Monday 21st March, 2016
As I ascend the moor, coming over the peak of the hill, the first thing that attracts my attention within the vista are several pillars of dark grey smoke serving as vertical lines to the predominantly horizontal scene. One is in the very far distance, close to the horizon. The other appears to be on the far side of a hill, maybe a couple of miles away- but having had some experience of trying to gauge distance on these moors before I know how wrong my estimates can be. I head towards the nearest column of smoke, and sure enough it takes me about twice as long to get to it as I expected.
I’d been hoping to see these smoke signals on the moor, but hadn’t expected to get so lucky so early in my trip. In January I read an article by George Monbiot in The Guardian. I don’t particularly enjoy Monbiot’s writing style- he often assumes a lofty moral tone that smacks of looking down on others- but I find myself often agreeing with what he’s saying in terms if not how he’s saying it. I particularly appreciate his views on re-wilding damaged eco-systems, espoused in his book Feral (2013), and particularly his views on sustainable energy and the importance of leaving remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
The article I’m recalling was concerned with the practice of swaling, described by the Dartmoor National Park authority as an ‘age-old art [of] burning of overgrown heathland and clearing the ground of dead vegetation so that new growth can appear.’ I remember the practice from car journeys from my childhood in Cornwall- particularly the smell as the hedgerows whipped by- where farmers start fires to burn back gorse, heather and other shrubs. But, as Monbiot goes on to elaborate, this is the national park authority professing to use the practice as conservationist tool- ‘environmentally friendly… and much to the delight of various ground-nesting birds like skylarks and grazing livestock’ in the words of the park authority.
It’s this last part that Monbiot takes issue with- the increase of grazing land brought about by swaling, for this is the principle reason for the practice on Dartmoor- particularly for grouse-shooting and sheep grazing. Monbiot cites the national parks own Sandford Principle, last updated in the 1995 Environmental Act, that states that ‘Where irreconcilable conflict exist between conservation and public enjoyment, then conservation interest should take priority.’ Monbiot quotes Exmoor national parks claim that swaling ‘… maintains the character of the landscape…’, and he goes on to examine this ‘character’ through a series of maps published by the National Trust, which demonstrate that bog-land and heath-land- that is to say what the National Trust considers to be ‘true’ moorland- on Dartmoor have decreased dramatically over the past 25 years, predominantly because of overgrazing and swaling.
Monbiot discusses conservation practices at the other end of the country that fit in with his own thoughts on re-wilding. The Cairngorms in Scotland, an area that I know very well, are unusual in that much of their uplands are still wooded, leading to habitats up to 13 times richer in nationally important species than moorland’s such as Dartmoor (taken from a report by P. Shaw and DBA Thompson in 2006 The Nature of the Cairngorms: Diversity in a Changing Environment).
In his article Monbiot goes on to offer a rallying cry to conservationist groups to take on the national parks under the European Habitats Directive, and links to a fascinating video of Monbiot’s angry delivery of an impassioned presentation at the UK National Parks conference, at their invitation, where he decries such practices as swaling and suggests that the national parks should be reclassified as ecological disaster zones.
As I follow the smoke on this bright spring morning, I try to imagine the surrounding hills populated with ancient, dense and untended woodland, and what the impact of such an environment would be. Or even the moorlands of my Cornish childhood, the Lizard Peninsular, Bodmin Moor, Penwith and Lands End- didn’t there used to be much more heather and gorse, wild flowers and copses when I was a kid? I remember rich purples, yellows, oranges and deep greens- in my minds eye my visits to Dartmoor, Exmoor, Bodmin Moor and other national parks in recent years have been somewhat de-saturated and less vibrant. It certainly seems much more stark, featureless and colourless than I remember- and when I think of this time of year in the Cairngorms it does feel markedly more vital, more full of colour and life.
I drive off the main road- itself little more than a narrow two-lane strip of tarmac that bisects the moor East to West- and down a rough track beyond a farm. At the end of the track is a hill thinly covered in old oak trees- beyond this, black smoke billows into the air.
I park up in a ditch beside a small stream. Looking in the boot I make a choice between my selection of camera’s, which isn’t really much of a choice because one is huge, heavy and ungainly, and the other is small, compact and my weapon of choice for walking and filming cross country. I load up a relatively lightweight kit of my GH4, two prime lenses, an old zoom and a sturdy but lightweight Manfrotto tripod.
The air is cool and the sun hidden by a thick layer of white clouds. I walk along beside the stream until I reach a dry-stone wall topped by rusted barbed wire- I throw my tripod over and climb the wall, disturbing a small group of sheep on the other side. The smell of the fire is getting stronger the closer I get to the rise of the hill. Walking up through rocks, around the tree line of the hill, I come to another stonewall. Over this and I descend onto what a few hours ago was gently rolling grasslands, but is now a dramatic and haunting version of its former self. I reach into my camera bag and pull out the camera.
I press record, holding the camera in my hands- I haven’t even pulled out the LCD screen, so I have no idea of what I’m shooting. This is just an instinct as I survey the scene and decide how to proceed.
A line of fire across yellow grassland- a wall of smoke, dirty white streaked with dark grey. Small flames, barely a metre tall at its height- and yet they seem to move so fast over the dry ground, eating up the thick clumps of dry but healthy grass. Even from ten metres away I can feel the warmth of the flames on my face and hands. The sound of the crackling flames are drowned out by the noise of a diesel motor- I pan the camera right to see two firemen syphoning water from a small tank on the back of a quad bike, driven by someone I take to be a farmer or farm-hand. Their demeanour tells me that they do not consider this situation an emergency- they are methodical, but there is little urgency, and they seem unconcerned at my presence.
They move from right to left matter-of-factly extinguishing the line of small flames- the veil of smoke diminishes revealing the blackened and scorched alien landscape beyond. I’m startled by just how much of the landscape has been effected- pretty much as far as I can see.
I am aware of feeling very wide awake- excited, enthralled and hyper-aware- the acrid smell of burning vegetable matter serves as a restorative tonic after my soporific car ride. Likewise, all of the expansive thoughts from my journey- on parenthood, health, politics, sex, music, friendship- are gone, and I am aware of being keenly in the moment. Massumi talks about affect in these terms- like being right where you are, but more intensely. (Zournazi, 2001 p. 212)
I make a conscious effort to calm myself. I recognise that I am in an exciting situation, not threatening but just invigorated by the physical immediacy of being near a potentially dangerous occurrence. I’m also aware that I may well get some very exciting images from this experience. In order to achieve this I need to stay mindful, and focussed. I need to slow myself down and concentrate on my role as a cinematographer. It’s moments of adrenaline like this where people in the right place at the right time forget to press the record button or over-expose the image, so I’m aware of the need to be methodical.
I regulate my breathing a little as I set up the tripod- despite the coldness in the breeze I’m sweating from the short uphill walk, and my heart-rate is up. I forget to check the direction of the sun- there is none visible, but I have apps that would give me that information. I’m too anxious to at least capture something of this landscape. White-balance: daylight, check. Frame rate: 24fps, check. ISO: 400, check. Do I have the correct lens for this shot- is it too wide or not wide enough? I settle on the second widest lens I have in my kit- 17.5mm Voigtlander, my favourite ‘go-to’ lens because of its reliably sharp focus across the whole of the image, a big deal for landscapes. I mount it, open the aperture and take a look through the viewfinder.
PANIC- why is everything so washed out?!? I close the lens down to remove some light from the image, but that’s not the problem. It looks fucking terrible- is the lens on properly? Is it BROKEN!?! Everything is so milky and there are no hard edges to be seen anywhere…
This panic lasts for all of ten gut-wrenching, cold sweat drenched seconds, as I remember that I am experimenting with a newly uploaded profile setting for my camera which is designed to give the flattest LOG-style image possible in order to better manipulate the image in post. This is my first time using the setting in the field- I’d shot a little test on my street and at the office, and then spent a few minutes pulling it around in Premiere, but it’s an alarming moment to turn on the camera and have something so palid and sickly stare back at you through the monitor. But I have to take heart in the small tests that I did, that in the end I will be able to alter this ghost-like landscape into something with contrast, definition and layers or colour closer to what I can see with my own eyes.
I frame a wide shot of the different levels of the burning land, with heat haze shimmering the air. I choose to include the pale grass in the foreground, to serve as a reminder of the normal aesthetic condition of this landscape.
Distractions persist- I have the urge to speak with the fire fighters and ask how I can be of help, but I have the wherewithal to dismiss this as a romantic and ridiculous impulse that I fortunately don’t act on. I do start to question the ethics of my position, as both another figure in the landscape that they have to be concerned about, and as someone documenting events that I don’t really understand. I’m stood here with my camera, not knowing if this is a regular event, whether something has gone wrong or whether people are hurt or in danger of getting hurt. Certainly, I know that this is the season for swaling, but I had not expected such a vast area of ground to be affected. Wasn’t this supposed to be a controlled fire? Why would the grass be burning, unless by accident? And since when would farmers use fire-fighters unless something had gone wrong?
I resolve to continue filming until I am told not to- as long as I maintain responsibility for myself by staying well back from the fire or the smoking ground beyond it. My guts tell me that this is a controlled fire that has gotten out of hand: the scope of the charred ground; the small groups of fire-fighters beating and hosing the fire-lines in the far distance in several directions; the various figures on quad bikes and land-rovers, revealing farmers and farm-hands dashing here and there and surveying the scene. I’ve not seen something on this scale before, and it doesn’t have the sense that anyone is in control or really knows what they’re doing. It feels reactionary, and undirected- I envisage an impossible aerial time-lapse shot which shows the lines of small flames rippling out from a central point like a stone thrown into a pool. And while these individual fires hardly represents a blazing inferno, the damage done to the moor as far as the eye can see is extensive and shocking, to my novice eye.
The landscape reminds me of the battle scenes from Napoleonic war movies, or watercolour visions of the Somme that transfixed me as a schoolboy. The pastoral landscape stripped of colour and life- now black, dehydrated and weakly exhaling pockets of smoke that drift up intermittently. There is an eeriness, a disquiet- and yet it is beautiful in it’s desolation, like a new world.
The fire fighters in front of me move off across the blackened soil to help their colleagues in the distance. The quad bike roars off in another direction, leaving a calm.
Having the confidence to hold a camera on a landscape moment takes a good deal of nerve, because there is always a part of you that thinks that you should be getting an alternative or better shot, to offer coverage of an event. I force myself to just let the camera sit and record. I am always cursing myself in the edit when the camera swings around just as a shot is starting to get interesting. This patience feels really important when filming landscape- think of James Benning or Bela Tarr. So choosing a frame is important, especially when the landscape is changing so fast- fire moving; weather changing; sun sinking or rising. Just as I go to switch the camera off, I slap my hand away and force myself to wait another 60 seconds.
It suddenly occurs to me that I am recording sound only through the crummy mic on board the camera. This is frustrating, but I try to tell myself that for this exercise the images are what counts. This comes up for me many times over the coming days and weeks- in this context, i.e. reccieing and experimenting in the field, trying to evoke my experience of being in the field, capturing the landscape- in this role I am a cinematographer and not just a director of photography. As my camera continues to roll on the smoking fields, I muse on the differences between the two.
A DP is a head of department on a film set- your responsibility is solely to the image and the management or manipulation of the tools and personnel required to capture the image. But a cinematographer, in the Bressonian sense of the word is someone producing ‘…creative filmmaking which thoroughly exploits the nature of film…’ and is not to be confused solely with the work of the cameraman (Bresson 1975). This suggests someone who has an understanding of the moving image and how it works within the entirety of the cinematic process. When I am filming a landscape, I have a potential score in my mind- I’m aware of what sounds I want to hear and what I want to cut out out of my soundscape. I am thinking about grading possibilities- about sequencing and what other shots that might proceed and precede this one. I’m thinking about cutaways and how they might highlight or heighten the meaning of the wider landscape images- the detail of a landscape that one finds in a macro shot, especially one that mirrors a landscape in composition or tone.
As a cinematographer I feel I have a duty to capture both images and sound as best I can- the sound here for example is so subtle and nuanced, and I know how it would alter and effect the images. I need to get better at this- it needs to be a part of my practice ‘proper’ and added to my check-list when setting my gear up.
I move the camera closer to the smouldering line where the blackened earth meets the pale grass. I am not so happy with this framing- without the inclusion of the white grass at the bottom of the frame the shot feels lost and undefined. But just as I’m about to switch if off a land-rover bisects the middle ground between the camera and the still burning fires in the distance. Throwing up a small trail of dust, it looks like images I’ve seen of NASA’s Mars Rover trundling across the surface of the red planet, or a buggy in a 1960’s sci-fi movie, surrounded by steaming gas vents.
The vehicle comes to a rest directly on the central cross-hair of my viewfinder, the middle of my shot. A man in a peak-cap gets out and walks around the car, surveying in all directions. From this far away it is impossible to read any reaction or emotion- I imagine this to be the land-owner or farmer. I try to imagine myself stood in his boots, in the middle of this landscape.
The Land Rover drives off in the opposite direction. I decide to change lenses to something longer, with the idea of getting further to the centre of the landscape. There is a moment here, that I don’t notice until I’m reviewing the footage much later on, where my body bisects the screen along the fire-line.
I’m struck at how serendipitous this image is representing my entire enquiry: on the one side a ‘managed’ moorland- pastoral, picturesque, and yet still a manufactured landscape masquerading as something ‘wild’; on the other side something approaching an eco-sublime landscape, where the natural environment has been completely annihilated-if only for a short while- because of direct human interference; and in the middle stands a human- a cinematographer- mouth open, a quizzical expression on my face and with clearly no idea of what I’m doing!
I attach cheap 70-300mm Canon zoom lens that I got as part of a kit with my first camera- plastic and optically unimpressive, but light and surprisingly effective in terms of getting closer to a subject. The rippling distortion from the heat is intensified as I refocus, framing a tighter shot across the moor. The shot feels more dramatic with this narrower field of vision- claustrophobic and unforgiving. Everything is burned or smoking- no flames but the aftermath of something terrible.
In the distance tiny figures walk the fire-line; a quad bike bisects the shot with an angry buzzing. I re-adjust my frame, giving greater weight to the ground as this is where my eye naturally falls.
This is the first time I’m aware of making a conscious creative decision based on the aesthetics of what I’m seeing through my lens, and I stop to take in why I have instinctually made this decision.
Looking at the shot, it seems strange that I don’t give more room to the most dynamic element of the shot, which is arguably the smoke drifting up and to the left. But the sky behind this is a blank, cloud-filled backdrop, and so I know that he smoke will be lost against it. At least if I frame the ground into the lower 4/5ths of the screen I can capture the movement of little trickles and puffs of smoke coming up here and there; the movement of the figures beating down the distance fire-line and the smoke going up there, highlighted against another layer of ground just behind it.
As an experiment, after two minutes I reframe the same shot, keeping the horizon in the centre of frame (Plate No. 7). In spite of the smoke being lost against the whiteness of the sky, I am instinctually more pleased with the aesthetic of this shot- it feels more balanced and pleasing, which in itself is interesting.
I note to myself that because I am using a new, ‘flat’ camera profile, there is a chance that I may be able to pull out the darker smoke from the white background of the sky- and this is the first thing I look at that evening when reviewing the footage. And it works, to a certain extent- what looked white in my viewfinder can be be manipulated to pick out the dirty tones of the smoke. It’s not ideal- obviously it would be much better if the sun had poked through the clouds and obliged with some shards of dramatic back-lighting. Maybe tomorrow.
After an hour or so of shooting in this location, I pack up and head back to the car, hoping to come at the fire from a different direction, maybe to capture a wider shot a few miles down the road.
Back by the stream, next to my car is a fire engine. I strike up a conversation with the fire-man sat at the wheel- he’s from a town about forty minutes North East of here, called out to deal with this controlled burn that got out of hand. He tells me that this tends to happen when there aren’t enough farm employees on hand to keep it under control, or when people fail to pay attention to wind direction. Inevitably the publicly sourced fire services from surrounding towns and cities get called out to the moor to deal with the situation, meaning that those places are with a limited service for days at a time. When I ask him who picks up the tab for this, he says that it’s always been this way, although he’s not personally seen one that got so out of hand.
NOTE: Two days later the Plymouth Herald runs a story on the fires, revealing that the fire service is set to investigate why fires requiring engines from Crownhill, Greenbank, Plympton, Yelverton, Tavistock, Moretonhampstead, Chagford, Okehampton, Bovey Tracey, Torquay, Newton Abbot, Teignmouth, Dawlish and Middlemoor. According to the article at one point this particular fire was burning over 30 acres and had separated into three fires that needed to be dealt with simultaneously. It took over six hours to get under control- fire fighters were then redirected to other fires that were burning out of control elsewhere.
I get back into my car and head back to the main road. Parking up a mile away, I clamber on to the roof of my car to get the wide I was looking for, but it feels too painterly and beautiful. It’s too distant to the subject, and yet it shows the something of the scale of the situation. I let it role for around five minutes.
I spend the next few hours trying to find back lanes down to the far side of the fire which is still burning- at one point I find myself inadvertently following an ambulance down a small track, at the end of which was a congregation of fire engines and emergency service vehicles, but the fire here has stopped and they are being redeployed.
Returning to the main road, I spot another plume of smoke coming from another direction, one that I’ve walked on a past recce. This is very close to Wistman’s Wood, a designated a special area of conservation and one of the highest altitude oakwoods in Britain. Writing in the Financial Times Matthew Wilson suggests the wood is likely a leftover from the ancient forest that covered much of Dartmoor c. 7000 BC- before the area began to be cleared, often by burning, by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers around 5000 BC.
I park up at the village of Two Bridges- just a few houses, a hotel and two bridges- and head along the track towards the woods and the direction of the fire. As I walk along the valley ahead is full of dark, thick smoke.
As I reach a small-holding at the end of the gravel track, half way down the small valley where a muddy footpath takes you on to the nature reserve half a mile further down the valley. A few people are standing beside a gate, looking down a field and across a small stream to the other side of the valley where the fire rages.
This time I hear it at the same time as I smell it- straight away, I get a sense that this fire is much fiercer than the previous one, although it seems to cover less ground. This is due to the thick and overgrown nature of the scrub that it has caught hold of, and once again there is no one on that side of the river who is either observing or managing the fire. It feels much more out of control, much more threatening- to the West, with the prevailing wind, there is a small pine woodland. To the East, from the direction of Wistman’s Wood, the far bank of the river is charred and smouldering. From where I’m stood it’s impossible to tell if the nature reserve has been effected by the blaze, but from the direction of the smoke I get the sense that the fire has luckily stayed on the other side of the stream, across from the protected area.
The people standing by the gate are locals who say that they are used to this type of thing, but that this season they’ve been surprised at just how many fires they’ve seen get out of control. In the field between the spectators and the stream at the bottom of the valley is a small paddock- a neighbour is trying to calm a frail-looking pony that wheezes and exhales smoke with each breath. He has already removed one horse to a place further back down the valley, towards Two Bridges- but this creature is too old to move and so he is trying to just secure it and move it to the far side of the house where it will be a little more sheltered from the smoke.
I take out my camera, but do not set up my tripod- I feel acutely aware that this is where these people live, and that there is a very real sense that they are concerned for the safety of their homes and their livestock. Instead I hold it hanging around my neck as fire fighters arrive on foot- none of their vehicles could fit down the narrow track.
They stand about, seemingly unsure of how to handle the situation, but their requests for further assistance over their radios indicate the seriousness of the fire. They shout over the noise of the fire and use hand gestures to suggest a plan for how to deal with the fire.
I stand there, behind them, observing- my role that of impotent tourist. I have many questions- How many other fires have they attended today? How serious is this fire compared to others? What might be the long-term ecological impact of such a blaze? What regulations are in place to effectively manage this practice? What are the key risks to them as fire fighters tackling these fires?
The fire fighters move down to the stream, wading across and clambering up the bank on the far side. I improvise a dry stone wall as a tripod- wedging my camera on top of the rocks with my hat I frame a shot and let it run for the next fifteen or so minutes, hoping to chart the movement of both the fire itself and the fire fighters.
The first frame is largely obscured by smoke, but two small figures in the bottom centre of frame can be made out climbing closer to the fire line. These figures give scale, and they also demonstrate how fast the fire is moving, relevant to the slow progress they make. The fire seems to be burning differently now, and I observe that it has more or less finished with the thick brush that it had been travelling through, and is now spreading out in smaller lines to the white clumps of grass that are so prolific on this part of the moor.
More fire fighters join them from the treeline at the centre top of the frame, and together they start to beat strategically at areas of grass. Fifteen minutes later and the final frame reveals both the scale of the damage to the area and where the efforts of the fire fighters have managed to control the spread of the fire.
The gate-side spectators disperse, and I am left with the decision to either walk on to Wistman’s Wood or head back to the car and head to the location that had been my original destination for the day. The direction of the wind leads me to assume that the woods and the nature reserve have been untouched on this occasion, although I’m left wondering what might have happened if the wind had changed, or if these fire fighters had been occupied elsewhere, as they were earlier in the day.
Back at the car, and scouting around a little I can see no further smoke. Along the way I see a great number of Land Rover’s and 4 x 4 vehicles parked up at the side of the road. I pull up, and walk over to a small group of tweed attired, Barbour jacketed people looking to the horizon through large binoculars. They are excitedly looking out for a hunt that is due to come by this way, and I wait with them a little while. It is late in the afternoon and the light is changing- all eyes are trained on the tree-line of small crop of woodland where the hunt is supposed to appear. The enthusiasm of the spectators starts to wane and they question whether the hunt has been successful on this occasion. There is the suggestion of an early visit to the pub. I get back into my car and head back to Two Bridges and then on to Princetown, with the gothic splendour of the Victorian prison casting a familiar gloom over that part of the moor.
I stop at Princetown to get coffee and a sandwich at one of the seasonal café’s. I spend ten minutes warming myself by the open fire, flicking through the footage on my camera. It’s hard to get excited by what I’ve shot when everything is so flat and colourless in the monitor. I can see why LUT’s are such an important tool when shooting in the field- my small camera is useful and portable, it produces a great image, but it is limited. I give the camera a rest and turn to my OS map, so scribbled on and mud stained that I have little hope that it will ever regain its original folded down shape.
The place I am headed for is just five minutes outside of Princetown, on the road that eventually leads to Plymouth. It’s one of my favourite parts of the moor- I first discovered it with my wife on a New Years Eve walk some seven years ago, where we happily strolled down and out of Princetown and spent a pleasant few hours getting thoroughly- and probably foolishly- lost. We had meandered until the sky turned pink, then purple, then the colour of a week-old bruise, and then we had laid down in the long grass and welcomed the stars.
There were two things that stayed in my mind from this romantic stroll that weighed in as factors when choosing a location on Dartmoor. The first is that we were able to feel lost- at points there was absolutely no sign of human habitation or markings of human origin. We could have been on the plains of the Sierra Nevada- or so I am lead to believe by countless Westerns. All this, inspire of being relatively close to the arterial road that leads from the heart of the moor to Oakhampton and onto Plymouth.
The second factor is that, during our stroll at least, the sky was spectacular, and only got more so as night started to fall. I’ve experienced this a handful of times when I’ve been in this South West section of the moor, and I’ve so far failed to put my finger on why exactly the sunsets are so colourful here. It could be something to do with atmospheric pressure, something to do with how weather fronts move off the moor plateau and downwards into Devon and towards the sea. It’s beyond me, but I know that as a cinematographer this location gives me much of what I need in terms of my experiments.
These experiments consist of telling the story of a man walking in the landscape: that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in terms of narrative, although I have a few ideas about motivation that I’ve been talking through with an actor friend. But the most important part of these experiments is to use a wide variety of techniques and technology to explore how a cinematographer might approach the human figure within the landscape, with a mind to understanding how best to approach the human figure within the sublime or ecosublime landscape.
And this is definitely the place to start these experiments. I park the car in an improvised lay-by, tucked in beside a small area of bog-land. It’s nearing five o’clock in the afternoon, and the clouds that so frustrated me by shielding the sun earlier in the day are now thinning and casting a rich amber over everything I can see.
I open up the over-laden boot- as ever when choosing my equipment for a specific landscape, I am reminded of the scene early on in Pulp Fiction with Jules and Vincent (“We should have shotguns for this kind of a deal…”). I opt to get out the beast-like URSA camera, based it would seem on designs for Soviet-Era tanks. It’s so heavy, and so hard to move- but it does produce very lovely RAW images, and I need to at least capture something on it, so that we can experiment with grading 35mm sensor 4k RAW footage, just to put next to the graded images out of my GH4. If I was being scientific these would be side-by-side tests- but I’m on my own, this camera is damn heavy and I console myself that this is supposed to be just a recce.
I spend a half hour wondering about boggy area by the car, capturing a solitary, crooked tree; tall grass gently moving; a small brook that bubbles up through peat; and one view (see Plate No. 14) that has stayed with me from my first visit here. But the camera is too much to maneuver without a crew- it’s holding me back creatively and slowing me down terribly. I grab my DSLR camera bag- packed with GH4, four lenses, and my tripod- and cross the road, heading first down into a small valley and then up onto the moor.
The evening is fresh and peaceful. The sun is falling behind the hills to my right- as I walk towards the taller hills to the South, the moon is coming up over my left shoulder. I feel so happy and blessed to be able to right here, right now, doing what I love doing. I am thrilled by the possibilities of the moment- what Massumi refers to as the potentiality of any given moment. I am aware of the smells and sounds of the place- the colour and the shape of everything around me. I concentrate on the ache in my heels and the backs of my calves; the coolness around my neck and ears where my sweat is immediately chilled by the evening air; my eyes are tired and dry but energised; my shoulders are sore where straps have been cutting into them; I take a sip of water and savour the feelings of the cold liquid in my mouth, down my dry throat.
I walk at a slow pace for twenty minutes, until I feel moved to get my gear out. I stick the 17.5mm Voigtlander on the camera and whack it on the tripod. At this point, I don’t know what I intend to capture- this is an uncomfortable feeling for me, as someone who likes to plan how they shoot in great detail- but this is a sketchbook moment. This is play-time and I have to work hard to assure myself that sometimes it’s important to not have a plan. I flick the camera on, frame up, check my settings and focus on the distance. I press record and step back- after thirty seconds I walk out in front of the camera.
I have a general rule about never going this side of the camera. It never usually ends up with me feeling good about myself. But, alone in the middle of nowhere, needs must when you’re enquiry is concerned with the human figure in the landscape.
I’ve been fixated for some time now with Caspar David Friedrich’s Rückenfigur- that is ‘figure seen from behind’- as a way of subjectifying a landscape, i.e. to encourage the viewer of an image or a series of moving images to place themselves in the shoes of the figure within the picture. In paintings and photographs, because this figure is facing the landscape, the viewer of the painting might reasonably imagine what that person is experiencing being within that painting with that landscape- what they might be thinking or feeling, or what is inferred about their emotions and thoughts by the way the landscape has been framed and treated.
The same can said of moving image, but cinematography offers one more dimension- that of the Rückenfigur moving towards the landscape, which is very different to a figure moving from the landscape towards the camera, which we might reasonably refer to as a Frontfigur- in the true German this means ‘figurehead’; front figure would be ‘vorderseite figur’- but my purpose it works well as an antonym to the Romantic term of the Rückenfigur.
I am keen to develop the idea of the Rückenfigur as it is often used, as a way of referencing the scale of the landscape- this is certainly how it is most used on Instagram in a resurgent of the technique in landscape photography, specifically in travel photography.
the Rückenfigur is seperate to the landscape- an observer, like the viewer of the work. But cinematographically, the more the figure moves into the landscape, the further it gets from ‘us, the viewer’, and the more it becomes relative to and subsumed by the landscape.
Similarly, a Frontfigur walking towards the camera indicates a character that has either been through that landscape and is therefore in someway altered by it, or who has made a decision to not engage with it, i.e. they’ve turned their back on it.
Tuesday 22nd March, 2016
Wednesday 23rd March, 2016