Given the heat and dry weather we have experienced during this summer many landscape photographers will now start to cast their minds back to fresh winter mornings with snow and ice. Hokkaido is probably one of the most beautiful places to be in the winter months and this is the reason we run our workshop there. We are now excited and preparing for our third aspect2i photography workshop in Hokkaido and we thought we would share an article Paul Gallagher wrote for On Landscape Magazine about his first experience of this amazing place accompanied by previously unseen images from both Michael Pilkington and Paul Gallagher. We hope you enjoy it!
I have been fortunate to photograph many landscapes in a variety of different countries throughout the world but the photographs I had seen of Japan always seemed to have a difference that was difficult to categorize and I have always been drawn to places that may challenge me as a photographer. My default position is to normally head to locations that could be regarded as remote, or certainly feel that way. As well as feeling a long way from cities and towns, the landscapes I regard as my favourites are ones that appear almost untouched, although in reality, this is seldom the case as almost all of the landscapes I have experienced have been modelled and influenced by the hands of mankind. One of the main factors that made Japan, and Hokkaido in particular, fascinating was the apparent simplicity of the place, certainly in the deep winter months. One of the approaches I take as a landscape photographer is to distill the elements of the landscape down to understandable parts of a composition so that the photograph is not an overwhelming record of every aspect of the scene.
Besides some of the truly natural environments I visited in the mountain areas, most of the lowlands clearly showed signs of mankind. The tree lines on the edges of fields that act as a form of wind break from the ferocious winds that come from the surrounding seas. These fascinated me in their uniformity and, quite unlike natural woodland, the trees seem to stand on guard bravely facing the harsh conditions. Trees became a very important part of what I wanted to photograph in Hokkaido and what I did photograph in Hokkaido. I was intrigued how the trees seemed to compliment the open and negative space of the landscape. They accentuated the rise and fall of the undulating farmland as well as being grouped together as copses as if in small communities on hilltops. In the mountain areas the trees were contorted and old with some meeting their final demise in the cold mountain air. I recall vividly one particular afternoon high up on a mountain pass and I saw trees perched high against an ever changing sky that transformed from milky blue with wispy clouds to heavy snow laden grey. The relationship of the trees and the sky changed constantly as did the personality of the trees and their interactions with each other.
The signs of farming activity presented themselves in many ways from simple fence lines separating fields devoid of anything other than snow, to greenhouse structures that had been prepared for the winter by removing the plastic canopies as the weight of the snow would crush the simple tube frames. Some of the farmsteads were literally surrounded by a sea of white snow.
All the time I was in Hokkaido I was working in a landscape that was in a static state. The people there seemed to be almost sitting it out and waiting for the thaw of spring to arrive. The silence the snow causes is quite fascinating indeed. We have all experienced snow at some time and know that it dampens down reflected sound, but when the snow is of this magnitude, nothing but the sound of the occasional passing car and rush of wind will disturb your concentration. At the sea edge the winds can be bitter and if there is a snow storm brewing, as there often is, then the contrast of white landscape and dark clouds above was a reward for me to photograph. The light and cloud can be transient. One morning I was photographing a beautiful area of silver birch trees when the cloud suddenly cleared and the resulting long slender shadows cast from hundreds of trees onto the clean flat snow will be something I will remember for many years to come. The opposite set of circumstances was travelling into a blizzard and noticing how any form of harshness or contrast in the landscape was muted by the amount of wind carried snow. Everything was soft and bright and the trees became ghostly figures in the distance.