Outdoor Photography – Interview January 2004
Keith Wilson hears how Malcolm MacGregor’s quest to depict wilderness began in the deserts of Oman.
Wilderness is a wonderfully romantic word. But like many romances it is but a dream. Landscape photographers aspire to wilderness, being careful to crop out the encroaching telegraph pole, the obtrusive park bench, or the passing walker in the red cagoule, in order to create the illusion. And for most of us living in an overpopulated and highly developed world, this is an illusion we are willing to subscribe to because we badly want to believe in it.
However, Malcolm MacGregor is no illusionist. For the best part of six years he has been photographing the more remote areas of two countries: Scotland and Oman. While the wilderness credentials of the former is debateable, the aptly named Empty Quarter of Oman cannot be disputed. That aside, it is hard to imagine two more contrasting landscapes, but MacGregor finds a common purpose in both locations while pursuing his journey for the ‘primeval scene’. This is not a newly contrived phrase to fit the worthy ramblings of an artiste with a lens as fogged as his musings. In fact, conveying the primeval scene is what motivated Ansel Adams for a lifetime of photography in Yosemite (he once wrote of his quest ‘to inquire of my soul just what the primeval scene really signifies’).
MacGregor’s definition is clear and uncluttered: ‘The primeval scene is one where there is absolutely no sense of human interference in the landscape’. He adds:
‘The photographer has to be well away from symbols of humanity like roads, ruined buildings and things of that nature. The photograph or the scene gives a feeling of primordial splendour; weather-beaten rocks, trees, sand dunes. From my experience remote places like the dunes of the Empty Quarter in Arabia, the Caledonian Forest of Scotland and the big rivers and mountains of Alaska transmit this feeling, a feeling that nothing has changed, that nature takes its course without human interference.
MacGregor first went to Oman in the mid 1980s while serving in the Scots Guards during a 17-year career with the British Army. After leaving the army in 1997, he decided to pursue a career as a photographer. Before long MacGregor used the contacts he made in Oman to clear the way for a series of return visits designed to photograph the country for a book of landscapes. ‘ I knew the potential and there wasn’t a book about the wilderness of Oman. There are so many good photographers focusing on the American southwest, so you have to think of somewhere different like Oman.’
Several lengthy visits in 2000 and 2001 culminated in the publication of Wilderness Oman last year. Beautifully printed, the book reveals a country with a surprising variety of scenery. There are the huge wind-blown dunes of sprawling empty deserts, sumptuously lit by the harsh yet clean light that you would expect from the Arabian Peninsula. But what you don’t anticipate are the undulating green valleys, the bald stony peaks and a craggy coast reminiscent in some places of the Western Isles. Unsurprisingly, it is to the shores of Scotland that his pursuit of the primeval scene has now turned. ‘The main reason for choosing Scotland is the amazing light. Nowhere else in Britain could you depict the primeval theme. There’s so much variety of colour and landscape.’
He is nearly halfway to completing the Scottish photographs, but MacGregor concedes that the search for primeval scenes is not as straightforward as it was in Oman. ‘I have tried to get to some of the more remote places in the Outer Hebrides and into Sutherland between Cape Wrath and Lochinver,’ he says ‘but I’ll need 70 or so to make a book.’
That’s not to say that the primeval scene is a tick list of hard to reach locations. On the contrary, the Outer Hebrides and Sutherland qualify as much for the play of light and the mood conveyed at the instant of exposure, as for the lack of human presence. This is where Scotland’s changeable weather plays such a key role, as MacGregor explains: ‘In Arabia, Australia and places like New Mexico and Arizona, the light is so consistent that if you don’t get your photograph on day one, you will get it on day two. In Scotland that doesn’t happen, you have to wait a week or even longer.’
According to MacGregor, the unpredictable weather helps provide the ingredients for another important aspect of wilderness: a capacity to give you a sense of what the landscape may have been like in the distant past. In this respect, it could be argued that where Oman’s Empty Quarter is the literal and physical example of a primeval scene, the Outer Hebrides and Sutherland provide the spiritual and intellectual link.
‘Extraordinary light and a strong composition would be two of the ingredients and a third factor is a feeling of apprehension or danger,’ he says. ‘The viewer perhaps has to feel a connection with the ancient forces of life. It is a place where the photographer should be apprehensive venturing into the world of timeless and unknown forces.’ With a description like that, Macgregor’s Wilderness Scotland project promises a collection of truly evocative images.