This month David Lintern interviews Colin Prior, one of Scotland’s finest landscape photographers, in an exclusive interview for Walkhighlands ahead of his upcoming retrospective publication, Scotland’s Finest Landscapes.
Let’s start with the project that you’ve been spending a lot of time on of late – The Karakoram, in Pakistan. How did that come about, and what have you been doing this year towards it?
My interest in the Karakoram Mountains was originally sparked by a book entitled In the Throne Room of the Mountains Gods, which I discovered in our local library. I could see from the log at the front that it had only been on loan on two previous occasions and from that point on, I had it out on permanent loan. Published by the Sierra Book Club in 1977 and written by the photographer and climber Galen Rowell, the book documented the 1975 American attempt of K2 in which Galen participated as one the climbing team. Both this attempt and the 1939 and 1953 expeditions were set in context against the rich history of climbing and exploration that the Karakoram has enjoyed since the mid-nineteenth century. Galen’s pictures where used throughout the book and although the reproduction left much to be desired, there was one image in particular of the Trango Towers that captured my imagination like no other and from that moment, I knew that I would have to go there.
I finally fulfilled this ambition in 1996 when working on the British Airways calendar commission and whilst the weather was unseasonably poor, I saw enough to help create a dream. I returned in 2004 on a personal trip when I had the first real opportunity of capturing some of the mountain grandeur that the Karakoram is renowned for.
Realising that time was not on my side, I decided to seek corporate sponsorship which was the only way I could forsee being able to work in Pakistan long enough to create the depth of work necessary for a comprehensive book of the region. By 2012, I had managed to attract three companies who committed to support me over the four-year period, which included Lowepro, Rab and Lee Filters.
This, my second year into the project involved a trip to the Biafo Glacier and I set off early in the season to capture some of the giants under snow. I was particularly interested in in photographing the Bainta Braak (The Ogre) and Sosbun Brakk and we departed in early June with a sixteen-man team.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the BBC documentary earlier this year was the sense of scale of the project – it was obviously a labour of love for all concerned, and gave a real sense of your process during shooting. Can you describe some of the challenges of working on the project?
One of the most crucial aspects of this project is maintaining your level of fitness. This can be affected by so many factors – the numerous manifestations of altitude sickness, which includes nausea, dehydration, and loss of appetite – also diarrhoea contracted from bacteria in either water or food is not an uncommon complaint and these all have a negative impact on both your physical and mental abilities. This year, due largely to the early departure date I had chosen and late snows, our exposure to crevasse dangers was significantly increased and we were forced to modify our plans on more than one occasion.
Have things gotten any easier because you are more experienced than when you first visited, or is it just different? Why?
Regardless of your experience, the challenges when you’re on the glacier never get any easier. Yes, I have developed close relationships with some of the support team on whom I depend but there’s a fine line between running at peak performance and being under the weather for one reason or another. Logistically, Pakistan remains a very demanding country to work in – internal air travel cannot be depended on and distances by road are uncomfortably long. The journey from Islamabad to Skardu up the Karakoram Highway takes around 22 hours on predominantly pot-holed roads.
How long is the Pakistan project scheduled to take? How easy is it to plan that schedule?
I hope to have accumulated sufficient material for a book over a four-year period and my hope is to attract a publisher who can license the book to co-publishers in other countries. The appeal of the Karakoram is truly international – this year alone, 26 climbing expeditions visited the region to climb mainly, the 8000m peaks. I have a master plan, which I fulfil annually – in 2015, I plan to visit the Charakusa Valley and its associated peaks and in 2016, am considering a mid-winter trip to the Baltoro Glacier with a subsequent trip in August to photograph the northern Karakoram in China.
How did you get started in photography?
My entry into the photographic world was a rather unorthodox one. With little knowledge of photography I began taking photographs underwater to record what I was witnessing. My early results were rudimentary but I persevered and eventually demonstrated a level of competence. It wasn’t until I returned from an underwater holiday in the Red Sea that I felt I had mastered the medium and went on to win the ‘best newcomer to underwater photography’ in the Camera Beneath the Waves photographic competition in 1981.
This was the catalyst that changed my life and having worked as an operations manager for five years, I left to follow my own path as a professional photographer. I spent the first year as a photo technician on a North Sea oil rig, but recognised that it was not a lifestyle I wanted to pursue and quit to become a freelance.
I started working with agencies but it was through a group of advertising agencies based in Glasgow that my career began to evolve as a commercial and advertising photographer, shooting hotels, engineering and corporate subjects. As my reputation began to grow, I became progressively busier but it was a full ten years before I began to develop my personal work.
I have always had a deep connection with nature and I recognised that it was through photographing landscapes that I could best express the way I felt about the world. Having worked with both Nikon and Hasselblad cameras, I picked up on the Linhof Technorama, which produced a panoramic image with a 3:1 ratio. In 1989, I bought the first re-engineered model to arrive in the UK and set about capturing the Scottish landscape in a way never previously attempted.
How did you develop your photo work as a younger man? Did you study photography formally at university or did you take another route?
I have no formal photographic training and am entirely self-taught. There was much I didn’t know and I had to seek out people who were able to give me the information I sought. Often, I was directed to ‘experts’ who, more often than not, failed to answer my questions, and I began to quickly realise who knew what they were talking about and who didn’t.
What other photographic work have you been involved in over the years?
During the mid nineties, I was commissioned by British Airways to photograph their corporate calendars. Over the four-year period, I travelled over a million miles to forty countries. These commissions gave me the opportunity to photograph the people and places that I had only seen in the pages of National Geographic Magazines, before the advent of digital photography.
Are you using film or have you switched to digital, in part or in full?
I am fully digital and let film go some time ago. There was a period when I was using both mediums and my resistance was influenced by the aesthetic quality of the images, which my panoramic roll film cameras produced. However, the quality and immediacy of digital capture and the associated costs of film, processing and scanning eventually pushed the equation fully in favour of an entirely digital workflow.
What do you enjoy, and what do find challenging about living in a city?
I have lived on the outskirts of Glasgow all of my life and I have no plans to change this. Being based in Glasgow gives me easy access not only to the Highlands but also to London or overseas destinations through the proximity of Glasgow Airport. I feel that I enjoy the best of both worlds here with a good lifestyle and the privilege of choice in just about every walk of life. There’s very little I’d change.
You’ve also been working on a retrospective called Scotland’s Finest Landscapes. How did the idea come about, and why do it now?
I had been working with the panoramic format for 25 years and had published three previous books and it seemed that the time was right to create the ultimate collection. It has taken me this length of time to finally capture, the images from the mountaintops I had chosen and whilst there are many mountains in Scotland I haven’t climbed or photographed the majority of these are obscure and only familiar to Munroists for the obvious reason. The bottom line is that it’s not the best use of my time and my decision to move entirely to digital capture meant leaving behind the panoramic cameras, which had been responsible for creating this body of work. Within a short period of time the production of transparency roll film will be over and the envelope in time where photographers used these specialist film cameras to create images will be sealed forever.
I’m assuming there’s a different approach needed for this project – what’s different about this book to your previous ones?
During this extended time period, I have been able to create an authoritative body of work in many of Scotland’s popular areas and to collate chapters with real depth. The arrangement of images in some chapters allows those with knowledge of the mountains to experience the view from a mountaintop and to turn the page and to be looking from another high point back onto the mountain from which the previous image was taken. There is also a comprehensive collection of maps, which show the exact location of each panorama and the sweep that it encompasses. This together with new work previously unpublished has created a unique collection.
How collaborative is the book process? A lot of photographers find it very difficult to edit their own work – Do you?
Any book takes close collaboration with the editor and designer. I am fortunate in having worked with a designer for twenty-five years and we know what works and what doesn’t, so it makes the process so much easier in that we are both speaking the same language. The design is crucial to the success of any book but particularly on a retrospective it needs to embrace the essence of the work. I don’t have a problem editing my own work – I have learnt to be my own worst critic! However, I agree that many excellent photographers do not make the best choices when it comes to editing and there are numerous examples in the marketplace, particularly where photographers have self-published.
What’s most important to you in your photographic work and why? Has that changed over the years?
Photography has taken me on a journey of self-discovery and helped me to understand our relationship with the natural world. What I set out to achieve was to capture the fusion of rare moments between light and land, which transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. It took me some time to realise that I never go out to photograph what’s there, but rather what’s not. I’ve spent my life chasing moments that ordinarily don’t exist. More recently the emphasis of my work has changed and I’m interested in photographing subjects that are familiar to everybody but capturing something that nobody has seen.
Which part of photography do you find the most challenging and why? Has that changed as well?
Working within a studio environment has, for me, been the most challenging as I find it difficult to achieve the same levels of perfection I find in the natural world. Being responsible for every aspect of the final image, including lighting, backdrop, composition, and focusing is stressful but is significantly easier than it was during the era of film when more powerful flash and polaroid tests were the norm.
Has your work as led to any insights about our relationship with nature?
I am increasingly fascinated by the psychology of photography – the way in which we interact with images. I fundamentally believe that we can influence the way a person navigates a picture from beginning to end based on the graphics and tonal values. It’s difficult to speculate exactly why this might be the case but I have some theories based on the way we imprint simple lines to orientate and navigate our way in the landscape and the simpler these lines, the easier they are to follow – just as in a photograph.
And what’s next for you?
I am about to embark on a new project, which explores the habitats of wild birds, many of which are in decline mainly from habitat loss but increasingly from climate change. Parts of the project will require studio photography, so I’ll have the opportunity to further hone my skills in this area.
Scotland’s Finest Landscapes: The Collectors Edition: 25 years will be published in hardback on 6th November. You can pre-order with a discount on Amazon via this link.
“Colin Prior is one of the finest landscape photographers in the world and one who knows the Scottish wilderness like no other. Going to extremes in order to capture the most magical qualities of a landscape, his patience and masterful eye for natural beauty have produced extraordinary images over a remarkable career.
This large format collector’s edition, with a foreword by Sir Chris Bonington, is presented in a large landscape-format cloth-covered hardback in a slipcase, making it a perfect gift. The book showcases the very finest panoramas over that long career and combines them with his greatest new, unpublished images to present a beautifully-curated exhibition of work. Arranged by region and complete with maps that pinpoint the locations of every shot and chart their sweep for armchair travellers, photographers and anyone keen to appreciate these special views in person, this is a work of breathtaking beauty.”
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