The photographer's solitude
Solitude in the Cairngorms
Looking west across the Cairngorm plateau from Cairngorm.

One aspect of photography I’ve carried over from a life in mountains is solitude. Sitting on the Cairngorm plateau watching a storm trundle in from the west, knowing most people have gone down for the day and I’m left with the snow buntings, the shrews, the ravens and the ptarmigan. Not to forget the slow growing dwarf willow, hugging the low inches above the gravelly, storm-swept ground littered with the eroded remains of granite, the wind blowing its seeds through the grasses and sedges. My camera’s noises are turned off. There are no beeps, flashing screens or motorised movements to break the pre-storm silence. The touchscreen is turned inwards as am I and I connect with a vast silent landscape, alone but intensely happy in my solitude.

Or rather, I would say my ‘engaged disengagement’ with the world. Pure solitude is almost impossible to achieve, especially for the photographer and even more so when the time comes to flip open the screen and review the images in the field. The author Philip J. Koch, in his book Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter as well as his essay in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy has a term for what occurs when we engage with an object, which he calls “contained solitude”. To illustrate the idea, when I flip open the screen, perhaps a few minutes after I’ve taken the shot, there is a memory of what I saw, overlaid with a histogram, sometimes the RGB channels, sometimes flashing highlights and in that instant, a cacophany of associations rushes in. The new computer I need to get, my old friend who doesn’t use computers, the thought I wouldn’t be looking at this if I was printing in the darkroom and I was holding my Bronica instead of a computer, I need a new back for my Bronica, my goodness I need to buy some slide film, the shop is next to the cinema where my wife and I saw our first film together. As Koch says,

you cannot understand solitude without appreciating the way in which perceptions can give rise to reflections and imaginings which, while co present with those perceptions, are so vivid and potent and engrossing that they dominate the experiential whole

The act of photographing with a digital, rather than a film camera, brings the photographer into the realm of contained solitude and is a different kind of solitude from that experienced when not photographing, just walking over the mountains, or walking with a film camera. I should say that contained solitude is entered quicker with a digital companion. With the Bronica, eventually I would need to rummage around in my rucksack for another roll of film and s different set of associations and memories would come tumbling out just the same. The ‘noise’ of other peoples’ lives intrude, in a nice way, in the photographer’s solitude, making it all the sweeter for it and when I engage with the landscape again, I’m in a different mood, with different memories awakened which potentially influence the next image but as I close the screen or put the bag of film away, I’m back in my solitude, the more aware of it as the ‘noise’ recedes. Just as the silence is greater in the moments after the roaring stove is turned off, so the solitude is more present when the brief flurry of necessary activity is over and I return to contemplating the landscape.

Koch says that solitude is

the realm of experience disengaged from other people … solitude is, most ultimately, an experiential world

and I think we can only really disengage from other people when we’re not engaging with ourselves, only the landscape. We’re not really aware of solitude while we’re experiencing it as we have to be unaware of ourselves to do that. To not be aware of yourself takes a lot of effort. When I sit on a mountain, not moving, barely breathing, just watching in a state of almost meditative calm, the slightest sound I make, the rustle of clothes, the intake of breath, the click of a new lens going in, will bring ‘me’ back into the landscape, with all those associations queing up to be noticed. The logo on my Buffalo windshirt my wife sewed back on will make me smile and I’m back in contained solitude. The surrounding rocks remind me of the times we walk together, the distant slopes on the northern horizon make me smile at the memory of three of us sweeping down the ski slopes on a bivvy bag, avoiding the brightly clad skiers. I’m in a contained solitude, a kite flying high but tethered to the ones who matter to me, to other lives I care about. My solitude is defined by other lives.

Prior to these memories and associations appearing I feel there is a brief glimpse of what some people term an ‘absolute truth’. The essence of ‘is’. What I see is what ‘is’. It’s like seeing the foundations of lfe before we build our social constructs on it, before we place value on the other lives in it, before we create ourselves from it but it has no function, no purpose other than to be what it is. It’s the cloud shadows brushing over a silent landscape. It’s the alighting of a meadow pipit on a granite boulder. It’s the distant gurgle of a mountain stream. It’s the click of a reindeer herd round the tent, and it’s the huddled ptarmigan sheltering from the storm. There is no purpose in these things, no reason to exist other than to exist and to have the right to exist for no reason and they all exist without me placing reason, purpose or value on them. It’s a beautiful realisation. One of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had, which is vivid to this day, is putting my hand on a gabbro slab and watching the sun reflect on the thin film of water flowing over my hand but most of all, the feel of the cool silky liquid that had no associations to unearth. It was pure experience. For a brief moment I wasn’t in the landscape any more, I was of it. Pure essence of being. It was magical.

The thoughts for this essay came to light as my wife and I were walking along the shore of Lochan Uaine a few weeks ago. A beautiful green lochan in the Cairngorm mountains with a sandy shore and deep cool depths. We wondered why no-one was swimming until we spotted the leeches, lots of them, swimming just below the surface. A boy and his father were lazing beside the water and the boy said something extraordinary,

what’s the point of a leech?

and I said to my wife,

what’s the point of a human?

Humans have become so far removed from that foundation layer of life that they destroy almost everything they touch. They only see the generations of opinion that have been laid down on the landscape, trowelling over the real reason life exists. No reason at all. It’s just nice to live, look and let live.

I was looking for a specific type of photograph the other day, it had to contain sun and perhaps some people and it was then I realised not many of my photographs contain people, or sun. I have lots of black and white landscape images of dramatic skies, mountainscapes and solitary rocks, plants, flowers, birds. My style over the years, no doubt influenced by my mountaineering has slowly been taking me through those layers of opinions, digging deeper with each evolution of my style, getting closer and closer to that foundation layer where nothing has a purpose other than to live and to be. Eventually, perhaps, I’ll be able to bring these thoughts to my photography.

The path to solitude
The solitary's path into the mountains. Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine in the Cairngorms.

This search for what really is, rather than what we think is, seems to be influencing my photography these days and it’s an exciting journey involving philosophy, poetry, photography and wandering alone in mountains but above all, going to wild places and just sitting, connecting and then recording emotions with the camera, on digital or film. Someone once told me my photographs were ‘from the heart’. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time but solitude and how it influences my images has brought me much closer to who I am and to an understanding of that remark. If a photograph displays honesty, is true to the photograpther’s philosophy and is informed by their life view it will display what the photographer ‘saw’ rather than what they think other people will like to see. Understanding that simple difference takes a lifetime and a lasting engagement with solitude.