Interview With Wilderness Large Format Photography Mark Darragh
1 Why has film been your choice over digital?
I’ve been using film ever since I was given my first camera at the age of 10 in the 1980s, so I’m of a generation that started photographing with film and in my case, never stopped. For over 25 years view cameras have been my tool of choice. I work with 4×5 and 8×10 monorail cameras, perhaps a strange choice for a wilderness photographer who often has to carry that gear for a week or more through remote country.
I do work with digital cameras at times and I certainly don’t subscribe to a “film is better than digital” mentality, rather the two offer a different way of working. However, I find the digital workflow using techniques such as focus stacking and stitching rather tedious compared to making a photograph that is captured on a single sheet of film. The movements that view cameras offer, along with composing on the ground glass, open up incredible control in crafting a photograph. I’m yet to find a way of matching that even using a digital back on a view camera. There are other reasons why I prefer film such as spectral response, colour rendition and even the grain.
2 Do you look at the work people produce in the UK and what are your thoughts on it?
Yes, I do have some awareness, particularly of photographers working with large format film. Much of what I see doesn’t really have much direct relevance to my own work but I do appreciate looking at well-crafted photographs. Two UK-based photographers whose work really resonates with me are Paul Wakefield and David Ward.
I discovered Paul’s work in the early 2000s through a copy of “Britain A World By Itself” and I’ve added to that over the years, most recently with “The Landscape”. Everything about Paul’s photographs, his choice of light, subject and composition, has a unique quality. He really is a remarkable photographer.
David Ward also has a distinctive vision which has carried through from his large format work to his recent digital work. I particularly appreciate his close-up images.
Beyond those two I have a reasonable library of photographic books and the UK is well represented. Joe Cornish’s two books on Scotland and Colin Prior’s work are others that stand out.
3 What would you say the message is behind your work?
Much of what drives my work really goes back to my background and interest in ecology and biogeography, it’s not simply about photographing picturesque landscapes. I often photograph places and things that are probably not considered particularly beautiful or interesting to other photographers or people in general, however, they have significance in terms of what they say about a particular species, habitat or ecosystem.
An example of that is one of my long-term projects “From the Ashes”, photographing the impact of, and recovery from, bushfires in the Victorian landscape. I began that following the 2003 Victorian Alpine fires which burned 1.3 million hectares (from what I’ve read that is the equivalent in area to burning every bit of Scotland’s woodland and forest) and were the biggest fires in Victoria since 1939. Sadly we’re now seeing similar mega-fires every few years now rather than decades and as a result we’re witnessing a fundamental change to the ecology of many ecosystems affected by these fires.
I also have a long-standing interest in the temperate forests and alpine ecosystems of the Pacific Rim. Many of the species and plant communities found in these areas can be described as relicts, remnants of much larger populations which can be traced back through geological time to the planet communities which once dominated the ancient super continent of Gondwana. Many of these communities are also particularly vulnerable to the impact of bushfires.
Quite a large proportion of my photographs are close-up and macro images. Because of the greater size offered by large format film, even at life-size, these are rarely single subjects but rather “micro” landscapes and topographies within the greater landscape as a whole. In that sense they provide a window into what many people overlook and pass-by or even quite literally trample on.
When you exhibit a print or put a photograph online, each person’s response is individual and as the photographer, you have little control over that. I hope my photographs encourage people to look and think beyond the obvious and superficial, to gain a greater appreciation for our planet and the intricate web of life we see around us, and also about what is crucial for our future.
4 I love Victoria and spent time in the state, what would you say is a
favourite place to visit?
It’s hard to pick a favourite, Victoria is possibly the most diverse state in Australia in terms of landscapes and different habitats. We have everything from deserts through to warm temperate rainforests and some of Australia’s highest mountains which are snow-covered through winter.
I’ve spent many years working in the cool temperate rainforest and wet sclerophyll forest that range from the Otways in south-western Victoria through to Far East Gippsland. I regularly visit the Victorian Alps, particularly in winter. The Grampians, a range of sandstone mountains in western Victoria is another area I try to visit at least once a year.
5 Plans for the future.
Most of my photography is focused on long-term projects which I continue to work on. Later this year, in our spring, I’m hoping to revisit the forests in East Gippsland, which are some of the wildest and most remote in the state. I’ve been visiting that area regularly since I was a teenager and photographing there was really formative in my becoming a wilderness photographer. Much of East Gippsland was impacted by the Black Summer fires which ravaged the East Coast of Australia in 2019/20. Because of the COVID travel restrictions here in the last two years, I haven’t had the opportunity to get out there.
In the last twenty years, I’ve been fortunate to travel widely through the temperate forests and alpine regions of Australia, New Zealand and Patagonia. There are many more parts of South America I’d love to visit, and related areas in New Caledonia, New Guinea and Indonesia but given the uncertainty in the short-term with COVID and the state of the world more generally, those trips might have to wait for a more stable future.
I also have material for several exhibitions which I’m slowly working away on. In 2020 I had major exhibition “Relicts of Gondwana” at the Wilderness Gallery in Tasmania. Unfortunately, the gallery was forced to close due to COVID only a few days after we opened. The exhibition spanned 18 years of photographs and it took 2 years to prepare the prints, now things have opened up here I’m trying to show the exhibition again locally so more people can actually get to see it.
Large Format Wilderness and Nature Photography