Out of my element/ shooting from (un)stable ground

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Posted on September 19, 2018


If you read our previous blog, or caught some of our social media posts, you will have seen that we were away sailing off the coast of northwest Scotland for the latter half of August. We tacked and jibed our way from Ullapool to Loch Laxford and – contrary to our intentions – headed back to Ullapool. Orkney was our planned destination, via Cape Wrath, but weather, tides and lack of crew experience contrived against this, and we happily followed Plan B. The trip was a heck of an experience at so many different levels, and one that will take a while to fully process.

I guess it is not a coincidence that a whole clutch of metaphors point out the problems of being on water - we speak of being out of our depth, in deep water and all at sea - and I must admit to a degree of nerves as I stepped onto Yacht Alcuin at Ullapool: water is not my favourite element.


Unlike Harriet, I have previous memories of being on boats to dredge up. In my time serving as a photographer in the RAF during the 1980s I got to sail a few times on their training yachts out of Gosport (the irony of learning to sail with folk dedicated to keeping planes in the air was never lost on me). After leaving the service, I became a freelance location photographer and somehow managed to secure the job of becoming the official photographer for the Cutty Sark Tall Ships’ Races on the strength of a one-page letter I sent to their press officer – a case of the right set of words landing on his desk at the right time. My following ten summers were taken up photographing tall ships from every angle along the edges of Europe, from St Petersburg to Genoa. I got to float on a multitude of craft, from small inflatables to giants of the ocean, including the four-masted barque Sedov, which has a permanent crew of 54 and is almost 120 metres long. It was fun and wonderful and well paid … and I got seasick. A lot. It is just about the worst sensation I have ever gone through.


When we heard Oliver Beardon talk about Sail Britain at the always-inspiring Royal Geographical Society’s Explore conference last November, it sowed a seed in our minds. For Harriet, that seed took a matter of minutes to germinate into an excited plan. For me, well, let me just say my seed remained dormant for a number of months. The dreaded memories of  frequently retching over the side of a boat felt all too real. They were not buried too deeply inside me.

Somehow though, by March I had convinced myself it was a Good Idea to join Harriet on the boat. I was curious and I didn’t want to miss out on the ‘fun’.

Being a photographer on a boat with seven other people threw up a few challenges. There is not a lot of room for one thing: it is 38 foot long, and approximately 12 foot across at its widest point. Below decks is a tight squeeze at the best of times, with every movement calculated so as not to bump into anyone else (you get used to the waltz-like way that people pass one another). Also it is difficult to move along the decks when under full sail on a lumpy sea, and as for going below during sailing, well, that was beyond thinking about. The one time that I went down to fetch my hat from my bunk, my fears were realised: I spent the next few hours feeling decidedly iffy, keeping myself very close to the side of the boat. And fish were fed over a torrid 20 minute spell as we sailed around Stoer Head.


As far photography goes, I shot a lot of pictures on my Nikon D800. A great camera to work with, though the salty air played havoc with the barrel of my favorite lens (it still sticks a bit now). I also took my large format Horseman plate camera to make monochrome images when we went ashore from the lochs where we anchored overnight. This was part of the plan: three of the crew were geologists, and we learnt about what made this corner of Scotland so famous and fascinating in their field of study. Some of the oldest visible rocks on the planet are found here. A greyish flecked stone called Lewisian gneiss juts out of the drab brown earth along the coast here, and it is an incomprehensible three thousand million years old.  Try getting your mind around that.

My eye, though, as a photographer, was drawn to stones, pebbles and boulders that we encountered on the edges of the land, and the littoral zone where seaweed ebbs and flows with the tide; I also chose to be on dry (still) land. The plate camera is not quick to use. There's a great deal of setting up and exposures typically take up to a second, so any unintended movement will blur the image. Every image I shoot is a carefully constructed composition, with what I choose to omit from within the frame almost as important as to what is held within the edges. I have used this camera a lot over the past decade to shoot portraits and landscapes and I love the way in which it forces me to slow down. There is a blog about this process here.


We also carried along a Fuji Instax camera and shot more than 30 Polaroid-esque prints of our trip. A fun camera to work with and great for Harriet to add to her notebooks and as triggers for our creative thoughts. There’s something about the instant and tangible results that pop up from the top of the camera after pressing the shutter that still brings a combination of surprise and delight.


The big question now, I guess, is given how nervous I felt before joining the boat - and the fact that I got ill again - will I ever go to sea again? The answer is an unequivocal Yes. A small drug-laden patch (Scopoderm) behind my ear managed to stave off the worst of the motion sickness and indeed I felt fine for the majority of the journey. Also, in terms of using my camera at sea, I feel that I have so much more to explore. I'm sorry that I didn't use the cumbersome large format camera, hand held, whilst on the water, and experiment more with the medium. It’s easy to say that with hindsight but there was a lot going on: I think much of my energy was taken up dealing with being uncomfortable for a fair amount of the time, completely out of my element. Next time – and there will be a next time – I’ll be more explorative, and definitely more confident. So plans are being hatched … and I’m nervous.


 With thanks to Ilford Photo for film, developing chemicals and photographic paper. I've been using Ilford materials for nearly forty years.

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