Some photographers are synonymous with the subjects and landscapes which they capture. When you think of a war photographer you think of Don McCullin or Robert Capa. The American wilderness and National Parks were beautifully captured by Ansel Adams, and when you think of Scottish Rock Climbing there's only one man who springs to mind; Dave Cubby Cuthbertson.
During the 1970's and 80's, Dave was on the cutting edge of hard Scottish climbing and pioneered some of the country's hardest and boldest routes. Requiem (E8 6b) at Dumbarton was widely believed to be one of the hardest traditional routes in the world at the time. Due to chronic arthritis, Dave has since let go of climbing and fallen into the world of photography. His wonderful panoramic images of the Scottish highlands portray the mountains at their best and his climbing images are a snapshot of Scotland's mountain heritage.
How did you initially get into taking photographs?
At about the age of 11 I joined a Youth Hostelling trip to the Trossachs with the Boys Brigade. A mercury still Loch Ard reflecting the autumn colours is a memory permanently etched in my mind. I was so struck by the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands that after returning home I promised myself never to be without a camera again.
My first camera was a Kodak 110 instamatic which accompanied me on many a big walk, scramble and early climbing adventures. I soon up graded and nearly always carried a compact rangefinder of some description - initially an Olympus Trip, followed by A Rolleigh B35 and a Minox amongst others. All were more than capable of producing magazine front covers.
By the mid 90s the legacy of a nasty fall, which occurred while attempting a new route in Glencoe in 1981, was beginning to make its unwanted presence felt. That’s when I first started thinking that it might make sense to pursue an alternative source of income besides guiding. Thus the birth of Cubby Images, which specialised in climbing and outdoor photography. Technically speaking I didn't really know anything about optics and camera tech stuff in general. My strength lay in a vivid and creative mind which with hindsight proved to be a great asset.
What do you look for when taking a photograph? What's your ideal situation?
There are so many ways to interpret an image, both in terms of telling a story and building a composition. Also, different formats such as panoramas, opposed to conventional landscape and portrait formats, are often composed quite differently. Regardless of one's preferences I'm a great fan of simplicity. Less clutter focuses the eye and I believe evokes a more powerful, emotional image. Photography can take a long time to accrue experience and mature, well for me it did, partly because I wasn't working as a photographer full time and I was so obsessed with getting things right technically; silly really!
How one interprets a scene, fills the frame and composes an image is quite personal. So really I can only speak for myself. If in doubt the good old fashion rule of thirds works well. In no particular order I will start with the climber. These days I rarely organise a photo shoot, preferring largely to rely on a number of friends who keep me posted re climbing projects etc. In other words I have very little involvement other than wardrobe especially in summer, and I simply turn up and take pictures.
The choice of clothing and climber are important to me for a number of reasons. Some colours might simply merge with the rock while, clothes that are loose fitting can result in an ill defined blob on the skyline! The climber needs to compliment the climb too. There's no point, for example, shooting Dave Macleod on the crux of Agags in Summer - an E11 climber on a V Diff, well it's not for me! Every climber has their own signature style of movement and although not essential, technique and most importantly energy is picked up on camera. Interfering with a climber is in my opinion the biggest DONT in climbing photography. While I have been guilty of this in the past I very rarely ask a climber to hold it or repeat a move these days. In my honest and humble opinion taking control of a climber is the original sin but I'm surprised how often I can recognise unwanted anomalies associated with photographer/climber controlled images that appear in magazines.
Proportion of cliff within the composition requires careful analyses; too much and it can over dominate and too little leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable. The good news here is that the beauty of the landscape and back drop will assist in making that decision for you, as will the quality and direction of light. Satisfied that I have exhausted all other possible positions and that I am indeed in the prime spot, I then select an appropriate lens, aperture and shutter speed. To avoid any movement blurs, a moderately fast shutter speed is crucial and I often have to remind myself that I don't need to worry about pushing film speed to ISO 600 or 800 especially on a modern SLR or Rangefinder. Unlike the days of film when large ISOs would produce grain the size of golf balls! Climbing photography has never been easier!
Through your images, I get a real sense of your love for Scotland - what is it about photographing in the highlands that keeps drawing you back?
Well first of all I'm Scottish and I live in the Highlands, so one could say there is a degree of convenience! Given the vagaries of the Scottish weather and climate, taking pictures of climbing and landscapes in the Highlands can be both extremely challenging and rewarding in equal measures. But these days I have learned not to fight the extremes of weather, but rather to embrace its wild beauty and incorporate a less savoured aspect of Scotland into my photography. Another attribute that attracts me again and again is an infinite number of new photographic possibilities even on my home patch in Glencoe. I find that I can easily loose myself here without distraction and enjoy both the solitude and quietude of the mountains. It is this reclusive somewhat solitary existence that I find to be a crucial element in creating inspired photographs.
Scotland is where I served my climbing apprenticeship and therefore there is a bond, an almost spiritual affinity with a landscape that has given me so much in life. The inspiration behind almost all of my photography started with those halcyon days of youth, as a young climber pitted against the elements that Scotland's mountains can throw at you. In a way I'm turning back time; perhaps I'm holding the ropes on a difficult first winter ascent in Glencoe, one eye on my leader the other mesmerised by the breaking dawn. I'm reliving a moment with a view to capturing it on film with a more mature eye. I'm intrigued by the concept of creating a nostalgic edge to my work. The climber and the photographer generations apart, or a retrospective of my climbing past.
Do you draw inspiration from other photographers for your own work? I see a bit of Colin Prior in your panoramic images
When composing a shot I sometimes reflect on my climbing past and the journey to where I am today. I don't expect others to experience that same sense emotion when viewing my photographs; they are simply sub conscious thoughts before releasing the shutter. So when people ask me who has been your greatest inspiration? I'm afraid I have to say, without a trace of arrogance, it's me!
Of course there are so many wonderful photographers out there; and while I think its important not to become blinkered or too tunnel-visioned in one's own work, I will never be able to compete with their creative genius. So perhaps thinking about other photographers' work and listening and reading about what they have to say too often, for me, might be too much of a negative experience. In any case I like to explore and discover for myself and by being close to the mountains on my own I can finally say with a degree of confidence that I have discovered who I am as a person and what makes me tick as a photographer. To contradict myself, Hamish MacInnes and his pictorial climbers guide books (Scottish Climbs Vol. 1 and 2) was certainly an influence. If you look at the places he visited and photographed, often shooting on a Mamyia Press and Fuji 6x9 (both medium format) it's pretty impressive.
You've done a great job in recent years of capturing some fantastic Scottish climbing. What do you like to photograph when it comes to climbing? Does it have to hard or dangerous, a good line?
Simply put I just love the infinite variety of Scottish and British rock, both in the mountains and on our fabulous coastal areas. And in winter many of our modest little mountainous are transformed into peaks of alpine splendour. I suppose I have a list of features that makes for striking or interesting photography, in addition to the climber that is. Waterfalls, the sea, stacs, snowy peaks as a back drop the list is endless and I have locations to fit all that criteria. It's just a case of bringing it all together - the climber, weather and our precious time which is easier said than done in Scotland.
I do have a penchant for historical first ascents though, especially if they are located in a dramatic or wonderful setting. But occasionally climbers need their own space. This is especially true when the consequences of a climber making a mistake or getting it wrong can result in a serious accident or fatality. As I grow older I have become more sensitive to the risks in climbing and the last thing I want is to be a contributing factor when a climber makes that mistake. A good example is Jules Lines, who's very much alive and kicking by the way! I have photographed Jules on many audacious first ascents and solos and most of the time I can tell when he is being honest in respect of whether he would like me to be there or not. It's a dilemma for many climbers at the cutting edge because on the one hand they have sponsors to think about, but on the other the last thing they need on their mind is subconsciously thinking about the photographer. That's a hell of a compromise to make but these days I can generally tell if I'm wanted if indeed needed! In the case of Jules, he recently completed a major first ascent on Creag an Dubh Loch in the Cairngorms. I wasn't there to record the actual first ascent but I captured some great shots on two previous attempts. Climbing routes of this calibre in the Scottish mountains are often hard won by and in the end Jules couldnt afford to have this climb hanging over his head for a fourth year. So of course I had to go. I wasn't in the least bit upset and just so pleased to have captured two of the attempts which portrayed all of the tension and energy of making a major first ascent.
Difficult and compelling rock features with a great and back drop and heaps of atmosphere are the type of venues that turn me on and Scotland has an abundance of such locations, more than enough to last me a life time.
The concept of something new, somewhere old has great appeal. A good example might be Am Bhasteir in the Cuillin of Skye or the Cioch and comparing the Collie routes with the most recent cutting contributions. Great locations, very photogenic and with a tremendous sense of history.
I'm drawn to the quirky too. Recently I was thinking about Andy Nisbet and the way in which I would like to portray him as a climber. Of course Andy and Scottish winter climbing are inextricably linked but actually Andy has always played a part in the development of rock climbing too. The idea of photographing him on a sport climb has some appeal especially if that climb featured some interesting modern in concept movement. This is said not to be derogatory in any way it's just not what most us would associate with Andy, his image and his association with winter climbing.
I can see you really try to capture the mountains in great light - I take it this involves a lot of early mornings and late nights?
Capturing Landscapes in great light invariably means an early start or even a bivvy. I'm afraid it comes with the territory. A typical two day outing would be to shoot some interesting landscape on the approach. Reach a suitable bivvy and shoot evening light, go to bed, get up and shoot the dawn and descend!
Being alone in the mountains in winter is a very humbling experience and for me personally I can't think of a better way to produce inspired images, even although I sometimes feel that I have failed to convey or evoke the emotion i experienced while taking the shot. There are several occasions where I felt so privileged to witness such a magnificent scene unfold before my eyes that it didn't matter if I captured the image on film or not, and that is a truly wonderful experience. I'm not suggesting everyone should take to the hills on their own, especially in winter because it can be dangerous but to be alone on a mountain top and to feel and experience its unique almost deafening silence can be very humbling.
What is most important to you in your photographic work and why?
I'm a bit of a perfectionist at heart but I have at long last learned to control what some have described as a road to nowhere! I know this from my own climbing and how, if not careful, being a perfectionist compromises ones performance. In photography I have learned when either perfection or imperfection can in fact enhance an image! In other words I'm slowly learning to let go!
I think what is most important in my work is that I am personally satisfied with the completed image both technically and emotionally, if that makes sense. In other words if a photograph can convey what I felt at the time of capture then I couldn't ask for more; harder to achieve than you might think. I'm not a huge social media fan but when I post an image on Face book for example, and the response/remarks reflect my own experience, that's wonderful. However that doesn't always happen and I'm never too sure why. Possibly because I do not completely understand the psychology behind social media!
Do you find any aspects of photography challenging?
Yes I still find certain aspects of photography challenging and I never stop learning. Climbing was easy! The commitment to pursue that life style, the motivation to climb and climb and climb never waned and even success in climbing came relatively easily. Photography required a lot of work by comparison but I got there in the end, well getting there if the truth be told! I say that but just when I thought I had matured or mastered my craft, as it were, the digital revolution had begun. I had to learn a whole new set of rules and not to mention an emphasis on post production/editing. Such was my love of film that I often felt I was born 15 years too late. It's hard being a romantic!
When I stopped climbing at the cutting edge I discovered that I was much more of an introvert than I realised, which explains why the idea of selling oneself as a person and a photographer doesn't sit that easy with me. When I was climbing well my confidence was abundant; now that the climbing element has been removed, so too has the confidence. Selling and publicising my photography mountain experiences is a contradiction and currently my biggest hurdle in making a living.
Probably my greatest challenges in photography are not related to the technical side of things but to me personally. In recent years I have suffered at the hands of chronic arthritis and so some of the images you have seen, perhaps posted on Facebook for example, often present something far more personal than meets the eye, and challenging in a physical and mental sense. There is no doubt in my mind that I'm dealing with a disability, and right now I have no idea where it's going!
The fall I mentioned earlier resulted in spinal issues throughout my back and neck and in turn has caused a number of unwanted and unpleasant side effects. I've also had three hip operations which includes two new hips, dare I say the best parts of me!
All of this has meant that I have had to let go of climbing, as a profession and at a more personal level and I must say it's been a tough mountain to climb. But despite the worry of making a living and nurturing a new career, I feel I've dealt with it quite admirably. Thinking positively, which doesn't always come easily, my experiences have changed my outlook on life. I am a better person for it, less self centred and so much more aware of those less privileged particularly in terms of health and disability. The implications of living with chronic arthritis on a day to day level means that what would have been a breeze in the mountains 15 years ago is now something far more challenging, and at times quite scary.
Two years after my first major hip operation I returned from a month working in Ireland, nowhere near any mountains I must add and I therefore not as fit as I could have been. It was Good Friday 2009. Easter was late that year and I was keen to salvage something from the winter. And so there I was in the wake of the last of the winter storms, breaking trail up the lower flanks of Carn Mor Dearg with a view to photographing a panorama of The North East Face of Ben Nevis. Having left home in Ballachulish at around 2.30 am I parked my car beneath the British Alcan dam and started walking at 3.30. I hadn't recceed the precise location so I gave myself plenty of time to find a suitable vantage point with a view to capturing those wonderful pastoral colours of pre dawn, dawn itself and anything else a bonus. But as I approached the shoulder of Carn Mor Dearg I panicked when I saw my wonderful colours' emerging over Glen Roy and the hills of Creagh Maighaidh. So I found what I thought would make an acceptable composition, assembled the tripod and my trusty Noblex camera. I then waited, and waited and waited! My muscles ached, tired after breaking trail, and it was so cold. At a guess the air temperature was about -12deg and with a fresh wind I reckoned the wind-chill factor must have been -25! It certainly felt like it as I stood there shaking almost uncontrollably, waiting! The beauty of climbing is that one in general tends to be on the move, keeping warm, unlike photography! So I went for a walk about to jolt my circulation but it wasn't far enough to make a difference. Ever so slowly time passed, painfully, until at last the light started to improve. A meter reading of 16 seconds suggested that it was almost time, but I knew 8 seconds would be better. 8 seconds in real time is not a long exposure but in the Noblex world 8 secs equates to approx 12 minutes.
When my meter reading suggested 8 seconds I locked off the shutter, stood back and let the drum churn away as I mentally counted the clicks of each drum turn as well setting the timer on my watch. 12 minutes is a long, long time to take one picture and to stand around in those temperatures. Therefore bracketing is not a realistic option!
My timing was perfect however, as much by fluke, but perfect nevertheless. For shortly after releasing the shutter the first rays of warm vermillion touched the summit of Carn Dearg and then, in succession, the light tracked down the now clearly defined crest of the great Nevis ridges - The Castle, Tower Ridge and North East Buttress, finally fading into the shadowy depths of The Alt a Mhullin. Wow, electrifying!
Despite my frozen disposition and muscular twinges in my thighs and hip I had just witnessed one of the most amazing dawns I had ever seen in Scotland. Furthermore, Im pleased to say that I captured all of this on camera. At 6 frames per roll (on 120 roll of film) it didn't take long to shoot half a dozen spools before I decided to re locate. By now the subtle hues of the golden hour had given way to much more contrast in the scene of deep alpine blues. My new position was even better so i shot another few rolls of film before considering the rest of the day. The bitter wind eased and i could at last feel the warmth of the sun's rays on my back. A well deserved hot drink of lemon and ginger laden with heather honey was in order, nectar! At times like this a flask of hot drink is such a luxury even a companion!
I could have descended but what a day to waste! So my plan was now to proceed along the Carn Mor Dearg Arete shooting different angles at various vantage points, then continue to the summit of The Ben and descend via the Red Burn and half way lochan. All good plans! To lighten my sack I opted for poles instead of axe which I left at home, preferring crampons instead. My prediction was spot on as the rock hard neve made for perfect cramponing!
Conditions were magnificent on the ridge and with my experience as a guide and in climbing I wasn't in the slightest bit fazed by the lack of axe! About half way along the most exposed section of the arte things started to take on a new twist as familiar cramp like twinges tugged the front and back of my thigh. Well I was pretty unfit I thought to myself. All the same I took a break for 10 minutes to see if the twinges might subside. As I stood up the familiar twinge turned into a very unfamiliar spasm akin to being hit with a heavy hammer. Yikes I winced this is no normal cramp. So I sat down and finished my tea thinking I was perhaps dehydrated after the exertion breaking trail in the early hours of morning. I consumed some food and shot some photographs to take my mind off the situation, and rest a while longer. But this time when I stood up the cramps were so alarming and debilitating that I thought there's potentially only one way out of here!
'Now what?' I thought to myself. Had I been guiding professionally with a client suffering the symptoms I was going through, I would be seriously considering helicopter evacuation! My leg wasn't just going into painful spasm; it was also shaking with fatigue and weak. There was no doubt in my mind that it was related to my hip operation but I couldn't figure out what was at the root of the problem and that was kind of scary. In terms of going on or descending it was far easier to continue to the Core Leis Col and descend where the abseil posts were positioned prior to their removal. But the thought of cramponing down rock hard snow-ice, especially substituting an axe for a ski pole did not appeal. Unless of course the corrie was filled with powder. Unlikely I thought to myself, certainly not the top 500 feet where the wind will have scoured the slope.
In the mean time who do I call to make this rescue as discreet as possible? I could see it now well known climber and professional mountain guide rescued from Britain's highest mountain ill equipped without ice axe! I couldn't think of anyone in the Lochaber team who wouldn't be so merciless. There's Steve Kennedy, he understand but Steve lives in Glencoe. The Ben is definitely Lochaber's patch. Isn't pride a terrible thing!
On that note I assembled my second pole and discovered that if I used them like crutches I could take some weight off my left leg. This allowed me to sort of shuffle along the remainder of the exposed section of ridge leading to the Col, ungainly I hasten to add but at least it worked. I met two others that day, one who took a head dive and miraculously stopped before plummeting down the slope and through the doors of the CIC hut and the other, a couple, one of whom was very timid and should certainly have been on a short rope. Luckily nothing untoward occurred and if anything their presence forced me to put on a brave face as we passed each other going in opposite directions.
After numerous rests I managed to reach the Col which, as predicted, was scoured free of fresh snow for at least 300 feet, and much steeper than I recalled. Way too steep to bum slide, at least without an axe. I took 15 minutes which was very pleasant in the sunshine and reflected on my bizarre situation. Despite my discomfort I think I even forced a chuckle. The CIC beckoned but I knew I'd have to be very careful on the steep initial section. This slope is a well known accident black spot and for years a succession of abseil posts not only provided a navigational aid in bad weather but also suitable anchors from which one could make a series of abseils to reach easier terrain. Even if they were still in place there would be nothing to gain without a rope. So I selected my best ski pole, the one that still revealed the remains of a metal spike, collapsed it slightly to about 55cm to resemble my axe and put the other one away.
Flat foot facing out proved to be the only option while momentarily weighting the bad leg. At one point there was so much emphasis on the good leg that I could feel a suggestion cramp coming on. I gritted my teeth and kept moving, getting closer and closer to the soft snow. It was pretty gruelling but with regular stops I found that I could cover ground surprisingly quickly. Finally I get there, safe! I assemble the other pole and although the snow is too soft for bum sliding, I just paddle as far as possible eventually reaching the CIC for midday. What a relief! As a member of the SMC I let myself in and drank endless cups of tea laden with ridiculous amounts of sugar.
So there you are - the story behind the shot. Good Friday 2009 is still one of my favourites! I told my consultant orthopaedic surgeon the story and he said that he wasn't surprised! The operation that I underwent for an impingement was a relatively new concept at that time but he was quick to point out that it was experimental (I understood this) and has proved to be mainly unsuccessful in older men. Some years later I had two replacement hips. Och well, you take your chances as they say!
I recently paired everything down and now shoot on just two cameras: A Noblex Panoramic medium format camera that uses 120 roll film and a Nikon D810 digital SLR. As you could imagine they operate in very different ways but I love both of them. The Noblex, while not to everyone's taste, creates a unique look, due in part to its cylindrical distortion. The format is approx 5x12 and was designed to replicate the vision of a human eye which from memory is about 146 degrees. Sadly the digital revolution ceased production in the late 90s but you can pick up a basic used one for under 1,000. It's not the most versatile camera and I certainly dont achieve the variety that I would come away with on digital but I love the considered approach, and the look of film!
I'm fond of panoramas and for that reason I use a panoramic rig designed (by Novoflex) to assist in the alignment and correction of parallax error that can occur when pivoting around the axis of a tripod, and ultimately assists in stitching multiple images together in the likes of Photoshop. I prefer not to stitch but a digital large format or digital panoramic camera is out of my league financially.
The great thing about Nikon is that they honour most of the Nikon lenses ever made. One can attach a 60s manual focus lens and start shooting! My current lens line up isn't my first choice but it will do for now; 50mm 1.8, 60mm macro, 70-200 F4, 85mm 1.8, 16-35 F4 and two old shift lenses -35mm and 28mm.
For editing I use Lightroom. The more I use it the more i realise just how powerful it can be. But it requires more skill to master than one might be lead to believe! For more intensive editing I will import to Photoshop, usually for stitching panoramas.
What's next for you?
I'm in the process of revamping Cubby Images, looking into a new website and advertising on social media as a freelance photographer teaching and guiding landscape photography.
I'm currently on board with Wild Photography Holidays which is owned by Geraldine Westrup and Martin Sammtleben. I know Geraldine from climbing so its great to hook up through that avenue. I'm also on board with a local company called Glencoe Photography (owned by Karl Griffin), which as you know is on my doorstep. Teaching photography is relatively new to me but I see many parallels with my work as a mountain guide especially in term of safety and people skills.
Once the website is up and running my work will be available for purchase. In the mean time anything posted on Facebook is available as a fine art print. Give me a call or send an email if you are interested.