What Lies Beneath

There are two versions of the text: a short summary at the top of the page, and a longer version below the images that describes in more detail what I’m seeking to communicate here.

Shorter text:

What Lies Beneath explores my desire in my academic work to uncover things that are not hidden, but are also not in plain view.  It is an attempt, using water, to link the ways in which I see my research – especially in archives – and my photography.  The simplest tool for most water photography is a polarising filter, which has been used frequently here, to a greater or lesser extent.  Images show moving water, still water, and sometimes both, and as a result of this and other factors, What Lies Beneath is not always clear, even if we can often catch glimpses of it.  Click an image to see it in large…

And since we are not just visual people… our multiple senses also allow us to explore other things that lie beneath: clicking here will let you listen to a minute of the stream near Crichton Castle, in the morning of 25.8.12.

Longer text:

What Lies Beneath – exploring key aspects of my life

At a very fundamental level of my being, I understand all of life to be a whole.  I try not to separate my photographic life from the rest of my life.  This means that, for example, my photography and my historical research/writing are closely linked, even though this may not always appear to be the case.  Indeed, some people may find it hard to understand how such apparently disparate activities can be connected to one another.  What Lies Beneath is a photographic exploration of my understanding of historical research, and an attempt to reflect on some of these issues.  Images are made using a digital SLR, and a medium format camera (colour transparency or black/white negative film).

The historian and the photographer

There are some very obvious ways in which historical research and photography connect.  For example, I have used photographs in my research, and the skills I have gained as a photographer have enabled me to interpret historical photographs more accurately.  But for me photography and historical research link more closely in ways that are related to process.

Context and approach

Firstly, of course, the prejudices, biases and openness of the historian will impact upon their writing: for example, feminist scholarship has demonstrated that male historians have often diminished the role of, or altogether ignored female actors, and white historians have regularly downplayed or ignored the role of black people, whilst historians from ex-colonial powers have overlooked the actions of the colonised in resisting colonialism – and so on.  Even before the historian has stepped into the archive, then, there are issues that impact upon the form their work will take.

Taking all this into account, once examining the archive, the historian’s task at its most basic level is to take multiple sources and to bring them all together in such a way as to form a coherent narrative; I will return to this in more detail below.  Some elements of the archive will be more important in that narrative, others less so.  It is the historian’s job to assess the relative and absolute importance of each source in the writing of their narrative.  Having done so, their record of the events or movements can be presented as a version of history – and the self-aware historian will always do so with an acknowledgement that their interpretation is but one of many possible interpretations of the same sources.

The photographer faces similar issues.  She or he comes at their subject with a particular background that informs their image-making.  This may be engagement with photography from an early age, a background in painting, architecture or music, and so on.  There are, of course, also numerous other factors that influence a photographer, from childhood upbringing and adult relationships to the kind of camera they prefer using.  All of these things make each photographer’s view of the world a unique one – every photographer will see the same scene differently.

The photographer is also seeking to identify more and less important elements for their image.  For example, when choosing which lens to use and examining a scene in a viewfinder or on a ground glass, there should be a thinking process taking place that identifies important elements in a frame in order to emphasise them.  Also, the photographer needs to identify less significant elements so that they can be diminished or even excluded altogether.  This might involve moving the camera or seeing where and how the sun will rise, or later, cropping the image to exclude certain elements, and so on.  In fact, excluding elements (e.g. ‘does this tree really belong on the left of the frame?’) is as important as including them – if not more so.  Such thinking processes, whether conscious or subconscious, are vital to understanding what we are doing as photographers.


In all of this, the point is not simply to formulate a narrative, whether in a book or in a photograph.  The aim is to discover something to say that is of importance – even if it is important only to the author/photographer.  This takes time.

Of course, other people write about the same kind of topics as I do – that is one of the joys of being part of a community of scholarship – but I am the only person who could have written my work in the way I have – they reflect my vision, my interpretation of the sources, and yes, my prejudices and preconceptions, including that of a white, middle-class male living in a (semi-ex-)colonial power, even if I try to be aware of my position of privilege when reading and writing.  The fact that they do this is something that has emerged over a period of time: it is only by reading thousands of documents and many hundreds of essays and books, and by writing tens of thousands of words about them, that a distinctive voice is beginning to emerge in my work – but that voice is definitely there.

With photography, a similar pattern can be identified.  My photographs, at their best, reflect something of me in all the forms outlined above.  Again, this takes time: to begin with most people’s photographs tend to be rather formulaic, and only with time and practice does something distinctive emerge.  In my own case, I know that I am in the early stages of discovering my own photographic ‘voice’, but I think it is gradually emerging, and I am beginning to understand what shape that might take.  It might even begin to make more sense to others!

Discovering something to say that is of importance is key to all of this, I think.  Discovery itself is an interesting concept: children often think of discoverers as brave individuals off to explore lands far away, and not many question the idea of ‘discovering’ other peoples in these lands.  For example, I grew up with a narrative of the early colonial era that centred on Columbus ‘discovering’ America.  Of course, he did no such thing: America was never lost, it was simply unknown to his contemporaries in Europe.  As is often the case, we can learn something by examining the etymology of the word, which derives from Latin and Old French: descouvrir, a compound of dis- being Latin for away, and couvrir being French for cover.  Dis-covery as the removing of a cover over something makes a lot of sense to me.

The organising of sources and composing of a scene is about this kind of dis-covery.  These are not always what we think they are.  For example, a little while into the research for my PhD I came across a letter in the National Archives at Kew, in London, from the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, to the missionaries I was writing about.  At the time this seemed terribly important, but as I read more and more, I realised it was important that the letter existed, but in terms of the content, it was relatively insignificant.  This changed the emphasis I accorded it when writing.  Dis-covering, in the sense of taking the cover away, revealed there to be something significant (a letter from one of the most important government ministers of the time) but also revealed it to be something relatively unimportant in the development of the mission work I was writing about – yet I needed time with other material to be able to appreciate this fully.  Being able to understand this is a bit like having a tool to uncover meaning: with ever-increasing knowledge, I was able to interpret and comprehend the letter’s role in the mission more accurately (this is the hermeneutic circle in classical form, of course).

Seeing and significance in the images

What I am trying to do with these images is represent something similar: I am seeking to show ways of interpreting seeing and significance.  There are two aspects to this:

  1. the first relating to a tool I used: a polarising filter.  If you don’t know what a polarising filter does, it is easy to explain: like polarising sunglasses, it can be used to reduce glare and reflections from transparent but reflective surfaces, enabling clear vision through the surface of water, for example.  Polarising sunglasses are always in the same position in relation to the eyes, but one of the most useful things about a polarising filter is that it can be turned so that it blocks all reflections or none – or something in between.  I have used polarisers extensively here, including at times ‘in-between settings’: after all, not everything is necessarily completely obscured or completely visible.  What lies beneath the water surface is therefore…
    …sometimes clearly visible – some images almost invite us to reach out and pick up a stone on a river bed;
    …sometimes it is hinted at – we might wonder if what we see is a stone or an item of rubbish that has sunk to the bottom of a loch;
    …sometimes completely invisible due to the reflections on the water – only by seeing what is above the surface can we guess at what might lie beneath the surface, and we don’t always get it right.  This reflects – pun intended! – my experience of academic research: dis-covering manuscripts and documents is all well and good, but only with sufficient knowledge and wisdom can something be made of these sources.  Only then can they be arranged and sorted in the way we compose a photograph – what should be included and how, what should be excluded and why?
  1. Beyond the use of the polarising filter, there is also varied intention in selecting moving or still water.  Whether the water is moving or still impacts on the ease with which we can discern what lies beneath, and often the rushing of water obscures the bottom so well that it is impossible to see anything, whether using a polarising filter or not.  This is obviously similar to academic research: I can read something but if I have no tool with which to interpret and analyse what I read, I can dis-cover nothing new.  Sometimes the water is still in one part of the photograph but moving in another part, and in such instances we might think we know what lies beneath – but a complete picture might still be difficult to appreciate.

It may help to understand more of what I mean if I explain something about two of the images – and I’ll choose the first and the last one, also being the first and the last ones made.  Every single image here (and many more that I have made for this project) has meaning for me, whether in terms of the place or wider context in which it was made, or the emotions attached to it.  I tried to create the first image in this series with an initial thought growing in my head of what the series might become: on that beach I had the freedom to think about how my photography related to other significant parts of my life, including my research.

Ardmair/Cul a' Bhodha

Ardmair/Cul a’ Bhodha

It is from Ardmair/Cul a’ Bhodha in Assynt.  It is a beach I did not know, but I was taken to it by Bruce Percy when on his workshop in autumn 2011.  I aimed to create exactly this image – so it is a successful pre-visualisation – and it is made using one of my favourite films (Velvia 50) on my Mamiya 645.  So here I was encountering a new scene for the first time: I spent a long time sitting on the stones watching the waves with my thoughts about this project gradually becoming more articulate.  I began timing the waves as they rolled in and out, in and out, in and out.  I realised that the image I wanted needed to be made in a four-second stretch, beginning just as the water was about to go out again, before coming back in.  Breathing very slowly and trying hard to control a fair amount of excitement at what I could see happening with the rocks under the water, I took three frames before I was sure that I had managed to capture what I wanted.  The late afternoon light made this rather spectacular.  I am delighted with this image: the clarity of the stones under the ever-shifting waves say something to me about the difficulty of holding onto assumed meanings that we might attach to sources we uncover, and achieving any kind of clarity of vision as new (to me) documents emerge is always a challenge.  I frequently think of this image when I’m struggling to make sense of apparently random statements in the documents I am reading from the early 20th century for something I am writing just now.



The last image has a completely different story behind it.  It comes from Strathconon, where I spent time on a family holiday in July this year (2012).  I felt Strathconon valley to be a kind of magical place, and I remember seeing this enchanting waterfall on several occasions – but the light was never really right, or if it was, the family was with me and not wanting to stop whilst I made a photograph… so I never actually photographed the waterfall whilst we were there on holiday.  It’s not very big (and this image shows just a small part of it), but it is rather striking.  At the end of September I was in the area again, but the waterfall was difficult to find: remembering it being along the road, I drove fairly slowly all the way through the valley past the house that we had rented, and did not find it.  I knew it had to be somewhere along there, but I couldn’t remember exactly where, even just a few months later.  At various points I parked the car and got out to look around for the waterfall, but did not see it.  I eventually gave up, resigning myself to making do without this image even though it had been one of the reasons for going north that weekend, and went further down the valley and slept for a little while in the grass by the River Meig (the river is featured here too).  It was only when driving back through the valley to get to the main road that I saw the waterfall.  It is only really visible when travelling out of the valley, not when travelling into it – what a metaphor!  This was a moment of great excitement for me, and with the sun sparkling on the water, it felt as if I had dis-covered it at just the right moment.  So often, this kind of thing happens in my research: I will read something and half-remember it, but it will not have real meaning and it won’t become part of my thinking, and I won’t even remember exactly where I found it.  However, much later I may find myself returning to it by way of another text – and then the original source suddenly becomes apparent again and reveals its meaning to me, and makes some kind of sense.  I took quite some time to compose this image, and deliberately placed the overhanging branch across the image. The branch obstructs direct access to the water, representing this ‘some kind of sense’, this not-complete-understanding.  After all, as these images show, what lies beneath the water is not really that visible, branch or no branch.

Closing thoughts

These parallels between photography and historical research are represented here in illustrative and almost directly parallel terms, but the images mean more than that to me.  Whilst I have portrayed the photographs as descriptions of academic work, such lazy equating of one with another is not directly my intention.  Rather, I want my photography to inform my research, and my research to inform my photography.  After all, these are both equally important parts of me, reflecting in some way aspects of my whole person.  The fact that I have thought of several of these images as I have spent time reading my sources over recent months is itself an indication that this integrative understanding has some validity.  Equally, I have read texts and suddenly, as if from nowhere, a little voice inside my body will say ‘Musselburgh pond!’ (for example), and I realise that I need to get there and make an image as soon as I can.

This sort of process should come as no surprise – after all, my photography and my research are intimately related to one another, form a part of who I am, and this series seeks to show that in different ways.