Becka Globe Photographer
By David Prentice - Added 12/07/2014
In her black and white photographs, which she develops and prints from her home and studio at The Mission House, Beka Globe has succeeded in capturing the true nature of the Hebridean landscape in its purest form, to reveal an island that no tourist has ever visited, and that few locals have ever seen. By avoiding the distractions of colour, and instead focusing her attention on the minute details present in fixed moments of time and place, Beka’s photographs contain insights into the formation and beauty of the landscape which transcend the naked eye’s ability to record. Far more than pictures, Beka’s photographs are a concise expression of the emotional response we all feel when confronted with the beauty, the desolation and the elemental force of the Isle of Harris.
I interview Beka at her home and studio at The Mission House, in Finsbay, to discuss her inspiration, her visit to St Kilda, and her return to the island that had been the setting for her early development as an artist.
‘We moved up here when I was eleven years old,’ Beka tells me. ‘My father, Steve Dilworth, is a sculptor and he wanted to move here for the peace and quiet and to concentrate on his work. He’d first been here when he was eighteen and one day he said to us kids, ‘We’re going on holiday to the Outer Hebrides in November’, and off we came. The move enabled my parents to buy the house they’re in now, and it meant that my dad could dedicate himself to his sculpting.’
Though the process of relocating to the Isle of Harris was to prove challenging to Beka, who had to leave her friends and the familiar landscape of home behind, it was while she was on the island that she first began to develop an interest in photographing the landscape:
‘We had a darkroom at the house in Manish and I would often go out with my dad’s camera and take pictures of the landscape and then go back and develop them. I’ve always loved the landscape here, particularly at this time of year when the sun is low in the sky and creates long shadows, or the way that the light bounces off the rocks after it’s just rained. Capturing those kinds of moments has always been something that I’ve loved doing.’
Eager to pursue her passion for photography and to see the rest of the world, Beka left the island when she was seventeen in order to study fine art photography at Napier University, in Edinburgh. Following her graduation three years later, she immediately went on to begin working as an assistant for a group of advertising photographers based in the city:
‘It was during that time that I actually became quite disillusioned with photography,’ Beka tells me. ‘The type of work didn’t really allow for many opportunities to be creative and I thought that if all I was going to be doing was taking photographs of a blind or a bottle of beer over the course of a week then it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.’
After three years in the industry, Beka received a call from a family friend with details of a job opportunity working as a runner in London:
‘Since I was looking for something else to do at the time I quit my job and left for London the next day to work as a runner for a production company that produced television documentaries. While I was there I worked my way up from a runner to a camera assistant, where I was able to travel the world working on interesting programmes such as Equinox and Panorama.’
The travel involved with her line of work meant that at twenty two Beka was able to follow in the footsteps of Ansel Adams, an American photographer whose black and white landscape photographs of Yosemite and Yellowstone Park had a strong influence on Beka’s style.
‘That was really an amazing experience. He’s one of my heroes and being able to stand in the exact spot where he’d taken some of his photographs, to see things as he’d seen them, that was very special.’
Despite the obligations of her career working as a camera operator in London, Beka continued to pursue her principal interest in photography in her own time, working with medium-format film cameras and developing everything by hand in the darkroom. An exchange programme with the Arts Council allowed Beka to travel to Wales, where she took portrait photographs of the people there.
‘Portraits were my thing at the time, and eventually I was picked up by an agent working for Magnum Photography in London. His name was Eric Frank, and he was able to secure me the financial backing I needed to complete a series of photographs entitled ‘Harris Portraits’, which I’d started working on when I was seventeen and which featured photographs of the people living here. I’ve yet to transfer all those images into a book, but that’s certainly one of the projects I’m looking to complete in the near future.’
The release of ‘Harris Portraits’ will mark a departure in many ways from the recent subject matter of Beka’s photography, in which human figures are notably absent from the natural environment. Where human structures such as fences or derelict buildings do occur, they often have a sense of frailty about them, as if they are in the process of being gradually reclaimed by the landscape. I’m curious to know if Beka deliberately chose to exclude people from her collection of landscape photographs, ‘Isle of Harris’:
‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘The photographs in that collection are all purely landscapes. I can go out whenever I want and photograph what’s around me; I think the only living beings in those images are sheep. I tend to work in series, and once I’ve got my head around what I want to achieve with the series then my eye becomes focused exclusively on that theme. I love the decay around me, the things that I didn’t appreciate when I was living here as a child I do appreciate now, so that I find that the fences that are falling down are quite beautiful, in their own right. There’s a certain beauty in the impermanence of things, and one of the projects I want to do is a series featuring old sheds; once they start to rust and the paint flakes away there’s a strange beauty in that decay, and that’s one of the things I’m drawn to.’
This relationship between beauty and impermanence is perhaps best illustrated in Beka’s book, ‘Mountains in the Sea.’ Taken during a single visit to the archipelago of St Kilda, this haunting series of photographs explores the ruined settlements of one of the world’s most remote communities, captured with a sensitivity and an emotive depth that conveys not only the profound isolation of the place, but the sense of emptiness that follows the loss of a culture.
Speaking about the trip, Beka says:
‘It was an absolutely amazing experience. I’ve lived here more or less all my life and I’d never been to St Kilda before. The trip was three hours out, and during that time you lose sight of any landmass until gradually this tiny island starts to appear in the middle of the Atlantic. It was a magical moment, seeing this new land that you’d never seen before, so close to where you’ve been brought up.’
Once she set foot on the island, Beka found that in some respects the villages of St Kilda contained within them a continuation of themes which she had explored through the lens on the mainland:
‘I was quite moved seeing these houses that had just been left without roofs, there’s plenty of houses in Harris that have been left with the roofs off, but it was so contained and so extreme on this island that you felt that sense of desolation much more acutely. The cliffs there are among the highest in Europe and they’re certainly the highest in the UK, everything was so condensed down that you really got a feeling of the lives of the people there. You’d be walking in and out of their homes and then stand in their doorways and look at the view and try to imagine how that view looked to them in their day. I suppose my vision was quite romanticised, whereas the reality of it was very harsh.’
Aside from the experience of being in an environment she’d never photographed before, the short time frame of the visit meant that Beka had to change the way in which she took the photographs:
‘I would have liked to have spent a week photographing there, but I did it all in one trip because we have a gallery to run and two kids to look after so we just went for it. That was quite a different way of working for me because usually when I go out I photograph as though I’m still using film, I don’t rattle off huge amounts of shots. It was a phenomenal experience and I’d love to go back and stay there for a couple of days and actually see the sun rise and set there, explore more and spend more time there to experience it.’
The trip to St Kilda also provided Beka with the perfect setting to explore one of her favourite subjects, the edge where the natural elements of land, sea and air collide and interact. In some of the most striking photographs, taken while on board the boat, the Stacs of St Kilda rise out of the sea in colossal monoliths of rock that dominates the frame.
Towering over the water, the sheer scale of ‘Stac Li’ is conveyed by the small shapes of sea birds struggling in the wind above it. While a colour photograph of the same scene would still be impressive, by taking it in black and white Beka bestows this natural formation with an eerie magnetism and a silent, captivating menace that demands your attention in much the same way as the Stac commands the surrounding water.
To achieve the stillness of the shots taken from on board the boat, Beka used her training as a steadicam operator to keep the camera level, moving with the pitch and roll of the boat and using her arms as a gimbal. However, some of the photographs in the series go against the conventional ‘rules’ of photography that she was taught at university:
‘The shots of the Stacs at St Kilda I took really as I felt them while I was there. When you’re learning to become a photographer you’re trained to have two thirds of the shot at the bottom or at the top, with the other third above or below, and never to divide it halfway. I disagree with it all, entirely; I think you should go with what your eye sees and with what you’re feeling at the time.’
Perhaps it is this instinctive approach to photography, where Beka allows her own feelings to help guide or inform the shot, which makes her work so appealing. When we look at her photographs, there is the definite sense that they are communicating far more than the image itself, but a feeling which, though never overt, nevertheless provokes an emotional response in us. This added emotional quality not only distinguishes Beka from other photographers on the island, it is in fact part of her intent as an artist:
‘What I’m trying to do with my photographs is, rather than trying to create a beautiful picture, I want to create a feeling. A lot of the people who look at my work do get an emotional response or a feeling that connects them to my photographs, which means a lot more to them than a pretty image of a sunset might.’
I’m eager to know if the mood or feeling that Beka infuses into her photographs occurs at the moment that the image is captured, or whether she arrives at the emotional quality after the photograph has been taken and developed.
‘I think that when I’m photographing I have a clear idea of what I want in the picture, and so it gets formed when I take the shot, but then when I come home and look at it again, there may be another shot that I see that might contain something more of what I was looking for. There’s a lot that happens after the shot has been taken and different things you can do to bring a shot about to form it and manipulate it.’
The creative process involved in Beka’s photography doesn’t end once the picture has been taken. By enhancing the image at home to bring in the details of the sky, the sea and the changing light, as well as using long exposure shots, there is an element of design at work beneath the surface of each finished photograph that we may not be aware of, but contribute to the style, the look and the feel in much the same way as the hundreds of individual brush strokes blend together to form a painting.
‘I do manipulate the images quite a lot to enhance the sky or the details that you wouldn’t ordinarily see,’ she says. ‘A lot of what I’m trying to achieve with my photographs, through manipulation, enhancement or long-exposure, is to show the person looking at the photograph something in the landscape that they wouldn’t normally be able to see.’
Given the abundance of natural colour in the landscape at all times of year, from the vibrancy of the machair in spring to the changing hues of reds and browns of the heather in autumn, I’m curious to know why Beka has chosen to photograph the Isle of Harris exclusively in black and white.
‘I come from a darkroom,’ explains Beka, ‘I’ve always done black and white photography in the darkroom. I prefer black and white because I find that colour distracts from everything else that’s in the shot. If you take away the colour you start to see form, and what’s actually there. Being on Harris with the landscape and the rocks and the light, the texture and the form of the environment is perfectly suited and best brought out in black and white. For instance, the machair here is beautiful, but you see much more of the detail in each petal and flower in black and white. Colour takes all that formation away.’
By avoiding the limitations of colour, Beka’s photographs retain a level of detail and a timelessness that doesn’t anchor them to any one particular time, date or season. Instead, they capture the changing weather and light with an accuracy and fidelity that is in keeping with the true nature of the island as it exists at all times of year, rather than being isolated to the ‘postcard’ photography of the tourist season.
With the growing success of The Mission House, which attracts more visitors every year, Beka’s spare time to photograph during the summer is limited, meaning that autumn and winter are actually the more productive months for her, as well as affording better opportunities to capture the drama of the landscape:
‘I do most of my photography in the winter time when the weather is elemental and you can be out there with the wind howling around you and there’s all sorts of amazing formations happening in the sea, the grass is blowing sideways and sheep are standing in doorways with their fur being blown backwards. That to me is what Harris is. Harris to me isn’t being on a beach in the summertime with pretty flowers all about.’
I want to know more about Beka’s artistic relationship with her surroundings, and whether the landscape on the Isle of Harris has proved to be a greater source of inspiration than her experience of urban environments. One of the major differences, she says, is the different way that people living on the island are exposed and affected by the weather:
‘Living here, you just have weather around you all the time. You can’t see weather in the city; it’s wet, and it’s cold and it’s dirty, but you’re not exposed to it in the same way as you are here. It’s lovely to be wrapped up warm in the weather and watching the clouds and the grass move. We’re spoiled here with the weather, really. I don’t think that I’d be able to do this [photography] anywhere else.’
For Beka, being totally immersed in the landscape in all weathers is an essential part of her artistic process, as it provides opportunities to observe and engage with the natural environment in such a way that allows for a dialogue between herself and her surroundings:
‘It’s important to walk around and be in the environment; just being in it is often useful in itself,’ she says. ‘I deliberately go to an area and take a camera an I’ll sit for an hour or so and watch how the wind’s moving and what’s happening in the sky to gauge the kind of photograph I’ll want to take. A lot of the time it’s a happy accident, I might have gone to one end of the beach looking for the shot and I’ll find it at the other end.’
These happy accidents could not occur without Beka taking a camera with her at all times when she goes for her walks. As well as being useful for the moments when she comes across an unexpected photo opportunity, Beka says that walking with a camera changes the way you perceive and pay attention to the landscape:
‘You really have to stop and become aware of what’s going on around you, and if you have a camera with you then you do think about your surroundings in a different way, whereas if you don’t have the camera, you tend to just walk past interesting sights and scenes. I see a lot of photographers coming to the island and they’re all pointing their cameras in the same direction. What I tend to do when I’m looking for a shot is to keep looking behind me, because you can always walk past the real photograph in your search for the next one.’
In what may have been an unexpected turn of events, Beka’s relationship with the landscape that began in her childhood is now, in adulthood, a continued source of inspiration and material. One of the most interesting insights into her artistic process is the physical way that Beka approaches many of her shots:
‘A lot of the time when I’m photographing I crouch down slightly to approach the shot, not too low or too high, but I duck down slightly to a child’s height, so that I’m almost seeing the landscape through a child’s eyes again. Since I was brought up here it’s almost like a way of returning or revisiting for me.’
This simple gesture of crouching down is a way for Beka to physically return to the perspective of the landscape she had as a child, coming as it were full circle to the beginnings of her interest in photography and the source of her original inspiration. A lucky consequence of this, for anyone looking at her photographs, is that in Beka’s second seeing of the landscape she is enabling the rest of the world to see Harris truly, for the first time.