We’re on a limestone ridge hanging over a choppy, turquoise sea at Bandar Jissa. As dark clouds move in, Malcolm MacGregor ducks under a wildly flapping sheet and looks through his large format camera, on a tripod sticking into the rock face. “One thousand… two thousand,” he begins, counting softly for eight seconds before closing the shutter. Such quiet moments, and seconds, add to a portfolio that spans the wilderness of the sultanate, and stretches into the further reaches of Alaska and the Scottish Highlands.
Minutes away from where we shot, selective works from Malcolm’s collection were on display at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel. From the sculpted rock in a slightly ruffled sea off Musandam to the minimalist stroke of land splashed across the pink lagoon at Khalij al Halaniyat, Malcolm’s images are almost as much about how he sees the world as they are about the places themselves. But while his photographs are undoubtedly gorgeous, they stand out in that they go beyond picture-postcard beauty. “There are two types of photographs,” Malcolm says, quoting a stream of thought that goes back to the 1920s, when people were first setting out photographically virgin territory with their cameras. “Images can be windows, or mirrors. A window is more illustrative, but the mirror is a reflection of the photographer’s vision. That’s what I’m after!”
And that’s certainly what he’s progressing towards. Malcolm takes out a box of fresh transparencies that he’s just got from his latest foray into the depths of Oman. In the cavernous lobby of gigantic arches, he holds them up to the light. There, sparkling in film, are rocks peeping out of pools in Wadi Dayqah. This is not your usual landscape shot of expansive vistas, or unfolding scenery. Rather, it is a carefully thought-out composition, and a good, introspective eye. Even better, it is a work in progress, a development. That in itself is worth praise, considering you expect Malcolm, who has his own shows and sells his images successfully, to show you how it’s done. One of his greatest strengths, then, is his acknowledgement that he has to constantly work at it, like any artist.
A long while ago, Malcolm fell in love with distances and joined the British Army. He served with the Scots Guards for 17 years, and saw a lot of the world. That love of the wilderness has now been translated into a growing portfolio on Oman. What better place if you love wide-open spaces? Such wanderlust results in images like delicately lit cracked rock against Jebel Misht, or – and this is one of Malcolm’s favourites – dusk on Jebel Husayn. “It has shape, form and detail,” he explains, “and is really quite monochromatic, except for the shaft of colour in the sky at the back.” Perhaps one of the most beautiful is the smooth, textured reaching of an aeolianite rock at the edge of the Wahibas.
But what is really at the core of his efforts is wilderness, and Oman is certainly one of the best places in the world for this. What is so incredible about shooting in Oman is that it is as virgin territory as the American landscape was in the 1920s. People like Ansel Adams were getting out into the wilderness, hauling cameras about ten times the size you find nowadays. Much of what you see now as clichéd was pioneered in those days, and repeated ad nauseum over generations. That’s hardly an excuse for producing work without vision though. “My greatest fear,” says Malcolm, “is waking up and not knowing what to shoot.” As the great Edward Weston used to say, the challenge is trying to make a rock not look like a rock. And that’s where the photographer’s vision comes in, and that is really why people prize such work. Weston went on to produce sensuously precise images raised to the level of poetry. The subtleties of tone and the sculptural formal design of his works have become the standards by which much later photographic practice has been judged. Ansel Adams has written, "Weston is, in the real sense, one of the few creative artists of today. He has recreated the matter-forms and forces of nature; he has made these forms eloquent of the fundamental unity of the world. His work illuminates man's inner journey toward perfection of the spirit."
And there’s nothing like the blank canvas that Oman offers to develop one’s work. This is one of the few places on earth left where it gets very wild very soon. And this is the real deal, not something to fool around with. The mountains and deserts here can be as unforgiving as they are photogenic. As Adams rather dryly pointed out, “The real wilderness is a hell of a place.” Rather than being a deterrent, its part of the draw. A photographer’s journey is an intensely personal, focused effort that could be inherently lonely. The one thing that saves you from such depths is your work. It is what drives you, the reason why you set off into the Hajar, or explore aeolianite formations on remote beaches, even toy with the Empty Quarter. It is the reason you could be in Oman.
It certainly is reason enough for Malcolm. After more than an hour fiddling around with two cameras, an assortment of filters and a backpack heavy enough to give the Scots Guards a run for their money, the photographer just might have got his shot. And in an age where a memory card can hold 500 images, it is refreshing to have all that effort distilled into a few intense sheets of film. Eight seconds and a lifetime of thought and experience later, Bandar Jissa, with turquoise water below and grey clouds overhead, has been shot. The next day, while Malcolm travelled on to Musandam, those clouds would bring Muscat rain after almost a year. As the winter sun lit up the freshly watered landscape, Muscat looked more beautiful than it had in a long time. And for many people here, it seemed the most natural thing to take out their cameras and shoot it.