Interview: Nicholas J R White's Series "Black Dots"

 

British photographer Nicholas J R White's series Black Dots is a magical exploration of primitive unmanned shelters, known as bothies, that are scattered across the isolated and wild countryside of the United Kingdom. Now a (sold-out) book published by Another Place Press, his photographic work has received critical acclaim from the likes of Lensculture, the British Journal of Photography, and Vice. This praise is well deserved as Black Dots has shot bothy culture into the collective consciousness via his multi-year documentary project and resulting book. Nicholas successfully captured what Vice calls “The UK's [ruggedly gorgeous] answer to Airbnb” that tells the story of uncluttered huts living in the shadows of snow-capped peaks and vast open lands far off the beaten path.

Open, unlocked, and accessible only by foot, the 100+ sparsely equipped bothies found across the country provide asylum to travelers looking to experience the rugged nature of the wilderness around them. Originally built in the early 20th century to house employees and caretakers working remotely on large estates, quarries, and dams, these stone-like tents slowly fell out of use and were left abandoned via “the arrival of cheaper vehicles, agricultural machinery, and greater transport links meant there was no longer a need for people to reside in these far-flung corners of the country”. [1]

No longer used to house these on-site workers, over the last 100 years these abandoned buildings have gradually built up a unique culture of their own with a different type of worker. Initially used by industrial workers in the 1920s and 1930s to escape the city life via a cheap vacation destination, generations of hikers, climbers, and outdoor lovers have now used these structures as a way to take a break from the evolving technological world and immerse themselves in the sweeping landscapes of their British countryside. [1]

Now protected and managed by theMountain Bothy Association, a 100% volunteer supported organization, over 123 of these structures have been renovated and kept alive thanks to their generous efforts. Though these buildings are managed by the MBA, there is no booking system, no reservations, and no on-site warden or ranger. The only guide to traveler’s behavior is thebothy code, almost libertarian philosophy of responsibility. Found within this code are the instructions for travelers to respect the structures, the lands surrounding them, and the travelers within them, and if possible, leave the places they visit better than they found them.

This code of honor plays an important role in the story of these structures that parallels seamlessly with Nicholas’ photographic doctrine of “honest light”. Over a period of three years, Nicholas traveled to and documented over 20 shelters ranging from two-person shed-like buildings to multi-bedroom house-like structures with several fireplaces, and the travelers who inhabited them with his 4x5 camera. The resulting images convey the remoteness of these shelters wonderfully while maintaining an honest portrayal of the surrounding countryside by embracing the harsh British weather and accurately portraying the experience of the landscapes he found himself in. In an interview with The Adventure Handbook, Nicholas had this to say:

Beauty is just one of many tools that we photographers have in our toolbox - but all too often I find it’s overused or applied incorrectly. Ultimately, Black Dots talks a lot about experiencing the British landscape, and you can’t really talk about that experience by using beauty alone: you have to embrace all weathers, all conditions and all the different types of light. To go out and shoot every scene in a glorious sunset would be a falsehood. So I chose not to limit myself by seeking beauty, instead, I sought honesty. I wanted to accurately document the British landscape in all seasons and in all weathers. There were times of course where I was greeted by beautiful evening light, but there were plenty of times where I was soaked through to the skin too!”

Although Nicholas’ series captures the archaic beauty of these small structures littered in the midst of the expansive British countryside, where Black Dots excels is the dualistic human element that is represented through his portraits of fellow travelers and the often bleak interiors they congregated in. The contrast of each landscape’s desolate nature combined with the warmness of the individuals photographed, truly reveals the feeling of camaraderie felt between strangers that become immediate friends in the backcountry. These impermanent relationships with fellow hikers developed over the course of brief nights spent together with “the smell of wood smoke in the air, the whistle of the wind creeping through the timbers, and the traces of people that have been there before you” make for authentic representations of the types of people who travel to each bothy. Nicholas shared with us what made him so enthralled about bothies: “What fascinated me about these buildings wasn’t so much the physical buildings themselves, but more the community of strangers that gather there each night. How at dusk, individuals congregate in this temporary home and share in this incredibly primitive experience; no electricity, no running water, no phone signal. Just fire, shelter and good company”.

I am pleased to share that I had the opportunity to sit down with Nicholas to obtain a deeper understanding of his background, process, and how Black Dots came to exist. Being an avid outdoors enthusiast I was thrilled to dive deeper into backpacking trips, how he prepared, and learn more about his nights in the wilderness. On that note, I am proud to present to you our interview with Nicholas J R White. Before you read on, make sure you connect with Nicholas J R White on his Website and Instagram!


Interview


Michael Behlen: You spent time in the wilderness visiting national parks with your family growing up. Do you remember your first proper outing? What was the experience like? Did anyone in your family use photography to capture these events?

Nicholas J R White: My family would take me out before I could even walk, so I can’t really remember how it started. Some of my earliest memories however are of family holidays on Dartmoor. It was always the highlight of the year when we’d load the car up with walking gear and drive to my grandparents house on the national park. All my friends would be flying abroad and I’d be stoked to go a couple of hours down the road and walk in the rain, haha. The family camera (an old 35mm) would usually come with us wherever we went – I need to dig those negatives out, really.

MB: You graduated to spending more time in the woods and hiking as you grew older, do you think you would have done this if you weren’t exposed to it in your younger years?

NW: Probably not. I actually grew up on an estate near a large-ish town. There was this big tree a short walk from my house, and if my brother and I weren’t in the house then we would usually be found clambering through the upper branches of that tree.  I guess being outdoors has always just been a normal thing for me – so when I found photography, the two formed this sort of synergy.

MB: What was your first experience with “true” photography? Was there a moment when you realized that you enjoyed shooting photography more than hiking? What about these two things compliment each other so well?

I don’t really know what true photography is. I started using photography as a way of documenting things that interested/intrigued me and that’s pretty much the same thing that motivates me now. It’s not so much the “hiking” that I like, it’s just generally being outdoors. Take my work in Romania for example, some of the locations were accessed using 4x4 vehicles or snowmobiles. There’s no need for me to make life harder for myself for the sake of it.

MB: How old were you when you entered into the Plymouth College of Art? Was there a catalyst that drove you to enroll and achieve a degree in photography, instead of pursuing it in a more casual way? How long were you shooting before you decided to enroll (and why?)

NW: I began studying at Plymouth College of Art in 2008, so I was 18. I’d already gone to college and studied Music and Music Technology, but panicked and realized I didn’t really want to spend my life doing that. I enrolled onto a Diploma in 2008 to wrap my head around the basic principles of photography and ended up falling in love with it. I figured that spending three years doing nothing but photography and surrounding myself with like minded individuals couldn’t be a bad thing.

MB: You spent 5 years achieving this degree: did you learn anything particular that you feel really enhanced your vision of photography or what you were trying to achieve as a photographer? What was your end game?

NW: Well, it was 2 years for the diploma and 3 years for the degree. As I said before, the most important thing for me was being able to surround myself with nothing but photography for 5 years straight. I didn’t have an end game really, and I suppose I still don’t. I’m just enjoying the here and now.

MB: You were introduced to large format photography by a professor in the same year you enrolled in college. Did the magic of analog sink in right away or did it take time to grow on you? When did the idea come into your head that you wanted to actually utilize this medium? Was it for a certain project or more of a just because it is traditional and you should learn it?

NW: Yeah, an old Gandolfi. I hated it initially. But as I was studying photography it was important to make the most of all the facilities, figure out my likes and dislikes and allow myself to move in new directions. A lot of my favorite photographers at the time were using these cameras, so it was more a case of “let’s see what the fuss is about”. I chose to take it out with me on Dartmoor National Park. As we’ve discussed, I’d spent my life taking pictures there so I wanted to see how using a 4x5 changed my experience of the place. I used it for a week or so, then went and bought my own kit – and that’s the same camera I’m using today.

MB: What about analog made you disregard it at first?

NW: I think it’s important to say that I don’t necessarily love analogue in general. What I do love, is working on large format. It’s slow, bulky and a total pain in the arse to use, but offers an experience I can’t find anywhere else. My neighbor has this old beat up baby blue Land Rover Defender, it’s certainly not the most comfortable ride, it’s loud and probably smells a bit – but he keeps it, drives it on weekends and adores it. I guess it’s the same sort of thing…!

MB: Once you graduated, you worked as a retoucher and studio photographer using digital equipment. At that time, were there certain feelings that pushed you to develop personal projects on analog equipment? Did you create any personal bodies of work on the digital medium before transitioning? What was the transition like?

NW: I’ve never shot a project on digital. I only really started thinking about photography as a ‘series’ towards the end of my time at Arts College and by then I was working on the 4x5. I’ve always shot both though – I didn’t ditch digital in favor of working on large format, so I suppose there wasn’t really a transition period, per se. It’s quite refreshing though, after hammering out commercial work on the DSLR to pack up the Large Format and totally switch up the way I work.

MB: You have been a freelance photographer since 2017, how do you balance your time between commercial work and personal projects? Is there overlap? Do you keep them strictly separate? Can you tell us what skills do overlap that you apply to each industry and vice versa?

NW: I usually book in my personal trips quite last minute. Sometimes I’ll get an email asking me to shoot something when I’m already committed to a 10 day trip, but that’s just the way it goes. There’s definitely overlap though – a lot of the editorial work I shot last year came in as a result of Black Dots, and is shot in a way akin to my personal work. The commercial/sports work I shoot is the result of my time spent as a studio photographer a couple of years ago and has a very different aesthetic. One of the big differences is whereas I like to keep my own work quite loose with regards to planning, the commercial stuff needs to be planned out pretty rigidly. Sometimes I’ll only have a couple of minutes to shoot someone, so I can’t afford to be too free and easy! I guess the biggest overlap is learning how to work with and direct people; from Premiere League footballers to a forest worker in Romania, learning how to work efficiently with people is a very useful skill.

MB: Over the years, how has your photography style changed? How has it changed you as a person? 

NW: The biggest change over the last decade has been a shift from single images into narrative lead project work. I also shoot a lot more portraits now, I was never interested in portraiture until I began working on Black Dots. Now, it’s one of my favorite things to shoot.

MB: You first discovered bothies in 2013 via the internet when researching travel plans for a trip to the Northern UK, in Scotland. What intrigued you about them the first time you heard about them? At what point did you make the decision to explore them?

NW: It wasn’t so much the buildings themselves that intrigued me, it was more about what they represented and the people that use them. I was fascinated at this idea of strangers gathering together in these tiny shelters, having this kind of primal experience before they all disappear off into the hills again. I wanted to find out why people did that. The whole thing was lead by curiosity I suppose. I don’t think you can be certain of anything, project wise, by sitting on Google. Nothing beats going out in to the world with the camera and figuring it out for yourself, even if you don’t really know what it is you’re looking for. On a personal level I found that the experience of being in these places; the weather, the smells, the encounters, helped to elevate the work beyond that of “what it looks like” if that makes sense? I hope that comes across in all my work. The first bothy I visited was Warnscale in the English Lake District. It’s this old mining shelter hidden away amongst the heather and slate. I don’t really keep track of mileage, but this isn’t too far from a trail.

MB: Your first night in a bothy was a magical one where you decided to take on your project known as Black Dots. Was this your first serious project that you would span years creating? Did you have any idea when the project would “begin” and “end” or did you take it as it came? When did it finally feel “finished” as far as shooting was concerned?

NW: This was my first body of work since graduating. It was mainly shot in Scotland, but I was actually working a full time job down in the South West of England – so I was pretty restricted with time. That said, I was keen to make sure Black Dots spanned all seasons and all weathers. There are around 100 bothies in the network and I didn’t need to photograph every single one – that would have been a pretty boring project. I made a selection of 20 or so, based on location/variety and wrapped the project once I’d visited all the ones on the list.

MB: The next day you photographed the first scene that would make it into your book. Can you tell us more about how it felt to officially embark on this project?

NW: I didn’t realize that until much later on in the edit! But it’s always nice to get away from the computer screen and start making work, even if it’s just for fun.

MB: You visited a total of 20+ bothies over three years. Do you have a favorite that you stayed at? Least Favorite? How did you discover each one you visited? Were any “unpublished” and found out by word of mouth? If so, how did you discover this “secret” bothy?

NW: They’re all so different it’s difficult to say. I had an awesome few days at Corrour bothy in the Cairngorms though. The Mountain Bothies Association maintain around 100. There are many more “secret” bothies outside of this network, and I decided not to include them. Part of the fun is hearing about these other bothies through word of mouth, so I didn’t want to go and publish loads of photographs of them and ruin the fun for everyone. The MBA bothies are listed on their website.

MB: As with all backpacking, hikers need to make concessions when bringing a lot of weight on their trips. How do you decide what gear is necessary for your trips? What does your total pack weight look like? Has gear or type of equipment changed over the years? What is different about your equipment now?

NW: Not sure how heavy the bag was, but weight was an issue with Black Dots, because I’d have to carry in my own fuel for the fires in addition to food, hiking kit and photography kit. I stripped it down as much as possible, but there’s only so much you can take out. You don’t want to get cold or wet or put yourself in danger, but you also don’t want to regret leaving that long lens in the car. My 4x5 kit has remained the same since 2015, although I’ve swapped out the 150mm lens for a 135mm one, that’s about it.

MB: Can you describe a "normal" preparation for getting ready to take a photo hike? What do you use to plan your route? How do you train for your trips? Do you run to get ready?

NW: I’m usually only out taking pictures if I’m working on a project, so will have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking for. For Black Dots I had ordnance survey maps pinned up on the walls around my desk, and logged routes into the GPS.  I don’t run. You’ll never see me running anywhere, ever.

MB: What was the farthest your traveled to stay in a bothy, mileage or elevation gain? Can you share with us which one it was and what it was like getting there? Which journey had the harshest weather? How did it change your trip? Tell us the story.

I don’t really know the mileage – it was a couple of years ago now. There was this fun Winter trip I did with a friend in the Cairngorms though. Lin O’ Dee to Corrour Bothy for 2 nights, then up and over Ben Macdui (UKs second highest mountain) to Hutchinson Memorial Hut. I blew my knee out on Ben Macdui and my mate had to carry both our bags, full of camera kit. He still likes to talk about that, of course…

MB: Are you a slower or faster hiker? Do you go with the flow or try to stay on your planned agenda? How spontaneous are your outings?

Slow. Very, very slow. It’s about photography – and that takes time.

MB: Another bothy user said that there is a certain feeling when you see the chimney of a bothy from the other side of a hill, that it fills you with excitement and allows you to reclaim energy from your surroundings and put them to good use finishing the trail. Did you experience any of these “payoff” moments?

NW: Yeah, when the weather is really against you and you know there’s no chance of getting that 4x5 set up, it’s a pretty big relief to step inside the bothy and close the door! I spent a lot of time sitting on my own and waiting.

MB: How many days and nights did you spend over the three years actually staying in bothies and how would you estimate the amount of time you spent time along vs. with other hikers? Do you prefer one or the other, or was there just the right amount of both?

NW: I couldn’t say the number of nights – but I think I did 6 fortnightly trips then a handful of long weekends…I can’t really remember. I had a mate join me for sections of each trip, to help with kit, etc. But a fair amount of time was spent on my own. You never really know for sure whether you’re going to share the bothy with someone. I think everyone enjoys a healthy balance!

MB: Your series tells the stories of the bothies and the people who dwell in them. Can you describe to us the most pleasant and least pleasant experience you had with any individuals you met on your travels? Anything that sticks out dramatically?

NW: A man called Gary had the loudest snore, he probably could have avalanched us. Mostly though, they were all pleasant experiences. Everyone shares out food and drink, and we’re all there because of a shared love of the outdoors, so you never run out of things to chat about. I do remember making my way through an obscene amount of cheese and dried meat at Strabeg though…

MB: In a previous interview you said that none of your portraits were pre-planned. Can you tell us peoples reactions to your 4x5 camera? Were they more willing because of the format? How do you think their reaction would have changed if you attempted the same portraits with digital equipment?

NW: Most of the portraits were made in the mornings, so I’d already established a relationship with the people. The 4x5 definitely helped though. People seem to be more excited about having their picture taken on one of these cameras. I find that – because of how long it takes me to set up and focus – the subjects adopt a much more relaxed body position, because they’ve been stood there waiting for quite a while!

MB: The bothy code published online states some rules regarding the use of these structures. To sum them up they are: leave things how you found them, and essentially practice leave no trace principles. They also encourage someone to replace an item they use or leave extra for the next visitor. Did you ever find anything interesting that you can remember? What did you leave behind for the next person to find?

NW: Sometimes people take this too far and end up leaving behind items that attract mice. But items such as matches and firelighters are always welcome. If I had time to kill I’d try and restock the firewood using any fallen branches I could find.

MB: If you had to give one piece of advice to someone who has never stayed in a bothy, what would you tell them?

NW: Don’t expect to find firewood left behind, so bring your own fuel. And take your rubbish with you.

MB: On the topic of Leave No Trace: do you think bothies take away from the true wilderness of Scotland? Do you think they actually help conserve the wildlife around them by providing a central place for human activity? What are your thoughts on conserving nature? Are you a conservationist? How do you view our planet and humanities effect on it?

NW: Many of these bothies have been converted from already existing structures belonging to various estates. They’re not an eyesore in my opinion and are relatively few and far between. I would like to think that the vast majority of people who venture out into our wild spaces would consider the preservation and protection of these landscapes to be of great importance. I’m not sure whether I would describe myself as a “conservationist”, however I do feel very strongly about peoples attitudes towards the natural world. There seems to have been a significant shift in peoples way of thinking over the last few years though, with much more emphasis being put on rewilding initiatives and dialogue surrounding climate change and wilderness conservation.

MB: What could other countries learn from your country’s treatment of nature? Most of your access is available to everyone. Are there fees for traveling certain trails or parks?  

NW: No fees that I know of, but some of the main trails have donation boxes. Depends how you see it, we pretty much obliterated all of our forests and hunted the large carnivores to extinction – so some people describe our wild spaces as a wasteland! After spending considerable time in the forests of Romania, I can see what they mean. However as I said, there’s a shifting mentality towards the way in which we approach our wild spaces.

MB: In another article you described your photography work as using “honest light”. You felt that if you always shot images at sunset or during golden hour you wouldn’t truly being documentation these places. This is an admirable view and one that in our opinion requires better mastery of photography techniques. Was there a moment in time that you came on this opinion, and if so what were your influences? Have you always thought this? Tell us more about this.

NW: I’ve never fully understood why photographers are obsessed with shooting landscapes in golden light all the time – if you’ve ever spent time hiking in the UK, you’ll know that it rains a lot. I wanted to make sure I gave a realistic representation of what it’s like to move through the British landscape.

MB: How does choosing a location to go take pictures work for you? Do you have an idea in mind? Are you looking for specific weather for specific locations to capture the perfect scene? How do you know when "this is it!" when taking a photo?

NW: Depends on what project I’m working on. With Black Dots, there was a clear destination/subject, so I could almost plan ahead with regards to what shots were possible, what the terrain was like and so on. With Carpathia, the work adopts a more documentary approach. I never quite know where I’m going each day, or what situations I’ll end up in. I just allow the day to naturally unfold and work with whatever conditions I’m given.

MB: You have talked about how large format photography gives the time landscapes deserves. Can you describe this more? What is so appealing about using an old technology in the wild?

NW: I’m a very slow worker. Sure, you can work slowly on a DSLR if you want to, but with large format you don’t really have much of a choice. I find the whole process of setting up the camera, working under the dark cloth and scrutinizing the scene with a loupe really cathartic, and almost meditative. You have all the sounds and smells of the landscape going on around you, yet you’re staring intensely at a tuft of grass, or a single branch of a tree, in a way that you would never do were it not for that camera. Large Format forces you to examine every single individual detail, rather than the scene as a whole.

MB: How many images did you take total for Black Dots? How many images did you take per outing? What made you choose Portra for this project?

NW: I’d have to go and count the negs! On some trips I’d only take a handful of photographs over the course of the week. Portra has the ability to render both the landscape and skin tones beautifully.

MB: Your series is called Black Dots. Where did the name come from? Did you have a working title while you were shooting it and when did the title stick?

NW: Black Dots comes from a chapter in the Mountain Bothies Association handbook. It talks about how they would locate buildings to be converted into bothies, and how on the older ordnance survey maps these structures would be marked as little black dots. I think it was just called “the bothy project” when I was working on it though!

MB: Your book was published by Another Place Press in 2017. How did you come to work with them? What was the sequencing, designing, and printing process like? Did you have to make any hard decisions about what to include and exclude from the book? Any regrets on that front?

NW: No regrets at all. I met Iain from APP via social media and we’d been in touch during the latter stages of Black Dots. APP aim to make contemporary landscape photography accessible by releasing beautiful little photobooks at affordable prices. Many copies of Black Dots sold to people who generally wouldn’t be interested in buying contemporary photobooks.

MB: Since your series was published you have received an enormous amount of praise, rightly so. Has this praise opened up any doors for you in the industry itself? Has it changed nothing? What was the feeling when you began receiving this recognition? Was it expected or unexpected?

NW: Thank you. I don’t really make work to get recognized, I do it because it’s what I enjoy doing. The priority for me is making sure that I am happy with the photographs, and that they tell the story I wanted to tell. Black Dots certainly opened doors for me though. I was awarded the Royal Photographic Societies Environmental Bursary, which helped to kick start my new work in Romania.

MB: What are you working on now? Any long term projects? Will you continue to shoot analog on future projects?

NW: I’ve just released the first set of images from my new project in Romania, documenting the formation of a European wilderness reserve. I’ve been working on that project for about a year and a half now, and will probably continue shooting throughout 2019. That’s all shot on 4x5. There are a few other things I’m working on, some of which will be shot on the 4x5, and others will probably be digital. I’ll allow the ideas to develop and choose the appropriate medium afterwards.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Behlen is a photography enthusiast from Fresno, CA. He works in finance and spends his free time shooting instant film and backpacking in the California wilderness, usually a combination of the two.  He is the founder of Analog Forever Magazine. Connect with Michael Behlen on his Website and on Instagram!