Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Good, The Mad And The Ugly 1.1

Winter hillwalking in Scotland is a complex and dangerous activity pursued on a regular basis by lots and lots of people with a hunger for danger. Yes there are countless experienced individuals who do it well-equipped, with the level of experience and skills necessary (and also the much-needed ability to realise defeat and turn back if it all starts to go pear-shaped).
However, there are also others who approach it with a loose whimsy nothing short of a death-wish - jeans, fabric walking shoes, no emergency gear, you name it, its been done, and then the wonderful VOLUNTEERS of our mountain rescue services put their lives on the line rescuing them.
Hmmm, blatant and foolish risk taking = financial culpability . . sounds reasonable doesn't it?
I think so, but obviously things can (and do) go hill-shaped quite often through no fault of your own - a good day can end up a total nightmare, so you should always have an out - things you can do to mitigate the end result . . . BE PREPARED - like, f'rinstance, thinking about whether you really could sit out a storm with 6 inches to two feet+ of snow.
I think if the shit hit the fan most people's answer would be . . Er . . NO!

"So Sheephouse, how does this apply to you and why are you boring us with such shite?" I hear you cry . . .
Well, despite having walked mountains for a longish (20-odd years) time now, I've never done a proper Winter walk, and you know what, I probably won't as I like my days in the hills to be solitary  - ergo, it's only me in some very BIG nature - at 3500ft and a howling white out, I'd be the one on my tod with the brown trousers . . . no, I value my life more than to take a solitary risk.
But like that rash you get from too tight underpants in the summer, itching at the back of my brain is a need to photograph permafrost and ice and hard granite and snow . . . and with a large format camera too!
Sometimes itches have to be scratched.
The title of this blog though does tell the truth . . .
Lugging a 5x4 and its copious accessories into the wilds is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. I've done it a few times and the sheer weight of everything is enough to put you off as you heft your rucksack back in the carpark.
The heaviest part is undoubtedly the tripod (unless you can afford carbon fibre) - it is a total bastard to carry, weighs a ton, and is as awkward as it gets.
After this (if you are brave) comes (in equal levels of awkwardness) the Double Dark Slides (they're cumulatively heavy, not massively heavy each, but when combined, heavy enough to make you wish you'd only taken 4 . . . or 2) and the camera (well actually it's a toss-up between the two) - but in all cases, BULK is your main problem.
My ancient Wista DX is almost as light as it comes for a 5x4, but it is still heavy, however not as heavy as my Sinar F . . . now that is heavy and yet, strangely carryable.

Here's a brief aside:
The F stands for Field (Not Feckin' Heavy . . nope, that would be the Sinar FH) and yes, you can use it in a field - grab a 6 inch rail and it will entirely compact onto that, although if you fancy carrying a solid, all-metal, brick that is approximately 6 x 8 x 8" and awkward as fceck to pack, go ahead. Mine actually fitted into a Deuter 22litre rucksack, with the film holders in a click-lock box in the separate compartment at the bottom, the 12" rail in one of the water bottle pockets at one side, and the bag bellows viewer (undoubtedly one of the best LF accessories ever invented - look Ma! No Darkcloth!!) tucked neatly in beside the camera. My light meter was in a small Lowe pouch attached to the side of the rucksack . . . water was in a 1 litre Sigg bottle on the opposite outside pouch to the rail . . . and food? erm. Oh. Dried goods I'm afraid - oatcakes, dried fruit and a couple of bite-sized choccy bars . . . no room for extra clothing really apart from hat and gloves. The tripod (Linhof Twin Shank and Gitzo Series 5 [! - weighing about the same as the QE2]) was carried with a couple of ingenious handles knotted and cable-tied to two of its legs (the material was a stretchy fabric offcut) and the whole thing was stopped from going all splay-ey by a bungee cord. My boots at the time weighed over a kilo each too, so you can see, it is quite easy to nearly kill yourself with such a set-up . . and I nearly did. I've detailed some of it somewhere else on FB - if you want to find it, use the search . . I think 'nearly killed' would be the keywords.

Anyway, as I say the thoughts of carrying such a get-up to such heights as a Munro is nearly too much to bear these days, but I still wanted to photograph Winter.
Allied to this, I had a new (secondhand) rucksack to break in (long story cut short = upcoming camping trip/no wish to tear down compartments on Tamrac bag/not enough room for camping stuff = Karrimor Sabre 45!) hence the near genius idea of a decent walk, but at lower levels - if the permafrost was around there would be ample opportunity to photograph my chosen subjects. And you know what . . . I think I would have made it, were it not for a couple of things.

Number 1:

Low pressure and raised temperatures

Number 2:

Because of Number 1, all the snow was melting - little jumpable burns were now raging slippery torrents.

I had to re-plan on the hoof - the best laid plans of meece and men as it were . . . 
Basically, where I wanted to go, I had recc'ed a couple of years back - there were tiny, lovely, tinkling burns to cross before I got to a small gorge where the White Water forces its way between slippy stones and stunted trees at the edge of a boulder field.
It even sounds bloody great writing it!
My juices were flowing and my energy levels were up - in my minds-eye I could see great slabs of iced-water broken upon oval, water-smoothed, boulders.
I could see shapes and patterns, whorls and melt. It would be perfect.
But I'll go into it (and why it never happened) fully next time.
For now, are we sitting comfortably?
Good - it is time for a little Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sheephouse Aside.


Wot is it Sheephouse? Wot, I said, WOT, IS IT???

Well, isn't it obvious?

Nah. It looks like a green bag to me, wiv some sticks and fings on it, innit.

(Sigh) OK and just because it is you -  . . . it's a Karrimor SF Sabre 45 - a military grade rucksack which holds a capacious 45 litres - on the sides you see some ex-army PLCE side pockets (or Rockets as they're known) these hold approximately 15 litres each - so basically it is a 75 litre rucksack!
That's a lot of room and way more than I would carry ever (if it was a cloth barrel, could you imagine carrying 75 litres of beer? Nope, me neither . . ) however it is necessary for Winter.
My normal LF rucksack is roughly half that size - it's a Tamarac Extreme 777, which just holds all my LF camera gear with little room for anything else - that is no good for me in the Winter, hence a larger sack was necessary.
Nefarious excuses for buying another rucksack out of the way - here's what it held:

Exped 40 litre dry bag - almost everything was in there, which was in turn within the main body of the rucksack
Wista DX (protected in a small Lowe shoulder bag)
Schneider 150mm f5.6 Symmar-S (inside collapsed camera)
Schneider 90mm f8 Super Angulon (in lens wraps)
Light meter - Gossen Lunasix-F with spot attachment (in Lowe digital camera shoulder bag - it's small)
Note paper and pencils
2 cable releases
Reading glasses (in hard case) for composition
Silvestri Loupe
Spare meter batteries
Tape measure
Spirit Level
Dark Cloth (a Craghoppers microfleece with a zip neck - breathable and very light tight)
4 Dark Slides in a Lowe bumbag + 4 spare in a cliptop box
2 litres of water
Enough dried food for a monster like me
Emergency space blanket
Map in waterproof mapcase
Small digicam case attached to waistbelt (to hold small Panasonic Lumix)
Ventile Jacket
US Army Poncho (in case of maximum wetness)
Buffalo systems hood and mitts (to match the Special 6 shirt I was wearing)
Ex-Army neck buff
Lowe Mountain cap
Spare cable ties
Leki Wanderfreund trekking pole (for crossing dodgy burns)
Oh and the tripod, which actually attached pretty well to the pack when I was using the Leki

Basically, if you can imagine carrying a toddler robot, you've got it.
I see the Army bomb disposal got there before me - sort of like this:

Or like this, but in reverse . . . if Altaira was carrying Robby, he would feel like the Karrimor Sabre fully loaded.

I've no idea what the weight was, but it was heavy . . . however (and strangely) with the pack on properly, waist belt clipped so my hips were taking the strain rather than my shoulders and with the sternum strap done up, it was surprisingly comfortable.
I was expecting to get truly hot and sweaty, but I was alright - so was the rucksack - nary a complaint - it is built like a brick sheephouse after all.
I'm not sure if I'd like to climb a Munro with that level of stuff though - I could probably slim things down a bit, to lessen the weight, but not that much. It would be a huge test of fitness.
Anyway, suitably ladened and after having had a quiet word with myselves in the carpark, off I marched into the wilds for 5 miles of phun and phrolics.


Phew, that was tiring wasn't it!
Well, this is what your intrepid reporter looks like after a sweaty yomp into the far beyond. Jings that load was heavy.

Your intrepid reporter, feeling less sweaty now the toddler robot has climbed down and is off for a play in the woods.
Note extreme wide-angle, off-axis, enlargement of facial features (Official Nikon F & Nikkormat Manual, p38).
Or am I just reverting to my childhood porkieness?
I prefer the technical answer.

But isn't it incredible, that even in the middle of nowhere, there's still some f'er taking a 'selfie'. 

Another Sh-Sh-Sh-Sheephouse aside . . .
Sorry to say it folks but I genuinely believe that Ali and me invented the modern one back in the very early 1990's, except we called them self portraits then . . and they were on film . . . but the concept was the same:

Point and shoot camera.
Reverse lens back to the picture taker.
Arm out, with that now oh so familiar pose.
Say cheese
Autofocus at work.
That was it.

Nowadays you can even get a feckin selfie-stick so you can get all of yourself in . . er . . isn't that what self-timers are for?
Selfies have lost any meaning they might have had.
They used to work - the unusual angle, the self-proclamation of 'I WOZ ERE', it all led to a different slant on things, rather like the woman who managed to catalogue a visit to Egypt with her disposable 110 camera reversed so that every shot featured her ear (!).
You laughed at her mistake, but seeing most of the Wonders Of Egypt with an ear attached to them wasn't just a laugh, it was almost ART.
Nah, selfies, as common as dog muck and I hate them with a vengeance . . .
However, seeing as we invented them, why not . . . .

Er wait a minute Sheephouse . . . is that really you?

Och bugger . . . spotted again. Indeed it is. 
If you can find me in public and come up to me and say
'Your name is Herman Sheephouse and I claim my free sticker now' 
I can guarantee you'll get a special prize . . .

Anyway, where is all this going?
I am not sure actually, as it looks to me like I am just twiddling my fingers and writing the first thing that comes into my head . . . marking time I think my Dad would have said . . and he would have been right.
Well, I haven't developed the film yet. Well I have now actually, however no contacts have been made - more of that next time. For now let's just say, LF Photography Makes Men.
It's like a boot camp for the visual arts. it really is.
More next time in an epic and exciting episode:
The toddler robot returns, the weather turns, I have a turn, and, after nearly walking away disgusted, eventually end up whiling away a happy couple of hours next to a raging river.

Exceptionally precarious

TTFN -  and remember if the blue pills don't work, there's always the green ones.

Monday, March 02, 2015

New Lands, Sleeping Bags And Big Cameras Part Four (Go On . . Pull The Trigger Now)

Well folks - the Karavan Khronickles is back!
Wot's that Sheephouse? I hear you cry
Blimey - haven't you been paying attention? 
Oh, you haven't have you. You dozed off didn't you (and I don't blame you actually, because I did too . . . and I was writing it). 
If you want to bore yourself rigid, you can read the lead-up to this one here, here and here.

This Khronickle though is a little different (and you had better be wearing a stout pair of rubber pants, because the tale I am about to tell is faintly** hair-raising . . and if you aren't particularly scared, then it's OK to take the pants off and pass them onto someone else, just remember to give them some talcum powder too - they can get awful squeaky as we well know). 
** Oh go on then . . . it isn't remotely hair-raising in the slightest

Anyway, as a famous man once said 'Enough o' me shite . . onwards!'
Right, as you'll no doubt now know, I spent a week on holiday, making 5x4 photographs . . . 20 of them. 
Fortunately for me, there's was little lugging of gear for miles . . I was able to stroll out in my wellies and have the camera set up in under 20 minutes - this was pure luxury
And as you can maybe see from the two stitched digi-things below, I was lucky with the lie of the land - this was a two minute walk from where we were staying.

Yes I know they don't fit the frames . . but they were too small otherwise

In the top photograph, you see the uprise of land with trees on it at the left-hand side? That was my destination, and whilst there I encountered something, how shall we say, unusual
The second photograph is what it was like on the top of that piece of land - certainly its loveliness gives little away to the depth of feeling that lurked in the surrounding tonsure of ancient woodland..
Now if you're looking closely (and of a curious mind like me) you might be thinking there is something rather strange about this parcel of land. It isn't obvious from the wide-angled nature of the stitches, however it is entirely walled off from the surrounding country with proper dry-stane walls of approximately 200-odd year old heritage.
Doesn't mean anything to you sitting in a Starbucks with all the world has to offer at your fingertips?
Thought not, and understandable, well let me explain: despite the fact that the rest of the surrounding farmland is lush and well-cultivated, this piece of land has been blocked off. It's a no-go area and it is very unusual these days to find total wildness. Land is too precious, farmers like to have it farmed.
What you can see in the first panorama is a true mix of ancient bog and wood, and I would say little unchanged (obviously apart from growth and die-back) for millenia - the trees are small and grubby, stunted by poor soil and the bog itself is a mish-mash of proper peat and ancient tree roots. I suppose that is maybe why it hasn't been upgraded. However, its isolation picqued my curiosity and made me want to explore. 
The land rises from right to left in what the Scots call a 'shank' . . yep . .a leg. And it's like that, a leg of land heading upwards. 
So suitably prepared for adventure with a Wista and all my gear I set off to ascend via The Shank, however my travail was stopped dead pretty quickly by the sheer amount of difficult walking - gorse and dense trees, stones and boggy bits - in fact it was so dense that I stopped, turned back and skirted the walls instead.
Anyway, after a short, steady climb up through a mix of Oak and Apple and Alder and Beech I made it to the top. 
Now, according to my memorised map, this might have been the remnants of a Norman Motte, however it wasn't - for a start I was way off in my reading of the land and it was way too large. And secondly, it just didn't feel right.
I'm not sure whether you've stood on top of a Motte, but they are pretty much devoid of feeling - all history is gone, bar the massed earth of the footings. They are interesting places, but you can't get a true feel for the history of a place from them (at least that is my experience) - but this was different.
I place a lot of value on feelings and especially so in the countryside. My inner countryman comes to life and keeps me right and on the top, I was thrilled by a sense of peace and wonder, however that wasn't all - there was something tickling at my subconscious that I was initially entirely unaware of. 
The light was falling to a proper gloam, but it was a beautiful evening and very clear. I surveyed the top, thought about making some photographs, dropped my rucksack and tripod, scouted around a bit more and set up. 
There was still a reasonable amount of sun behind my back and I felt that I could capture some of the very real atmosphere that I was feeling. 
With camera set up and a suitable tree selected, image composed, light acceptable,  I paused for a moment from my pottering and tinkering.
And that was when it hit me.
If I could have voiced it, it would have said this:

Now I know you're out there scoffing and stuff, but to my inner countryman it was a real command, enjoined with a feeling like I was being watched.
My hackles arose and I felt (from that bit of land you can see in the second photograph on the left hand side and to the right of the tree) a very definite 'presence'. 
That's the only way I can describe it. 
And I wasn't welcome.
I fumbled, inserted my film holder, called myself stupid and started to make an exposure, only to realise that I hadn't closed the shutter and was exposing the film whilst removing the darkslide! 
I HAVE NEVER EVER DONE THIS (not even after the time I nearly killed myself lugging a Sinar up a Munro). 
I always double check everything
Ergo, something had unnerved me. Not just unnerved me, but had downright made me break out in a bit of a sweat. 
I cursed, closed the slide again, reversed it and made a proper exposure and then, collecting myself and my stuff made off with haste into the oncoming twilight with my camera still affixed to the tripod.
The stupid thing was that I still had to photograph though, so I searched for somewhere as photogenic but with less weirding.
The thing is, no matter how much I searched, the feeling still came with me. 
You know when you feel like you are being watched? that was how I was feeling, and the more the gloam settled the worse it got. 
Frank Herbert's Bene Gersserit saying 'Fear Is The Mind Killer' came to me . . . I tried to talk myself out of my funk, but after surveying a massed collapse of ancient dried trees, and desperately trying to find the correct angle and then feeling it again, I settled to fate, took my camera off the tripod packed everything away as fast as possible and headed downhill as quickly as I could.
Reaching the bog at the bottom of the hill, I set up again and tried to make another photograph - you can see the shite results here (it's the fourth contact print down).
There was a real sense of time being erased in that bog - if a mounted horseman carrying a short sword had galloped up, I wouldn't have been surprised.
Panicking a bit more and stumbling off from the bog, I knew had one more chance to make a photograph that day, so in near darkness and using a small torch to check my focus (honest) I set up by a wall, composed (with extreme difficulty), took a meter reading, was astonished at the reciprocity characteristics and exposed for as long as I could (1020 seconds - 17 minutes to you and me was the corrected exposure - No Way Hosepipe, I thought . . so I opened up the lens and made it about 5 or 6 mins. Luck wasn't with me though - it wasn't nearly enough (and even selenium toning the negative hasn't raised the highs above their deep, dark roots) - the hundred or so sheep that were watching me must have been laughing all the way to their troughs.
As a crescent moon arose and the night settled in proper, I made my apologies (for trespass) and packed up with a quiver in my hands (no, not a quiver of arrows y'berk), thoroughly bristling hackles and exited as quickly as possible, only slowing may pace as I got into the caravan park . . but even then I didn't really want it to be known which van we were in . . .
Oh I know, you are laughing quietly to yourself . . but you know what . .when I lived in the middle of nowhere, some nights you could sleep with your curtains and windows open . . other nights you battened down the hatches and didn't look out till morning - the countryside can be a very weird place, but then again, inside my head is weirder still . . .


Anyway, holidays finished, back home and reviewing the results. I did the processing, did the stitching and had a bloody good think. That think has taken months actually, but I've come to a sort of conclusion.
You see in the second stitched photo, what you are seeing is a flattened hill top, with a circling of trees around the edges, Alder, Crab Apple and Oak. The top of the hill has at least two springs. (that I was aware of - they weren't rinkling tinkling ones either but big solid invisible ones - you knew they were there though).
You probably don't get where I am going, but the varieties of trees alone (and there were many and very old) suggested something to me.
Now I've thought about this (and I am not going to voice my absolute conclusion in public) there was a very definite feeling to the place that was both uncanny and protective, unfriendly and yet tolerant. It toyed with me. It rejected me with power, and yet when I returned during daylight the day after, I felt welcome. Well, not entirely welcome, but tolerated.
What ever presence I had felt was still there, but dozing . . that's the only way I can put it.
I was able to enter the grove from where I had felt something and make some photographs and as I explored the area and gave thanks for it's overwhelming peace and feelings of security (! really), I felt accepted and at one with the Earth Spirit.
There . . . done it now.
How is that for flying against rationale and reason?
Sounds fanciful?
Sounds like New Age Shite?
In a world where everything is known, where everyone is connected?
Fanciful notions from a middle-aged man desperate for quieter times?
You know what? the stone-age man in me says "Ug!"
We know what we felt - it was older than anything and demanded our full attention and awareness . . .
And we weren't the first - the trees and walls and land told that story. There was something here that I felt sure had drawn people other than myself over the centuries.
Having given it a good long thunk, our reverence remains unashamedly unabashed.
We're shamelessly unapologetic, so get over it.
(That's a lot of un's isn't it!)


And so the KK's comes to an end - to be honest folks, I have struggled to print the photos from that week - that has been a major delay in finishing this series off.
I can't figure why either - they're fairly decent negatives . . . OK, the pics aren't brilliant, but they (to my eyes) seem to have captured some of the atmosphere from that wonderful time.
I think the problem has been my ongoing love love/find difficult relationship with the 5x4 negative.
Printed at 10x8 it just doesn't look right - I daresay it would at 11x14 and larger, but nope - my standard size (10x8) just doesn't quite cut the mustard . . so to that end, I ended up contact printing everything on old Agfa MCC of approximately 5x8 size (a torn-in-half sheet of 10x8) and you know what? It fit. they work as contact prints.
They are funky, tatty, physical objects that invite handling and close viewing (they are small after all). they're archivally toned in Selenium too, so all I need is some sleeves to sort them out nicely.
Below is how they look and then cropped-in images to enlarge things a bit.
Hope you like them.

OK - in hindsight I think I would use a little liquid lightning just to tickle up the highs . . . and if I could actually print as large as my enlarger can print (it's a DeVere 504, so can print really huge, but unfortunately I can't - no sink for trays, I just have them on small shelves, so 9.5x12" is my maximum!) I would print a fceckin massive print of the last one. That was made (as were all these images) with my Super Angulon f8 - it is an incredible lens, however just a tad dim on the olde GG, but failing eyesight is another story. 
Anyhow, to my eyes at least, it has captured the atmosphere of that late Autumn evening, as the gloam was falling on a special Scottish place, and the berk behind the camera found himself in a state of rising panic.

Well, that's it - you've done well.
Next time, less reading, more photos . . promise . . and yer Uncle Sheephouse says to remember to write to Aunty Bee and to keep taking the tablets.