“So what happens once you’ve done everything?”
A friend asked me this a few days ago, her question prompted by the observation that I am terrible at sitting still and simply being. We’d been looking at a map of Scotland and I’d realised with a degree of shock just how many miles of driving I’d done since the beginning of October in the name of photography – yet I still didn’t feel satisfied.
It’s nothing new. For the past 10 years or so I’ve had a constant need to be progressing, to always be making the most of opportunities, to be achieving. I always need to be improving my photography, to be getting fitter, to climb or cave harder. Happiness eludes me if I’m not living in this way. Until recently I’d always viewed this side of my personality as entirely positive – motivating me to ‘just do it’ when tired or lethargic. It’s only in the last few months I’ve allowed myself to recognise the flip side of this – that being so continuously driven causes also me a great deal of grief.
My friend’s question perhaps should have been “So what happens when you can’t do things?”
The fabled October high pressure is a fragile, mystical thing. It can so easily not happen – the Atlantic depressions taking hold in September and sometimes lasting until February. But when it does come along it is pure magic – the hills bask resplendent in the sunshine and there’s a quality to the light again that is so rare to find in the preceding few months. There’s a few fairly reliable good weather-windows most years in the Highlands, and I work hard throughout the year to make sure I’m prepared to make the absolute most of them when they arrive. All of the running up hills in the rain, and hours spent with my head in books and maps are with these precious periods in mind. Almost all of the images that I most aspire to take only really become possible very briefly and all at the same time – a good number of them during these rare weeks of dry, settled conditions.
This year the October high arrived after/during a deep personal low. A family crisis, too much work and an ongoing struggle with mental illness have all combined. September had been a month of too many friends leaving, simmering worry, too many hours spent at work and too much alcohol. A time of backward, not forward progress. I simply did not do the things that I’ve become dependent on for my happiness.
When the weather forecast began to hint at the arrival of good weather I had mixed feelings. After such a low point, would I feel able to throw in same amount of effort that I usually would? When it came to it I found it hard to motivate myself to get started again. I could so easily have just not bothered. Motivation came more from the fear of regret than from actually wanting to do anything. But once I got going however, something had changed.
Perhaps creativity inspired by suffering? I’m not sure. But I found myself almost overwhelmed by new ideas, thoughts and questions about my photography. I have found myself viewing familiar subjects in ways entirely new to me, and I’ve discovered a powerful drive to push my photography beyond its previous constraints into something new. Caving trips have become about attaining a single image rather than dozens. Underground images than I’d previously ruled out as impossible now seem to be the only ones I’m interested in. On hill days I’ve found myself staying out after dark seeing compositions that would have never occurred to me previously, and I have a new fixation with the strongest lines and most prominent forms. With it has come a new lack of urgency.
Maybe all this will simply feed the rat. Maybe I’ll feel the need to be out there as much as ever. I don’t know yet.
So here are my efforts from this year’s October high pressure. It was prolonged, beautiful and quite a gift.
Glen Canisp at dusk. A 1 minute exposure with intentional camera movement.
A squall passing over Loch Maree.
Caving in Assynt. Coming through the squeeze known as ‘The Sphincter’ in Allt nan Uamh Stream Cave.
A flock of rooks coming into roost above the abandoned Crawford Priory.
Black Isle beeches
A rook approaching the roost.
Early light on an abandoned croft.