During my lifetime I have witnessed first-hand the demise of myriad bird species in the countryside where I grew up and throughout Scotland. I have always felt a deep spiritual connection to the natural world, one that was nurtured during my childhood.
When I was eight my family moved to a suburb of Glasgow at the edge of extensive farmland, and before long I began to explore. The mixed woodland, arable land and a sizeable river course created a haven for wildlife, and in the early 1970s the birdlife was prolific. Moorhens, mallards and teals abounded on the River Kelvin while on the pastures lapwings, redshanks, grey partridges and skylarks were common, as were kestrels hovering over heathland.
The woods were home to a variety of birds including woodpeckers, mistle thrushes, sparrowhawks and woodpigeons. Each weekend and most evenings after school I would head to the woods and farmland to follow my passion. I began to recognise birds’ distinctive plumage, calls, flight patterns and habitats. Most of the time I was alone. Solitude allowed me to connect more deeply with the landscape, and to witness and experience moments that would otherwise have been lost in conversation. On frozen, moonlit nights I would sometimes follow my own shadow over the land to track animal footprints in the snow and would return home in a state of elation.
All of this, and much more, formed the repository from which I gathered, almost imperceptibly, a first-hand knowledge of wildlife and fieldcraft which would shape my work with a camera.
In the 1970s egg collecting was prevalent among some adolescent boys, who arranged their collections in shoeboxes lined with cotton wool. On reflection it was a rather inglorious end for such objects of beauty; an activity in which I, too, participated briefly. However, the sense of wonder the eggs instilled has never left me. Almost 50 years later this same sense of wonder lies at the heart of my desire to share their beauty with others.
I favoured the concept of creating diptychs, spreads showing two photographs together, one a bird’s egg, the other its habitat – essentially, two disparate images yet related on several levels.
The idea for my latest book, Fragile, had been fermenting for more than 10 years. To ensure sharpness from the front to the back of each egg it would be necessary to use a technique called focus stacking, whereby multiple images are captured at slightly different camera-to-subject distances (in this case, a difference of 0.3mm between each shot). Each egg in the book is a compilation of 40 to 80 separate exposures blended into a single image using specialist software. The final image is an almost three-dimensional rendition.
It would be necessary to source a programmable focus-stacking device on to which the camera and lens could be clamped, and supported above the egg. However, only the heaviest, sturdiest of studio tripods would be able to provide the necessary rigidity – and, even then, I had reservations.
Then there was the issue of studio flash and the need to build a custom lighting table designed for shooting the eggs on a white background. I would need to prove a lighting technique before setting up at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, home to one of the largest egg collections in the world.
I knew what equipment was required but simply could not justify the financial outlay against the potential rewards. And so Fragile stalled for some time. Then, by chance, on one of my weekend workshops in Perthshire, I met Derek Rattray, a businessman and accomplished photographer. He told me he owned all of this equipment – the stacking unit, a Cambo studio tripod with an articulated arm, and all the lighting – and that I was welcome to borrow it, so long as he could be involved in the photography of the eggs. Suddenly the lights went from red to green.
The first step was to locate the desired eggs within the [Museums’] many collections. In the case of smaller birds there are typically 36 clutches in a drawer, each with perhaps between four and six eggs, from which to select the egg or eggs that represented the finest characteristics of the species. A bit like being a child in a sweet shop, there were so many choices. Some eggs, such as those of the corn bunting, were so exquisitely marked that I found it impossible to select just one.
The final challenge was the photography of each bird’s habitat. I had been working on this for several years, and it required continual research and planning. Ultimately, the success of the diptychs depended on a synergy between egg and habitat, determined by the dominant colour of each egg. It required travelling to a typical habitat at a certain time of the year to ensure that the tonal qualities of the landscape closely resembled those of the egg. When the egg and habitat images come together successfully the result is symbiotic. I feel that Fragile has breathed new life into these eggs. Taking them from the darkness of the museum’s storage cabinets and bringing them into the light has been deeply rewarding. Perhaps the project serves as atonement for the sins of the past?
Four decades of photographing landscapes have instilled in me an even deeper respect for the natural world, and Fragile explores how the links between people, birds and their habitats have changed over time. Gone from much of their range are the lapwing, curlew, skylark, linnet and kestrel, leaving in their wake a tangible sterility and a greatly impoverished outdoor experience. I believe that birds are the embodiment of nature and a world without them is a vision of the gates of hell.
Birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law in the UK. You can find information here