Each month, Bob profiles an exceptional mobile photographer currently producing notable work across a variety of subjects and employing a broad range of techniques. Some will be well known within the mobile photography world (exhibiting and selling their work), and others will be gifted aficionados of the craft who shoot for themselves and their friends.
This month, Bob profiles Chris Harland – an English amateur iPhone photographer who captures expansive West Yorkshire and Scottish landscapes that are self-consciously reminiscent of the works of painters like Turner and Constable. In responding to a recent comment regarding the perfection of his color palette in a particular image, Harland replied with characteristic modesty: “I do work the colours a little, but I hope only to make the most of what nature herself provided. If you stood here it would look, and feel familiar, only a million times better.”
BW: Tell us about your background.
CH: I’m 52 and I live in Guiseley, West Yorkshire – and have lived in West Yorkshire since birth. I’d never picked up a camera with a degree of seriousness until 2010, when I was given an iPhone 3, and began to experiment with ‘instant photo’ applications, and started to sense the potential of ‘Mobile Photography’ as a way to express my complex feelings about the landscape around me, which had always held such a reverential place in my thoughts.
BW: When you’re not pursuing your photography, what else do you do?
CH: I’ve been a semi-professional singer and songwriter for about 35 years, and between those two pursuits and my family, that’s really about it. Not being a very social person, I very much prefer to keep myself to myself, despite the contrary nature of standing on a stage and singing!
BW: What inspires you?
CH: In a photographic sense, the beauty of nature, expressed in the landscape as a whole. The sense of joy, of release, of awe and exultation I can feel when alone in the landscape is an experience I’m unable to replicate in almost any other situation. Quite simply, any picture I make is a pale attempt to pass that feeling on to the viewer.
BW: How do you express your creativity?
CH: Songwriting was always my creative outlet, from about ’86 until 2011, when my son was born and I took a protracted break. This is when and where making pictures stepped in, and totally filled the creative void. I was truly obsessed with making pictures for a solid 6 years, until I decided to pick my music making back up, and now there is a balance between the two, albeit leaning towards making music and this is so much more an ‘every day’ process. Landscape takes time – to plan, to travel, to work the images.
BW: Are there any specific artists who have an influence on your work?
CH: As someone who might be loosely defined as a ‘photographer’ – landscape photography on the whole leaves me a little cold, with the exception of one photographer – Fay Godwin, who’s collection ‘Land’ from the early 80’s I bought as a very young man after watching a South Bank Show feature on her work. She worked almost exclusively in Black and White, and is firmly in the ‘photography’ bracket, but – to me – her work has a soulful quality that I just can’t seem to find in many others. Having thumbed through ‘Land’ for about 30 years it was no surprise to me that when I started making pictures it was Godwin’s language that I wanted to speak, albeit in my own fashion and with my own accent.
Other than Fay Godwin, pretty much all of my influence comes from the great landscape painters: Van Ruisdael, Cuyp, Corot, Turner, Constable, Girtin, Cotman – these are my great inspirations, and when I’m planning to make a picture, or sitting down to ‘work’ a basic image – it’s these giants that inform so many of my choices, these and so many more. And it’s not that I’m trying to perform a trick – see how I can make a picture look like a painting – but more that I am trying to show that the landscape that moved and inspired those great artists still exists today, and we only need to view it and attempt to express it emotionally, rather than technically. Look at ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ by Turner – he isn’t wanting to make a pictorial record of a Castle at Sunrise, he is trying to say something about that experience, to convey whatever emotions that place and moment stirred in him. And having stood in front of that picture myself for a great deal of time, and fully felt its emotional impact, I can recognize his genius because he succeeded. In my own small way, I wish to do the same with each image I make.
BW: What are you trying to communicate with your work?
CH: I think some of that I might have answered in the previous question. In short, emotion. I’m really not interested in saying to the viewer: ‘Here is a picture of (say) Loch Maree – I went there for a visit and liked it’ – and this is an issue I’ve discussed lots of times with people who have commented on my work. Landscape images that are ‘of’ a place are fine in their own way, but artistically go nowhere. Show me a landscape picture ‘about’ a place. So, what I’m seeking to communicate when I present am image is—to ‘feel’ the place – to get some distant echo of what It felt like to be there, and how that feeling reverberated through me.
There was never a magic world that, for instance, Jacob Van Ruisdael lived in – he simply communicated his world as he saw it and expressed it in the format he could. The magic we feel when we see his work – or when we see ‘The Haywain’ is in US. So, if it is magic at all, it still exists, as it’s in the power of our imagination to create it.
So, do the places I make pictures of exist? Clearly, they do. Do they look the way they do in my pictures? Probably not, but that’s not the point. It’s the way they feel to me, and if I can pull that feeling into a picture and somehow try transmit It to you, then that’s the point. And if that then can make YOU go see that place for yourself and make some image of your own to explain that, then even more so.
BW: Do you find yourself returning to the same locations? I see that you visited Wescoe Hill for a similar view in 2012, and four years later in 2016.
CH: Yes, on reflection I think I do, but it’s often for different reasons. Sometimes I’m simply not happy with the way an image worked out, and I want to try again. Sometimes it’ll be simply to stand in the same place and point the camera in a slightly different location, or perhaps to catch a scene in a different season. This is mostly if I’ve made an image during the summer (my least favorite photographic season) and consider that the scene would be better presented in a more varied palette. With ‘Wescoe Hill’ it was more that the original image was worked and presented in square format, and in an earlier part of my development. I wanted to try a different format, a different season, but yet to see if the image still had the same impact for me. As it happens, I prefer the earlier version still [shown immediately below].
BW: Can you tell us a little about your creative process?
CH: I think each picture I take, on reflection can be months in the making. Not in terms of taking the picture or working it, but more so the planning and ‘pre-thought’ that goes into putting myself into that location at that time. I’ll intensively research the area I’m visiting extensively before getting anywhere near being there. That will mean first studying Ordnance Survey maps for points of interest, historical features, viewpoints, and to have a general ‘overview’ of the area. Then I’ll often Google Map the area and ‘drive’ the route I intend to take, mile by miles, then I’ll do it backwards. This can often tip me off to certain aspects of the way the landscape actually fits together and ‘feels’. This is maybe the most exhaustive part of my preparation – but the most rewarding and it’s been responsible for many of what I believe are my best images. Then finally I will check the area for existing photographic content. Anything I can find, amateur, professional – anything that helps me build a more comprehensive understanding of the area. I believe that this is absolutely essential for landscape work. I’ll also then plan the visit, day by day, time by time and check light direction at any location at the time I intend to be passing, to make sure I am the best chance of having the light the way I want it for the subject I’m interested in.
I’ll follow my route with the intention of hitting each location as close to the time I’d intended as I can, but for all of that planning, the most important thing is to be prepared to throw it all out of the window and react quickly to the unexpected – a sudden atmospheric change, or exceptional weather, or quite simply a view that for whatever reason comes to surprise you. Animals also can make an unexpected entrance, and completely change the dynamic of a planned image.
It’s the great feature of an iPhone. Pop it in your pocket and be prepared to stop at any point if something occurs that you know will be transitory. You’re always ready.
I’ll shoot a LOT of frames in any location. Often using Hipstamatic first, with one or two different settings, then Classic Toy (color and B&W) and then the iPhone native camera. I often find that ONE of these options will give me the feeling I’m looking for. At the end of each shooting day, I’ll go through all the frames I’ve taken that day and discard anything I don’t need – hopefully ending up with two or three of the best from each location. Hard to say what it is that makes the ‘cut’, but it’s always an instinctive thing for me.
Once the shoot or trip is over, I’ll often leave the images for a couple of weeks and let the experience distil, then have another intensive review of the images I’ve kept and make my final cut. By this point I’ll know, more or less, how I’m wanting the final image to look, to feel – and then I begin the process of editing to get it as close to that mental image as I can.
BW: How has your work evolved over the years?
CH: I think mainly on two tracks: firstly – a more definite idea of what it is I want to make pictures of. When I began making pictures, I was trying everything – architecture, portrait, abstract… but as time went on it was landscape that seemed to ‘call’ me…probably because of the way I’d always felt about it since I was a little boy, and also it just seemed to be the thing that I felt most naturally able to do. And over the years I think one becomes more able to see a particular landscape and know if it is or isn’t something I can make a picture of, or would wish to. That’s the result of many thousands of wasted images on scenes that I was convinced would make great pictures, but came away utterly flat when I saw what came back as an image. I think, on the reverse, one becomes highly attuned to locations and atmospheric conditions that will yield very good images much quicker, and are able to ‘pre-visualize’ the end result before even taking the image.
The other track, is of course technology. I started with an iPhone 3, and now am on – what – an iPhone 12? The steps technology has taken in the field of mobile phone camera has been huge, and with each step, one’s ambition rises accordingly. The ‘big leap’ for me was when I moved my photo processing to the iPad Pro – the bigger space to work with was a revelation to me and – I think – helped me a little to avoid ‘over-processing’ an image.
But mainly, I’d have to say that with landscape images, with a mobile phone camera, one has to learn ‘in the field.’
BW: What iPhone apps do you use in your work? What iPhone or iPad apps and/or desktop apps do you use in your work? It looks as though you started with Hipstamatic and square format, and have moved away from that to wider formats and Classic Toy (as of 2015). Does that continue to be your approach?
CH: For shooting, always Hipstamatic (for color), Classic Toy (some color, some B&W) and the iPhone native camera.
For processing only now, I only use Snapseed and Stackables. [Note: Stackables is no longer available for download on the App Store, although previously downloaded versions still work on iPads and iPhones].
I do still enjoy certain scenes in a square format but it’s really very occasional now, and very much governed by the subject – I know there are some landscapists who use square all the time. For landscape, but I feel it’s just often too restrictive. I think when an image as a defined subject (let’s say a Castle, or a boat, or an animal) then square can work wonderfully well, and focus the eye beautifully on the subject – but in attempting to portray a more sweeping view, I need other options. It would be very hard to imagine some of the Scottish locations I’ve made images of more recently being more effectively represented in a square format. The great landscape painters rarely used a square format, and there is a reason.
BW: In a reply to a comment under an image of yours on Flickr, you wrote: “If the iPhone is my sketchbook, then the iPad is the palette.” Can you elaborate? And did you ever upgrade to an iPad Pro and Apple pencil?
CH: I’d be sunk without my iPad Pro. It’s as important to me as my iPhone in regards to making pictures, The Pencil I tried and quickly disliked.
I think what I was and am saying about using the phone is that it is a remarkable piece of kit for making the shot, its sheer transportability, its better battery life and the now much increase storage mean that it really is ideal for me. But I never, ever linger over a scene looking for a perfect shot that would require no editing. I always take an image with a view to what it can be, rather than what it is. I appreciate that that isn’t the case for all, many or even most landscape photographers – but I’m not a photographer, I make pictures. So, I want to be as free and flexible to think and act quickly with my phone. The number of times I’ve been able to capture a scene under conditions that are highly transitory because I have my phone in my pocket are innumerable. So, in essence each image is an accomplished sketch, and when I see what I have I’ll immediately begin the mental process of how to present the scene in its finished form.
BW: What kinds of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?
CH: I think much of this is really covered in the above – but the only addition I can make to this is that generally now my photographic trips are more planned ahead, rather than taken on the fly, with the time and planning set aside just for that endeavor. Early on in my photo making days, I’d take a more ‘on the fly’ approach, shooting in a much more instant style… and whilst that did give me a huge education, on reflection, and looking back over those earlier images, it led to a sort of uneven quality in the collection of my images. In maybe the past five years, I’ve been much more measured and considered into what I want to make a picture of, planned for it much more intensively and simply made less pictures, yet achieved a great consistency of style and substance.
BW: What advice would you have for someone aspiring to do landscape photography?
CH: Go with the heart over the head.
Decide what it is you want to do before you do it. If you know what you’re really looking to achieve, then it’s only a question of eventually connecting the artistic dots.
Have patience – with the weather, with others, with animals, and with yourself. Patience may be the single greatest attribute for anyone concerned with representing the landscape in any artistic manner.
Plan ahead, do your research, try to familiarize yourself with the terrain before you’ve even been there.
And finally, be prepared to throw ALL of that out of the window, at any point, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the right place, at the right time.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Bob Weil is a former marketing exec and practicing mixed media digital pictorialist living in Omaha, Nebraska. He has won numerous awards for his work and has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Canada, Italy and Portugal. He is a published author and teacher on digital art subjects with 2,400 students in 52 countries. Bob co-authored The Art of iPhone Photography with Nicki Fitz-Gerald for Rocky Nook Photography Books.
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