Saturday, May 05, 2007


His tent was neatly pitched – fabric taught, with hardly a wrinkle and nothing flapping in the breeze – and in a spot I might have chosen for myself. Stove and cooking gear stood just outside; again, just as I could have laid them out. I found a smooth, level patch, far enough away to allow privacy, close enough to be neighbourly, and spread my tent out on the ground.

He was perched on a nearby picnic table, feet on the bench, mug in his hands. With bush hat shielding his eyes from the sun, grey beard, and clothing in muted greens and browns he looked every inch the seasoned traveller, and was clearly of, shall we say, the same generation as myself.

“Have you been here long?” I called over.

“Since Sunday”

“Has the wind stayed in this direction?” I wanted to judge the best orientation for my tent.

“Yes, pretty much from the east the whole time.”

I set to and in only a few minutes my tent was up; I wanted to set up camp quickly and get out into the hills – after half a day’s driving, there was still plenty of time left for a scramble up Tryfan’s famous north ridge.

“Have you got a mug?”

I pushed the last tent peg into the ground and looked over my shoulder. I’d been so intent on getting my tent up that I hadn’t noticed him move, but now he was crouched over his stove, steam coming from the pan of water in his hand.

“There’s enough for a cuppa – how do you like your tea?”

I’ve been to plenty of campsites, but this was the first time I’d been offered a welcoming brew by a fellow camper. Maybe it would have been different had the site been packed – amidst a crowd, virtual walls of isolation all too easily get built, but here, where my tent made only the seventh on the site (and of those, five were deserted) the solitude and the peace of a glorious spring afternoon seemed naturally to invite sharing. Perhaps too there was a sense of common values – little outward signs like the way a tent is pitched can often reveal something of the person under the surface.

After four and a half hours driving, anything wet would have sufficed, but his brew was perfect. As we chatted, I spotted a tripod amongst the gear just inside the flap of his tent.

“Ah, a fellow photographer?”

It turned out he was indeed a very keen amateur photographer, equally at home with film or digital, and with wide range of equipment accumulated over the years. Today it was the turn of the Leica M6. For now though, the hills were calling me, so we parted company and I set off for an energetic and immensely enjoyable scramble up the magnificent spine of rock which towered nearly two thousand feet above the campsite.

Later on, just after I’d finished my supper, Bob wandered over.

“I’m just going down to the lake by Plas-y-Brenin – I think the light might be right for some sunset shots. Do you want to come along?”

So many times over the years I would have declined such an offer. Whatever excuse I might have given, the reason would have boiled down to a mix of shyness, not wanting to intrude on another’s space, and believing I was at ease with my own company. I’ve spent so much time with people I only half trust, half respect, half understand, that I’ve grown wary and guarded in my dealings with them. Thankfully though, this time I had sufficient sense to recognise a simple and genuine offer and follow up on the opportunity for some learning and discovery.

When I had my first camera, at age seven, I used to learn by copying what my father did. Whenever he stopped to take a photo, I would stop too and take one of the same scene. It felt a bit like that this time. Bob was choosing the spot and setting up his tripod; I could do little better than set up next to him. Once upon a time I might have recognised the potential of this setting myself, but I realise that these days my photography – like everything else in my life – has become far too hurried. Action, with little time for thought and reflection. And it isn’t just a question of time alone – entire mental processes have to slow down and attitudes have to soften and relax in order to allow space for the kind of creativity that sees and knows how to explore the future potential in a scene that would otherwise flash by. Realising that something merely pretty during the day might, in the right circumstances and with the right framing and lighting, turn into something rather more special.

Like this.

So, wherever you are now Bob, I take my hat off to you for reminding me of what photography is all about. Maybe even a little bit of what life is all about, too.

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