- click on the photos to make them bigger -Most of us know Alastair as Posing Productions and by his climbing films, his latest The Asgard Project has gained high critical acclaim, as did last years On Sight and before that Psyche and Set In Stone, his portrait of the Lakeland climber Dave Birkett. Whilst we may be familiar with some of his photographs associated with these films, he takes a still camera with him as well as his movie camera, his photography is not that well known to the wider climbing and mountaineering community. That is about to change.
In fact Alastair's photographic endevours pre-date his film work and actually part fund his climbing films. If it wasn't for his photography we wouldn't have his films to watch.
Lee has been creating, photographing and writing, ever since he started climbing at age 19. He wrote a guidebook to Australia when he was 21 and self-published a guidebook to New Zealand when he was 23. He took snaps when he travelled and gave slideshows when he returned.
In 2002 he borrowed £12,000 and with it self-published, Eyes Up, a pictorial odyssey of life and landscape through a climber's lens. It wasn't a commercial success and he still has copies gathering dust in his dad's garage.
Undeterred, in 2004 he self-published his first landscape photography book, Forgotten Landscape - images of Pendle, the Ribble Valley and the Burnley Area.
Alastair, the son of a baker, was brought up in Brierfield, Lancashire, between Burnley and Nelson and went to school at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Blackburn. Pendle Hill dominates this area. At 1,835 ft it stands alone from the rest of the Pennines to its east, with the broad sweeping Ribble Valley on its west, the peaks of the Yorkshire Dales and the Lakes lurking, on a clear day, in the distance. Uncluttered horizons stretch in every direction from its summit. Nestled in a lush green landscape that surround it are ancient farmland, woods, rivers and villages with ribbons of northern mill towns snaking along the valleys. Alastair has lived in the lee of Pendle Hill all his life and recently moved to Blacko, a small village at the foot of Pendle. Pendle Hill and its surrounding ancient landscape was his first photographic muse.
Forgotten Landscape was a success, its 3,000 copies sold out in two years and second hand copies go for £50 on eBay. A local gallery, Dysons Arts, then approached him to sell prints of the images from Forgotten Landscapes. The fine art prints sell well and grace many a wall in the North-West of England.
I revisted another UK landscape photographer, the acclaimed Colin Prior, whilst reviewing Al's book. Colin's panoramas are technically perfect and beautifully composed but they seem detached from the land they are portraying, as if you were looking out of a train window at the view rather than being immersed in and having a relationship with the land.
Buoyed by this success Alastair upgraded his photographic equipment, investing in a Roundshot Super 220 VR. In total he has spent £20,000 on cameras, scanners and printers for the photography part of his business. The Roundshot Super 220 VR is a rotational panoramic camera made by Seitz a small Swiss camera manufacturer. It takes 360 degree panoramas and as it rotates varys the exposure. The resulting transparencies are 22cm x 6cm which are then scanned by Alastair and processed in Photoshop.
Forgotten Landscape was followed by Pendle - Landscape of History and Home, published by Frances Lincoln in 2009. That book along with one of Al's large prints were my dad's birthday present last year. I was brought up in the Ribble Valley and have a strong attachment to that lonely hill and the farmland, woodland and villages that surround it.
In a time when most of us have a camera of some description, and there are so many good amateur photographers around (look at the UKClimbing.com photo galleries) it is increasingly difficult for a photographer to make a living from his craft. Al has achieved that through shear hard work and raising his game.
Whilst Al was pursuing his photographic career he was, as we all know, producing climbing films. His films grew out of a desire to soup his slideshows up with moving images and he borrowed a video camera to film in Canada and on a trip to China in 2001. His early films Twice Upon a Time in Bolivia and Storms with Dave Halstead brought to the screen Tom Patey like satire and irreverence to the usual serious climbing films. But alongside real humour Al was an early adopter and innovator of film technology and techniques that hadn't really been used or seen in UK climbing filmmaking
They include the use of jib-arm and wire camera work (Set in Stone, On Sight, Asgard), 3d graphics (Bolivia, Storms, Set in Stone, Psyche, Asgard ), animations (Storms, Set in Stone), photo composites (all his films), climber-cam (Bolivia and Set in Stone), high speed camera work (Psyche, On Sight), bespoke music and specific compositions (On Sight, Asgard).
Al is self taught, learning from experience and necessity, and an early adopter of the latest technological advances. Al went to one of the best schools in Lancashire, Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Blackburn, left at 16 and went to Nelson and Colne College to do A -levels. That didn't last long, he couldn't handle it. At 17 he left to chase girls, go clubbing, travel and to climb. Fast forward 20 years, and this teenage waster is manipulating sophisticated software that most filmmakers would know how to even open. Hope indeed for all who don't conform - not unusual in the climbing world.
“All I ever wanted to do was avoid getting a proper job - now I've had more success than I could have posslbly imagined and find myself getting wildly ambitious wanting to make big budget films and write more books. I have to remind myself I'm just the baker's son from a terraced street in Brierfield”.... Alastair Lee
For the last five years, whilst producing his films and his Pendle books and prints, he has been involved in another project, photographing the Lake District's mountains.
I, like many, have been over-exposed to photographs of the Lakes, especially having lived in Ambleside for a year. You get very ho-hum about another shot of Great Gable or the Langdales: shots of lake and mountain taken from the valley with perfect blue sky. The many professionals trying to make a buck from the hundreds of gift shops servicing the millions of visitors are adept at capturing the classic postcard views first portrayed in the 19th Century by landscape painters, Thomas Girtin, Francis Towne, Sir George Beaumont and Thomas Sunderland. Cumbria's giftshops and supermarkets are littered with £4.95 photo books, printed in China and filled with landscape cliches.
I leafed through some of Al's proofs last year just before he left for Baffin island, and was blown away by his images. Here was something special, dramatic and emotional.
Lake District - Mountain Landscape a 330 x 260mm fine art hardback is divided into five chapters; New Perspectives, Hidden Landscape, Mountain Craft, Alpine Window and Peaks in Sketch. Each chapter is gloriously illustrated and engrossingly written. New Perspectives - aim high, over-exposure and the effects of altitude introduces Al's concept for this book, to go beyond the the familiar 'romanticised ideal of tranquility' of the Lake District and show what mountain folk experience, a wild experience, a wilderness experience once you venture from the valleys.
"As I'm going up, everybody else is coming down, and when I'm coming down, everyone else is going up. This gives you a massive hint as to the secret of landscape photography: timing."Hidden Landscape - scares, mines and mysteries, explores in words written by Colin Wells and images that despite being a wild place, the Lake District is a sculpted landscape, sculpted by man for the last 5,000 years, from stone age axe makers to slate quarrymen. Whilst the Lake District does not have the scale of the alps or the himalayas everywhere you look there is a hidden story and Al explains these stories with extended captions next to each image. Knowledge helps appreciation, it changes your perspective, it increases the joy we get from our travels in the hills.
Mountain Craft - the king, the sheep and the crag looks at how we use the high fells through hiking, scrambling, climbing, fell running and focusses on another muse of Al's, the climbers' climber Dave Birkett
Alpine Window - The English Alps, ice and white magic. This chapter is devoted to the elusive alpine window when the fells are transformed into a rawer state by snow and ice.
Peaks in Sketch are digitised sketches of the panoromas produced by Dave Halstead, a longtime collabrotor of Al's who now works as freelance animator.
The main images in Lake District - Mountain Landscape are panoramas and fill double page spreads - 660mm across and 260mm high. They need to be that size to do the images justice and you get lost in each image as usually there is so much going on. The detail is fine and depth of field long. Early morning cloud inversions, storms, moonlight landscapes, arctic afternoons, seas of mist
I have so many favourites; Scafell Pike from Bowfell and the laser light show, shafts of light spot the Old Man of Coniston and Crinkle Crags, Scafell engulfed by a snowstorm, Esk Valley from Bowfell, Hellvellyn by moonlight with Morecombe and Blackpool lit up on the horizon, the Keswick panorama, Striding Edge and St. Sunday, dawn in Langdale, Skiddaw from Catbells, the outstanding Pillar, Scafell, Great Gable on pages 120 and 121. I'll stop there. I find the images very absorbing and get lost in them.
He's captured what we see and experience. The colour reproduction is lifelike, there's no tacky sliding of the saturation levels, no cartoon-like unreality, no lens filters were used. No HDR manipulation, the merging of multiple photographs of the same image with pulled exposures. Proper film, Fuji Velvia and Provia being responsible for the colour rendition. Alastair also did the design, layout and repro of the images for his book.
I revisted another UK landscape photographer, the acclaimed Colin Prior, whilst reviewing Al's book. Colin's panoramas are technically perfect and beautifully composed but they seem detached from the land they are portraying, as if you were looking out of a train window at the view rather than being immersed and having a relationship with the land. Alastair's photographs are more like Galen Rowell's work, in that he is involved with the landscape he is portraying. Al's images were hard work to get and taken in difficult conditions: cold, wind, storm, snow, damp, lots of lonely early mornings in the dark and tired evenings as he walked down well after sundown. Shooting in the magic Golden Hour, when the light maybe atmospheric and dramatic is hard graft.
There's lots of professional photographers around, climbing and landscape, none have wowed me as much as Alastair Lee's work. He's a creative force in mountain landscape photography and I'm sure the professional photo critics will be all over this book with glowing praise. But Alastair is a lot more than landscape photographer, he's a musician, writer, filmmaker, storyteller, graphic designer, sound engineer, humourist and a pain in the ass sometimes: a renaissance man. He's earned a rare accolade from me, through his blood, sweat and tears over the last decade or so. He's made mistakes, learnt from experience, taken big financial risks, embraced the latest technology and goodness knows how many thousands of hours he's spent creating an artistic expression of the outdoor world for us to enjoy, and thousands of us have. Beware! We have a creative genius in our midst.
Hard Back 1st Edition,
320mm X 240mm
176 full colour pages
You can buy signed copies of Lake District - Mountain Landscape direct from Al at www.posingproductions.com
Join award winning photographer and film maker Alastair Lee for the launch of his stunning new book Lake District Mountain Landscape. Alastair will give a short talk about his work and an av presentation as well as book signings.
Wilf's Cafe, Staveley nr. Kendal, Cumbria on Sat 3rd April, 6:30-9pm
Free admission, drinks and nibbles.