The High Points of My Life | Colin Prior
Words by Colin Prior
When I embarked on my career as a professional photographer 38 years ago, I would often meet established press and commercial photographers who also shot landscapes and I wondered what I, as a fledgling photographer, could do to gain recognition for my work. I did what seemed logical to me at the time and pursued a personal philosophy that had evolved out of long experiences and contact with wordless influences and which permeated the work with an inner perception of beauty. However, that didn’t happen overnight and in the first ten years of my career as a freelance photographer, I didn’t take a single picture for myself – I concentrated on building my business and essentially ‘parked’ my personal ambitions until such times as I could afford the time and money to pursue my own dreams.
This happened in 1989, when the camera company Linhof introduced a re-engineered version of their Linhof Technorama 617S which had been out of production for a number of years. I had come across its unique format in an American camera magazine and the 3:1 format captured my imagination like no other. Unbelievably, there had been little, if any, serious landscape photography created with this camera and format and I managed to purchase the first camera to reach the UK. The topography of the Scottish landscape was perfectly suited for this format, particularly from elevated viewpoints and I began to build a portfolio of the Scottish mountains throughout the seasons. The work was well received and I began to gain recognition with interviews in national newspapers and in camera magazines from the combination of this new and unique panoramic format and the wild and remote nature of Scottish landscape. Within two years, Constable had commissioned me to produce my first book, Highland Wilderness and also British Airways commissioned me to produce their corporate calendar, the first of four, which would be my first international commission and one which was very close to my heart.
Over the years, British Airways had been supporting a variety of conservation organisations by flying people, cargo and the animals themselves for captive breeding programmes and they commissioned me to fly to thirteen countries to photograph the habitats of these endangered animals and birds. These included, the snow leopard in Nepal, the white- bellied spider monkey in Venezuela, the African elephant in Kenya and the red-crowned crane in Venezuela. In addition to the habitat photographs, British Airways also approached the talented wildlife artist, Keith Brockie to illustrate each species and which would appear on the calendar page alongside my images. It was a fantastic opportunity for me and quite unbelievable today, that British Airways commissioned travel photography for a calendar on this scale.
Thamserku and Kangtega, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
Snow leopard ©Keith Brockie
Lake Kariba, Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe
Black rhinoceros ©Keith Brockie
The panoramic format really defined my career and its visual impact was like no other in the marketplace. Today, of course, anyone can produce a panorama – those produced by iPhones are quite superb or a series of multiple images can be stitched together to make a wider and higher resolution panoramic image. However, few really grasped why the 3:1 images shot with this camera are so appealing and the answer lies in the fact that it possesses a wide angle view (87°) but not a wide-angle lens - a 90 mm with an image circle capable of covering a 17 cm wide transparency. The other lens which I used regularly was the 180 mm which was ideal for capturing smaller areas of the landscape. So, we have the combination of a wide view and the ‘pull’ of a 90 and 180 mm lens which have exactly the same inherent qualities as telephotos designer for smaller formats.
It’s worthwhile explaining this because it is relevant to anyone taking photographs outdoors. There is a myth that ultra-wide-angle lenses deliver the greatest visual impact because of their extended angles of view – a 16-35 mm zoom for many being the ultimate landscape photographers’ lens. What some photographers overlook is that in order to squeeze more visual information onto the sensor, all the elements of the photograph need are reduced in size i.e. the reproduction ration get smaller as does the visual impact. With shorter focal lengths, say (16-20 mm), foregrounds become more prominent and tend to dominate the composition and the subject is often lost in the background, whilst the distortion in the corners is more pronounced. Personally, I seldom shoot with anything wider than a 28 mm lens and am prone to use telephotos in my landscape work, often – their magnification, and evisceration of the foreground, like my former panoramic camera, gives the viewer easy access to the landscape without them having to visually clamber over an arrangement of rocks or boulders in the foreground.
By 2012, having worked almost exclusively with the 617 format on my personal landscape projects, I had reached a point where I found that it was becoming a creative straightjacket and it was time for me to hunt new game. The cost of film, processing and scanning and the fact that I it had to be sent to London, convinced me to part with my cameras. Scotland’s Finest Landscapes was to be published in 2014 which was essentially a retrospective of my panoramic work and would give me some closure on that chapter in my life. There was much more I wanted to do and during my time in Scottish landscape, I had built up a mental library of locations where I recognised there was great potential for photography. I also was conscious of how much photography had changed over the past 23 years and the importance on working on a project that was underpinned by a meaningful story.
Since I was eight years old, I have had an innate fascination for birds and spent much of my childhood on farmlands and woodlands where I was always in close contact with them. Working, as I have done, for so many years in the landscape, I became increasingly aware of the diminishing numbers of birds, particularly, lapwing, curlew, kestrel, partridge, starlings and many more and wondered how I might fuse this interest in birds and their plight with my knowledge of the landscape. When I started out as a photographer, I recognised that I could say more about the natural world through the genre of landscape photography than I could as a wildlife photographer. As a landscape photographer, I can arrange the elements of the natural world in my viewfinder in a way that corresponds to how I feel about a particular place. With wildlife photography, I feel that this is far more difficult to achieve as you are totally dependent on what the bird or animal does next, so photographing birds, for me, had less appeal. I was, however, aware of the myriad colours patterns and shapes of birds’ eggs and was familiar with their habitats so I came up with the idea of producing diptychs’ – on one page I would show an image of a bird’s egg and on the opposite an image of its habitat, and so Fragile was born.
Ten years on and Fragile will be published in October 2020 by Merrell and features over 100 spreads of eggs and habitats. All of the eggs where photographed at the Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh using a technique called focus stacking where each of the egg photographs are a composite of anything between 40-80 separate exposures which give front to back sharpness across the egg. Chapters are categorised by habitat, beginning with Mountain and Moorland, Broadleaved Woodland etc and many of the locations are what I refer to as undisturbed places which receive little or no footfall. These were discovered over the many years I have spent in the Scottish landscape and the project has been a natural progression of my work, albeit in a new direction. Notwithstanding this new direction, I wasn’t quite ready to turn my back on mountain photography and my next book The Karakoram will be published in February 2021 by Merrell.
This book is a compilation of six trips to Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains, the earliest of which took place in 1996 and having travelled to over 50 counties throughout the world, the Karakoram Mountains remain my number one destination. It has been an enormous privilege to have had the opportunity to travel to and to capture this region which has changed little since the earliest exploration expeditions in the late nineteenth century and each time I embark on a new expedition, I feel as if I’m stepping back in time. The project has now been officially recognised by the Pakistan government who have been instrumental in the publication of the book and for which I am very grateful, and I look forward to seeing the efforts of many years work, finally in print.
Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) (7285 m) and Latok II (7108 m), Biafo Glacier, Panmah Muztagh, Karakoram Mountain, Pakistan
I was due to travel there again in June this year for one final expedition and was compelled to postpone until next year when I hope to produce, amongst other things, some aerial photographs of the Karakoram giants, including K2, the Gasherbrums, Biatha Brakk (The Orgre) and the Latoks. This for me would be icing on the cake and another high point in my life which I hope to bring to the public in an exhibition later in the year. The Karakoram Mountains are without equal and I have attempted to imbue the work with my own perception of their unique beauty.
Ghur (5796 m) and Pamshe Peak (6023 m), Biafo Glacier, Panmah Muztagh, Karakoram Mountains, Pakistan
Colin Prior, Gondogoro La, Baltoro Muztagh, Karakoram Mountain, Pakistan