Mist is trickster weather. It steals silently in, turns familiar landscapes strange, dampens sounds, blurs vision—then clears suddenly and without warning. It has fairy-tale properties: to find yourself in mist is to be both enchanted and unsettled. One of the eeriest hours of my life came in the Scottish Highlands. Five of us had climbed up, in thick snow, onto the summit plateau of a mountain called Beinn a’ Bhuird. Five hundred feet short of the plateau we met a fine white mist. The snow and the mist combined to produce the phenomenon known as white-out, in which air and ground seem to melt together and the world becomes depthless.
Scale and distance were indeterminable. There were no shadows or waymarks. Even gravity felt unreliable that day: slopes and fall-lines could only be inferred by the tilt of blood in the skull. We traversed the plateau slowly for a mile and a half, each of us in a luminous pocket of mist, and when I looked left and right at my companions they appeared to be flying, borne aloft in soft white space. When at last we descended out of the mist, the Highland landscape was startling again.
Steffen Schrägle’s images of mist evoke its contradictions, the way it both conceals and reveals. A wide New Zealand lake becomes a study in pewter and greyscale, with the outlines of the far shore glimpsed spectrally across the water. A dawn mist, as it is burnt off by the morning sun, both swathes and discloses the hills that have bred it. Figures in a winter mist seem barely human, looming like ghosts or gods from the thickened air. Even industrial infrastructure is made enigmatic. Schrägle’s mist-cloaked factory by night comes straight out of John le Carré: cold-war murk, furtive surveillance, a gathering tension.
Like its denser sister, fog, mist is best imagined as ground-level cloud. It consists of minute droplets of water suspended in the air: thus the rime of dew that lands on your eyebrows as you walk through it. Mist forms when warm moisture-laden air is cooled, causing the water to precipitate out. This is why autumn is, in John Keats’s famous phrase, the “season of mists”: the clear skies and dropping temperatures of the nights cool the earth, which in turn cools the humid air, sending mist smoking across fields or snaking up valleys.
Many walkers have had the revelatory experience of climbing up through a layer of morning mist and out into the sunshine above it. And city dwellers may have found themselves high in a tall building, looking down on a sea of mist—or perhaps its less appealing half-sister, smog—out of which only other skyscrapers jut, as in Schrägle’s memorable shot of Chicago. At such moments, mist acts as an editor, simplifying the view, suppressing the muddle of ground level. I once reached the top of a chalk hill just after dawn on a summer day, and looked down on a landscape filled with a shallow mist. All I could see were the tops of oak trees and the spires of churches, and it felt as if I had travelled back to the Middle Ages.
The subtleties of mist are easy to miss, especially when you are in it. The eye tends to perceive it only as smudge or sludge. Mist is, in fact, rich with nuance, possessing fine declensions of light and tone and sly scumblings—the family of effects that Renaissance art theorists called sfumato. Hard to see properly, mist is even harder to represent artistically. The shan sui (mountain-and-water) artists of Song Dynasty China (960–1279) took as their subjects the mist-wreathed and pine-forested mountains of eastern and southern China. Mist was a vital ingredient of their aesthetic—suggesting as it did nature’s resistance to decisive categorisations—and they developed specialist brushwork and ink-wash techniques with which to evoke it. The shan sui tradition remains influential: on autumn days at the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) range in Anhui Province, tens of thousands of Chinese tourists rise before dawn and climb rock staircases to see the sun rise over the misty granite slopes, as if gazing into a Song scroll.
Mist is crucial to one of the great paintings of European Romanticism: Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds” (1818). The image may be more familiar than the title: a man in a black frock-coat stands on a sharp mountain summit, back to the viewer, hands at his sides. Below and beyond him is an ocean of white mist, pierced by peaks and pinnacles. The implications are appropriately clouded: is the traveller blessed with vision or threatened by obscurity? Is he master over his own direction, or lost?
Friedrich’s work plays around the edges of Schrägle’s photographs; there is the same atmosphere of poised ambivalence. Schrägle speaks of the “loneliness” brought on by mist, but also of its ability to offer a sense of security. In his image of a ski chalet in winter mist, we cannot tell if the hut is a longed-for destination or a shelter which has just been left. Schrägle’s work, like Friedrich’s, reminds us that mist is a meteorology of the mind: it changes the way we experience the world, leaving us mystified. ~ ROBERT MACFARLANE