Working Photographer looks at the turbulent world of editorial photography through the eyes of someone been working at it for forty years -- and hopes to stay active for a lot longer. A quarter of a century at National Geographic has taught me to stay nimble and keep growing. That's what this blog is about.
The islanders on Skye call it the Hairy Loch. I call my image of it Skye Pan I. The photograph was stitched together from frames 14, 691, 14,692 and 14,693.
I've always loved the Hairy Loch and have driven past it often. The intricacy and regularity of the reeds in the loch was always alluring, but at the time I had no idea of just what a complex and storied place it was. That would come later when I explored the history of the Hairy Loch, properly called Loch Cill Chroisd.
For all the times I had seen it, I had never really gotten a picture of it until this morning when I was hurrying to the Glasgow airport to take a flight home. Once, some 13 years before on a previous National Geographic assignment, I had stopped here for a gorgeous sunset and tried to photograph it but was defeated by the dreaded Scottish midges (or midgies, the way Scots say it.) The midge is species of invisible, flying piranha known to eat the flesh off the bones of a photographer in minutes. I gave up.
When this scene of Loch Cill Chroisd unfolded before me, I had to stop the car. The sun was rising, the fog for thinning, and I worked frantically to photograph this view before it was gone. I asked myself, "Why the hell had I lingered for so long at the loch up the road when this was waiting for me here?"
The scene cried out for all the detail I could capture. Oh, the great heap of Beinn na Caillich rising above the horizon didn't need the detail. It was the the water's reeds, dappled with floating leaves, that needed detail. They needed a subtle rendering that would give each blade of grass its due credit in making up the matrix of life in this stunning landscape.
The ability to stitch several digital images together to form a panorama is a powerful tool for landscape photographers. And it results in a huge file, brimming with information that renders fine detail precisely and maintains lush tonalities. So grabbing my tripod, I quickly mounted the camera, leveled the head, and started shooting multi-image sets of images for later processing in the computer.
There are ways in which the digital processing actually removes distortion from images. Before joining one image to the next, the software takes out some of the stretching that lenses inevitably produce when rendering the real world onto a flat surface. (It's a necessary byproduct of optics, roughly analogous to the kind of stretching that happens when you project a spherical earth onto a flat map.) But readers of National Geographic remain shy of anything that smacks of "digital manipulation" (as we all should be) and so when we published the image, we duly noted that it was a panorama made up of several images.
The resulting image had a strong sense of serenity. Several of the other variations I tried had this same sense of calm, but this particular set seemed to have the best harmony. Plus, the detailed rendering suggested something more.
Perhaps one of the reasons I love the landscapes of Scotland is their long history of habitation. People have been living amongst its lochs and beinns for a long time. Places like this gather more than just wrinkles inflicted by geology. Myths and tales grow on them a surely as grass and trees.
So it is with Loch Cill Chroisd.
The name itself has meaning. The church, the "cill", is just up the road. And "Chroisd" mean Christ. Thus: Christ Church. Legend has it that an evil spirt dwelt in the loch and poisoned the water until St. Columba (who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century) chased it away. After that another spirit -- an each uisge or water horse -- set up shop in the loch, turning itself into a handsome young man to seduce passing women and drown them in the deepest part of the loch.
Further legends of this landscape abound. High atop Beinn na Caillich is a cairn (large pile of stones) said to be where a young Norwegian princess wished to be buried. She hoped that she could feel the winds of her homeland around her grave for eternity. Or maybe not. Maybe it really is the home of the giant woman from the days of Fingal (for whom the cave on Staffa is named, and where we will be going soon.) The Gaelic-to-English translation, "Hill of the Old Woman," would lend weight to that story.
Regardless of legend, real history was at work here, too. The Gaelic Mackinnon clan defeated the Vikings there on the north slope of Beinn na Caillich. The clan lost all its property, including this beinn, when they took up the Jacobite cause and, some say, aided Bonnie Prince Charlie in his escape. Geographer Thomas Pennant climbed to the peak in 1772 in the first recorded ascent of a mountain on Skye. (I can scarcely believe no one climbed this beinn before 1772, if only to take their sheep up for grazing. But then sheepherders aren't known for record keeping.) More recently in 2004, young Alan Cope of nearby Broadford ascended the mountain 10 times in one day for charity.
I like places like this, where human regard, caring and observation imbue the land with such common lore that the names themselves have depth of meaning. To the locals, the loch is just "The Hairy Loch" and the mountain is "The Beinn." Landscapes are more than pretty scenes. We project our dreams on them and make them carry our history. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the external physical landscape from the inner landscape of our minds. We give the land meaning, and it carries our meaning long after we are gone.
So much of photography is about being there. So it was with frame number 9,756.
In this case, being there -- getting to the island of Boreray -- was no small deal. I know people who have been trying to get there for 10 years running -- and still have been defeated by the stormy Atlantic. They make the pilgrimage to the nearby Isle of Harris and book passage with Angus Campbell, who can get you there if anyone can. Sometimes they wait days without a break in the weather that would allow a boat to land. They go home defeated, with the island still a only distant, unseen mystery.
Let me situate you. Beyond the bulk of the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland, flung another 40 miles beyond, is the St. Kilda island group, that loneliest cluster of remote islands left forlorn and deserted in human memory. The wild winds blow freely, clear across the Atlantic for 3,000 miles before they meet Boreray. When they do, they are lifted by the unrelenting rocks to form clouds that swirl around the crags. Two sea stacks flank the island like jagged canines thrusting viciously out of the sea.
No wonder St. Kilda is a World Heritage Site. The sheer wildness of the place, the profusion of seabirds and unrelenting beauty would qualify the place easily. But added to that is the melancholy, heartbreaking saga of the islanders leaving their ancestral home in 1930, a tale I will tell in the coming days.
For all these reasons, I wanted to see Boreray. But I wanted to see it in glorious light. It finally dawned on me why I had seen no pictures of Boreray at sunrise or sunset: everybody takes a day trip to the island. They leave Harris in the morning and are back by late afternoon. My only solution would be to charter a boat so I could be there at sunset, stay overnight in the bay of Hirta (the big island of the St. Kilda archipelago) and catch the sunrise as well. Fortunately I found Seamus Morrison of SeaHarris who also does excursions to St. Kilda and was willing to make the trip -- and a great traveling companion he was.
The island of Boreray itself is all about mystery. But in many ways, on the surface, shooting frame 9,756 was easy. See the incredible light. Point the camera at the incredible light. Push the button.
There by myself amongst the timeless standing stones of Callanish, I kind of lost track of time. The night's calm was as powerful as the stones. Around midnight, as the last of midsummer's light in these northern latitudes faded into a deep blue in the north, I thought: I don't need to be rushing around. I can stay here all night.
In the nearby village I could hear the occasional barking dog and an unexplained sound that I eventually attributed to the earth adjusting itself to the passage of time.
It was peaceful. I was peaceful.
With that peace came the inner time to work on this picture -- to really stretch my seeing and try to bring something to a photograph of a place that has been photographed countless times before (including by me).
After all, it's not like I was seeing something new that nobody had ever seen before. These stones were put up by the local folk sometime around 2900 BC. That's before Stonehenge! Without doubt there were spiritual structures here before the stones. Before that, this place had been sacred for a very long time.