Sutherland | Caithness
Alastair's Cook's black and white photographic images of Caithness and Sutherland – shot on 35mm film and hand-printed - repay close attention. What, at first sight, may appear rather stark, unpeopled studies of landscape, geology and abandoned architecture slowly reveal themselves are carefully composed and conceived studies which use the camera's framing eye to convey rich metaphor and a sense of quiet, spiritual wonderment.
Although Cook's stated aim, 'to reflect back the beauty of the place to the people who live here' may sound vaguely patronising, one can see his point: landscape is frequently used and abused here in a way seldom found elsewhere. Often, beauty seems to exist in spite of humanity intervention rather than because of it. Aspects of the visual and physical environment such as the immensely rich geology and the complex shifting sense of light and movement over the sea can often go unseen and unsung.
On some levels, Cook's work can appear cliched: the studies of abandoned buildings and croft-houses are tropes employed in numerous instances elsewhere. The lack of human presence in some of the studies only seem to reinforce this rather bleak and uncompromising vision. The familiar resonant refrain of 'The Clearances' appears to sound loudly. But is this really the subject of Cook's interest? Or is he delighting in the stonemason's art and the sculptural quality of placed stone? That much is unclear. Perhaps he is conflating both the historical and structural, melding a sense of wonderment at recent human intervention with the vastness of geological time?
Elsewhere, there seems little doubt that Cook's fascination lies with the compositional possibilities offered by the many geos and wave-cut platforms of eastern Sutherland and Caithness. Allied to the interest Cook finds here is his particular captivation with the even spread of the light created by the eastern horizon. Often, Cook's compositions reveal three constituent parts: sky, sea and geology. Sometimes these elements are accorded pictorial equal status and at others the sea, for example, is reduced to a thin sliver of textured steel-grey running along the middle of the composition.
In his study of a rope (used to help walkers and fishermen negotiate a particularly steep path) Cook suggests a metaphor. The rope forms a vertical division in the image as it lies frayed, makeshift and fragile on the foot-worn path. Our lives in the balance? The symbiosis of the natural and the man-made? Whatever its symbolism, it seems that the image is about more than simply compositional opportunism.
Cook highlights his working methods by including here a number of digital colour shots which acted as 'sketches' towards the finished compositions of the black and white images. These images offer a less atmospheric, more mundane sense of place; snapshots which nevertheless suggest mood and texture.
Coupled with these still colour and black and white images are a number of films which may loosely be described as meditative travelogues exploring the social and economic geography of Helmsdale and neighbouring Gartymore. Using a hand-held camera in 'The Land and the Sea' Cook offers and astute, heart-felt commentary on the stones and fallow crofts which haunt the landscape. Looking at one abandoned building, complete with broken bed-stead, he comments: “There is something eerie somehow that in lots of these...they've been empty too, long you couldn't really call them derelict...they're ruins...they've consolidated themselves, they've fallen in, they're not safe but there not dangerous but in lots of them, bedposts, pieces of bed-spring...poking from beneath moss-covered stone...people have left their beds behind....there's no point in behind romantic about it let's be practical...there is enough round here to be romantic about without contrivance.”
Sutherland | Caithness