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Shooting the Breeze – the Jamie Grant interview

Jamie Grant at the Wild Space, Pitlochry

Jamie Grant at the Wild Space, Pitlochry

As his exhibition opens in Pitlochry this month, David Lintern spoke to photographic journalist Jamie Grant about his love of the longest glen in Scotland.

Tell us about where you live. Compared to other places you have lived and worked, what’s different about the Glen that inspires you?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have lived in Glen Lyon for the last 12 years. There is a magic to daily life in such a stunning and remote spot that nowhere else can match but the practical frustrations of trying to make a living from the end of a long, single track road finally got the better of us. We now spend weekdays in Aberfeldy where I run Glen Lyon Coffee Roasters with my wife Fiona. It’s a pay off but at least we don’t have to dig delivery trucks filled with green coffee beans out of snow drifts in the depths of January any more!

Before Glen Lyon I lived in cities for much of my adult life: London, Edinburgh, Madrid, Santiago de Chile and my all time favourite La Paz, Bolivia. I think Glen Lyon came at the right time in our lives. I lost both of my parents soon after moving there. We also have a son and there couldn’t have been a better place in the world for him to grow up surrounded by chickens, dogs and horses and with this amazing wild playground outside our front door.

Do you have a favourite place in the Glen?

I have lots of favourite spots in the Glen such as the Alt Bail a’Mhuillan burn for glorious wild swimming in the summer and the drama of Ptarmigan Ridge for winter hill walking, but the place that I am drawn back to again and again is Coire nam Fraochag. This is a lovely corrie that runs onto the westerly slopes of Cairn Gorm. The shepherds call it ‘the sanctuary’ because the deer seek shelter there in hard weather.

This photo of Coire nam Fraochag was taken early on Easter morning almost five years ago. We woke to an unexpected fresh layer of snow and had been invited to lunch with friends in Rannoch. So I dashed up at dawn and was rewarded with a lovely morning light fingering across the fleeting snow.

This photo of Coire nam Fraochag was taken early on Easter morning almost five years ago. We woke to an unexpected fresh layer of snow and had been invited to lunch with friends in Rannoch. So I dashed up at dawn and was rewarded with a lovely morning light fingering across the fleeting snow.

The stone circle looks to be very old and is one of many scattered in this ground. I remember wondering if these were temporary shelters, or were once permanent dwellings in a time when the climate was milder. The only sign of life were the hare tracks through the snow that you can see to the left of the stone circle. It was all so fleeting as within an hour this late snowfall had melted away.

Did you study photography at college? What other photographic work have you been involved in over the years?

I have never studied photography and am completely self taught. I have been passionate about taking photos from the age of about eight and started developing my own black and white photos when I was thirteen. I almost studied photography at university but an older professional photographer warned me off, saying that formal education would ‘cloud my eye’ with too much theory. So I studied History instead.

I cut my teeth as a professional photographer in South America (Bolivia) where I worked as a foreign correspondent. Since returning to Scotland in 2000 I have carried out photography work for a number of charities including WWF, Scottish Wildlife Trust, The Scottish Refugee Council and Mercy Corps.

Are you using film or have you switched to digital? Why?

I have switched to digital for all my commissioned work. All my black and white work is still in film and handprinted. Digital is obviously far more practical and cost effective, but for me nothing can match the tone and depth of a hand crafted silver print.

Tell us about the how the Winter in Glen Lyon project came about initially?  Why winter, why Glen Lyon? 

We moved into Glen Lyon back in 2000 after I got a job at WWF Scotland, based in Aberfeldy in those days. I have always been a keen hill walker so exploring the Glen with a camera quickly became an endless source of fascination. For me the low, slanting winter light is really exciting and I love the wonderful contrasts between light and dark that you get with the snow and long shadow during the winter months in the Glen. I spent one winter just walking the edges of the shadows cast across the bens by the low sun.

When did you get the idea that it might be a book?

The book happened really organically. I had some spare time one weekend a couple of years ago and decided to archive the two cardboard boxes I had filled over the years with loose films and prints. When I sat down to review and order them it occurred to me there was enough material for a book, so I took the idea to Kevin Ramage at The Watermill in Aberfeldy.

One of the things I really like about the book is that it tells the stories of the people of the glen, as well as the place. It’s equal parts documentary and landscape. How important is that to the project, and is there an overlap with your documentary work?

I have always believed that you can’t separate a landscape from its people and from the outset I wanted the book to document the Glen community. I think a lot of the photography was influenced by my travel photography and portraiture work both in South America and for NGO’s in Scotland. The closest place I visited with a camera to Glen Lyon was probably Patagonia many years ago. There is something about the mountains and the way the landscape is reflected in the people, that is very evocative of Scotland.

I love this photo of Donnie. I took it at his home in Cashlie, the last inhabited house as you drive west through Glen Lyon. It was late afternoon and there wasn’t really any light inside his living room apart from the flicker of the open fire. So I had to rely on the fading light from the window behind him and a good deal of luck. Of all the shots I took of him this was the only one that was sharp enough because I had to knock the shutter down to 1/30th of register capture the play of light across his face. Donnie was in reflective mood that day and like many other residents in Glen Lyon is a very private man. So I had to take pictures quickly and without any fuss to keep the conversation (and whisky) flowing. He was the stalker in Glen Lyon until he retired and was telling me about all the hills he had walked when I took this shot. It is a very natural portrait, set in the darkness of a long Highland winter.

I love this photo of Donnie. I took it at his home in Cashlie, the last inhabited house as you drive west through Glen Lyon. It was late afternoon and there wasn’t really any light inside his living room apart from the flicker of the open fire. So I had to rely on the fading light from the window behind him and a good deal of luck. Of all the shots I took of him this was the only one that was sharp enough because I had to knock the shutter down to 1/30th of register capture the play of light across his face.
Donnie was in reflective mood that day and like many other residents in Glen Lyon is a very private man. So I had to take pictures quickly and without any fuss to keep the conversation (and whisky) flowing. He was the stalker in Glen Lyon until he retired and was telling me about all the hills he had walked when I took this shot. It is a very natural portrait, set in the darkness of a long Highland winter.

I understand that the photos were also taken during a time when you were grieving for your parents – Can you talk about the relationship of this process with the process of making these images?

Both my parents died very suddenly within a couple of years of each other when I was in my early thirties. I was devastated and it took me years to come to terms with a new emotional landscape. Solitary walking with a camera was a real therapy for me during this period. I took photos to re-claim a sense of composition and beauty in my life, as well as explore a keenly felt sense of my own mortality.

There is something about the scale of the hills and sky in Glen Lyon that forces you to come to terms with how small we all really are, and how brief our tenure is on this earth. There was no great revelation that I came back with, only a gradual coming to acceptance.

As a result there is a harshness and clarity to many of the photos that I took during this time that I couldn’t repeat now. But looking back at them they strike me as melancholic rather than bleak. I see it as a time of luminous introspection.

Can you describe the process of making the book?

I hand printed all the images in the book in the Stills Community darkroom in Edinburgh. It was an incredibly slow and intense process and I found that grouping together similarly exposed images helped speed up my workflow. Doing this allowed me to get the best out of each negative and gave me complete creative control over the final images.

I am hugely grateful for the superb design work of Nickolai Globe. He has a similar passion for wild places and a great eye for compelling layouts. I am also indebted to Kevin Ramage for publishing Winter in Glen Lyon. I am eternally grateful for his support and expertise in bringing the photos to light as a single body of work. He continues to be a friend and mentor.

The Walker

I love this photo of my friend James Richardson walking off Meall Buidhe after a long day on the hill. The light was shuttering down and I managed to catch a final burst of sunlight across the bens behind. I call this shot ‘the walker’ and for me the scale of the tiny figure and the dusky light has a dreamy quality to it. It reflects for me that wonderfully meditative state of mind that walking in wild places can bring.

What’s most important to you in your photography?

It sounds funny but I have never wanted to think too much about my photography. I take photos almost as an escape from my conscious mind and prefer to work intuitively. I think a good photo stands in the valley of its own making and shouldn’t need a lengthy caption or clever idea to explain it.

Which part of photography you do find the most challenging and why?

I’m really rubbish at flash photography and just can’t get the hang of it. I think my general incompetence in this area is because I never had a formal training and am not very technically minded.

How, if at all, has having children changed your work or how you approach it?

I’m not willing to take the same risks that I used to take in the hills. Maybe this means my photos lack something of the high drama of my some of my earlier work. I think my landscape is getting more soulful and understated, but this could have more to do with hitting my mid-forties.

What’s next for your photography? 

I have recently published a second book of photographs with two other friends and artists. The High Oak is an attempt to capture Dartmoor in a single five day journey and has just sold out of its first edition. Plans are afoot for it to be re-published in the spring. I have also started working on a black and white project on Schiehallion. A few shots from this are also on display in the new exhibition at the Wild Space in Pitlochry, alongside the Glen Lyon material. Like Winter in Glen Lyon the Schiehallion project will probably take years to finish.

Winter in Glen Lyon

Jamie’s book, Winter in Glen Lyon, is available in hardcover

Want to improve your landscape and nature photography? Check out our listings for Scottish landscape, wildlife and nature photography workshops, hides and holidays.




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