John Blakemore’s multiple exposures and my problem with bracken

I listened to John Blakemore’s talk at last years Meeting of Minds†† conference recently (links at the bottom of this). It was the first opportunity that I have had to listen to one of the UK’s most idiosyncratic landscape photographers talk about what motivates him to make photographs and what interests him visually.

There is much to recommend an hour spent listening to Mr Blakemore talk through his photographs and I encourage you to do so. But the main reason why I mention him here is because of his experiments with multiple exposure and my problems photographing the bracken on the Begwns successfully. Firstly the bracken: pteridium aquilinum is a vigorous and aggressive fern, spreading rapidly by means of strong underground stems or “rhizomes”. It has a wide soil tolerance, doing particularly well on deep acidic soils, but it is intolerant of waterlogged soils. Bracken is a major weed in many upland and upland margin areas, causing management problems in agriculture, forestry, conservation, and recreation†††. It is everywhere around here, covering the lower slopes of mountains and, where heather has failed to establish, across hill and moorland top as well. It is in some ways a key species and one that, like no other, transforms the character of the landscape dramatically as the seasons progress; emerging in the spring as lime green shoots amongst the grass, giving the hills an odd sort of fuzz when viewed from a distance. By mid summer the young plants have matured into metre tall dark green fronds that blanket the hills hiding hare, skylark and ewe. As summer turns the bracken begins its transformation from a mostly uniform green to hues of yellow, gold and orange, which in turn change to shades of deepest sienna as autumn turns to winter. Some, but never all, of the bracken on the Begwns is harvested for livestock bedding every year. A job now done by tractor and flail but which once was done by children with scythes. But I digress.

I have been making photographs of parts of the Begwns for a couple of years now always with a loose plan to arrive, at some point, with a pictorial essay of this little known piece of the National Trust’s estate. The many other features of the Begwns have proven to be a lot easier to photograph and I have been busy making images of those whilst struggling with the bracken, which has remained obstinately difficult; on a still day, en masse, it can look like a field of cabbages and with about as much charm. But when the wind drives through the bracken it animates the individual fronds so that they rustle and dip; as a group they appear like an undulating green sea. There is a sound, a smell, and a texture like no other. John Blakemore experimented with multiple exposure to capture the wind energy through trees and it occurred to me that I might use a similar technique to catch the dynamic nature of the bracken which is so characteristic of the Begwns landscape through the summer months.

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Mr Blakemore was using a 5×4 plate camera and made up to 45 separate exposures for each sheet of film, and of course he knew what he was doing. I used a hand held Nikon D800E which has an upper limit of 10 exposures per frame with absolutely no idea of how they would turn out. I do rather like them – some are more successful than others although I am not sure why that is. I may explore this some more using a tripod and combining several frames of multiple exposures to achieve the forty plus layers of exposure. I suspect that the transitions will become subtler – softer perhaps. That I think that is for another day.

Despite its effects on other habitats, bracken can be an important habitat in its own right. It is known to support over 40 species of invertebrate; for 27 species it forms an important part of the diet. 11 are found only on bracken. Bracken can be an important breeding habitat for moorland birds, in particular whinchat. Other species which may use bracken for breeding cover include ring ouzel, hen harrier and merlin. It may also be used as cover by warblers, tree-pipits and nightjars. Reptiles and mammals can benefit from the shelter provided by bracken. In some areas bluebells and other woodland plants grow under bracken.†††

† Source: Lens Culture. John Blakemore is a master photographer and printer from Great Britain, who has been practicing his art since 1956. Renowned for his richly detailed and nuanced landscapes and still-lifes, he has influenced generations of photographers through his classes at the University of Derby as well as countless workshops. Students and fellow photographers often acknowledge that Blakemore has “enriched their lives beyond compare.” https://www.lensculture.com/articles/john-blakemore-the-stilled-gaze

†† Source: On Landscape – Meeting of Minds conference 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa8woJC-0lg

††† Source: Scottish National Heritage Information and Advisory Note Number 24. http://www.snh.org.uk/publications/on-line/advisorynotes/24/24.htm

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The weather here is never dull

As the land rises up from the valley of the Wye northwards from the Black Mountains; one modest step on its accent towards the high moorland tops is an elongated hump of bracken covered common land known as The Begwns. To the casual visitor it may appear to be a sheep infested, bracken covered, featureless piece of un-cultivated land suitable only for pony trekking and dog walking and therefore not worthy of any further investigation. A position that those of us who visit the Begwns every day with our dogs, or ponies, are happy to encourage; because you have to spend time with the Begwns to understand it richness and beauty. Groups of disgruntled tourists would only get in the way.

You have to get to know the Begwns over time to discover its qualities. The most obvious, if you walk up to its highest point, a dizzying 410 meters above sea level, to the circular dry stone wall that surrounds a plantation of conifers; is that you now have a panoramic view that takes in the Black Mountains in the south, the Brecon Beacons in the west, the high moors to the north that in turn lead, eventually, to the Cambrian Mountains and in the far distance to the east is England, or what used to be a bit more of Wales until it was stolen by William of Normandy.

The tail end of a rain front moving up the Wye Valley with the Black Mountains in the distance.
The tail end of a rain front moving up the Wye Valley with the Black Mountains in the distance

One outstanding benefit of this elevated 360° platform is as a weather observatory. The Wye Valley with the Black Mountains behind can produce some spectacular temperature inversions, particularly in the autumn. Massive cloud fronts roll in over the Brecon Beacons and sit brooding over the Black Mountains sometimes for days. We have watched the rain fall in huge sweeps through the valley whilst the sun warms our backs from clear blue skies in the north east.

Vapour trails rising from the Wye Valley after a heavy rain storm.
Vapour trails rising from the Wye Valley after a heavy rain storm.

The Begwns acts as a huge sponge throughout the winter, absorbing massive amounts of water that percolates through its thin soil into the bed rock below. From here it emerges as spring fed ponds; winterbournes that may last for months or disappear within a few days; and the deep cut brooks and streams that manage to survive all year and have over centuries carved wide, deep, gullies that disappear into steep woodland dingles then on into the Afon Wye.

A bracken covered hill on the Begwns, Wales, just beginning to show early signs of autumn browning.
A bracken covered hill on the Begwns just beginning to show early signs of autumn browning.

I will be posting more about the natural history of the Begwns and the dingles later. If you would like to see more photographs of my local area please visit my web site: haresonthehill.co.uk