Wilderness Oman by Patricia Groves
An astonished hush came over the audience as the first glorious slide burst upon the wall leading the viewer through a dramatic depth to mountains outlined in the far distance. But the focal point of the photograph is in the immediate foreground. It is a great rock ruggedly displayed against the contrasting soft surface of the sea, which, at that moment, was transcendental in hue like glass becoming mirror.
This is the photography of Malcolm MacGregor and it is seven am in Musandam. Malcolm has been working since five am, probably alone, following the light to find his picture. The night before, after photographing until the last light had left, he carefully packed his equipment, made exact notes of his work, settled by a campfire in the wind and at last slept in his bivouac under the silence of the stars.
Here is a man of discipline and determination, with the spirit of a soldier from long years in the Scots Guards and as a company commander in the Ghurkhas, who is also a great romantic naturalist and an extraordinary artist.
Photography is not an easy art. Though we all take pictures and occasionally end up with one that we want to enlarge and show our friends, few of us can aspire to be professional photographers, let alone artists of the lens.
Not long ago Malcolm MacGregor could almost have been ‘one of us’ who simply took pictures of this beautiful land for personal pleasure; but then he stepped into another realm. Malcolm said goodbye to his military career and is now presenting his first book of photographs, entitled Wilderness Oman.
What is it that makes a photographer an artist? Just as we can tell a Rembrandt from Renoir, we can distinguish the work of different great photographers. Many of us can recognise instantly a Karsh portrait or an Ansel Adams landscape. As in painting, great photography is a matter of mastery of perspective, technique, composition, subject, use of colour, light and dark, meaning and symbolism as well as tone mood or feeling.
As you turn the pages of Wilderness Oman, you become aware of the distinctive style of MacGregor’s photography. His is a style created, on the level of physical technique, by use of a wide angled lens and the qualities of the film stock described as having ‘warm tones, richness of colour and low granularity’.
These of course are not ordinary photographs but have a very beautiful and spectacular quality, which comes from the perspectives chosen and how the subject is treated. MacGregor’s photographs are sculptural and often have a striking sensual quality, which appears to come from the richness of colour stretching languidly over the curve of a lone tree, the undulation of a coastline or the immensity of a great, touchable boulder. The movement in his photographs is only of the lines in the sculptural shapes; otherwise, his pictures are still and quiet, silent like the wilderness itself.
MacGregor believes that ‘enthusiasm for all aspects of the subject…strengthens the power of intuition in sensing the unusual’. He has a deep feeling of affinity for the wild landscape, ‘for the earth and sky unfettered by human activity’. With ‘eyes acting as windows’, the photographer must be alert, like a wild animal tracking prey, ready to capture the transitory light which comes suddenly upon a scene, illuminating it in wondrous colour and beauty for those few minutes or seconds only. If the photographer is not ready, the picture of that moment of grace upon the landscape is gone forever.
In order to find the moment when a landscape is ripe for the camera, MacGregor ‘lives with the light’. Each land has its own quality of light giving the natural environment its distinctive artistic character. In Oman the effect of light is particularly striking and beautiful. And this effect can be seen in the photographs of Wilderness Oman. MacGregor captures the unique light of Oman especially vividly at dawn, when it spreads an almost holy aura over the waking land; and at dusk, when golden threads of rose, violet and mauve drape and layer the misted mountains in the distance.
Perhaps nowhere is the light of Oman more dramatic than over the breathtaking fiords and glittering waters of faraway Musandam where a magnificently stark landscape is lit in translucent hues and sliced in precipitous cliffs. MacGregor stood there…listening, through the silence of the plummeting depths, to the sound of the sea far below, where soon he would be on the shores with his camera.
MacGregor’s interpretation of the idea of wilderness is fully expressed in the Empty Quarter, the Rub al Khali. ‘If the term wilderness has any meaning left in the modern world, the vast emptiness of the Rub al Khali must surely be its ultimate expression’. It is essential for his artistic inspiration that Malcolm makes the wilderness his habitat during the photographic period. When he camped in the Rub al Khali and penetrated more deeply into this vast, almost floating sea of sand with its realms of gold, orange and red dunes, gigantic in sculptural proportion and everywhere marked with windswept textural design, he was overwhelmingly exhilarated and had to stand back and not try to photograph everything. The cover of his book bears witness to the importance of MacGregor’s relationship to the desert as wilderness.
The coastline too is a powerful element in MacGregor’s concept of wilderness. On the rugged, ever changeable coastlines of Oman Malcolm feels a strong sense of isolation. He is struck by the distinctive turquoise of the seas from Yitti to Sur, the aquamarines and the deep greens. Speaking of the simplicity of one of his coastal pictures, which is mostly a pool of shimmering turquoise against a plain rock, he describes it as lingering like some lost jewel.
MacGregor is ever aware that he is in Arabia and understands the preciousness of water here. This became one theme in his photographic quest: ‘ hunting and hunting for water’. One of the most effective and startling photographs was of the fast falling waters of Wadi Daiqah flowing straight into the viewer’s edge of the picture. Malcolm explains the genesis of the picture: ‘ I set myself up in the water, with the river coming straight for me. A cloud appeared from nowhere, draping the mountain in an Italianesque way and this made a good picture exceptional’. And there it was, an Arab dream – a great gush of water and a cloud in the sky.
MacGregor observes, ‘So long as the photographs enthuse people, there is no more to explain’. What he means by this is that once the viewer gets the same feeling of the landscape as that which inspired the photographer, the communication is complete. But that is not all. The higher purpose is to gain spiritual insight into the essence of the land.
Art allows us to take into ourselves in a personally meaningful, yet universal way, the truth and beauty of the seen, sensed and felt phenomena of the world. Each of us has been moved by the mystic magnificence of nature in Oman, and instinctively we want to internalise that magnificence, to take it away with us in some form that recreates the vision and the feeling it inspired. Words can do this and so can images. Wilderness Oman is not only a picture book; it has an extensive and thoughtful text presented through the elegant and simple framework of the mountains, the coasts and the desert.
To view photographs connected with this article click here.
Dr. Patricia Groves
Oman Daily Observer Oct 2002