‘Wild Light’. Scotland’s Mountain Landscape. Craig Aitchison.Vertebrate Publishing. 160 pages £25. Large Format, Hard Back.
‘Extreme Scotland’. A photographic journey through Scottish Adventure Sports. Nadir Khan. Vertebrate Publishing. 184 pages £25. Large Format. Hard Back.
‘Photography is truth’ Jean-Luc Godard.
Maybe Godard would wish to now surround his view of the standing of photography with a less-Certainty, for digitalisation has changed as to whether photography is an art form or a developed skill? But these two books are an exemplar of both forms of today’s present image recording, film and or digital, both succeeding without question in a wish to faithfully record for us the spectator what they felt to be their vision in one moment of time.
This is Craig Aitchison’s second book, his first ‘The Highlands: Land and Light’ published in 2012 was successful, but it has taken him seven years to prepare and execute his second, ‘Wild Light’. Such a work of landscape photography to achieve a sumptuous coffee table result requires careful planning, with hours, and days of waiting with nights spent in lightweight tents anticipating the key time of dawn light or an evening sunset.
Aitchison despite still working in film is a modern, for his equipment would more than impress previous generations of landscape photographers, his main camera being a Hasselblad X Pan, which was developed by that Swedish firm in co-operation with Fuji to produce the world’s first 35mm dual format camera. The concept behind the X Pan was to provide medium format image quality with the convenience of 35mm film, for which Aitchison uses the Fujichrome 50 Velvia.
Interchangeable lenses are also a key to his success, but surprising to me he only carries three, a 30mm, 45mm and a 90mm. Which somehow yield a wide angled, scene grabbing result in the mind and hands of an operator like Aitchison.
Using film employs an authentic approach to Landscape photography, for it enables the picture taker to capture the nuances of colour and light in the mountains, extremely accurately something that is difficult to replicate digitally. There are however problems with this approach associated with perspective and distortion errors; and in Scotland’s mountains, the ever fast changing light and moving objects, such as clouds and day lighting! And in this day and age working with film means high additional costs in processing and scanning; I guess that might mean ensuring that making sure the technicalities of composition and exposure must be executed correctly out in the hills, for little can be achieved in the laboratory.
Interesting to me is to compare Aitchison’s sumptuous colour results to those of some landscape photographer’s of yesteryear known to me; Ben Humble immediately comes to mind. Someone I was fortunate to get to know in the early 1960’s. Two of his books ‘On Scottish Hills’ 1946 and ‘The Cuillin of Skye’ 1952 were groundbreaking in their era, as was Walter Poucher’s many publications also around the same time, ‘The magic of Skye’ 1949 being a book to own at that date. However I must confess that my own most precious mountain picture book as a young teenager was the Swiss Andre Roch’s ‘On Rock and Ice’. In more recent times concentrating on Scotland, Gordon Stainforth’s beautiful opus, ‘Cuillin: Great Mountain Ridge of Skye’ published in 1994 remains the outstanding work on that range of mountains. Interesting that despite the far reach of Aitchison’s book there are no pictures contained within of the Cuillin.
There are however ones of more remote and more difficult to reach mountains such as Canisp and Suilven, An Teallach and Torridon. Based in Glasgow, fretting over weather forecasts he must have clocked up thousands of miles over the seven years of putting together the 156 photographs in his book.
Aitchison was the inaugural winner of the ‘Scottish Landscape Photographer of the year’. His photographs are ones to savour and memorise over, plate 134 Braeriach in winter is one such for me, a night spent in a bivouac in February 1963 at the foot of a possible new route with Eric Langmuir (now deceased), to almost die retreating next morning in an ensuing blizzard. So Aitchison is in a long line of Scottish mountain photographers, he may not be the last, but he will remain I am sure one of the best! Everything about ‘Wild Light’ is appealing, none more so than the huge panoramas of favourite hills, for me the one of ‘The Cobbler’ (plate 124 shot in February 2017) remains breathtaking. It must be a huge gamble by Vertebrate to publish this book, and knowing a little of how much it must have cost to put together, I do hope it is successful for it really does justice to the finest mountain scenery we have in the UK.
Nadir Khan has a most unusual background for an adventure photographer, post a career as a hospital based oral surgeon, working on facial trauma and reconstructive surgery, he now concentrates on his first love, photography. A journey which started at Glasgow University when his father, also a surgeon, gave him an old SLR Canon film camera, which became a companion on his early mountaineering adventures in Glencoe and on Ben Nevis recording his own and friends activities in these mountain areas. From such outings he began to develop a major interest in wilderness photography, studying the work of such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. The latter must have inspired many to take up climbing photography for besides being one of the most outstanding exponents of this type of image; he was himself one of the leading pioneer climbers of his generation. His two seminal works; ‘In the throne room of the Mountain gods’ 1977 and ‘Mountain Light’1986 would inspire any tyro as they seem to have done so for Khan? I did meet Galen on occasion in the States, and his death in a plane crash, returning from Alaska in August 2002 was a shock to all of us who knew him.
It is always interesting if you yourself have an interest in photography to discover what equipment such an operator as Khan is using to craft his images. He has long ago left behind his old film camera and is now a digital user, mainly with Canon EOS lDC and a 5D Mark lll, along with L-series lenses as well as for flash a Canon 580 exii and Elinchrom Quadra. There is a short but interesting Foreword to ‘Extreme Scotland’ by Hamish MacInnes, explaining his long held belief that a timeless book of mountain images holds sway with him, over the moving picture. Stating ‘I must admit I am a large-format buff , an admirer of Vittorio Sella and the Abraham brothers- such subtle light and shadows’. Hamish does go on to also note how much digital photography has changed the name of the game. I myself still use film cameras, but I do understand the benefits of digital whilst filming moving images.....a major one being I understand is exposure speed. And of course you can also see what image/s you have captured in an instant.
Extreme Scotland is broken into four sections, by season. Winter first and for me this is where the books greatest pictorial strength lies, then Spring, Summer and Autumn. And in each season there are activities which seem to complement, with trail running and rock climbing in summer and kayaking in the Autumn.
‘Extreme Scotland’ covers all the major adventure sports which Scotland plays host to. Ice climbing, kayaking, ski-touring, trail running, surfing, mountain-biking and rock climbing. But the book is about more than just a recounting of some adrenaline junkies doing their thing! There are some thoughtful articles and poems from such as Nick Bullock, Tom Livingstone, Elana Bader, Mike Pescod, David Canning and Stuart Campbell. A poem I enjoyed was ‘One Day’ by Elana Bader and an article ‘Creme de Violette’ by Tom Livingstone repeating a Nick Bullock/Tim Neill route on Beinn Eighe. I would have thought that perhaps a longer scene setting historical revue might have been included? Who for instance first ran the Scottish 4000’ers, or kayaked the middle Etive, or climbed in the Scottish winter?
The winter climbing photographs are frankly stunning, and some of the climbers featured all have wonderful, memorable names..... Caspar McKeever, Uisdean Hawthorn and Ines Papert. The pictures of her repeating ‘The Hurting’ (Xl. 11) in Coire an t-Sneachda, pages 4-7 are I guess what modern, winter climbing at the front edge of performance are all about. But I wonder, as to when did climbers, start calling themselves ‘athletes?’ Although I was once a member of the Manchester Athletic Club and similarly The Leeds A C and such as Arthur Dolphin ran every year for Yorkshire in the Counties Cross Country Championship, I never thought of him, Brown or Whillans as ‘athletes’. They were ‘climbers’ which was a superior designation, yet in ‘Extreme Scotland’ the climbers are all athletes just like the trail runners.
I think ‘Extreme Scotland’ which highlights the use of all of today’s innovations in adventure sports is nevertheless a worthy successor to much that has gone before. A list of climbing photographers is almost endless but Nadir Kan is using some of the techniques pioneered by John Cleare for his now historical work, ‘Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia’. I mention this because I was Joe Brown’s second while John filmed him off an abseil rope, climbing Vector. But earlier works also set the scene, C. Douglas Milner’s ‘Rock for Climbing’ with its sense of period (the 1940’s) and its climbing sequences that were revolutionary in that era. A final mention of climbing photographic development must rest with Ken Wilson. His large format books, such as ‘Hard Rock’ 1974, ‘Classic Rock’ 1978, ‘Cold Climbs’ 1983 and ‘Extreme Rock’ 1987 set a standard that it is hard to equal for capturing a climb, a climber and a place.
To be fair ‘Extreme Scotland’ could not be anywhere else in the world, with its unique setting of Mountains, Lochs and Wilderness Areas. Some regions are harder to capture the zeitgeist, and some activities are more photogenic than others. And here climbing comes into its own, although Callum Anderson kayaking the Middle Etive in a double edged spread (pages 92 and 93) is pretty awesome.
So all in all this has to be a ‘bible’ for future adventurous souls to go forth, to ski tour, to trail run, surf, mountain bike, rock climb, kayak and winter climb. Knowing much of the territory the pictures cover, I would be surprised if anyone else could improve on this work of Nadir Khan. So I congratulate him on an outstanding book, and I do hope it proves to be a well thumbed, well read success.