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Discovering the chainsaw aesthetic

Swaledale is making hay. Tractors gather, trailers circle; then the meadows are cut. A rich tang carries on the summer breeze and I stop to enjoy its sultry sweetness before taking a sloped path from Keld that leads to woodland above Kisdon Gorge. Time is on my side so I opt for a longer route that passes the chapel and its graveyard. Peering over a dry stone wall at the Calverts and Metcalfes buried there it seems as if the headstones lean inwards, huddled in close conversation in the same way hill farmers do on market day, whispering secretively about tups, ewes and the price of hay.

Sheep farming and a sense of community remains strong this high up the dale. In the graveyard’s half-acre of closely tended grass, strength of character is remembered, resilience to the seasons recalled; it’s only the grooved letters that have faded from the stones after decades of scouring wind and rain. The previous night saw heavy rain showers and my foot slips crossing the moss-covered boards of the footbridge at East Gill Force. Underneath is an urgent, roving river. After regaining my balance I wait awhile admiring an agile dipper as it mocks me by pirouetting from rock to overhanging tree and back again.

Other pleasures along the route include creamy bonnets of meadowsweet and the easy sway of weightless harebells. As I reach the higher ground and look down on the gorge, the smells and sounds of haymaking grow faint, replaced now by an indistinct swirl of birdsong and the swarming summertime hum of insects. Despite a recent long run of sunshine, Birk Hill wood ahead retains a lush leaf canopy and all around me the dale verges on the verdant. It is one shade down from the rich greens that arrived with the first flush of grass in April; this is more of a Lincoln green, warm and olive and befitting the longer days of summer. Either way, it is a treat to be immersed in this distinctive landscape on such a jaunty day.

From the narrow open path I can see across the gorge to the other side of the valley where a stone barn stands as a lone silhouette against a cloudless sky. I always allow myself to be led by what catches my eye and this unerring symbol of the Yorkshire Dales with its colourful backdrop tempts me to think of a photograph. I reach instinctively for my viewing frame to begin the compositional process, but quick doubts enter my mind and I stall, picturing all the other photographs I have seen of a lone barn inked black against a cloudless sky. The subject itself is far from a cliché, but would I honestly be able to say the same about my photograph?

When I have a whole day such as this to simply enjoy being in the landscape, all I take with me is the camera bag and my imagination. I set off excited about the prospect of what I will discover and how I will react creatively. Sliding the frame back into my pocket, I realise, not for the first time, that a stronger voice is urging me to step aside from the predictable and resist such an obvious visual stereotype. Heedful, I continue higher into the steeply sided wood where the path narrows and is shared as a sheep trod. Noticing the silver gleam from the base of a substantial hawthorn, I run my fingertips over its polished flank. Generations of Swaledale sheep have rubbed themselves here and the tree’s gnarled bark has a pebble-smooth sheen. Above, tufts of wiry fleece hang from the lower branches.

Oak and ash predominate the wood and shelter in its centre allows sizeable trees to flourish. Eventually, after becoming too big and heavy to keep a hold in the sloping ground, they can no longer defy the laws of gravity and are left to lie sprawled on the woodland floor, decaying over decades. Such an undignified end has befallen the oak tree that now lies across the path in front of me. Its trunk is the width of an oil barrel and its fall has flattened a dry stone wall, scattering moss-encrusted top stones over a wide area. The tree’s substantial roots have been ripped from the soil and look like cabling.

Upper Swaledale is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park and I’m pleased to see the area ranger has cut a width out of the trunk where it was blocking the path, otherwise it would have been a task to clamber over. Squeezing through the man-made gap, I twist and glance down, then stop to explore what would have been the hidden core of this considerable tree. The shapes are intriguing. As I gradually piece the story together I realise it is the blackened scorch marks left by the ranger’s chainsaw that have created the pattern that excites my eye. I spend time looking from different angles, beginning to visualise the outline of a leaf in the centre and with this comes the first inclination that there may be a unique and rewarding photograph to be made.

This excites me so much more than a photograph of the lone barn. Although the tree is dying, an energy seems to be still radiating out from the leaf edges and I endeavour to create a composition that accentuates all this vitality and allows it to flow into all four corners of the frame. When I am time-rich like this and making an image that stirs me, then my concentration level becomes intense. The creative and photographic process occupies all my thoughts, to the exclusion of everything else, and my mind fizzes with the challenge of fusing together all the elements. Yet I am utterly relaxed. Aside from with my family, there is nowhere I would rather be and nothing else I would wish to be doing.

Having made my photograph I continue along the path through the wood, then leave the gorge and traverse the open ground of Kisdon Hill. Where the path meets the Pennine Way there is a tremendous high-level view looking down on the village of Muker and Swaledale’s widening valley to Gunnerside and beyond. If ever there was a spot to get the tea flask out, this is it. Eventually I complete the circuit back to Keld alongside the River Swale, and then the twisting road home.

Later in the week I continue to enjoy a book featuring the substantial work of American painter Andrew Wyeth. A quote from him stands out from the page and evokes the feelings I experienced during my day high on the Swaledale fells, when I had rejected the obvious and opted for the impulsive: “Unlike painting in a studio, being outdoors allows you to be in the scene, it’s always spontaneous. Art is chance.”

Discovering the chainsaw aesthetic

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