Photography and Walking

Walking is not just exercise. Movement through a terrain affords us not only physical exploration but also a movement of mind and spirit…

Many artists and thinkers have attested to this. Wordsworth is said to have walked 180,000 miles. One thinks of Arthur Rimbaud – ‘I’m a pedestrian, nothing more!’; Immanuel Kant and his daily stroll; and Friedrich Nietzsche for whom walking was the natural accompaniment to thinking 1.

The simple act of walking is central to many photographers. For Hamish Fulton and Richard Long the experiences of walking are at the centre of their art works. Thomas Joshua Cooper’s projects are based on depicting the nature of geographical limits, that is, limits to walking. Whereas Eugène Atget’s photographs portray open empty spaces in Paris, modern street photography tends to the cluttered visual cacophony of modern urban life. Both are founded on walking the streets and parks of cities.

Hand in hand with walking go paths, often but not always ways of least resistance. The natural landscapes ‘afford’ ways of travel – drovers’ ways, pilgrims’ routes, clachans, ridings, cartways, miners’ tracks, alleys, footpaths – the list is as long as the functions are wide. In this age of car trips many of these are disappearing.

Here in the UK country paths are forged over hundreds of years of custom and practice and depend on people walking them. If they are not walked, they are lost.

Path and Fence, Clwydian Hills, Pinhole; FP4.

The opposite seems to be the case in cities. Ways are set out by civic planners and ‘No entry’ signs, pedestrian crossings, moving staircases, lifts, barriers, bridges, underpaths and pavements all serve to regulate where and when people can go. The rectilinear structure of the city street may ease mass transit concerns but I can’t help thinking that it is at a psychological cost to a city’s inhabitants.

Of course, the metaphor of a path in ‘life’s journey’ is an obvious attraction for photographers of paths. ‘Fork in the road’, the ‘High vs Low’ road, ‘the dead-end’ and so on. We have to be wary of these visual clichés…

The UK has a dense network of paths. They all interconnect. Back in the 1980s I walked the Coast to Coast path across England, some 180 miles, roughly following the Wainwright route. It took 6 days, mainly in the rain. I remember the many hundreds of path junctions on the trip. In theory it would have been possible to take many different routes.

Old Drover’s track, Wales. Pinhole, FP4

So I find that for me photography goes hand-in-hand with walking, whether it be the North Welsh Hills, or the streets of Berlin. I need the visceral, physical connection to place to help me see.

For hill walking there is the inevitable trade off between comfort and weight, especially given the weight of the camera gear and the need to provide for my dog (shelter, food). These days I find that I am uncomfortable to be carrying more than 20kg and I prefer something closer to 15kg. After allowing for a camera and two lenses and a good tripod, there isn’t much spare weight allowance for personal gear, especially if I have my Hasselblad 503 with me.

My essentials include: – Rucksack, bivvi bag, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, torch, spare socks, waterproofs, jumper, hat and gloves, cooker and fuel, food and drink, trail snacks, phone, dog kit, maps and compass, wash kit. I also have a few miniature bottles of Scotch whisky.

As I walk with minimal kit I don’t have the option of having wonderful camp settings with a BBQ and a pot of fresh coffee on the go. Meals tend to be of the spiced up one-pot variety, often eaten under a makeshift shelter in the rain. So daytime snacks on the trail take on an added importance.

Here is a recipe courtesy of Patricia Armstrong. Patricia was a field botanist and climber who worked on the Juneau Ice field Research Project back in the 60’s. Over the years I have refined it a little. ‘Glorious Gorp’:

  • Cereal: 2 cups from wheatgerm, muesli and oatmeal. Two broken up Fruesli bars.
  • Fruit: 2 cups from dried figs, apples, apricots, currants and dates.
  • Seeds and nuts: 2 cups from sunflower seeds, golden flax, sesame, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds.
  • Chocolate: About 1 kg of mixed milk and dark chocolate. Melt in a bowl over simmering water and add 1 tablespoon of honey.
  • Mix all together and put onto a buttered sheet. Cool in fridge overnight. Cut into bite size pieces.

This snack almost takes care of my nutritional requirements without relying on a cooked meal.

‘Glorious Gorp’ trail snack.
Show 1 footnote
  1. See ‘A Philosophy of Walking’ by Frédéric Gros. Verso 2015

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