The huge forest on my doorstep is stunning, so why were we six months into the global pandemic before I started photographing it? For someone who never liked landscape photography, I certainly take a lot of landscape photos.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone with a camera has become a landscape photographer in the last year and I’m no exception. Like so many others, regular work disappeared in March 2020 and I started exploring closer to home, if simply to keep myself occupied. However, it wasn’t until six months into the pandemic that I started taking my camera into the forest with me. Given that the trees are within a ten-minute walk in almost any direction from my house, that might strike you as odd. Let me explain.
I have a strange aversion to landscape photography. Don’t get me wrong: I love seeing beautiful shots of landscapes and enjoy watching videos from the likes of Thomas Heaton to see what goes into each photograph. And yet despite this, photographing landscapes has never appealed to me. In the same way that I still can’t bring myself to photograph a pretty sunset or grab a snap of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I never felt a desire to head out to photograph something simply because it’s pretty.
The contradiction here is that I find Heaton’s work fantastic. I love seeing how hard he works to create his images, not to mention his passion for the landscape itself. Maybe my perception was also soured by a pathetically defeatist assumption that everything has already been photographed by photographers far better than me — so what’s the point?
Shifting My Assumptions
My first job each morning is to take my insanely-cute-but-alarmingly-aggressive Bulgarian rescue dog for a walk. Last year, with nothing else to photograph thanks to the pandemic, I started taking my camera along if just to then give me something to fiddle with in Lightroom, documenting my village and snapping the occasional horse.
Then came the transformation. November brought with it a couple of clear-skied mornings that started late enough for me to discover that sunrise in the vast forest of Fontainebleau here in France is something magical. With how fleeting the light can be, I suddenly found myself photographing moments that felt unique, often a result of finding obscure corners far from the beaten path that I even would now struggle to find again, never mind anyone else. These moments are mine.
At first, while I liked the photographs and enjoyed the entire process — from heading out with the dog before the sun had fully crept above the horizon, to playing with them in Lightroom — I didn’t do much with them. I threw a couple in my Instagram Stories and shared some on Twitter, typically giving a brief account of my morning walk. The response took me by surprise. Despite having established a (tiny) reputation for photographing people doing weird, athletic things on manmade structures, my followers seemed to like what I was sharing. After receiving some encouragement, I started posting my forest photos more regularly to the point that I now sell a bundle of postcards and the occasional archival-quality print.
Our village is nestled among wheatfields that make up the patchwork of trees and farmland that dominate the landscape. Before moving here, I was a regular visitor for more than a decade, building up a love for the forest and the endless treasures found within. What I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t that I didn’t like landscape photography; it’s simply that I hadn’t found something that created a truly personal connection.
The Forest of Fontainebleau is France’s biggest tourist attraction, drawing more than 12 million visitors a year, and a good weather weekend can see the forest heaving with picnickers, climbers, hikers, and bikers. By contrast, dawn is wonderfully peaceful and can often feel as though I have all 97 square miles to myself. Occasionally I’ll bump into a fellow dog walker or perhaps a keen jogger, but it’s not unusual to walk for more than an hour without encountering another soul — something of a rarity given how close the forest is to Paris. Fontainebleau is far from being a wilderness, but I can still get myself lost if I leave my phone at home and let Stefan (the aforementioned dog) do most of the decision-making.
Each walk is an exploration and these mornings are enchanted. Maybe it’s the lack of people at sunrise that gives them this aura but sunset is just not the same; in the morning, there can be a slight haze that softens the light a little further, and while sunset can sometimes feel like I’m chasing after the right moment, sunrise makes me feel as though I can relax, wander, and wait for something to find me. Foggy days are rare but when they happen, my partner and I both down tools and head out with our cameras, happy to lose hours to wandering and marveling at what the gloom can bring.
I’m becoming fascinated by the idea of the forest as a place where you can lose yourself or become lost. In literature, the forest is often a sanctuary or a threat, sometimes both, and there’s often a sense that among the trees, society’s rules don’t always apply as they do elsewhere. The forest is an expanse, unknown and unknowable, a place for random encounters and imagination.
My walks and the resulting photographs are therapeutic, and it’s no coincidence that trees can boost your immune system and improve your mood. In a year where many have found that mental health has been a rollercoaster, having an outlet that immerses me in nature has been a godsend and I consider myself very fortunate.
Shooting for Me
I shoot a lot on a cheap lens and have few concerns regarding image quality, and more than a few are likely overcooked in terms of their editing — but I don’t care. For the first time in years, I enjoy posting to Instagram (however frequently I might criticize it) as I’ve started using the platform almost as a diary, just as I did when I first created an account. I don’t care that engagement has tailed off; I get some great feedback from people whose opinions I value, and I know that those who see my photos genuinely appreciate seeing a taste of the forest each morning. It’s not a new profession, but that’s not where its value lies.
The pandemic has brought few benefits but I’m grateful that it gave me the opportunity to find a new appreciation of sunrise, the forest, and what a relationship with the landscape can bring thanks to the medium of photography.