Soft light on sylvan thoughts
The approach to Hudswell Woods is always dramatic. The supporting structure of towering beech trees gives the entrance the feel of a cathedral and my eyes have no alternative but to soar upwards to meet the celestial light streaming down. As I draw closer the whole wood shimmers like a green mirage and the architectural shape of an individual tree is lost in an abstract mass of colour and texture.
I take time to stand and stare. Gradually other senses begin to compete for my attention and being midsummer the wood smells sweet and dry through the freshness and vigour of new growth. There is no better anti-depressant than just-opened-today foliage. Now that my sight and sense of smell are alert I no longer tune out the background static and my mind brings forward the birdsong and insect hum as a cacophony that rises and falls like a discordant late-night jazz programme on the radio.
Entering a wood alters my sense of time and also my sense of light. On this June day in Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales I decide to revel in the soft diffused light that works so well with small to medium sized photographic subjects.
Colour does not need to be intense to provide inspiration. Often direct sunlight can overwhelm it, whereas soft light from a bright but overcast sky seems to make colours glow and can reveal the subtlety of tones within a single colour by striking the subject evenly from all directions. Eliot Porter, the true pioneer of colour landscape photography and one of the largest influences on my own, looked back on his initial photography and said: "As I began to see the effect of available light on my subjects, either from a clear blue or from an overcast sky, I began to recognise that direct sunlight was often a disadvantage."
As my quest to find a subject in Hudswell Woods continued so did the blanket of high cloud and the rounded light that it reflected down. This left me feeling at ease and unrushed, which is always my favourite and most creative mood. Unfortunately we can only look in one direction at a time, yet woodland has the potential for photographic subjects at so many different angles: at your feet, above your head and 360 degrees all around. So more than any other type of location there is a real dividend from walking slowly, freeze-frame slow, as you search through a wood.
By now my imagination was free from all outside thoughts and fired solely by the task of discovering a subject that would harness the even light cascading down through the leaf canopy. As I went deeper into the wood a secondary idea began to form, a desire to describe in a photograph the sense of the wood continuing to unfurl as the warmth of summer built up, coaxing nature into producing yet another green layer of complexity and tonality.
Eventually I returned to the dusty stone-chip track by the entrance and realised that I had in fact walked past my ideal subject when I first entered the wood, but at that point my mind had not unwound and was still full of the journey with no room left for sylvan thoughts.
The ivy's waxed leaves, especially those recently opened, possessed a decorative luster that glistened in the same way a chandelier gives off light and a crowded background was just what I needed to block out any hint of a distant and distracting sky. The parasitic plant was floodlit from above and for once commanded centre stage.
Having made my photograph I shouldered the tripod and on returning home reached to my bookshelf and enjoyed again John Clare's Wood Pictures in Summer:
The one delicious green that now pervades
The woods and fields in endless lights and shades
And that deep softness of delicious hues
That overhead blends-softens-and subdues