"To photograph mountains successfully demands what the Arctic Inuit refer to as 'quinuituq', which translates as 'deep patience' – literally waiting years for one second..." Fiona Russell talks hills with celebrated landscape photographer Colin Prior.
Acclaimed landscape photographer Colin Prior is delighted by his latest accolade, the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture 2020. Nominated by the public and his peers as part of the annual Fort William Mountain festival, the Award for Excellence celebrates "a mountain hero for their achievement, accomplishment and the spirit of adventure".
Colin said: "I am delighted and also quite humbled to be the recipient of this accolade. It came out of the blue and I am flattered. As a photographer, I work away on my own because of the nature of my projects, so it is great to be recognised by the award."
Colin, 62, lives in Bothwell, South Lanarkshire, and has been married to Geraldine for more than 30 years. They have two grown-up children.
He was born in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, and discovered photography at the age of 23 through a fascination with the natural world. Having very little photography experience, he created a portfolio of images of Scotland's coastline and the Red Sea. In 1981, he reports he was surprised to win "best newcomer to underwater photography" in a Camera Beneath the Waves competition.
It was the start of an impressive career that has seen him acclaimed worldwide for his stunning landscape photography. He once said of his photography: "To know a mountain is to understand its rhythms and then become part of them. To photograph mountains successfully demands what the Arctic Inuit refer to as 'quinuituq', which translated means 'deep patience' – literally waiting hours for one second, or in my case, years for one second."
Colin's passion for – and curiosity about – the natural world has shaped all aspects of his life. Through his photography, he communicates how Scotland's wild places make him feel, while inspiring people to appreciate the world outside their own.
I have walked countless mountains but sometimes I do not even reach a summit because my goal is to get to the best viewpoint for a photograph
He has produced seven books of his work, all published internationally. He has also been commissioned by British Airways to photograph four corporate calendars; exhibited his work in several solo exhibitions; and worked on a variety of TV documentaries featuring photography, mountains and travel.
Colin's passion for mountains and wild places is shared with others through his regular photography workshops and tuition. See colinprior.co.uk
What is your first memory of walking in the hills?
I was born in Milngavie and grew up from the age of six in neighbouring Bearsden where our home backed on to woodlands and fields. These have disappeared now because of housing but I spent most of my time surrounded by nature.
I had a keen affinity with the natural world and from a young age I was fascinated with fieldcraft and bird life.
Aside from roaming my local outdoors space, I recall family outings to the local iconic hill of Dumgoyne, close to Strathblane. My father Hugh and my mother Olive, who has since passed away, would be the driving force for these family walks. My memory is of it being a slog in my Wellies. It's a steep hill and often slippery with mud so it wasn't easy to get to the summit. However, there was always the reward of the views from the top.
Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?
I think it was simply an innate passion for the natural world that initiated a desire to explore the outdoors from a young age. So, in a way, the introduction came from me and not others.
When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?
I am not sure there was a point when I thought about walking in this way. Walking has always been part of my desire to explore and then my enjoyment of taking photographs of the landscape. I walk to reach places. I have walked countless mountains but sometimes I do not even reach a summit because my goal is to get to the best viewpoint for a photograph. I walk to locations so that I can create the quintessential image.
Saying that, I do greatly enjoy walking and because I carry a lot of photography equipment it does keep me fit.
Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?
I like variety. I would say that I prefer "undisturbed" places.
Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?
Fair weather because there is more potential for good light for my photography. I also prefer low wind conditions if possible, too.
What are your three all-time favourite mountain walks, and why?
An Teallach, Dundonnell, in the north-west of Scotland, is an incredible ridge walk. It's the wild landscape and, behind it, the depth of the Fisherfield Forest and the great wilderness setting that I most like.
Cùl Mòr in Assynt is another favourite place to walk because of the incredible views of the surrounding Sutherland landscape.
A walk to Duncansby Head at John o' Groats is beautiful. I remember camping there and getting up before sunrise at 4.30am to take photographs. The sea birds, sea stacks and sea all combined with the backdrop of the sunrise to offer an idyllic setting.
Is the night a good time to go walking?
I confess I am not a big fan of night-time walking. I am always thinking about the photography and the night is not a good time for taking photos. I think that night-time images always look too similar. I do appreciate the craft of those that take photographs at night but, for me, photography is all about the light.
Saying that, I have walked mountains in the dark to enable me to take photos at dawn from a chosen location.
Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?
There have been times in Scotland when the weather has suddenly changed and I have found myself in a tricky situation due to cloud and wind. But luckily I have come to no harm. I have a lot of mountain experience.
I also tend to go solo when I am taking photographs because no one really wants to spend time with me when I am focused on my photography. I am cautious about when to go into the mountains but the weather and conditions can change very quickly in Scotland.
Who is your perfect walking partner?
I was thinking about this and I imagined my perfect walking partner would be Barry Lopez, an American who wrote Arctic Dreams. I found his writing and insights to be outstanding and he helped me to understand what motivates me as a photographer. I enjoyed his fantastic depth of knowledge and I think I would enjoy walking with him and talking to him.
Are you happy to go solo?
I usually go solo because the nature of my work means I need to be quite selfish. I go at a time that suits me, often very early and I can do as I wish if I am on my own. There is less to worry about if I am on my own and pleasing myself about where I stop, how long I take with my work etc.
I do sometimes walk with my dad, he is in his mid-90s now, and I enjoy sharing a walk with him.
Boots, trail shoes, Wellies or barefoot?
Walking boots and they need to be good quality. If I know the landscape will be boggy or I am heading along a beach, I might choose to wear Wellington boots.
How do you navigate: GPS gadget, map and compass, phone or a mix?
Map and compass mostly and also the app, Viewranger.
What three items are always in your rucksack?
A down jacket for warmth, even in the summer, and in case of an emergency. I always have my camera and tripod, too.
What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!
A pastry. I like something sweet!
Your favourite walking food?
If I am camping I take pasta, something like macaroni cheese. I actually have a "survival" box in my car that has items such as a stove, soup, pasta, macaroni cheese in a tin. Also, I do like to have some whisky.
If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?
I am going to choose two places. Assynt generally and the Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides.
What is your ultimate walking heaven?
South Georgia and Antarctica because while I have been to the Arctic several times I have never visited Antarctica.
Will you be walking until you are 103?
Well, I walk three miles every day. I am 62 now and while I used to run I now walk as fast as I can. I enjoy the walking and I think that as you get older you need to enjoy the exercise you are doing. I hope to be able to continue to walk for as long as I can.
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