This first exegesis of images seeks to explain and interpret a group of images of a lone silver birch tree perched on a rocky outcrop in the shadow of the Black Cuillin.
These images represent some early practice-led experiments in approaching essence, which I later refer to as allure and some later work from the Traces of Being Collection. This explanation and interpretation focuses on the signifiers in the outer layer of the Onion Diagram and refer to improving camera skill, analogous reasoning (exploring metaphor and allusion to the nature of Skye as a remote Island) and subject commitment by returning time after time, day after day and season after season to familiar subjects building deep knowledge and expertise.
This particular silver birch tree is not new to me as it stands at the southern end of Loch Cill Chriosd where my photography of reeds has been based. The tree’s position is exposed and solitary, demonstrating the fertility of the birch in seeding across long distances and in taking root in harsh and inhospitable places and conditions. While the tree is isolated, less than fifty metres away is a small vigorous group, supported by each other and less exposed, facing and protected by the warmth of the Red Cuillin. Their proximity to the lone tree emphasises the solitary and isolated position of the other. The lone tree’s position in the landscape provides a sense of paradox, insularity, and separation on the one hand and proximity on the other. Like the Island of Skye – while it is within touching distance of the mainland with only a bridge spanning the narrow water channel between, for those that live and visit Skye it is worlds away. The birch that has been the focus of my attention for some years now is clasped in the grip of the Black Cuillin, the less hospitable mountain neighbours of the Red, and with their own microclimate of harsh, unforgiving, and relentless servings of wind, snow, and rain – all of which I have experienced numerous times when visiting my tree.
“Birch trees are least beautiful when fully clothed . . . they are loveliest of all when naked”. (1977) p53). The words of Nan Shepherd ring in my ears and force me out of the door on this bitterly cold winter night in February 2021. I am kitted out for Arctic weather and clutch a heavy-duty torch, my tripod and camera bag. Of course, Shepherd is right about the birch, and I hope the dark skies of winter will provide me with a perfect backdrop for the essence of the lone tree to be laid bare. And also, that it will provide time to learn and develop new camera skills and practice the reductive strategy of illuminating my subject with artificial light. The plan is to focus on the shape and form of this resilient little tree. An approach inspired by Matthew Murray’s (2017) work on Saddleworth Moor where he used firelights and even car headlights to glimpse or allude to particular aspects of the landscape or subjects within it. I intend to experiment with slow shutter speeds after dark which will allow me to develop a new skill. At the same time, I am experimenting with the immediate processing and post-production of my images to capture the reality of my attention before veridical memory is lost. My intention in doing this is to recapture the moment of capture and thus increase the level of authenticity in my work.
As I clamber up the hill to the tree, watching my step and retaining my balance I think about the differences in the experience of glimpsing the tree through the darkness. The blackness that envelops the night on Skye allows me to share in the tree’s insularity, in the rawness of winter that would otherwise have passed me by. The darkness provides me with time to dwell, take in the reduced scene without the dominance of sensory perception, and glimpse reality by stroking the form of the tree through torchlight. The scene has been reduced through the darkness and perhaps other things that might have drawn my attention away from the tree, even momentarily, had been removed. I drew the torch light carefully up and down its gnarled trunk emphasising its feminine form and at the same time, the light enhanced its attraction. The light was drawing me into the structure and fluidity of the tree and emphasising its resilience and flexibility. In the darkness, its strength was laid bare, its slender frame carrying the weight of the canopy by its branches. Its connectedness with the ground below was also emphasised through a hidden let revealed entanglement.
In terms of the images I produce, there are two, rendered first in black and white (which was my intention at the point of capture) and a colour version. Viewing the images side by side allows me to compare the strategy of reduction that I had used during my MA, by converting images to black and white. My inclination in the early days of my PhD led me to conclude that colour is a powerful, yet sensory aspect of an object and its Being and that retaining colour was the strategy I wished to pursue at this stage. My experience on this evening and the images I produced served to confirm that colour was the medium I wished to work with. The images I produced created a strong reminder of the tree’s presence in my mind and the landscape.
Although winter has not finished, nature’s colours are evident. The vivid green grass and the hints of red on the tree’s branches might almost be mistaken for its spring buds, and the promise of new life and renewal and the hope and promise of warmer climes. Nonetheless, the winter hues offer me at least a glimpse of traces of Being in the dormant tree. It had been a magical evening where ideas were developed, images were made, decisions about colour were taken and an experiment in essence provided me with insights about what it is I am seeking to capture in the photographic moment. Getting closer to nature and the Being of the tree through reduction has served to focus my mind.
To be continued . . .
Murray, M. (2017). Saddleworth Responding to a Landscape. Amsterdam, Gallery Vassie Editions.
Shepherd, N. (1977). The Living Mountain. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.