Many landscape photographers, including this one will tell you that getting a good photo in the woods is one of the more difficult disciplines in landscape photography. It can be a struggle to achieve an uncluttered shot, and when you decide to try and use the chaos in an image you come away wondering why some togs always seem to succeed with that while most others miss the mark.
I always aim to improve in this area, as I do with all my photography, but whenever I am in the woods on a workshop with clients or on a walk with my family, I feel like I’ve found a little bit of paradise. I’ve tried to understand why this is by looking back at some of my experiences in this particular landscape over the years, and I think it begins with a man by the name of James Howard.
When he moved house in June 1931 from a cobbled street lined on both sides with ‘two-up-two-down’ houses in Ardwick, to Wythenshawe* where every home had a front and back garden and trees were everywhere to be seen, James, my maternal grandfather thought he had found paradise. He sat in the woods opposite his new home for two nights, listening to the wildlife scurrying around in the undergrowth, and an owl hooting in the tree canopy overhead.
This is where I spent the first 8 years of my life in that house with my parents, sister and Grandad, and playing in those same woods on many occasions. I remember long hot Summer days when mums really did send their kids out to play with the instruction not to return until we were called in for tea.** Our move to a slightly bigger house down the road did not stop me returning there to play with friends and continue our escapades.
We had so many adventures in those woods. Hiding, climbing trees and making rope swings. When a notorious family of 5 brothers would appear with their arsenal of weapons and we all scattered like cartoon rabbits at the earliest hint of danger, I still wanted to go back. Even when one of those charming thugs threw a knife that whistled past my head and lodged in the nearest tree, I wasn’t put off from returning to ‘our’ woods. My infant survival instincts prevented me reporting that incident to my mum!
When I was about 10 years old, I learned at school about the giant Sequoia trees in California and rushed home to tell my Grandad. “Well, lad,” he said. “You never know. One day you might get to see them in real life.”
“Nah, Grandad. They’re in America. I’ll never be able to go there.”
He died a few years later, but on my 25th birthday, during a fly drive holiday with a friend, I stood in front of The General Sherman tree in The Sequoia National Park in California, looked up into the enormous canopy and thought about James Howard, my Grandad.
It was during my 20’s that I spent time in a different forest on a regular basis, this time Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. Here I led my team of 8 children and 2 other adults on ‘Mission Impossible’ where we had to solve problems, complete challenges, look out for other teams and attack them with flour bombs (we always cleaned up afterwards). It was like orienteering with all the seriousness squeezed out and loads of fun pumped in! I loved it, and not just because of the crazy stuff we were doing with the kids. I think even then, without fully understanding it, I felt at home in the forest. This was my patch, my territory, and I was going to make sure that not only did my team enjoy it as much as I did, but we were going to complete Mission Impossible in style!
Since those days of leading children’s camps once or twice per year I have been involved in other expeditions through forests, up mountains and across the moors with groups of fellas, (don’t ask. That’s another story). Now as a landscape photographer who leads photography workshops my work takes me into some of those areas, but it’s always the forests and woodland where I feel more at ease. My physical aches and pains are forgotten, my breathing is easier and my mind is clearer. No, I can’t fully explain it either. I just make the most of it while I am there. I'm not the only person who has said this. Some people have told us how their mental wellbing is improved vastly while wandering through a forest or even a small wooded area near their homes.
On our workshops there have been times when we have entered the woods that we are familiar with and clients have either fallen into a reverent silence or gasped in amazement at the beauty of what they have seen. I love those reactions, and then when we begin to show them how they can capture the scene on their cameras, their excitement grows.
We recently had the pleasure and the privilege of helping the Woodland Trust on the Smithills Estate here in Bolton in their reforesting programme at Walker Fold Woods. Many diseased Larch trees have had to be felled, but are now being replaced by indigenous species such as Hawthorn, Dog Rose and Willow. They won’t grow to be as imposing as the General Sherman Tree, but they will have a positive impact for good for future generations. Maybe one day someone will ‘discover’ that woodland and say, like James Howard more than a century before them, “Yeah. This is paradise”!
Thank you, Grandad!
*Two areas in Manchester, England.
**The correct term for your evening meal in England. If you call it something else, then I can’t help you!