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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Alastair Lee, Lake District Mountain Landscape

Friday, 21 April 2017

Valerie Le Clerc stands on the open aspect of Place Fell with the far eastern fells of Ill Bell, High Street, Thornthwaite Beacon and Red Screes beyond. Photo: Alastair Lee

This month we caught up with the multi-award-winning photographer and filmmaker Alastair Lee ahead of the reprint of his acclaimed photography book, Lake District Mountain Landscape, which captures the much-travelled Lakeland terrain from a different angle. 

1. When you went travelling at the age of twenty, was the purpose to photograph your journey or was this when you discovered your passion for photography?

The purpose was to broaden my horizons and see the world, find myself and all those clichés. I bought a cheap instamatic camera before I went, as it seemed I'd be going some places where I might like to take pictures. Seems funny now looking back how alien photography and taking pictures was; I mean, it was widely accessible but it was kind of something tourists did or it was something you did at Christmas, not like now where you take a photo of everything and anything that's vaguely interesting. I was away for eighteen months and after a few months I'd shot a few rolls of film, got them developed and people would comment on the pictures. 

Also, when you travel you are often in amazing places but alone, and the camera kind of becomes a companion so I think the introvert in me took to taking pictures as it kept my mind busy and added a bit more purpose to some places. One of the last places I visited was Thailand. I bought some slide film for the instamatic camera and decided I would do a slide show to a few local mountaineering clubs about the climbing in Thailand when I got home. That was the first step into my life as a photographer I think, the first real conscious decision that this was something I'd really have a crack at.

2. The Lake District is such a familiar landscape, one which has long inspired professional photographers. When you began working on Lake District Mountain Landscape, did you set out to capture the area from a different perspective? 

Exactly. I always found the vast majority of imagery in the Lakes was really dull and twee, often of lakes from the lakeside. I'd tried to find a good book of really inspiring and dramatic pictures of the high mountains but couldn't find one. For years I was always uninspired by the Lakes always finding it too busy and touristy. In 2006 I decided to try and make a proper rock climbing film and something about the Lakes seemed obvious as there didn't seem to be much compared to the Peak and North Wales. This lead me to meet Dave Birkett and he introduced me to the high crags and rock of the Lakes. As I was making this film I took a lot of photos too and by the end of that year I had a good foundation to start the book, not only a few good shots but also the knowledge I'd lacked prior to a summer hanging out with Birkett in the fells.

3. Had you always intended to photograph the mountains when you started the book or did you explore the Lakes for other, less-travelled terrain? 

In short yes I wanted to produce a book about the Lakes that really showed off its dramatic mountains and how alpine and incredible they can be – get as far away from all the clichéd imagery that was on offer as I could. 

4. What challenges and benefits come with photographing the mountains?

Living over an hour's drive away was the major challenge, trying to second guess the conditions, setting off at 3 a.m., blasting up a mountain only for it to be clouded in … most of the time I got it right though, you really get into it and build momentum. I had a few wasted journeys but over all it was uncanny how I'd get the timing just right; you kind of develop a sixth sense for this stuff, it takes a bit of time but once you get going there's no stopping you. I had a few pretty wild adventures too, some really big days out always with the heavy bag: getting lost, climbing in the night to photograph the moon … it was all brilliant though.
5. When you are photographing a landscape, do you often try to communicate a mood or reveal something about the area?

I suppose like any landscape photographer I'm always looking for unusual conditions. Light is everything but not necessarily as you perceive, keep your eyes as well as your mind wide open. 

6. What is your camera of choice?

I used three different cameras for the book, all film. The Fuiji GX617 is still the best thing for landscape photography; it's just magic.
7. What one piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to go into professional photography? 

Find what you love, find what you are good at and the rest will follow.


For more about Alastair's book, click here: Lake District Mountain Landscape.

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