Chris Watson is a sound recordist for the BBC specialising in recording the wildlife sounds of animals and habitats across the globe. He worked with David Attenborough on the Life series with The Life of Birds winning a BAFTA award for Best Factual Sound in 1996. He was the location sound recordist on Frozen Planet which also won a BAFTA award in the same category in 2012. As I began to research the work of Chris Watson a whole new world of sound opened up with recordings of Antarctica, the Norfolk Broads and even the production of sound recordings to accompany John Constable’s The Cornfield (1826). On the BBC website there is a page dedicated to the work of Watson entitled A Life in Sound where I chose to listen to three half-hour programmes:
Emma Turner: a life in the Reeds (Nature, Series 5)
Soundings from Antarctica (Nature, Series 5)
Painting in Sound (Nature, Series 5)
Emma Turner: a life in the Reeds (BBC 2012)
Given the focus of my own work, I was immediately attracted to the story of Emma Turner who had spent her life in the Norfolk Broads where she learnt her trade as an ornithologist alongside teaching herself the art of photography. Her book Broadland Birds (Turner 1924) is still available for significant sums of money featuring marshland birds, alongside lyrical text. She spent twenty years living among the reeds at Hickling Broad (either in a hut or a houseboat named The Water Rail) in a place subsequently referred to as Turner’s Island. She moved around in a dinghy also named after a bird, Swallow Tail. She used a large and technically demanding plate camera (which would have been practically difficult to use for bird photography and balancing in a small boat) and developed her black and white images in the wooden hut. Much of her time was spent with her friend Jim Vincent and together they were attributed with the rediscovery of the Bittern in 1911. In a quite bizarre story of this discovery, it is understood that Turner carefully removed the Bittern chick from its nest in the reeds and carried it to the village to confirm its existence – before returning it to the nest!
In later life, Turner moved to Cambridge where she became Vice President of the Cambridge Bird Club with her contribution to ornithology being recognised by the Royal Photographic Society with the award of a Gold Medal. She died in 1940.
The sound recordings of a visit by Watson to Hickling Broad, interspersed with the local guide’s anecdotes of Turner’s life, are quite extraordinary. The Bittern has an individual guttural call that is unmistakeable. But what I found particularly interesting in the sound recording was the many other sounds among the reeds that in our busy world of visual gratification go unnoticed unless we pay attention to our aural senses.
Soundings from Antarctica (BBC 2012)
I moved onto another recording that caught my eye. I have been lucky enough to travel to Antarctica on two occasions and was therefore particularly interested in hearing the sounds of the ice continent recorded from above, below and within the landscape of ice. Watson takes us on a journey listening to the sounds from the ice caves under Antarctica’s only active volcano, Erebus, Emperor Penguins swimming under the surface of the ice, Minke Whales surfacing for air, Weddell Seals singing to the females through the ice and the extraordinary noises made by a colony of Adelie Penguins. Watson talks of “the grinding sense of power” of the ice, hearing the breath of the volcano and discovering a whole new acoustic world largely undiluted by human and bird noises – a soundscape that has not changed in thousands of years.
Painting in Sound (BBC 2012)
Equally fascinating was the final programme I listened to about a project created by the National Gallery in London in which they invited Watson to create a soundtrack to accompany a painting of his choice from the Gallery collection. He chose The Cornfield by John Constable. The project was subsequently extended to involve students from Ravensbourne College of Art and Design.
In a gripping articulation of what Watson sees in the image that provide cues to the type of sounds that might have accompanied this rural scene, Watson speaks of the breeze in the tree canopy, remnants of the dawn chorus, the sound of water from the drinking pool, the jackdaws and woodpeckers, the skylarks high above and the distant sound of the cornfield swaying.
The programme also considers the range of senses we access as viewers, not necessarily just a visual scene but smell, touch and more poignantly, hearing. Whilst some of the speakers referred to the limiting experience of visual perception, others felt that looking at a painting should allow the viewer to create their own narrative. However, the National Gallery found that people lingered longer over the paintings with sound, increasing from around a thirty second viewing to a few minutes. In the case of Renaissance paintings Watson makes the point that many of these would have been viewed in public religious settings and so a soundtrack may be more akin with the original viewing experience.
I have found this research fascinating and intend to listen to more of Chris Watson’s work over the coming days. I think there are a few ways in which I might incorporate sound and recordings into my photographic practice: alongside the visual images as a further prompt to the essence of Skye; as an evocative cue in the post processing of my images (alongside my journal notes); or as a means of providing a greater sensory experience to the viewers of my work. At the very least it has given me a sense of the richness of sound and provided me with the motivation to be more meticulous in my listening and more attentive in the landscape. But herein lies the problem. I have made it clear that my work is about objective reality rather than sensory perception – ontology rather than phenomenology. How does the addition of a further perceptive experience alongside my images sit with the philosophical starting point for my research? Maybe, from a process point of view, the access and attention to multiple sensory channels will enable my non-conscious to more easily identify and record with my camera, the essence of Skye.
BBC (2012). Emma Turner: A Life in the Reeds. Nature. Norfolk, BBC Radio 4. 5: 28 minutes.
BBC (2012). Painting in Sound. Nature: 28 minutes.
BBC (2012). Soundings from Antartica. Nature: 30 minutes.
Turner, E. L. (1924). Broadland Birds. London, Country Life Ltd.