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Blogs: Digital Dawn Blog : Nigel Ladkin

Arger Fen and Spouse’s Vale by Nigel Ladkin

In late 2016 we downsized and moved from deepest East Kent to a market town in West Suffolk. This was something of a rite of passage as it acknowledged the passing of the years meant some lifestyle changes. This included now being able to walk into town; and the time it took to mow the lawn could now be measured in minutes rather than days. One thinks that one is alone in this journey but then finds that there are so many of my generation on the same route that we form a social class known to Experian as Small Market Town Retirees (Smarties)!

Just as one has to de-clutter the garage it was also time to de-clutter my approach to photography. After eight years of taking this seriously it was time to conclude that creating a coherent body of work of one-off fine art landscape photographs was not meant for me. I do not have that vision. My approach is not quite Toad like but I do derive my enjoyment from a number of different subjects.   My enjoyment of the one-off fine art photograph made in the wilder parts of the realm remains undiminished but I also recognised that the photographic pleasures of lowland England are often quite low key and lend themselves more to a series of studies. The recognition stemmed from being introduced by Garry to the work of Jem Southam, in particular “River Winter” and “The Painter’s Pool”.

There was also a transition from Kent to Suffolk in terms of where to base my day-to-day photography. Not being quite ready yet for huge East Anglian skies I found my niche at Arger Fen and Spouse’s Vale. This lies high in the valley of Constable’s river Stour and is something of a stepping-stone from the heavy clay of the Kentish Weald and chalk of the North Downs to the plateau of High Suffolk and the dry sand of The Brecks. The site of 247 acres is owned and under the guardianship of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and is made up of remnants of ancient woodland and adjoining agricultural land. The latter is now being allowed to regenerate naturally. The site is particularly known for its bluebells and large ancient cherry trees. My main delight is in the complicated slopes of the ancient woodland and swampy valley bottoms.

The joy of a project like this is that you can make it up as you go along. My first visit was at dawn in deep winter and as the project developed it came to involve a visit at least once in each season over the course of one year, sticking to quite a small area of the site and charting the seasonal changes. There is a swampy shallow mirror pool at the low point in Spouse’s Vale and I thought it would be interesting to mark the end of the year by making a study of the pool, including it in every photograph. Intriguingly the day was very similar to that of the first visit - cold but with little wind and bright low December sunshine.

One of the purposes of the project was to develop my appreciation of the more intimate landscape with limited colour palettes. For this reason I tried to avoid the more eye-catching elements such as the bluebells, primroses and cherry blossom. I was also interested in developing a compositional style that takes pleasure in complexity. This involved picking a spot to set down the camera bag and coffee flask in order to let my mind settle and try to let the composition come to me. The skill is developing slowly but is hard for me as I have always been keen to get onto the next thing. On one occasion I got quite distracted and wandered off to check a half-seen view only to completely lose my bearings and have to search for the camera bag in an increasing panic for a good twenty minutes.

I have found that the mindset is transferable to other situations and have found myself to be much more patient in my approach. The mindset is not so much the output-based approach of the big game hunter with the trophies captured on the memory card; more the input based approach letting my mind wander.

Some other observations:

  • A deep appreciation of the work of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust in managing this and other precious sites in the County, many of which I am now exploring.
  • Puzzlement as to how to replicate the sense of stillness, the bird song, the effect of the wind, the ants crawling up your leg as you sit in a bush with no timetable to meet.
  • Appreciation of the absolute luxury of being granted the privilege of sitting in a bush with all of the above and no targets to achieve.
  • Intrigue as to the ebb and flow of people in the wood, the early dog walkers, the later power walkers, the after school parties and the few amongst them who noticed my presence.
  • The need consciously to complement the nature of the image by the style of post-processing. In this case quite conservative, often matching any increase in contrast with a reduction in saturation.

The project is not quite complete. I do enjoy printing my photographs and another feature of my reconsidered approach to photography is to look at creating a book. The first draft has been quite disappointing in the choice of paper and the next thing to do is to choose which of the well-known self-publishers to go with. A big question is size. I wonder if he pictures would benefit from being either quite large or very small.

The project has also encouraged me to look more deeply at other local environments, now in High Suffolk, for similar explorations with the current working title of “Abundance”.

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