So, let’s get this new thing started, shall we?
At junior school, I was always the kid who had his Mum’s Box Brownie camera on school trips. I’ve no idea what ever became of those photos! Later, I was a regular on my Boy Scout troop’s Easter trips to the English Lake District. I don’t recall taking a camera on those. Probably just as well, as it always seemed to be raining. Strangely, my memories of those visits are all in the form of individual frames in my head. No moving images or anything. I had my first SLR camera by the time I was sixteen. A second-hand Nikon. The first of many, all Nikons. In my mid and late teens, all my spare time that wasn’t spent running was spent travelling to and from the Lake District and getting to know its charms. My earliest photographs from there date from quite late on, really. I’d have been about 20. As well as visiting with friends, I did a whole load of solo journeys, often with just a tent flysheet and a sleeping bag for comfort. I do recall being an early investor in a really good waterproof jacket and over-trousers, though. Many of my memories from those days are of awful bad weather. I have no doubt that my wanderings as a long-haired teenager through the English mountains were the basis for the photographic stuff I still love the most today.
There are many cityscape views I like, that show how urban areas change over time. However, I like my hills to have a more “timeless” and permanent quality to them. I began a project in 2011 to chart how even mountain areas change over a period of, say, a century or more. The signs can be subtle, as in a landslide here or there, or encroaching tree growth, or they can be anything but subtle, for example as a result of war, roads being built, or hydro power schemes. I can still remember the big kick I got from taking a photo on the Crib Goch ridge in North Wales that I later found was an exact match to one taken by a Victorian photographer probably 80 years previously. I realised that it’s not just the views themselves, but the viewpoints and the ways the views are portrayed, that also have a timeless quality about them quite often.
In September 2012, I was based for a while in Chamonix, in the French Alps. Chamonix is close enough to the Swiss border to make forays into Switzerland very easy. I spent a day out on the slopes above the small town of Arolla, which is tucked away at the end of a long and increasingly scenic valley, south of Sion. What little prior reading I’d done about the area spoke of the impressive position occupied by the abandoned hamlet of Pra Gra, so I made that my first destination. After an easy couple of hours meandering steeply uphill, stopping to take photos south, to the Pigne d’Arolla, L’Eveque and Mont Collon, I suddenly arrived at Pra Gra. “Suddenly” because it is on a sort of ledge on the hillside and almost hidden as one approaches from below.
Pra Gra was deserted as a place to live a long time ago, though it would have carried on as a summer residence for famers and shepherds for some while after that. I can remember saying to myself as I arrived “Heidi would have lived in somewhere like this”.Today, there are two buildings that are clearly still used, though boarded and locked up at the time of my visit. The rest comprises partly ruined, squat, wood-framed barns and cabins with stone slab walls and roof. For somewhere abandoned, it has a sturdy air of permanence even now. There is a well defined ‘main street”, and the pipe feeding the place with fresh spring water is still intact. But my photo above perhaps belies how cold it was there when I passed by. The reason can be seen in the storm clouds gathering on the southern horizon. A strong wind from the south, dragging moist air across the frozen tops of the Alps, was whipping up a sizeable storm. One two weeks previously had brought snow above Chamonix, down to just a few hundred metres above the town. I felt sure this one would do likewise, and I was fortunate to get home that evening before it really broke.
Pra Gra will have seen it all before, of course, probably dozens of times over something like eight or nine hundred years, and it will withstand it many times to come. Like I said, I like my landscapes to have a bit of timeless permanence.