For the past six months, I’ve noticed a pattern forming in my approach to photographing the mountains of Snowdonia. Rather than flitting around all over the shop, I’ve been focusing on certain valleys and even mountains, returning time and again. Take the last month for instance; apart from trips across Crib Goch, Cnicht and Siabod I have more often than not been in the Ogwen Valley or on the mountains which cradle it. Even when I’ve been out climbing and not taking photographs the Ogwen Valley has become my focus and that has nothing to do with the fact that it is little more than a five minute drive from home! No, there’s more to it than that, but it’s only recently that I’ve given some thought as to why this relatively new way of working has come about.
If you are a photographer reading this, I would like to ask you a question; is it important for you to feel a profound connection to the landscape when you are making your images, or is it enough for you to just rock up somewhere, set up your tripod and fire away? I wouldn’t venture to say one way is better than the other, but I will state that to me it is not merely important, it is absolutely paramount.
My photographic raison de ‘etre has always been to communicate my passion for, and the spiritual aspects of, being in the mountains but I always found that the act of spreading myself thinly all over Snowdonia, while yielding good images, usually felt vaguely dissatisfying, my relationship with the hills shallow and lacking commitment. That, I suppose, is the lot of those not fortunate enough to live in a place like this, one for which their heart yearns when they are in exile. Now of course, I am able to play the long game and seek a deeper communion with the landscapes that inspire my photography. In thinking about the way I now go about my pursuit of mountain images it has become increasingly clear that actually living here was essential for me to really get under the skin of these wonderful places and take my relationship with them onto a higher plane. If you are thinking “What a load of pretentious bollocks”, then that is absolutely fine, but, if you know me at all, then you will understand what the mountains mean to me and how they are much, much more than something for me to point a camera at!
So, back in the Ogwen Valley and on its mountains by which I mean, for the sake of clarity, the entire Glyderau range, the Carneddau as far north as Llewelyn and the valley floor from Nant y Benglog to the new and improved Oggie Tea Shack.
Two minutes after leaving my home you enter its wild, lower reaches, flanked on either side by desolate, boulder strewn moorland; straight ahead is the hulking Gallt yr Ogof and to the right the shapely cone of Pen Llithrig yr Wrach. Here, the valley is wide and there is a great feeling of space and a palpable air of mystery and magic. After leaving the fertile environs of Capel Curig it’s as if we are entering a new and foreign land.
A little further on and Tryfan sidles slowly into view, revealed piece by piece until its unforgettable profile, replete with spines and buttressed by great crags takes your breath away. Even now, it is a sight that has me almost crashing the car into dry-stone walls and other motorists!
The scene is quickly taking on a grandeur out of all proportion to reality, for the peaks rarely top 3400ft in height; Llyn Ogwen appears, and ahead is Y Garn, as beautiful a mountain as you could ever wish to behold, its twin ridges wrapped around secretive Cwm Clyd. To the right is the nose of Yr Esgair on Foel Goch, one of the most coveted but rarely climbed ridges in Britain, one which I climbed one memorable winter day in 2010.
At the Oggie Tea Shack it is time to stop and choose your way into the mountains. Which way will you go? Pen yr Ole Wen towers above, throwing down a stiff challenge for the legs and lungs, the Cwm Idwal path offers an easy stroll into an astonishing mountain sanctuary while Y Garn’s ‘come hither’ looks are almost impossible to resist; and that’s just the start of it. Yes, there is so much here to go at, and for the photographer there is easy and delicious fruit close at hand, but if you really want to feel the heartbeat of a place, if indeed that is important to you, then you must give yourself to it wholly, for flirting will just leave you frustrated. So how, in the last few weeks, have I done that?
My first thoughts were to forget photography, to stop thinking about light, to get my eye away from the viewfinder and to live in the now. The most effective way I know of achieving a mindful approach to life is to go climbing (but make sure your friend takes a camera on your behalf!). So much of our time as landscape photographers is spent looking at the big picture in a way that almost detaches us from the thing we are trying to capture. Recently and apart from the grade 1 scrambles I have climbed, I went up Zig Zag on Clogwyn y Tarw and the Dolmen Ridge on the North West face of Glyder Fach. One was a hard but relatively safe route with all the paraphernalia of the modern rock climber, the other a thought provoking solo climb without ropes. On both occasions I grappled with the very matter of these mountains, the bones on which they are built. At times I was nervous and aware that a mistake would cost me my life, at others I was embroiled in a physical fight to gain ground, losing skin and blooded by the mountain. You could say I was as intimately involved in the place as it is possible to get and at no time did I think about the shots I was missing. It was me, thee and nothing else.
Another component of attaining a meaningful communion with Ogwen was going out walking and scrambling with others and watching their response to the hills. Did it mirror my own and if not, what did it say about me and my relationship with these hills? One hundred per cent of the time it was me that enthused, swore involuntarily and outwardly marvelled in my surroundings, even in places I had trodden numerous times before. I may not have been any more moved than my companions but my awe and enthusiasm was impossible to contain which once again clearly illustrated the reason I take photographs, which is the very real need to express my passion for the mountains, photography being the means rather than the end in itself.
The aspect I have found most rewarding is what I like to call the ‘Go with no expectations’ approach. That is, to take all of my kit just in case, but with the express intention of experiencing the release of solitude after a hard day at work, enjoying the physical and spiritual gains it so abundantly bestows upon me. It’s worth noting that these forays can be the hardest for which to find motivation to get started but have proved the most successful in terms of image gathering. There is a lesson here!
Lastly, and not least important is the obsessive ‘go to the same place every day’ mode of being. In the past week I have trudged up the same path to exactly the same spot on Pen yr le Wen three evenings running where I spent at least an hour and a half on each occasion. Why? Well, because I am a bit weird like that, but what it did for me was this…I got to know every stone on the path and in doing so developed a very strong sense of place. I was after the same shot and each time came away without it, so capricious have the conditions been. But what I did come away with, by sitting still and watching the weather from a pre-ordained viewpoint was the cumulative effect of observing the same scene in a way that is only usually gained from your own back garden or door step.
After all this, do I feel that I know Ogwen better? No, of course I don’t, but I know for sure that when I next set up my tripod on one of its mountains I will have condensed the essence of the valley into my sub consciousness, which in turn will make my photographic endeavours a more rewarding enterprise. It is one thing to look at a place and trace your many comings and goings from days past, but entirely another to spend an intense period in its embrace.
Time to move on maybe, but where next?
Many thanks to Jock Andrews for the photographs of me on the Dolmen Ridge