A Photographer’s Quest for Purpose

I rarely enter photographic competitions, but the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year is an important point in my photographic calendar: Scottish landscape is my primary photographic interest and it’s always worthwhile to be able to place my own work in the wider context of other people's imagery.

While the competition has been of a very high standard in the four years I have been taking part, the images that have come through to the final this year seem to be particularly so. I have much enjoyed browsing through the galleries, and there are a few images there that have really made me pause and reflect on the beauty of this wee land of ours.

But, Friday a week ago, as I was browsing the landscape and treescape galleries, I was struck not simply by what is in these images, but also, and perhaps more so, by what is not. By the absence of the very hallmarks of contemporary Scottish landscape: the wind turbines, the hydro schemes, the electricity lines; the dirt roads, the detritus of industrial scale clear felling. After all, in today’s Scotland there is a hardly a vista where at least some of these signs of human intrusion would not be visible.

Now, I quite understand why these man-made objects are largely absent from contemporary Scottish landscapes. They are not the things we seek to see, they are not the bits of Scotland we feel emotionally attached to, nor they are what the tourists come to Scotland for. And of course, not least for the reasons just stated, it’s bloody hard to take an engaging photo of a wind farm, never mind the visual mess left behind by forestry operations.

This year, two of my images made it into the second round, and while none of them has made it any further, the Birth of a Storm will be part of the SLPOTY exhibition. This image is a quintessential Scottish landscape: a loch, a well-known hill, some clouds. It was an awkward image to print, one which challenged my darkroom technique, and I have really enjoyed the process. But on an emotional level this image doesn’t mean much to me, I have taken better images of the same subject, and images like that abound.

The other image, called Scotland’s Bright Future?, captures the pylons of the Beauly to Denny electricity line. It’s not an image I felt thrilled taking, nor is it a subject matter I’d necessarily want to see on my living room wall. Yet, I felt strangely compelled to print it at A3 size, and I felt compelled to include it among the 15 images of my SLPOTY portfolio. I admit I was much surprised it made it into the second round, and not at all it didn’t not make it any further. It’s not that good, I have taken better images this year. Yet, for me this is an image with a high emotional charge, an image that expresses something of my growing angst for this land of ours.

If we as landscape photographers systematically choose not to capture these human intrusions, are we not guilty of perpetuating a mythical landscape of Bonnie Scotland that has not existed for some time now? Does such a myth not contribute to our society’s blasé attitude to this land of ours? Is the purpose of landscape photography to simply entertain, or should it also be asking probing questions about what lies out there?

These questions are not new for me. I have touched elsewhere on my discovery of the ‘other Scotland’, the one that doesn’t make it into tourist guidebooks, and if anything the last year has made these questions more pressing. Being stuck for a year exploring timber plantations and wind farms has not been without a value: I have a lot better idea of what hides behind the ‘renewables’ moniker, and what an explosive growth of them would mean for the land. And I am left with much more doubt that the nation as a whole, and those in power in particular, understand or care.

But perhaps a more balanced and realistic landscape photography can make a degree of difference?