Simon Nicholas White: Landscape and Dreams
I’ve heard your photographs described as intergalactic landscapes.
I used to imagine becoming a space traveller. As it turns out I have an incredible fear of flying, which is a bit of an impediment to becoming an astronaut. But in my work I’m always trying to find these imaginary landscapes I had in my mind’s eye from when I was a kid and people do often comment that my photographs look as if they’ve been taken from outer space.
But in fact they’re close-ups.
Yes, I joke that I’m a terrestrial cosmonaut. I’m hand-holding a camera, looking into the microcosm of the landscape, taking things out of context and playing around with depth of field. A lot of my subject material is rock, sand, lichen, and water, either water that’s non-reflective or water that’s reflective, depending on the light.
How small an area do you tend to focus on in your compositions, which often end up as very large images?
It’s not macro photography – maybe further down the line I’d like to get into that – I use a standard lens, but what I do is try to confuse the viewer, it’s a sort of beguilement. Sometimes I find I’ve thrown myself as well. Although the subject might only be thirty centimetres it has to become what I would call a vista, a mini landscape that will give no idea of its scale.
There are strange correspondences through different levels of nature. I’ve noticed that the rock of Salisbury Crags looks like a side of steak on a butcher’s slab.
It’s funny you should say that. I have some shots of rock that are so meat-like that one of my friends calls them ‘the meat photographs’! Things can look very different to what they actually are, and that’s what fascinates me. On a day out with my camera I can have the feeling there isn’t going to be much, then another world descends. I’m not a religious person but it’s almost like a religious experience, something is revealed. And because I work with traditional film – I don’t like the digital manipulation thing – when you send it to the developers, it’s like Christmas. I never look at the contact sheet of the images in the shop. I put them in my bag and bring them home, then let them lie for a couple of days and wait for the moment: I just sit on my little desk with a cup of tea, light a cigarette and then I start looking at them. I was never formally trained in photography. My camera is a tool for me. It’s a Canon AE1, very simple, no onboard computers. I got it in 1979, so it’s old, but it’s sturdy. I’ve dropped it down mountains and into water. I love taking photographs of coastal terrain and sometimes I slip and fall. Though I’ve taken a few knocks, the camera has always survived. It’s done better than I have, to be honest. A lovely little camera, it’s never let me down.
How do you feel about having some of your work in the Inspired Exhibition at the Mitchell Library?
When I was first asked to exhibit by Sheilagh Tennant, the curator, I said to her, hang on, I take pictures of rock and sand, how’s that going to tie in with a Robert Burns theme? (For that matter, I couldn’t see what Tracey Emin’s connection would be with Burns – maybe the unmade bed of Lothario Robert Burns.) Sheila encouraged me just to stick to my usual practice of photographing rocks and sand. She included two pictures: Homecoming Naturesque 1 – ‘Admiring Nature in her wildest grace,/ These northern scenes with weary feet I trace’ (‘Verses Written with a Pencil at the Inn at Kenmore’); and Homecoming Naturesque 2 – ‘Wildly here without control/ Nature reigns, and rules the whole;/ In that sober pensive mood,/ Dearest to the feeling soul’ (‘Castle Gordon’)
Your work has quite an affinity with Andy Goldsworthy’s landscape sculptures.
I bet Andy Goldsworthy was exactly the same as me when he was a kid, just playing around in the woods and making dens.
Weren’t you brought up in Leeds?
Yes, in a council estate called Seacroft, one of the roughest areas in Leeds. But there were fields nearby, nothing like as manicured as they are now. There were cornflowers and lots of sparrows and skylarks. We spent all our time running around in these fields. When I was ten my family moved to an upmarket leafy suburb called Roundhay, which was close to some very wild woodlands. My love of nature came from my childhood experience of these places.
Has your imagination changed now you’re an adult?
No, and that makes me very happy. I’ve always found if you look at something carefully enough and long enough it undergoes a sort of metamorphosis. That’s always been the case for me. Proust once said, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ That idea is precious to me. Writers, poets, musicians and visual artists, they can all give you new eyes. It’s great that sometimes my own work does that for other people.
Has photography always been your main occupation?
I managed a band called Dominic Waxing Lyrical, then one day I realised I wanted to be out of doors, exploring coastlines. I had another look at some pictures I’d taken on the Outer Hebrides and saw a way forward. That was when I made the decision to take my photography seriously and pour my energies into that.
Who is your favourite writer?
Oh, I’m a Dylan Thomas man. One poem by him I absolutely love is called ‘Lament’. Each verse is for a different section of life. I can wake up in the morning and feel like I’m on verse five, the old man. But more often I wake up and I’m on verse one, the child.