Q&A - Issue #9
Murray Livingston is a South African-born photographer, based in the UK, but currently living on the road in a bespoke van while exploring long-term photography projects throughout Europe. He leads contemplative field photography workshops, sells carbon neutral fine art prints, and shares his travels and photography on his YouTube channel. Murray’s approach to teaching and practicing photography is centred around an appreciation for nature, and he believes in developing a conversation between nature and the photographer through careful observation and learning. “While I love travel and adventure,” he says, “it seems more important than ever to appreciate locality and find a spiritual or existential connection to nature in your immediate environment.” He talks to Where the Leaves Fall’s Sunday newsletter editor, Madeleine Bazil. An adapted version of this conversation appeared in The Rhizome.
Madeleine: How did you initially get into photography?
Murray: I had an interest in architecture, which I studied at university, and the arts more broadly speaking, from a very young age. I was very fortunate that my high school offered darkroom photography courses, so from the age of about 15 I have been making photographs. Many of my first experiences with a camera were with black and white film and fully manual SLRs - partly for their simplicity, but also for the relationship to the history of the medium. I feel as though I have carried these formative experiences forward.
Madeleine: Tell me a bit about your relationship with nature.
Murray: I am South African and as such built a strong kinship with nature from a young age. A large part of this was family trips to the bush, spiking my curiosity for wildlife and the natural world. More formative than even witnessing the power of the big predators, my Grampa is a keen birder and has passed on his fascination on to me and my brother. Some of my first inklings of making serious images were an attempt to photograph the wonderful variety of bird species in South Africa. These experiences in my youth have led to a lifelong calling for the wilderness and a feeling that I am a part of it.
My current base in the UK offers a vastly different experience, but nonetheless invigorating and utterly fascinating. The UK is a fairly small island and very densely populated. It has brought to the fore of my mind the complexity of our relationship with natural places and the impact of humans on the landscape. For example, many of the places I explore in Scotland, while beautiful, have been managed for deer and stalking, leaving them devoid of biodiversity. Climate change and the need for a healthy landscape has brought this to our attention, however. There are some great examples of rewilding and regeneration (one immediately thinks of parts of the Cairngorm National Park, Glen Affric, Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve), which will hopefully lead to a more holistic relationship where we are viewed as a part of the ecosystem and not a controller of it. I look forward to documenting these changing landscapes over the course of my lifetime.
Madeleine: Tell me a bit about your current project. And what draws you to a certain photographic format for a project?
Murray: I am currently working on a long-term landscape photography project in Scotland exploring the idea of time and geologic formations. The highlands were, in part, sculpted by glaciers some 12,000 years ago in the last ice age. I am working towards capturing that immense sense that the landscape is actually moving, from the weather, to the light, to the tides of the ocean. As such, the shutter mechanism of the camera and its ability to expand or foreshorten time has been a recent fascination. I am able to render in images scenes that aren’t visible to the human eye, and therefore lie on the periphery of the human consciousness (our perception is often limited to the scope of our own experience, perhaps with the addition of some generational wisdom). Feeling a connection to something beyond ourselves is a powerful experience.
Often there are physical limitations, or at least challenges, to using a particular format or medium. Hiking large mountains and the high winds of Scotland don't lend themselves too kindly to using a 4x5 film view camera as the bellows are essentially a large sail. The tiny apertures required result in very long exposures, and as a result achieving sharp images is a struggle, to say the least. In this way the landscape somewhat dictates the necessary format for each project. I have found success in the past working with the view camera in the arid environments of South Africa, whereas most of my latest images in Scotland have been made with lighter weight digital cameras.
Madeleine: One of our current magazine themes is “consciousness”. I’m interested to hear how you relate to that idea - with respect to photography, nature, and/or both?
Murray: The idea that our perception of the world is limited to what we experience as consciousness I find fascinating. However, being aware of this limitation can be both very powerful and diminishing - one can quickly fall down the rabbit hole of contemplating the meaning of their existence. For me, an acknowledgement of my limited experience leaves open a world of the unknown, latent with endless possibilities. I believe nature has an incredible ability to show us a glimpse of what exists beyond our own consciousness. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that photography can replace such experiences in nature, but it's the closest thing I have found to bringing [home] that profound sense of awe one has when standing before a great mountain range.
Madeleine: What inspires you about your current location and its environment? And, more broadly, how do locality and environment shape your photography practice?
Murray: The landscape will inspire me when I am attuned to it. My approach is fairly simple: I immerse myself fully in the locations that I choose to make my images - currently this is predominantly Scotland, living out of a camper van. I will spend up to a month at a time in a very small area revisiting locations at different times of day and in different weather conditions. The beauty of this approach is the building of a connection with that environment. I was recently in the Outer Hebrides, a chain of small islands of the north west of Scotland. Two storms passed through on my visit, forcing me to experience the environment at its very extremes. When the winds finally abated, I noticed the return of birdsong, the sound of the ocean, the smell of sugar kelp. Only when you spend extended periods of time in a place do you become aware of these finer details. All of this leads to a deeper understanding and better photographs.
I have found that I am valuing the experience more and more, followed then by the ability for an image to communicate a feeling or an emotion elicited by the location and its environment. The result is often a picture that is quite abstract and speaks to the wider landscape rather than any one specific location.
Furthermore, as many of the places I visit are vulnerable to human activity, I have long taken the approach of limiting the location information that I accompany with my images out of environmental concerns. I am a strong advocate of the Nature First Principles.
Madeleine: What role do you think art and artists play in this time of climate crisis?
Murray: As a photographer, I view art as a method of communication. More than ever before in the history of our species, we can transfer knowledge and information. Art is often a wonderful vehicle for asking questions and critiquing our current trajectory. It can also shine a light on the path forward. I have sitting on my desk as I write this a wonderful new book from Sebastião Salgado, entitled Amazônia. It is a perfect example of art that takes a positive position on climate change by showing, firstly, the sheer power and beauty of nature, but also the power of local communities to persevere in the face of destructive forces. His art communicates the value of these natural places, inspiring the reader to act in order to preserve them.
Attuned Landscapes: an Interview with Murray Livingston