades off so we push on.
This time we manage to find the ridge top path straight away which leads along a spectacular rocky stretch and I’m immediately on the look out for more clematis patches. I’m certain I’ll find the one I saw last time (how difficult can it be to find one particular plant on a whole mountain top?) but I’m curious to know if there will be more. Also I’ve decided I’m having lunch with the first clematis I find, and I’m bloody starving.
A flash of blueish purple catches my eye from under a rock and we’ve stumbled upon our first clematis of the day. Not having learned any lessons from the last time, I take a crappy iphone picture of it, knowing that I’ll find the larger specimen further up the track. Or not, as it turns out.
We stop for a clematis-less lunch with fine views over Liguria, we can even see down to Albenga which is our nearest coastal town. With the cloud lifting we decide to push on up to the mountain lake, it’s a steep grassy path with an impressive drop off to the right. As is often the way, as we reach the signpost to stop climbing and turn to the right, the cloud makes a swift and fulsome descent. I decide it’s best not to tangle with the next phase of the path and we turn and retrace our steps.
We’re overtaken by a mountain biker not long after and Zedboy gets his hopes up that he’s still a trail dog, we both miss our biking days.
We make a brief stop at the unmanned rifugio, which is open today as there’s a family with a couple of kids staying there – what a wonderful way to spend the weekend. We fill up with water and have a general nosy inside – no dogs allowed inside unfortunately, so Zedboy frowns at me from the porch while I inspect the accommodation.
The views from here are spectacular, last time we passed the visibility was about 10 metres and we could only guess at the surroundings.
Striking out along the high track we extend the walk by another 5km or so, returning by way of the lower track.
(At this point Ted phones me and says he’s about to take off from Milan and I’m truly boggled to receive a text from him as I arrive back at the car saying he’s landed – the time passed for me so differently than had I been on that flight.)
There are a couple of interesting abandoned buildings, one of which has a stream running right out of the front door, I’m assuming it won’t be standing for too much longer. We linger for a while to enjoy the birdsong.
We’re also very taken with a couple of little grotto type spaces that have formed around the banks of a burn by the track.
Heading down at what can only be described as a dawdle, stopping to photograph flowers and insects on the way we descend towards Chionea and a promise of a gig (The Fantastic Blue) and unlimited pizza for 8 euros at the Bar Centro in Borghetto D’Arroscia.
On waking I had no idea that a day of wonders was in store for us in the Galloway Hills.
We started out at the Lorg cottage, as far as I know used only as an outpost for shepherds and shearers and wanders up the Water of Ken, which itself offers up a treat in the form of a small gorge with cascades, somewhere we could have easily spent a day if we didn’t have our minds fixed on a long wander with some exercise involved.
Striking out across sheep fields we were intrigued by the old circular sheep buchts and stopped to grab a quick snap of their frosty stone geometry, remnants of a bygone age. We headed into the woods from here, wondering if we would find an actual path or have to negotiate the often treacherous clamber through dense forest. We were pleasantly surprised to find a wide and open path through the trees, soft and springy underfoot. I don’t know the history of this path – possibly an old drovers route but we were immediately struck by a sense of the past, echoes and whisperings of long-past traffic and centuries old journeys. Moss laden sheep pens and trees and an earthy scent from the forest floor left us in a temporarily fanciful state, our imaginations running riot.
Emerging from this and returning to reality, we also found ourselves back on the forest track and decided to take a quick detour up to the Polskeoch bothy which can be reached by road from the Scaur Glen. A quick look around and plans made to come and camp overnight there sometime and we were back on our way, only to be pulled in by more winter magic, frozen mud on a rickety wooden bridge and some eager steam rising from the small burn, highlights from the sun reflecting in the water and dazzling us. Dragged on again by an unwelcome timepiece reminding us of the short daylight available we carried on up the path, with another brief stop to marvel at some backlit moss, enhanced photographically by Ted’s breath steaming in the cold air as I attempted to capture it.
Not one hundred metres further on we chanced upon some of the quirkiest ice patterns in puddles I’ve ever seen. Nature had one last treat for us before the walk resumed a sense of normality*, some tiny plants growing in the forest track, momentarily shedding their icy cloaks before the sun slipped back down behind the hill.
Breaking out onto the top of the hill we took an unexpected pelting from the wind which we’d been blissfully unaware of in the shelter of the trees. It failed to dampen our appreciation of the marvellous views, hazy in the winter sun.
*Fresh air, good paths, bad paths, weather, spectacular views, flora and fauna abounding.
After a meeting at Focus earlier this year, the guys at Sigma were kind enough to give us a months loan of their famous 300-800mm lens also known as the “Sigmonster”. Ted and I had great plans for isolating small features in the landscape with this hugely zoomable (did I just make that word up?) beast in a continuation of our Zero Footprint project.
Alas the weather didn’t play ball and refused to offer up more of the same atmospheric sky and light conditions we had enjoyed for so long over the winter. Heavy snow and freezing conditions meant Ted was the only one brave enough to stand on the patio for any length of time shooting for the first couple of weeks of the loan. For myself, apart from the cold I was genuinely terrified of lifting this piece of kit out of the bag for fear of dropping it and it took me several days (OK, a week if I’m honest) to man up and give it a try.
When I finally gathered the courage to lift it onto the tripod with the Wimberley head attachment (pretty much essential for smooth manoeuvring of the lens) I was frustrated by a flat and uninspiring light. However, on reviewing my first set of images back on the computer, I noticed a bird in flight, which I’d captured by accident. I was struck by the elegance of its shape – after all it was a common garden bird that I’m used to seeing everyday. Flooded with a new excitement and suddenly grateful that we’d built up a good relationship with our local feathered friends over the last three and a half years, I quickly trained the birds to feed off the garden wall rather than on the patio they were used to, allowing us to make the most of the morning sun to backlight the birds.
The usual battle for tripod time when we are sharing one piece of kit ensued, with some less than tentative gestures coming from the kitchen when it was deemed time to swap over. Additionally, it didn’t take us long to realise that an entire cafetiere of coffee consumed prior to going out isn’t a good idea with the level of patience required for this kind of work.
Using this lens towards its widest aperture enabled us to use the hill as a backdrop that fitted nicely with our abstract style, whilst simultaneously capturing the incredible shapes these birds make in the air and highlighting the subtle colouration of their plumage. Their movements are one moment graceful, the next aggressive but always magnificent, in my opinion every bit as impressive as a mighty eagle. The chaffinch possesses both speed and agility and it was interesting over a few days of watching these guys up close to start becoming familiar with their habits and anticipate their movements.
The resulting images make no claim to be perfectly captured shots on a par with an experienced wildlife photographer’s work but for us they are the start of an exciting new direction which we hope to build on over the next couple of years. There’s an interesting collaboration already in the pipeline, watch this space to keep up to date.
Sometimes when I head out on a shoot potential pictures or subjects are jumping out left, right and centre, at others my camera stays resolutely in the rucksack – either I’m too engrossed in my surroundings to want to take pictures (there are occasions when it’s important to experience what’s going on without the complication of trying to achieve the perfect composition and exposure scenario) or nothing catches my eye as a possibility.
This particular photo was taken on one of the latter occasions. We were on a snowy hike up Cascade mountain in the Adirondacks – if you haven’t been I can thoroughly recommend a visit – and had crested the rocky plateau following the arrows painted on the rocks to get to the summit. While the vista was undoubtedly spectacular we’d missed the peak of the autumn colour and the light was somewhat flat for capturing the “big view” in my opinion.
I sat there regardless, enjoying soaking up the last warm rays of sun I was likely to experience for the next six months and revelled in the ability to be sitting on a mountain top without a coat, something rarely achieved in Scotland even in midsummer.
Letting my eyes and mind wander I started picking out some of the smaller details on what was essentially a smooth rock surface, a small plant, some rock features, grasses dancing gently in the breeze and came to settle on a cluster of tiny ice formations under some of the larger rocks, hiding in the shadows from the sunlight that would surely melt them. This was clearly going to be a job for the macro lens – the formations were smaller than my hand, and I was soon down on my belly, face flush with the rock trying to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to capture this hand held. Needless to say after a few checks of the LCD review screen I was off, barely moving over a couple of metres for the next hour experimenting with capturing these delicate first whisperings of winter.
Typical that having climbed for a couple of hours to access an incredibly view, I come away with a photo of a couple of square inches of ice peeking out from under a rock, but that’s what keeps photography fresh and exciting for me – being open to the unexpected.