Dry Stone Walls

Centuries ago, farmers cleared their land of discarded stones to make way for agriculture. The stones, while a nuisance in a ploughed field, were a useful material to erect permanent boundaries. Over time techniques were developed to construct solid walls, interlocking the stones with one another without the need for mortar to bind them. Some of these structures are thousands of years old, and in that time nature has tried its best to reclaim them, completely transforming the exposed surfaces, in some cases to be almost unrecognisable as stones. Recently built walls, although perfectly attractive, are simply constructions: my interest lies in the patina created through the action of weathering and the unhurried pace of the lichen and other flora slowly expanding over the surfaces.

There are thousands of miles of dry stone walls in the UK and millions worldwide; in principle a limitless resource, but 99.9 % are not suitable for this project. My mission is to select walls with real character and personality. I’ve spent days hiking, tripod in hand, backpack heavy with photo equipment, peering at potential subjects, discarding all but the most perfect examples. The purpose of this series of images is to create, or perhaps more accurately re-create, through photography, a realistic, almost tactile evocation of this particular element of the landscape.

The physical size of the prints is important. It’s easy to get out a camera and take a snap from the window of a passing car then share it with others on an iPhone, but that’s just an aide-memoire of the moment: my interest is in the macro detail of the individual components of the stones, and in particular, the life living on them. This spectacle is only visible when presented life size or larger than life. On a web page, these pictures look like just another set of royalty-free images; it’s only when these seven to twenty-six-foot wide wide prints are viewed close up in the gallery, that the precision and variety of nature is evident.

Capturing the subject in this way has demanded a number of challenging photographic and post-production techniques. After much on-site research, I chose a specific lens, one of the few that creates an image that is sharp from corner to corner. Most good lenses are sharp in the centre (where we tend to concentrate our gaze), but only exceptional lenses have the acutance to resolve the light passing through them in crisp focus across the whole frame. At a normal viewing distance (in a cinema for example) it hardly matters, but on a gallery wall where the viewer can choose to place their eyes just centimetres from the print, it’s a very different experience. Think of it as having the luxury of viewing the individual brushstrokes on an Old Master instead of peering at it over the heads of other visitors.

There is no zenith or nadir in these images, no azure sky, no verdant grass, nor bucolic landscape; they are representations taken mainly in inclement, very English weather, concentrating purely on the close-up detail of the subject.

After I’ve created an image file of sufficient size, I employ minimum digital trickery: the power of these pictures lies partly with the skilled craftsmen who originally made the walls, but mainly in the forces of time and nature upon them. I’ve utilised many of the skills honed in thirty-years as a professional photographer in an attempt to devise a simple recipe for creating veracious images; I’ve pared away as many unnecessary visual distractions as possible.

These are not never-to-be-repeated moments in time. The metamorphosis recorded here takes centuries to develop, before - as often happens in less accessible areas - nature really does reclaim her supremacy and all that’s left is a heap of stones, once again hidden in the undergrowth.

Imagine a plain wall in a gallery. A builder arrives with a large chisel to chip away at the plaster revealing not the anticipated bricks and mortar, but instead a vibrant micro landscape. The newly-created space becomes an outside world, a living garden on the wall. The detail within the image elevates the picture almost beyond a photograph: you can practically touch, and dare I say smell, the terrain.

How does one categorise this set of images? Are they landscapes, still lifes or portraits? Landscapes certainly, but by focusing - literally - on this one element, they are at best a partial interpretation; still lifes perhaps, but I suggest portraits, ‘warts and all’ representations of characters in the environment.

A further question might be; to which genre do these prints belong, are they naturalistic, narrative or abstract? I’m unsure, but I’m confident that their strength lies in the combination of nature’s beguiling intricacy and simplicity.

The prints are discrete images of individual walls; there’s no repeat pattern to be seen, they are simply very large photographs of single dry stone walls.

These 2m, 3m, 4m, 5m, 6m. and 8m. wide prints are available framed or unframed in editions of seven, plus two APs.