At the end of 2018, I switched from approaching landscapes and portraiture with the sense to idealise both and instead decided to develop my own way of seeing, focusing foremost on subjects closest to home, thereby allowing me to establish a relationship with an intimate place and to create more meaning in the images. As I write I’m reminded of Robert Bresson’s ‘Notes on the cinematographer’
Light is everything, but matching light to subject is more important.
Reduce your colour palette. Colour intensity is fine but too many colours can diminish the impact of an image.
Think with intent about what the right approach is for it. That may be specific and unique to each project.
Avoid the obvious image. Find your own subject or a way of showing the unfamiliar angle.
Straight photography is not representational photography. Creative photography is not found by ignoring what’s in front of you.
Have more than one project on the go. The dips and slack in one will be offset by the other(s).
Seek visual consistency throughout a project.
Enjoy the work of others but follow your own path.
Form is paramount when human interest in the image is slight.
Think about your frame. Be wary of close-ups and abstraction as much as wide and non-specific. Both can diminish the understanding of a place.
Employ one aspect ratio at a time. Attune your mind to seeing with this rectangle. Embrace the limitation.
Image editing often referred to post-processing but it should also be about the sequence. In the early days of a new project, learn to study your images and see if a pattern emerges that prompts a project to deviate into something more interesting.
Drape your ideas loosely with ideological wrapping but let the project organically emerge, visually. Don’t straight jacket with a fixed intellectual concept.
Enjoy looking at your own images. Develop a narrative. Make a book. Reflect on its ‘story’.
Some musings on where photography and art meet in photographic practice.
The parrot and the mermaid
Mindfulness is a direction that’s gaining some traction in photography and art; the notion that connecting with the environment around us in a deeper way can bring emotional wellbeing. In a busy urban setting, the ability to step back from the pace around us and see the everyday for its small details of light, simplicity and beauty is a useful psychological tool and a necessary state for the photographer. Within a landscape, zoning out from mental clutter and being in the moment requires effort. Some photographers talk about their emotional state as a major contributor to their photography but I believe the opposite is true. In photography and art, for me it’s about responding to the location using present senses and leaving emotions temporarily to one side. A state of emptiness for an over active mind is a good base to begin with but increasingly the creative intellect takes over. An internal monologue starts to develop where scenes are processed and judged for photographic potential. Through intense scrutiny compositions reveal themselves and entice, what I would call mermaids, often in the form of dramatic lighting, or colour. Every photographer I imagine, has their own triggers. They are of course a trick and resisting the path to them requires an intellectual effort so hence the parrot which is the constant voice that drives the photographer away from shiny cheap shots that fail to offer photographic potential towards stronger successful images. Where mindfulness is less about success and results and more about exploring in the first instance, the parrot and mermaid are both two forces that live in the moment drawing on the photographer’s wealth of creative experience.
Why a visit to the National Gallery in London can be useful
As a young teenager a school trip visit to the NG in London seemed a worthy thing to do. The paintings were old which was the important thing about it. As an 18 year old, a second visit was in mind of art movements and styles particularly contrasting brush work as well as varying types of lighting within scenes. Think of Turner. It was in October 2019 when suddenly I made the connection with a scene in front of me that took me back to that visit. Whilst there was no one thing about what was in front of me that resembled any particular painting, the quality of light; the direction it was coming from, the intensity and the colours the light helped to lift reminded me of how some masters used to understand suggestion with light and not entire revelation. You can see my image in the Spain Autumn gallery half-way in with the river in the foreground. Why I like the photo and why it reminded me of old paintings is the scene in modern landscape terms is compositionally quite weak, the abstract graphical approach is absent as indeed it was for the master painters who were interested in light and scene formed within a framework of romanticism. Instead it suggests and offers a subtly that is out of step with most photographic landscape ‘in your face’ imagery… Photography and art meet in an organic way.
All about the series
Increasingly I judge a portfolio based on the number of images that relate to each other with reference to place, style or set of intentions. Creating a coherent sequence where the images represent a whole as well as the individual merits has become my methodology and also how I judge others. I have a dislike of broad galleries which may extend to various landscape scenes where the tone, colour and compositional approach are all varied. I even prefer in some cases to shoot the images all vertically including a continuity of style and approach perhaps even limiting lens choice. Within a series it’s also worth looking at the ordering of images to create a narrative based on grouping textures, colours etc. and seeing how images side by side relate to each other. You can view more of my Spain landscapes here.
Salt piles both white and brown, excavation by way of evaporation, the semi arid Morocco desert located basins exposed to the prevailing northerly winds and summer heat. Salt production from the sketchers’ imagination, an environment extremely hostile to life revealing through the frame a kind of atavistic visual austerity.
Some 30 years ago I had read about Saharan Salt and the caravans transporting it up from Algeria and Mail into and beyond the Morocco desert. Salt literally worth its weight in gold. I can’t be sure whether I had read or imagined desert towns made entirely from blocks of salt. The notion of such a wild inhospitable place appealed as a location to write about. Many years later, I found myself much closer to the Saharan source of salt, living in Morocco.
The small pockets of Morocco desert salt production located near its western coastline had been on my radar for years but photographically it seemed too unstructured and harsh to make any images there. Set across a few acres, these ad-hoc basins provide a source of income for local families, the men either managing their own small plot or working in a gang to harvest the salt and bag it for the larger pond owners.
Using hand dug wells of 2-3 metres across in some instances and 10 meters deep, water is pumped up from the saline underground water source using old band strap pumps and piped into the plastic sheeted basins using roughly connected plastic tubing. Then nature and the daily sunshine takes its course. Most of the basins have been discarded as small scale set-ups offer little financial return due to the increasing cost of materials to manage the plots. The salt is shipped for fish packing or refined for table salt.
I saw the potential for revealing a chaotic harsh environment seemingly devoid of conventional photographic beauty in graphical terms. It’s austerity in form became ever more appealing to me. Drawn essentially to line and shapes, the puzzle solving was to create mid distance landscapes whilst veering away from images that became too abstract and of course to make sense of the unstructured layout of the land.
A well known photographer once said that they take photographs to later understand what they saw. The image once transfixed offers a hyper real examination of what was in front of the camera. Small details unnoticed at the time become loaded with meaning and prompt a curiosity in the mind of the viewer. This is essentially the draw of the salt basins and the reductive qualities of black and white mean a single stone can take on visual significance.
Photographing in harsh sunlight also became a conscious decision. It’s the foremost lighting in the region and so is more honest to work with this rather than seek the quality of light rarely available and associated with an idealistic romantic appreciation of land. A gritty aesthetic was also paramount, to reflect the nature of the place. Morocco doesn’t lend itself to clean imagery, making the challenge of finding form in chaos ever more difficult.
The more I have visited the locations, the greater sense I have that my personal circumstances influence my interest. At home, rocks surround our house both fashioned in lines to create barriers or heaped in piles awaiting ground clearance. Essentially I live amongst rocks and so the fascination for the fusion point between managed and scruffy finds its place. You can see the full gallery here.
Join us for a desert tour and expand your portfolio with hands on tuition and guidance on how to unlock your creative potential.
This year I’ve been keen to develop intermediate and advanced level (photography tours Morocco and Spain) to cover nomads as well as landscapes in Spain. This includes both tours in Andalusia and the northern Spanish forests and well as Moroccan nomadic people. In Morocco we’re still running the desert and High Atlas tours and the new addition of the nomad venture. I’ve also personally acquired an old 5×4 film camera and scanner which will allow me to do some black and white developing at home. For B&W I really feel that film offers a much better finish with deeper blacks. If anyone is interested in learning how to shoot and meter with film cameras and develop I’m more than happy to cover this.
It appears high on the list of must sees in Morocco and despite it’s relatively isolated location it offers the photographer something unique. A small town and relatively easy to walk around, Chaouen sprouts photo opportunities at each turn in the narrow roads. It’s feel is more like a Greek island village with smooth edges to walls and steps. For those that like simplicity and a limited colour palate, it’s ideal. The blue hues are of course the backdrop but it’s the second colour either via an object or person which provides the focal point of interest. Linda Wride, an accomplished photographer, came out in March and you can see her take on the town at her RPS gallery (http://www.rps.org/member/gallery/linda-wride/Chefchaouen-Blues) . Click to view Linda’s images of Chefchaouen
I’ve self published two books now with BB. The picture quality is excellent and the downloadable software is especially easy to navigate both adding text and image page by page. More pricier than rivals, after exploring online reviews it seemed picture quality came out top. There is a choice of papers, from the regular gloss/matt and a new type which is their photo paper. It wouldn’t recommend this option as it feels very plastic to touch. Although heavyweight, it cheapens the book. Better to go with standard gloss in flat lay form. You can also enter their Book of the Month competition which wins you a code to make a free book if you are chosen. The judges are BB themselves. The annual competition wins you an Ipad but that goes to public votes and invariably what wins is a wildlife book. Click to see my latest book, The Forest Next Door
I ran the first of my nomad tours in April. Limited to 2 guests, the 6 days in the Atlas mountains offer unique daily access to different nomad families. With just 2 guests it’s possible to get into the tight camp spaces with the option of moving about. A small group, and 2 really is small, allows some direction of subject so you can really create the compositions you want to get. April’s guests Robin and Josh inhabit different ends of the photographic spectrum both in age and experience and they approached subjects in individual ways. Josh with shooting film was concerned with lighting and Robin was always looking for a decisive unusual moment. For my own approach in 2017, I focused on composed still imagery of nomad women and girls.
Last year’s late October trip to northern Spain proved fruitful from the number of images I was happy with. The vast array of reds and yellows at this time of the year mean that colour wise there’s no shortage of directions to point your camera. Like always however, it’s all about balance, filling the frame with chaotic colour doesn’t often work. Instead it’s about finding balance and within the forest location, using ‘cooler’ to balance out the warmth. If you wish to learn about how to discover more balanced compositions then join me for a Northern Spain tour in late October. Dates 18th – 25th. Autumn scenes Spain
Earlier this I wrote an article with accompanying photos from Northern Spain on the virtues of including more meaning within your photos and encouraging metaphors. It’s just been published (https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2019/06/in-need-of-a-narrative/) this month. Getting your work shown in magazines often takes patience and having some words alongside helps. One comment from the article via Thomas Rink makes an excellent point. “I define “narrative” as something like an “aesthetic vision” that I have about a certain place, for a lack of better words. This means that the place elicits some kind of mental imagery in my mind, something that I would find difficult to write down since it is non-conceptual. Within this framework, “seeing a picture” means that I come across a scenery that just fits to the “aesthetic vision” like key and lock. If I’m lucky I’m able to conserve this in a photograph, like a gift I’m given for which I have to be receptive. I consider the photograph to convey “beauty” if it transports this vision (as opposed to superficial “prettiness”). You can view Thomas’ latest gallery (http://www.picturesfromthezone.com/stillgewaesser).
There are few companies who claim to make a Sahara Photography tour their speciality and only one where the tour leader is a leading practitioner. As a workshop leader, I have led many groups into the desert region where the focus is on the guest to get the images they aspire to, not the ones I hope to get.
There is an exotic element in selling Morocco, with it’s sense of mystery. As an insider I prefer to offer an experience which blends a realistic cultural perspective, one which attempts to side step some of the more obvious locations for photos, with the traditional appeal of Morocco of a photogenic touristic location.
Sahara as a location in Morocco’s south east has all the virtues of the famous desert but plenty question if it’s actually part of the Sahara desert at all. You can read more about whether it is or not scrolling down.
Whilst the Sahara photography tours are comfortable they are photography focused with access to local people so you can spend more time perfecting compositions rather than negotiating for permission. You’ll also see a lot of the landscapes south and east of Marrakesh. Each day is nicely paced and night stopovers are spread between one and two nights so you won’t feel you’re completely living out of a suitcase.
What you will photograph includes;
Ancient mud brick fortifications, weavers in their home, nomads, large and small markets for local shoppers, families at home, gorges, an oasis and canyons, dunes and camels.
The tour excludes Marrakesh where street photography is very difficult for any photographer. We prefer to get out into the mountains, Berber villages and desert locations. Your arrival the day before the tour start will give you the opportunity to explore Marrakesh’s main square at night and after the tour we can arrange a guided tour of the medina’s key sites for you, such as Majorelle Garden and Bahia Palace.
Photographic tour planning
Once on the road, you’ll spend the first few days in the High Atlas mountains in villages photographing local people, friends of mine. By the end of day 3, you’ll already have a collection of portraits, which you’ve had time to craft as well as fabulous crumbling mud Kasbahs or Ksars perched on precipices. You’ll also share tea and couscous with some of them.
For days 4-6 we move onto the first views of the desert, not the dunes, but an oasis village which again provides landscape scenes and opportunities into photographing local people both in their homes and on market day in the surrounding streets.
Days 7-10 is about photographing the dunes. Dunes photography has become somewhat of a challenge in recent years as tourist vehicles traverse the landscape in all directions. We prefer to concentrate less on the epic scale and more on developing a tighter compositional approach, one that is more abstract, interesting and indeed personal. The epic, wide views from atop are lovely but they are ubiquitous across social media. You’ll have the option of a camel ride into the dunes and accommodation in a desert camp so night star gazing and astro photography are on the itinerary.
Accommodation is varied on our Sahara photography tour, unique to each place and perfectly comfortable. It’s not luxury but the tour is about getting great photos and staying in the locations where there is access to these. Dining is also a treat and we have a couple of surprise packages for you. Alcohol is available and most of the night stops. You can find out more about the tour here and about what kinds of imagery is possible of the dunes.
Is travelling to the dunes near Merzouga the real Sahara desert and a Sahara photography Tour?
For some folk it doesn’t matter either way if the dunes there are the real thing. Online searches on where the far reaches of the Sahara reside are not conclusive. Travel websites also present conflicting information. So for the following I have received first hand feedback from experts in geography and also referred to better quality published research online. Wikipedia was useful for some referencing but it’s clear that it’s highly inconsistent when describing what the region is.
Both experts said the same; that boundaries are difficult to set due to a range of factors. It’s simply very hard to be sure but the following was a useful starting point;
‘The United States Geological Survey does not even maintain a database for boundaries or physical feature or regions even in the United States.
Regions are application-driven and highly susceptible to perception. Individuals might agree on the core of a region, but agreement deteriorates rapidly outward from that core.
So many of the definitions of things like deserts can be influenced by what parameters you use and what values you use to define them. For example, how much rainfall over what period of time’.
From this I created three parameters; political, cultural and climatical which could help explain the boundaries of the Sahara desert.
Frank White the botanist when describing the Sahara ‘The limits of the desert are somewhat arbitrary, but the ‘best fit’ with biological reality is obtained if the northern limit is drawn to coincide with the 100 mm isohyet’.
This precipitation threshold dovetails with a recent study published in 2017 from the University of Maryland, which looks at the changing boundaries of the Sahara desert by compiling rainfall activity of 100 mm yr over a 100 year period.
The first link, 2nd map, clearly shows The Sahara overlapping into the South east corner of Morocco. The 2nd link shows the boundary in 1920 was higher including the north end and entire length of the 25km dunes, so there has been some contraction in this area.
The following research from 2001 uses a 50mm annual rainfall threshold which one would expect to place the Sahara’s northern boundary further south.
Figure 1a shows the area around Merzouga (Lat 31,Long – 4) just outside the Sahara desert, which is backed up out by figure 2. Figure 3, which looks at the overall trend using the most recent 20 year mean 50 mm annual rainfall places Merzouga inside the Sahara.
Another website which drew my attention is below. On pages 8 and 9 we can view two maps covering rainfall and aridity. The area around Merzouga clearly falls under the ‘hyper arid zone’. One indicator of desert status is the absence of grazing animals. There’s no grazing in the dunes at Merzouga.
Flash flooding doesn’t inhibit desert status as we can see from this year from the Western Sahara where there was severe flooding. Annual rainfall over (30+) years is a more reliable indicator.
The rainfall research showed this area is less likely to be part of the Sahara desert, even though it has a great feeling of wilderness.
Here’s a Unesco report from a few years ago that looks at sustainable tourism development in the Sahara.
This is from page 21;
‘The route linking Dades and the Todra Gorge passes through the Atlas mountains…and on to the fringes of the Sahara as far as the Erg Chebbi dunes…Rissani, built in the 8th C. on the rubble of Sijilmassa and once one of the biggest caravan centres of the gold, salt and slave trade.’
A couple of points emerge. Firstly that Erg Chebbi dunes are described as ‘on the fringes of the Sahara’ and secondly that a historical perspective is an important factor. It appears Sijilmasa (now Rissini), known as the door to the desert, a little further north than Merzouga, was in historical terms, the desert edge, a settlement that would have facilitated grazing for food, not so far from arid land, the desert and expanse.
‘Sijilmasa was a medieval Moroccan city and trade point at the northern edge of the Sahara in Morocco.’
When I was younger I was fascinated about travel and adventure in the Sahara particularly those who crossed the empty quarter. That for me was the Sahara Desert, a wilderness area. The advance of civilisation in Merzouga, doesn’t fit with a romanticised vision of what the Sahara means should be. But we do have to imagine more than 50 years ago that there was nothing in this area, before the roads and hotels.
It also really matters how the local people self identify. The folk born in Merzouga who I’ve spoken to, identify as coming from the Sahara. The rainfall data and historical governance supports this.
I also think the absence of a clear path south affects our perception of this area and its relationship to what it actually is. We cannot venture further so therefore by being on the edge we are not really in it. Edges, ‘fringes’ or in it.
The 2017 study published in the Journal of Climate(2018), should update thinking about the extent of the Sahara. Perhaps future maps will be drawn according to this new research. Choose a Sahara Photography Tour with us to get the best photography opportunities and insights into Morocco.