Longnor-based photographer Michéla Griffith
- Credit: Archant
The cottage where photographer Michéla Griffith lives with her husband Alan has easy access to some of the finest countryside that a landscape photographer could wish to find
For almost a decade Michéla made full use of the wonderful opportunities on her doorstep, stepping out in all weathers to take atmospheric shots of some of the shapeliest hills and most verdant valleys in the Peak District. Two years ago, this way of working came to an abrupt end.
Explaining her sudden decision to turn her back on these seductive landscape views, Michéla said: ‘I realised that I no longer had any great desire to do what so many other photographers were doing. I felt that it was time for me to move away from obvious subjects and to connect instead with those things that are often overlooked.’
One day, the photographer was standing by a small tributary of the River Dove when a group of students on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition came into view. Not wishing to be watched as she took her landscape photographs, she decided she would wait until the group had passed before setting up her equipment. While she waited, she turned her attention to the stream. As she gazed at its surface, she found that it was difficult to take her eyes off the water. The more she looked, the more she saw.
As a result, this little tributary, together with another stretch of water a few miles away, became Michéla’s obsessive new subject matter. One of the streams runs over Staffordshire gritstone and is often rust-stained with iron oxide. In the last two years, the photographer has taken many pictures of its surface and placed them in an album which she calls ‘Of the Earth’. The second stream is much brighter and more reflective of light, because it runs across Derbyshire limestone. Her pictures of its surface are collected under the title ‘Of the Sky’. The two series, which Michéla calls ‘Streamscapes’, have far more in common with paintings than they have with conventional photographs.
When I mentioned this observation to Michéla, she said: ‘A number of other people have likened my new photographs to paintings. I’m pleased with their reaction, because painting and drawing were two of my favourite pastimes as a child. Unfortunately, it was not possible for me to pursue my interest in art in the ‘academic’ stream of my school in Sheffield, although I did manage to take an O-level in Art alongside my A-level studies in Sciences, Maths and Geography. In many ways, I feel that my “Streamscapes” have enabled me to return to drawing and painting after all these years.’
It was a wish to combine her ability in Sciences with her artistic inclinations that made Michéla study for a degree in Landscape Architecture after leaving school. She attended Edinburgh School of Art, where she extended her studies by taking a M.Phil. Suitably qualified, she began a 25-year career as a landscape architect, which included a spell working in Hong Kong, where her husband had taken up an appointment before he obtained a professorship at Sheffield Hallam University.
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Seven years ago, Michéla and Alan bought their cottage in Longnor. At the time, they were starting to think about early retirement, which they took six years later. A decade before her retirement, Michéla had taken up landscape photography as a hobby. Recalling that she had been interested in photography in her teens, she said: ‘I used to borrow my father’s camera because I was much happier being behind the lens than I was when required to pose for photographs. I would have liked to pursue my interest in photography, but the time demands of my job proved to be too great.’
Even though Michéla had never benefitted from any training in photography when she decided to return to her hobby in 2001, she did have sufficient confidence in her ability to set up a website as a showcase for her images. She chose the domain name of ‘Longnor Landscapes’, which she still uses, along with the sub-heading of ‘Drawn by the Light’.
For her first efforts, she returned time and again for her subject matter to the dramatic landscapes on her doorstep. However, over time, she expanded her portfolio by adding pictures of places she and Alan had discovered as holiday destinations, including Embleton Bay in Northumbria, the Llyn Peninsula in Wales and the Dolomites in Italy, all captured in a variety of atmospheric conditions.
In addition to capturing the grand panoramic views in these locations, Michéla found that she was increasingly drawn to small details, such as lichen, ripples on the seashore and the texture of stone walls. However, a complete change of emphasis in her subject matter did not come about until 2012. Explaining why this radical shift in her work took place at that particular time, she said; ‘I was suffering from a post-viral condition that was sapping me of energy and preventing me from going in search of landscape subjects. The terrible weather of that summer didn’t help either. But the most important factor was that I was beginning to feel that my photography was not progressing in any way. I was desperate to find subjects that would open my mind as well as my eyes.’
Her search for new subjects led her to the two small streams where she found that she could make the sort of close observations that she had used when drawing and painting in her youth. She always looks at the streams with a completely open mind, allowing the energy and dynamism of the water to create the images, which she then interprets through the use of evocative captions. As a result, she believes that she is now creating photographs that ‘come from within, rather than from without.’
Describing a beautiful image called ‘Dissolve’, she says: ‘Aquamarine is an appropriate description for the colour of the water, although the stream is situated far from the ocean. The soft and slightly voluptuous forms and texture are almost jellyfish-like as they pulse downstream.’ Describing a photograph called ‘Siren Song’, she says. ‘Submerged grasses seem strangely colourful as they dance in the current while the sun plays on the water’s surface.’
Thanks to a picture named ‘Ice on Rust’, Michéla received a commendation in the 2013 Landscape Photographer of Year Competition. She also picked up second prize in the photography section of the Moorlands Open Art Exhibition. But perhaps the biggest complement that she has received is that many of her photographic images have been likened to the work of famous artists.
A picture called ‘Drawn by the Light’ shows light being reflected on water in a remarkable series of ‘scribbles’, much as those in an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock. Another photograph called ‘Nature as Artist’ (5) could pass as a painting by Monet and is proof that Michéla deserves to be called ‘Photographer as Artist’.
Michéla Griffith’s photographs can be viewed on www.longnorlandscapes.co.uk. She will be exhibiting with Peak District Artisans at the Great Dome Art Fair, Buxton, from 19th to 20th July.