Autumn has been fairly crap this year. A combination of ex-hurricanes and a lack of frost has left the landscape looking a bit lifeless. I went out the other weekend to the The Trossachs, to an area which I had found in the summer and looked promising for autumn. It was bare. No leaves. Just a muggy morning of forlorn wandering, wishing I was back in bed. So imagine my surprise driving from Glasgow to Forres last week when I noticed that autumn hadn't been and gone, it was just happening in Perthshire and the Cairngorms. Swathes of golden larches jostling amongst the bottle green conifers. Delicate yellow confetti scattered in the birch woods and oak trees clinging onto russet red leaves. The only problem was that I was working, so I gazed longingly out the window all the way up (in between looking at the road) and decided to return on Sunday. The forecast was looking good for once.
I headed up very early. Cruising along the deserted A9, listening to the Russell Brand Podcast and trying to wrap my head around the concept that there may be a universal life force which transcends matter. Apparently if you teach rats a trick, then rats on the other side of the world will learn it as well through some interconnected pathway that we cannot see, feel or test. I was relieved that trees cant seem to do this, otherwise the Perthshire trees may have got the spiritual memo from the Trossachs trees and decided it was time for autumn to be over. My first stop was Loch of The Lowes. I pulled into the car park and got out, rummaging for food, jackets and rizlas. Frosty ground, dim dawn light. Calm everywhere until my shambling wander to the lochside disturbed a group of deer which darted about in mad panic, crashing into fences and then belting out the car park onto a golf course. A full moon hung over the hillside and I sat and watched the sun rise.
I wandered aimlessly around a frosty woodland/bog for a while and then headed to a spot which I had noticed a while ago - a stand of birch trees on the River Tay. My plan was for the sun to come up and light the top of the birches, catching the remaining yellow leaves against a dark backdrop of trees on the hillside. I scrambled down the side of a bridge abutment, under some jaggy bushes and made my way down to the river. On reaching the river I noticed there was a path under the bridge, but I got to be all Bear Grylls for a bit anyway. For once the image I had in my head turned out exactly as I planned. A nice feeling. I was there in plenty of time so could sit and wait for the light rather than rushing about trying to get set up while all the good stuff is happening. After this I decided to wander along the side of the A9 like some sort of photography version of Alan Partridge sauntering from a Travel Tavern to a Petrol Station. Lots of very nice bits of woodland along here and I took quite a lot of photos. Some of which I like. Back of the net.
The sun was now too high for any images so I toured around the back roads of Perthshire and saw many grand old Highland houses (at the end of drives, behind walls, enclosed by trees). I used to wonder who bought all the red trousers in The House of Bruar. Now I know. I drove on and up a hellish wee switchback road to a loch in the middle of nowhere with a small fishing hut beside it. Lets call it Stuarts Bothy. It’s a cracking spot, perched on the edge of the moor looking north to some pretty big hills with snow on them. Walking around the loch through the heather, waiting for the light to change was a bit like walking through a field of landmines. If you imagine grouse are landmines. Even after the fifth time of having one of these creatures dart out from under my feet I still jumped. Still wouldn't want to shoot one though.
Anyway, it was a grand day out. Here’s the photos.
There's a new camera out today. It's really good apparently. Its got more megapixels. A brighter screen. It can stack lots of images together. It does everything you've ever wanted. There will soon be images on websites taken with this camera (resized for the internet) that folk will pore over and convince themselves that they can see a difference between those taken with the shiny new camera and those taken with their own drab old camera. There might be some really cool photos of the new camera itself, probably taken with the old camera. Or maybe you'll read a review by a photographer who's been given one of these cameras to test. They always write a glowing review of the new camera and they always tell you they weren't paid to write it.
You'll probably see lots of articles in magazines and on boring websites saying It's The Last Camera You Will Ever Need.
It probably is. It's probably brilliant.
Although, didn't they say that about the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that and with every incremental improvement the price rises. Now the top of the line camera is £3.5k rather than £2.5k. In just a few years with just a few improvements another £1000 gets slapped on the price tag.
So what? Nobody forces you to buy it. If you choose to spend your money on a camera that's your decision.
But is it though? How much of that decision was driven by feelings of inadequacy when looking at your work? Or the hope that this new camera will elevate you to being a contender for Landscape Photographer Of The Year. Or the adverts which constantly bombard you about how great this new camera is compared to your current one. You know, the one which used to be The Last Camera You Will Ever Need. Maybe it's not altogether your decision....
Earlier I made the point that any amateur photographer who spends £3.5k on a camera body needs their head examined and to be honest, I was sort of being flippant, looking for a reaction on twitter. But then I started thinking about it. Maybe what I was actually stumbling towards was the idea that consumerism itself is actually a form of madness.
I honestly think it is - and I know this from experience. In the past I've spent ages deciding whether I "need" to upgrade my camera. Hours reading reviews or scrolling through arguments in comment sections, or watching boring men (it's always men) droning on about a new camera in dimly lit YouTube videos. A pointless waste of time. Madness. There's always something better, something newer, something more shiny.
So, fuck this. I'm not buying anymore stuff I don't need. I'm off it. I'm Mark Renton, choosing life. I didn't really need my last camera upgrade. Probably didn't need the one before it either and it bothers me that even though I can see what is wrong with the system, I'm still sucked into it.
But why does all this matter? It's not like I'm stealing to feed an addiction. I guess I'm basically just sick of consumerism. Sick of targeted advertising, lifestyle marketing, built-in obsolescence, product cycles, slave labour, unboxing videos, pro-endorsements, websites that cover tsunamis and relate them to when a new camera is coming out, magazines called "Stuff", game changers, GAS, megapixels. The whole lot.
"Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?"
Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby
What do you see when you look at this image? Perhaps you see one of the classic views of the Scottish Highlands. The Scots Pines, the loch, the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The romantic view of a Highland Dawn. You could almost say it’s the quintessential Highland scene, all it needs is a stag drinking from the loch.
It’s a place I’ve visited often, however recently I’ve begun to question this landscape. Take the melancholy stunted Scots Pine tree in the foreground, it’s gnarled form twisting like an old man’s back beneath a heavy load. Or cast your eye up to the bare hills rising above the loch, stripped of all vegetation, bar the hardiest of grasses. Or the dark ranks of commercial forestry that cloak the far hillsides.
This landscape isn't natural. It’s as shaped by man as the cities are.
This immediate area is a tree zoo. A protected area of a once common, but now endangered landscape typology. It is one of the last remnants of the great Caledonian Pine forest which once covered most of Scotland, a temperate rainforest in which wolves, boar and bears roamed. Much of the forests were cut down to provide grazing land, to provide timber for shipbuilding or used as fuel for industries. The increase in deer numbers, whose population has exploded since the removal of apex predators such as wolves have ensured that natural regeneration of these woods cannot occur. This area at Loch Tulla is now fenced off and should hopefully regenerate but it needs careful management, and crucially time.
Perhaps everyone knows this. Or perhaps people don't want to know. Maybe in a time of fake news, terrorism and stress we subconsciously crave a natural landscape, wildness, or a return to a simpler time, even if it is an idealised notion of what constitutes a natural landscape. We want to believe that wild land, unsullied by man is still out there and is easy to reach after a hard week at work.
So what does this mean for the photographer? Well, maybe not a lot. Does it even matter that this isn't a ‘natural landscape’? I’m sure many will be happy to ‘bag’ this image and move on to the next ‘location’ without reflecting on what they are actually shooting. However, I feel that by gaining an understanding of the processes, both human and natural, which shape the landscape it enriches our experience, deepens our connection and ultimately leads to a greater appreciation of the special places we love.
This article originally appeared in Outdoor Photography April 2017
Once the home of slate quarrying in Scotland and supporting 500 residents Easdale is now a quiet, peaceful place accessed by passenger boat from the island of Seil. There are no cars on the island, everything is transported by wheelbarrow. It's a fascinating island- in some views, a picture postcard Scottish coastal village and in others, an industrial wasteland. The remnants of this industry are seen everywhere - tottering piles of slate, open mines filled with crystal clear water and the ruins of buildings gradually being reclaimed by nature.
This is a series of images made on a visit there on Easter Monday.