AN INTERVIEW WITH COLIN PRIOR

Q. Let’s start with the project that you’ve been spending a lot of time of late on – The Karakoram, in Pakistan.  How did that come about, and what have you been doing this year towards it?

A. My interest in the Karakoram Mountains was originally sparked by a book entitled In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, which I discovered in our local library. I could see from the log at the front that it had only been on loan on two previous occasions and from that point on, I had it out on permanent loan. Published by the Sierra Book Club in 1977 and written by the photographer and climber Galen Rowell, the book documented the 1975 American attempt of K2 in which Galen participated as one of the climbing team. Both this attempt and the 1939 and 1953 expeditions were set in context against the rich history of climbing and exploration that the Karakoram has enjoyed since the mid-nineteenth century. Galen’s pictures where used throughout the book and although the reproduction left much to be desired, there was one image in particular of the Trango Towers that captured my imagination like no other and from that moment, I knew that I would have to go there.

I finally fulfilled this ambition in 1996 when working on the British Airways calendar commission and whilst the weather was unseasonably poor, I saw enough to help create a dream. I returned in 2004 on a personal trip when I had the first real opportunity of capturing some of the mountain grandeur that the Karakoram is renowned for.

Realising that time was not on my side, I decided to seek corporate sponsorship which was the only way I could foresee being able to work in Pakistan long enough to create the depth of work necessary for a comprehensive book of the region. By 2012, I had managed to attract three companies who committed to support me over the four-year period, which included Lowepro, Rab and Lee Filters.

This, my second year into the project involved a trip to the Biafo Glacier and I set off early in the season to capture some of the giants under snow. I was particularly interested in photographing the Bainta Brakk (The Ogre) and Sosbun Brakk and we departed in early June with a sixteen-man team.

Q. One of the things I really enjoyed about the BBC documentary earlier this year was the sense of scale of the project – it was obviously a labour of love for all concerned, and gave a real sense of your process during shooting. Can you describe some of the challenges of working on the project?

A. One of the most crucial aspects of this project is maintaining your level of fitness. This can be affected by so many factors – the numerous manifestations of altitude sickness, which includes nausea, dehydration, and loss of appetite – also diarrhoea contracted from bacteria in either water or food is not an uncommon complaint and these all have a negative impact on both your physical and mental abilities. This year, due largely to the early departure date I had chosen and late snows, our exposure to crevasse dangers was significantly increased and we were forced to modify our plans on more than one occasion.

Q. Have things gotten any easier because you are more experienced than when you first visited, or is it just different? Why?

A. Regardless of your experience, the challenges when you’re on the glacier never get any easier. Yes, I have developed close relationships with some of the support team on whom I depend but there’s a fine line between running at peak performance and being under the weather for one reason or another. Logistically, Pakistan remains a very demanding country to work in – internal air travel cannot be depended on and distances by road are uncomfortably long. The journey from Islamabad to Skardu up the Karakoram Highway takes around 22 hours on predominantly pot-holed roads.

Q.How long is it scheduled to take?  How easy is it to plan that schedule?

A.I hope to have accumulated sufficient material for a book over a four-year period and my hope is to attract a publisher who can license the book to co-publishers in other countries. The appeal of the Karakoram is truly international – this year alone, 26 climbing expeditions visited the region to climb mainly, the 8000m peaks. I have a master plan, which I fulfil annually – in 2015, I plan to visit the Charakusa Valley and its associated peaks and in 2016, I am considering a mid-wintertrip to the Baltoro Glacier with a subsequent trip in August to photograph the northern Karakoram in China.

Pakistan Karakoram Trango Towers Baltoro Glacier

Trango Towers, Baltoro Glacier, Karakoram Mountains

This image was shot at dawn as the sun momentarily broke through the clouds and illuminated the vertical faces. It is a landscape, rising out of Tolkien mythology and yet as real and as primeval as the emerging Earth. Few places in the world can evoke the imagination in the way that the mountains of the Karakoram can and it is my ambition to capture some of their unique magic.

Q. How did you get started in photography?

A. My entry into the photographic world was a rather unorthodox one. With little knowledge of photography I began taking photographs underwater to record what I was witnessing. My early results were rudimentary but I persevered and eventually demonstrated a level of competence. It wasn’t until I returned from an underwater holiday in the Red Sea that I felt I had mastered the medium and went on to win the ‘best newcomer to underwater photography’ in the Camera Beneath the Waves photographic competition in 1981.

This was the catalyst that changed my life and having worked as an operations manager for five years, I left to follow my ownpath as a professional photographer. I spent the first year as a photo technician on a North Sea oilrig, but recognised that it was not a lifestyle I wanted to pursue and quit to become freelance.

I started working with agencies but it was through a group of advertising agencies based in Glasgow that my career began to evolve as a commercial and advertising photographer, shooting for clients in the travel, lifestyle and leisure sectors. As my reputation began to grow, I became progressively busier but it was still a full ten years before I began to develop my personal work.

I have always had a deep connection with nature and I recognised that it was through photographing landscapes that I could best express the way I felt about the world. Having worked with both Nikon and Hasselblad cameras, I picked up on the Linh of Technorama, which produced a panoramic image with a 3:1 ratio. In 1989, I bought the first re-engineered model to arrive in the UK and set about capturing the Scottish landscape in a way never previously attempted.

Q. How did you develop your photo work as a younger man? Did you study photography formally at university or did you take another route?

A. I have no formal photographic training andI am entirely self-taught. There was much I didn’t know and I had to seek out people who were able to give me the information I sought. Often, I was directed to ‘experts’ who, more often than not, were unable to answer my questions, and I began to quickly realise who knew what they were talking about and who didn’t.

Q. What other photographic work have you been involved in over the years?

A. During the mid 90s, I was commissioned by British Airways to photograph their corporate calendars. Over the four-year period, I travelled over a million miles to 40 countries. These commissions gave me the opportunity to photograph the people and places that I had only seen in the pages of National Geographic magazines, before the advent of digital photography.

 Q. Are you using film or have you switched to digital, in part or in full?

A. I am fully digital and let film go some time ago. There was a period when I was using both mediums and my resistance was influenced by the aesthetic quality of the images, which my panoramic roll film cameras produced. However, the quality and immediacy of digital capture and the associated costs of film, processing and scanning eventually pushed the equation fully in favour of an entirely digital workflow.

Q. You live in Glasgow – are you tempted to move to a more rural place? What do you enjoy, and what do find challenging about living in a city?

I have lived on the outskirts of Glasgow all of my life and I have no plans to change this. Being based in Glasgow gives me easy access not only to the Highlands but also to London or overseas destinations through the proximity of Glasgow Airport. I feel that I enjoy the best of both worlds here with a good lifestyle and the privilege of choice in just about every walk of life. There’s very little I’d change.

Little Cayman diver gorgonia by Colin Prior

Wall diving, Little Cayman, BWI.

In an otherworldly vertical forest of giant waving coral fans, neon-yellow tube sponges, and bioluminescent corals, a diver clings to the sheer wall, which drops off 2000m into the abyss. Here amidst the underwater wilderness a photographer may encounter eagle rays, turtles, lobsters and Nassau groupers.

Q. You have also been working on a photographic retrospective called Scotland’s Finest Landscapes. I am interested in the genesis and development of photo books. How did the idea come about, and why do it now?

A. I had been working with the panoramic format for 25 years and had published three previous books and it seemed that the time was right to create the ultimate collection. It has taken me this length of time to finally capture, the images from the mountaintops I had chosen and whilst there are many mountains in Scotland I haven’t climbed or photographed the majority of these are obscure and only familiar to Munroists for the obvious reason. The bottom line is that it wasn’t the best use of my time and my decision to move entirely to digital capture meant leaving behind the panoramic cameras, which had been responsible for creating this body of work. So, its timing is perfect and it has helped to give me closure on this chapter of my career. The window in time where photographers used these specialist panoramic roll-film cameras to create images is about to be sealed forever.

Q. I am assuming there’s a different approach needed for this project – what’s different about this book to your previous ones?

A. During this extended time period, I have been able to create an authoritative body of work in many of Scotland’s popular areas and to collate chapters with real depth. The arrangement of images in some chapters allows those with knowledge of the mountains to experience the view from a mountain top and to turn the page and to be looking from another high point back onto the mountain from which the previous image was taken. There is also a comprehensive collection of maps, which show the exact location of each panorama and the sweep that it encompasses. This together with new work, previously unpublished, has created a unique collection.

Q.How collaborative is the book process? A lot of photographers find it very difficult to edit their own work – Do you?

A. Any book takes close collaboration with the editor and designer. I am fortunate in having worked with a designer for 25 years and we know what works and what doesn’t, so it makes the process so much easier in that we are both speaking the same language. The design is crucial to the success of any book but particularly in a photographic retrospective it needs to embrace the essence of the work. I don’t have a problem editing my own work – I have learnt to be my own worst critic! However, I agree that many excellent photographers do not make the best choices when it comes to editing and there are numerous examples in the marketplace, particularly where photographers have self-published.

Marsco Garbh bheinn Red Black Cuillin Blaven Skye Scotland

Marsco and Garbh-bheinn from Blaven, Red Cuillin, Skye.

A mountain I had photographed over many years from neighbouring peaks but had never climbed was Blaven. So, on 20 June 2012 I set off to camp on the summit and witness the summer solstice from above. Climbing from sea level in the searing heat with a full rucksack of camping equipment, camera bag and tripod was heavy going, and I stopped frequently to drink from the river. At one point two golden eagles soared overhead, heightening my meditative state as I strove for the summit. Towards evening the sun began to drop and an approaching front from the east dampened my expectations for a while. A heavy shower ensued, but eventually the light broke through the clouds again, creating a landscape straight out off Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. As the sun dropped clear of the clouds, crepuscular rays streamed through the gaps in the ridge and an aureole formed around the mountain peaks – crepuscular rays are parallel shafts of sunlight made visible by droplets of water suspended in the atmosphere. I retired to my tent rejoicing that I had witnessed the summer solstice in the true tradition of our pagan ancestors.

Q. What’s most important to you in your photographic work and why? Has that changed over the years?

A. Photography has taken me on a journey of self-discovery and helped me to understand our relationship with the natural world. What I set out to achieve was to capture the fusion of rare moments between light and land, which transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. It took me some time to realise that I never go out to photograph what’s there, but rather what’s not. I’ve spent my life chasing moments that ordinarily don’t exist. More recently the emphasis of my work has changed and I’m interested in photographing subjects that are familiar to everybody but capturing some aspect unseen.

Q. Which part of photography do you find the most challenging and why? Has that changed as well?

A. Working within a studio environment has, for me, been the most challenging as I find it difficult to achieve the same levels of perfection I find in the natural world. Being responsible for every aspect of the final image, includinglighting, backdrop, composition and focusing, is stressful, but is significantly easier than it was during the era of film when more powerful flash and polaroid tests were the norm.

Q. Has your work as led you to any insights about our relationship with nature?

A. I am increasingly fascinated by the psychology of photography – the way in which we interact with images. I fundamentally believe that we can influence the way a person navigates a picture from beginning to end based on the graphics and tonal values. It is difficult to speculate exactly why this might be the case but I have some theories based on the way we imprint simple lines to orientate and navigate our way in the landscape and the simpler these lines, the easier they are to follow – just as in a photograph.

Q. And what’s next for you?

A. I am about to embark on a new project exploring the relationship of the elements within mountain environments. Inspired by Nan Shepherd’s original book The Living Mountain, I recently embarked on a four-year project, which will explore my own relationship with mountains through images and words. Much of my inspiration is derived from the relationships shared between the elements of the natural world and what I seek to discover is insight into the mountains many moods – ‘to know’, as Nan wrote ‘its essential nature with the knowledge that is a process of living.’

Scotland Knoydart Loch Hourn boulders lichens by Colin Prior

Lichens and boulders, Loch Hourn, Knoydart.

This study of boulders and lichens captures their relationship with the other elements of the landscape and is characteristically the habitat of a willow warbler.

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