Category Archives: Landscape
Places like this are the natural birthplaces of intense religious beliefs. Remote and forbidding, life can be precarious, even today. In the summers, the earliest inhabitants here must have believed themselves blessed because of the lake’s bounty. Perhaps they judged the winters here — forbidding and often deadly, even now — as the price to be paid for the lake’s largesse.
There’s a curious energy here and the lake tends to have a powerful effect on people. It’s known for its volatile weather — a summer day that is almost preternaturally quiet can become a windstorm with little warning. The winds at Baikal have their own names and they are not for the fainthearted.
It’s no wonder, then, that this place has been associated with shamanism for centuries. The Buryats, a subgroup of the Mongols, view Olkhon Island as the most sacred space in the lake. It’s the largest island in the lake and is surrounded by some of the purest water in one of the world’s cleanest lakes. On the western coast of the island is Shamanka, or Shaman’s Rock — it is one of the most sacred spots in Asia and is believed by some to be one of the five global poles of shamanic energy. For centuries, superstitions have surrounded the cave at Shaman’s Rock; healers practice their most important rituals there. But for tourists — and photographers — the cave’s interior remains a mystery. Only shamans are allowed inside.
I made the trip to Baikal in winter. It’s the most treacherous season on the lake, but also the most beautiful. When it freezes, Baikal doesn’t turn white. Instead it turns a deep, glassy blue, streaked with cracks and fissures like inclusions in a gemstone.
I’m no shaman, but there is a mystical kind of beauty to Baikal and Olkhon Island. Catching the last wisps of a pink sunset over the ice, I couldn’t help but feel some of the ancient wonder this place inspires.
One of the great privileges of my work is that it takes me around the world to far-flung locations that I might never otherwise see. Like a child seeing the world for the first time, I’m frequently wonderstruck by the places that I photograph. Whether natural or man-made, they often leave me awestruck.
So much of my time is spent in other countries that it can be easy for me to overlook the incredible beauty here at home. Russia is vast — much more than the most intrepid traveler could take in over the course of a lifetime. Most tourists only scratch the surface of Russia with excursions into Moscow and St. Petersburg. They’re beautiful cities, but I am most moved by the natural beauty of Russia, the vast countryside that stretches out beyond the cities and its forests, impenetrable and enigmatic.
Lake Baikal is one of the most evocative places in the country. Like Russia itself, it is vast and ancient, perhaps one of the oldest lakes in the world. An enormous lake formed by the shifting of tectonic plates, Baikal’s blue depths contain roughly one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. It’s staggering in its size and depth, and stunning in its beauty.
At any time of year, Lake Baikal is bathed in an unfathomable, mystical aura, but in the winter, the lake is more than that. With the jagged promontory of Isle Elenka looming over the lake’s icy surface, my mind wanders in a more ominous direction. This is a formidable landscape. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Beyond the rift that Isle Elenka tears into the horizon, I imagine White Walkers. There is beauty here, but it is a beauty laced through with a sliver of dread. In this place, it isn’t difficult to imagine the steely-eyed undead coming for me. I am far beyond the relative safety of Westeros and far north of the wall and I can almost hear the White Walkers in the distance.
For a small island, Eigg is a place that continually reveals new treasures. The more I wandered the island, the more of these places I found. Though the island is famous — and justifiably so — for its seascapes, I found countless undiscovered and tucked – away spots that stunned me with their beauty. I could understand why Bruce Percy chose the Isle of Eigg for his photography workshops; the natural splendor of the island combined with its mercurial weather was the stuff of a photographer’s dream.
Beyond Eigg’s misty coastlines, I found myself most drawn to the island’s caves. The island’s caves feel like secret, mystical places — the kind of places where legends are born. They feel ancient, as if, upon entering the caves, I stepped out of the present age and into a time far beyond memory. You can sense the stories they contain.
One of the island’s caves — the Cave of Frances — spawned one of Eigg’s most violent tales. A long-ago feud between rival clans ended when one of the families trapped the other inside the cave. They lit thatch at the cave’s entrance then dampened the flames so that the tiny cave filled with smoke. According to the often-told story, hundreds of people were trapped and died inside the cave. Human remains have been discovered there in recent years, suggesting that even if the story isn’t altogether accurate, something ominous happened inside the cave.
But I wasn’t interested in bloody feuds. I found another cave, this one so small that I had to wedge myself inside, my shoulders pressed against the stone walls. It wasn’t an ideal location for a photographer; it was barely big enough for my camera and tripod. But the cave was unexpectedly lovely. A small waterfall, fed by some unknown source, coursed down the cave’s dark, innermost wall. Its waters formed a stream that ran gently over ancient moss and rocks, leading to the cave’s narrow entrance.
I wasn’t prepared for the wet environment, and my shoes soon filled with water, but the scene was so lovely that I didn’t mind. The shot that I got inside the cave was one of my favorites from Eigg. It captures the mystical character of the island that I came to love.
I spent as much time exploring the Isle of Eigg as I could. The island offered me my first view of Scotland and it was enchanting. Much of Eigg was the rugged, green countryside that comes to mind when you think of Scotland. But as I wandered the island, I found more of its hidden-away and secret places, and revealed a different facet of the island’s character.
To give you an idea of the remoteness of Eigg, there is just one road on the island, which is home to fewer than one hundred souls. At the end of the road is a home that once was a place to stay for J.R.R. Tolkein. There has been a long standing local story that Tolkien stayed in it in the 1930s or 1940s and that the views of Rum had inspired him in writing Lord of the Rings. The island — especially its more distant corners — has a mystical, fantastical quality. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a sorcerer emerging from one of the island’s caves. Your imagination tends to venture into ancient worlds in a place like Eigg.
In my exploration of the island I found a place along its pebbled coastline. The morning was heavy with rain and in the distance the Isle of Rhum was already shrouded by clouds and was barely visible. The place seemed far away from the more people — if they can be called that — parts of the island. Here, civilization seemed very far away and the clouds that hung over Rhum seemed to portend something more ominous than a storm.
I wanted to capture the way that moment felt in that place. I wanted to capture — somehow — the mystical, otherworldly atmosphere of the island’s coast. Using a very long exposure, I focused on the receding waves to emphasize that ethereal quality. I included the pebbles on the beach as a contrast to the white mist. The result is a photograph that encapsulates the feeling I had on that day, standing at the edge of Scotland.
One of the things that made Scotland such a special place to photograph was the way that its weather was ever-changing. I’d never experienced a place whose moods could change as rapidly as Scotland’s. A sky that seemed to promise only rain and leaden clouds could crack open and sunlight would stream through.
Occasionally, the two things happened at once, and an ominous gray sky and brilliant sunlight could briefly coexist in a moment of unexpected beauty. In all of my travels, I’d never experienced the unlikely coupling of those two extremes, but in Scotland it seemed to happen daily. The juxtaposition was fascinating and lovely.
My first photographs on Eigg had focused more on the brooding quality of the Hebrides — the foreboding that sometimes creeps along the edges of your consciousness on a stormy day. But as the days progressed, I sometimes caught glimpses of a different Eigg. It was an island of paradoxes, after all; the same craggy landscape that witnessed bloody feuds was also trod by the feet of earnest missionaries who brought their faith to the rugged outpost of a continent.
I wanted to capture in a photograph that paradox — the transitory, ephemeral nature of light on the Isle of Eigg, which, in my mind, suggested something of the island’s contradictory history. The shot that best encapsulates this for me is of puddles I found along the shore on a day that — like many on Eigg — was foggy and overcast. But I was fortunate that day and happened to see them as they were pierced by sunlight, which revealed the undulations in the sand under the surface. Only the slightest bit of sunlight touched the water’s surface, but it was enough, and the sand sparkled like gold.
The result is a very moody shot, but it’s a different kind of mood that in earlier photographs of the island. The light can change quickly on Eigg, and I was lucky to witness that rare moment of contradictions.
One of the things that I love about photography is that there is always the possibility for improvement, that no matter my level of experience, I can always learn new techniques to improve my craft. Recently, I was fortunate to be able to attend a workshop with acclaimed photographer Bruce Percy on the Isle of Eigg, off the coast of Scotland.
There are many people who are skilled in a particular area and many others who are skilled as teachers; it’s rare to find someone who is both. Bruce is something of a rarity: he is both a highly skilled photographer and a fantastic teacher and mentor. The opportunity to learn from someone as talented as Bruce and in an environment as spectacular as the Isle of Eigg was one of the highlights of my career.
Eigg is one of the Inner Hebrides, islands located off the western coast of mainland Scotland. Craggy and sparsely populated, the jagged cluster of islands is dotted with Iron Age sites and traces of the earliest Christians to see this part of the world. The islands have a greater percentage of Gaelic speakers than anywhere else in Scotland, save their neighbors to the west, the Outer Hebrides. In many ways, walking along the rocky coast of Eigg was a bit like stepping out of the twenty-first century and into some distant point in the past.
Although Eigg is largely unknown as a travel destination, it’s a popular and well-documented location among photographers, primarily because of Bruce’s workshops. The challenge I gave myself was to try and capture something new and unique about the island. I was, after all, seeing it with a newcomer’s eyes.
The trip to Scotland — the rough and rugged edge of Europe — was a first for me. I was amazed daily by the rapid changes in the weather: the same sky that was gray and ominous one moment could become illuminated with brilliant sunlight the next. There were days when it seemed we could experience all four seasons in the span of a few hours.
But in my memory, Eigg exists largely in the grays and heavy blues of impending storms. When I photographed the rocky beach along Eigg’s coast, I used long exposure and ND filter to capture those mood and the sense of something imminent on the horizon.
After a day spent walking and climbing the dunes at Sossusvlei, I set up camp with other photographers roughly 70 km away. It’s the nature of being a travel photographer that sleep is often difficult. You exhaust yourself during the daylight hours, but when you try to rest your brain won’t always cooperate. I find myself going over and over the places I’ve seen that day, the shots that I got and the ones I wish could have been better. My mind wanders.
As it turns out, it’s a good thing to be a sleepless photographer in Namibia. As beautiful as the country is during daylight hours, I found it to be even more striking by night. The Namib Desert is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky. There’s little electricity in this part of Namibia, meaning there is virtually no light pollution. When you look up at the night sky in Namibia, you see it the way the ancients saw it.
People don’t look up at the night sky anymore. We go through life continually distracted, and because we’re rarely ever in places that are really, truly dark, most of us simply don’t notice what goes on above us. But in Namibia’s desert, you can’t help but look up. It’s such a vast, calm expanse — and mostly devoid of people — that it’s an ideal place for stargazing. It’s one of the darkest skies in the world.
I keep coming back to the idea of insignificance, but if Namibia in the daytime makes a person feel small, being in the desert at night convinces you very quickly that you are of no consequence in the grand span of time and space. It was humbling, and incredibly beautiful.
I took many photographs in Namibia at night. But can anyone really capture the beauty of one of the last truly dark places left on earth?
I learned something more about insignificance when my travels took me to Sossusvlei. In Namibia I’d seen stark, desolate landscapes and ancient plant life that was blackened and bare from centuries in the sun. I expected that I’d seen the most remarkable landscapes the country had to offer, but even after exploring the alien landscape of Deadvlei, I was amazed by Sossusvlei.
By now, my eyes were beginning to adjust to the starkly contrasting colors of Namibia — the rich terra cotta earth against a brilliant blue sky. I had even, to a degree, become accustomed to the strange, weathered trees that I seemed to encounter at every destination. My eyes were used to these things. At Sossusvlei, what I found most breathtaking was the sheer enormity of the place.
Sossusvlei is famous for its massive sand dunes, which are believed to be the tallest in the world. The biggest of them, known as Big Daddy, is roughly 325 meters high. Their striking red color is a result of the iron in the sand, and the contrasting colors, combined with the dunes curving, feminine lines make it one of the most photogenic destinations in Namibia. Like myself, photographers are drawn to the place because of its incredible beauty, but then — also like me — they find themselves feeling tiny and inconsequential in the face of its majesty.
Climbing the dunes — which is what most people come to Sossusvlei for — reveals a landscape that words and photographs can’t adequately describe. There’s more life here than you would imagine, and it says something of the resilience of living things that so many plants and insects have adapted in order to survive here.
But I found plenty to amaze me from the ground. I set up my tripod, framed the shot, and tried my best to capture some of the incredible beauty of Sossusvlei.
Namibia left me awestruck on a daily basis. Each day that I was in the country, I encountered landscapes and scenery unlike anything I’d seen anywhere else in the world.
Kolmanskop gave me an idea of what the world would look like if humanity vanished, and the Quiver Trees made me feel that I’d stepped into a landscape conjured in a child’s imagination.
I thought I’d seen the most otherworldly of Namibia’s landscapes, but I was unprepared for the Deadvlei Trees. A place like this reminds you that we are all powerless against nature. It also gives you some perspective of just how insignificant humans are in the grand passage of time.
Deadvlei was once under water. It’s believed that roughly one thousand years ago, the Tsauchab River flooded, creating shallow pools with a clay pan underneath. In the shallow lake formed by the flooding, acacia trees flourished. But approximately two hundred years later, the climate changed. The area became dry and drought-stricken, and the massive dunes cut the area off from the river.
Looking at the area now, it’s difficult to imagine that there was ever water here. Deadvlei — its name means “Dead Valley” — reveals an earth devoid of water, its clay surface baked white and crackled from centuries of heat. Oddly, the acacia trees that flourished when Deadvlei was awash with water are still here. Believed to be several hundred years old, they remain; scorched black from centuries of sunlight. The air here is too dry for them to decompose; instead, they stand like blackened monuments to the passage of time.
What I had seen so far of Namibia left me eager to see more of this eerily beautiful country.
The first day in the Quiver Forest was about getting my bearings in a strange, new place and letting my vision adjust to the strangely beautiful landscape there. And like the first day in any overseas trip, it was also spent largely in a foggy mental state, the result of travel fatigue and jet lag. Most of the photos from that first day were disappointing and didn’t see the light of day.
By the second day, Namibia started to feel as comfortable as an old friend. The Quiver Forest was still ethereal and otherworldly, like something conjured from a child’s imagination, but it was welcoming; I no longer felt like a visitor there. Among the forest’s chimerical inhabitants, I already had favorites; trees whose unique profile against the horizon captured my attention. I found myself returning to the same trees and compositions again and again, mesmerized by their lines and colors.
It wasn’t only the trees that made the place special; it was a sensory experience, and I took in all of the sounds and smells. I reminded myself often that I was walking in a field of volcanic boulders among trees that in some cases, were two or three hundred years old. The stories they could tell. The world does this here and there — spreads an ancient landscape out before us, simply to remind us of our small place in the order of things.
As I walked among the quiver trees I gradually became aware that we photographers were not alone there. I didn’t notice them on the first day, but on the second day in the forest, just at sunrise, small animals — hamster-like and no bigger than kittens — emerged from underneath the rocks and began to scurry about. I’d never seen them before and I didn’t know what they were, but somehow, they seemed the perfect inhabitants of this place, as if the same child who imagined the quiver trees into existence filled her fanciful landscape with playful creatures who come to life with the sunrise.