SCOTS – Interview July 2000
Malcolm MacGregor’s spectacular images capture not just the wild, dramatic beauty of the Scottish Highlands, but also a sublime, almost transcendental quality in the landscape. He spoke with Bruce MacWilliam about the agony and the ecstasy of waiting for the Highland Light.
Malcolm MacGregor spent 16 years soldiering with the Scots Guards, a stint that took him all over the world and taught him the iron discipline, the self-reliance and gritty determination essential for survival in the military. Now, with his Army years behind him, those same qualities are very much part of his professional kit as a Scottish landscape photographer. He does not take portraits. He does not shoot wildlife. Instead he concentrates entirely on the most challenging, the most glorious subject of all, the wild remote and generally inaccessible places in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Alone and unassisted he walks and climbs for days, sleeping in a bivvi bag, searching for the perfect location. But finding that site is merely the beginning, not the end. Ahead of him may stretch hours, perhaps days of waiting, waiting, waiting for the light. The results are breathtaking.
It says a lot for Malcolm MacGregor’s tenacity and for his professional skills that he consistently captures images that have the power not merely to arrest our attention but also inspire a sense of awe. Those who maintain that photography has nothing to do with art ought to look closely at these superb landscapes. The art in Malcolm MacGregor’s photography lies in the way in which his images conquer space. He levitates his camera so that it becomes a disembodied eye that gives an unblinking view of the sublime.
When I asked Malcolm why he thought he could make it as a photographer he answered without hesitation: ‘Perseverance and knowing that I do have some innate skills.’ I thought he was being much too modest. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I do have what might be called a sixth sense and that allows me not only to see what’s going on in front of me but to capture its essence through the lens. That doesn’t come naturally. You’ve got to really want to do it and persevere. You have to have inexhaustible patience. You’ve got to be prepared to wait for just the right moment when the light is perfect. I spend a huge amount of time just waiting for the light.’
Malcolm has spent time in Africa and Asia and Australia and each place, he says, has its own very special kind of light. ‘And yet to me those places can’t compare with the breathtaking grandeur of Highland light. I’ve sat out on the hill in pouring rain and then, suddenly, almost miraculously, the rain stops, the clouds lift like theatre curtains and you get this stunning low light slanting across the landscape.’
He insists that light is everything in landscape photography. ‘ It’s the photographer’s reaction to the light that created the image,’ he says. ‘A special brand of light shines on the Highlands and it is at its best in spring and autumn. But combining this light with composition on film needs careful thought. While I do have an image in my mind it is important to remain open-minded. An outline idea takes me to the general area and there I think about the composition, using rocks, trees, water, or a mountain as an anchor forming the rest of the landscape around it. Then it’s a matter of waiting for the light.’
Having created a vivid, well-defined image in his mind’s eye he sometimes finds himself in the position of the famous mathematician who once said that he had had all his solutions for a long time, but did not know how he would arrive at them. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘sometimes this method fails completely because the image in the mind simply does not work on the ground. In the Highlands you have got to be prepared for the unexpected. You have to be prepared to change position or move quickly to another vantage point. This is where the human qualities of discipline and patience are essential. I am always striving for a better position or angle.’
Malcolm meticulously records not only the technical details of each shot he takes but also something personal about what was in his mind when he took the photograph.
‘Was it exhilaration, excitement, contentment?’ he asks of himself. ‘Was I in tune with my surroundings and into the rhythm of it all?’ If he answers yes to those questions then there is a good chance of a wonderful photograph. If the answer is ‘no’ then that particular image is almost certainly destined to be thrown out.
I wondered whether he felt, as so many Scots do, that there was a spiritual quality about the interplay of light and landscape in the Highlands. ‘I’m not one who would claim to have second sight’, he says ‘and yet there is something very powerful, very emotional going on up there and one feels that all the more so when one is alone. In Sutherland and in Wester Ross there are vast open spaces that really are awe-
inspiring. Most people in Britain have never seen them and probably never will. And that’s part of the attraction for me. These are wild places – among the last really wild places in Europe. It is possible to be out there and to be utterly alone.’