“High mountains”, Byron wrote, “are a feeling.” It’s one that Charles Emerson has been possessed by since he was a boy. Every year, he’d travel from his home in Devon to the west highlands of Scotland, where his grandparents lived. And every year he’d look forward to the sight, at the entrance to Glencoe, of Buachaille Etive Mor, rising in its perfect pyramid from the glen’s flat floor. “My dad would always test me on the name,” he says, “and I’d always get it wrong. But I liked that journey, and I liked the idea of my life ticking along but the mountain always being the same.” He also liked the myths that shroud the peaks—of the giant Fingal who made his home among them, and his son Ossian, born in a high cave.
Twenty years later, Buachaille Etive Mor was the starting point for the series of mountain photographs in our latest photo essay, which took Emerson to Romania and Jordan as well as back to Scotland. They capture a quixotic mix of myth, mystique and geological grandeur, the realities of rock and ravine as well as the stories we cap them with. There’s a view down from Ossian’s cave and another up to the summit of Jebel Haroun, the holiest place in Petra, sacred to the Christian, the Muslim and the Bedouin. And there are the Carpathians, once believed by the Dacians to house a gateway between life and death, now studded with Christian chapels.
Mountain photography demands more than just fascination. You need to be intrepid too. In Scotland Emerson couldn’t feel his fingers (“it was like sticking a pack of sausages into the rock face”). In Romania there were wild animals on his tail (“we’d hear dogs barking and then shouts of ‘Urs! Urs!’—‘Bear! Bear!’”). And in Jordan, when he wasn’t getting sunstroke, he was avoiding the snipers guarding King Abdullah II. “He was on holiday in a camp near ours, and when I asked our driver if I could get out to photograph Wadi Rum he said no, because there were gunmen all over the hills. So I just stuck my tripod out of the car window. Sometimes the light is so perfect you don’t need to worry too much about a steady camera. I’m just lucky I didn’t get shot.”
Luckier still when you consider that, like every image here, the final photograph is a composite of multiple exposures. The picture of Mount Omu in Romania is built from two separate photographs. The mountain was clearly visible in one, completely obscured by fog in the other. But you see it most clearly in his picture of Ossian’s cave, shot after a difficult climb up a cliff-face streaming with water and mud. The spectral walls of the cave-mouth seem almost to disappear, half there and half not, figments like the legends themselves. He’d also collect light on his shoots, exposing film by opening the back of his camera or using the same piece of film over and over again. The result was a series of abstract colour fields, like Rothko paintings, samples from which he then laid over the images of the mountains. In his shot of Buachaille Etive Mor, the mountain is a snow-capped peak, all ice-white, amid a Turner-like haze of warm oranges and pinks. The technique gives these pictures their scrim of imagination.
It also gives them their pronounced painterliness. Their debt to Turner is obvious, as is their debt to Caspar David Friedrich, not only for their misty mountain vistas, but also for the small, almost incidental religious buildings that inflect some of the photographs as they did Friedrich’s landscapes. Emerson’s father was an abstract-impressionist, so he grew up among canvases and etchings. “I actually wanted to be a painter,” he says, “but my dad always said how tough it was. I feel like I’ve come back as close as possible to painting, but in my own medium. Still, whenever I start a project, I always start by thinking about paintings.”
He remembers one painting of his father’s in particular—a colourful abstract which he and his sister knew to be based on a barn wall. “We would see all sorts of things in it—landscapes and animals and big trees.” It was a picture which could absorb whatever images and stories they projected on to it—much like a mountain. ~ Simon Willis