LEMAG: John, thank you for finding time to speak to us. Looking at your portfolio – and this factor played a huge part in our invite – it was clear to me that whatever object you choose to photograph it always conveys the feeling of calm and deep connection with, an almost love of, the place itself.
John Miskelly: Firstly, let me thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to share my work with your readers. In terms of the calmness and connected nature of my images, I would have to mention one of my key influences here, which is not related to photography at all, but maybe surprisingly to some people, Japanese gardens. Every element of a Japanese garden has purpose and nothing included is without its own significance. This significance comes from ancient religious beliefs and a deep respect for nature. Some of the key elements of Japanese gardens include simplicity, restraint, and consistency. There is a preference for evergreen trees and, as in the case of stones or rocks, these must be distributed around the garden in a harmonious manner, what I call ‘balance’. It is the definitive sense of peace and calmness that I feel, whilst walking or sitting in a Japanese garden, that I aim to transfer to my own compositions. I often spend a significant amount of time at a location, really trying to get a feel for the place and the best possible composition. Many times, I will revisit a location and this could be at different times of the year or in a range of weather conditions. By the time I’ve captured an image that I believe gives a sense of the place, I will feel very comfortable there and have grown to love the feeling of time and space that I’ve experienced whilst there.
LEMAG: You have named parts of your portfolio in a very precise way and I wanted to ask you to offer us a little bit more insight into that. What, for you as the author, stood behind the names Synchronicity and Elemental?
John Miskelly: It’s funny, but the names of each series came very easily and just seemed to fit the style of images contained in each folio of work. For example, the definition of ‘synchronicity’ in the Cambridge English Dictionary is “the happening by chance of two or more related or similar events at the same time”
In my case, the Synchronicity folio contains images which generally have a balance between two related elements, usually one being the natural world and then also a man-made object, which occupies a space in that world. They are related simply because someone has decided to build a jetty or a bridge in that place. It’s is this ‘synchronicity’ between these different elements that I firstly seek to capture and that also led to the choice of title for the folio.
It’s a similar situation with the Elemental portfolio. In this case, this contains a collection of images that usually don’t have any significant man made elements in them, just the natural elements of sky, water and land. Yes, there may be a castle in the distance or a bench seat, but these are usually, although not always, more incidental to the overall image and the natural elements take centre stage. I also tend to have more colour in these images, which I consider to be a separate compositional element, just as much as a rock or a pier can be in my other work.
LEMAG: Like many photographers you also like visiting Venice. What is that draws you to this place?
John Miskelly: I first visited Venice some 11 years ago and just fell in love with the place. It was not only my first visit there, but also the start of my passion, and ultimately my business covering landscape photography, so I identify with the place as a sort of a beginning. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to visit Venice many times and in fact I’m currently in Venice now for a few days, taking images for my portfolio and also to use to promote a new workshop.
While it’s a really busy city, the sense of history and its importance in previous centuries just oozes out of the place. For example, it was originally controlled by the Byzantines, before becoming independent, after which it was involved in many different power struggles and wars. It flourished as a major trading centre in competition with Genoa, with which it fought 5 different wars. It suffered at least two plagues and it was only in the 17thcentury that it gradually started to lose it’s power and influence. The city was later given by Napoleon to Austria before eventually becoming a part of Italy. Today, the economy of Venice is centred around tourism, not least because of its fascinating history and architecture. This sort of history just fascinates me. Even in such a busy city, it’s also perfectly possible to wander around the back streets and smaller canals and hardly see any tourists. I also discovered some very different photographic opportunities around the Lido area and the Venetian Lagoon, so this keeps it interesting as well as the usual locations that everyone else goes to. However, even when I visit familiar locations, I will try to give them my own sense of the place, although clearly that can be more difficult to achieve in some locations compared to others.
LEMAG: Your image Derrytrasna Jetty, Northern Ireland from Synchronicity and Moreiki Boulders, from Time are my favourites of your images. Can you tell us please more about how they were taken?
John Miskelly: Well, the image of Derrytrasna Jetty was taken on a cold, but bright February day. I had previously been at the location a few days before, but it was so windy that it was actually dangerous trying to get onto the crumbling jetty, plus the sky was totally clear and uninteresting anyway. When I returned those few days later, I waited for about four hours, for just the right combination of clouds and light. When I was content, I captured a sixteen minute exposure. This was taken shortly before the LEE Super Stopper filter was available, so I used a Big Stopper and a Little Stopper in combination, giving me a theoretical combination of 16 stops, but in reality, more like 17 stops. That combination means some very long exposures! At least it gives me time to enjoy a cup of coffee from the flask that is such an essential part of any landscape photographers kit!
The Moreiki Boulders image was taken on a recent trip to New Zealand and people have asked me how I got the shot without people posing for ‘selfies’ on top of the boulders? Well, I was probably helped by the fact that it was raining and very cold at the time and shortly after, there was a storm with hail stones the size of golf balls! This was all at the start of the New Zealand summer! I had started the day in shorts and tee shirt, but ended with lots of layers and waterproofs, which can so easily happen when you’re shooting landscapes!
Also, this was taken, as with the majority of my images, with the view to being able to produce a fine art print as the end result. So often, we as photographers are content to post our images on social media and they never go anywhere beyond that. This is a real shame, as I believe there is something very special and tangible about holding that final print in our hands. That is one of the reasons that I tested a massive range of different inkjet photo papers, from all the major manufacturers, around 4 years ago, as I wanted to ensure I was using the best possible paper available. It was as a result of this test, that I came across Canson Infinity papers, one of the oldest paper manufacturers in the world, who then patented their first photographic paper back in 1865. The quality of their fine art paper, all on a pure cotton rag base and without any optical brighteners (except for small amounts in the Baryta papers, all of which must contain Barium Sulfate, a naturally occurring OBA), puts them in a league of their own in my view. I’m totally passionate about my printing and ensuring the best possible results, so do check out these Canson papers, if like me, you also love to print your images.
LEMAG: Apart from long exposure images, you also present on your website images of horses. It is obviously a very different kettle of fish, both in terms of subject and technique-wise. Are horses your favourite kind of animals, or you were simply particularly pleased with how your images turned out?
John Miskelly: I was very fortunate to grow up with dogs in our family home and grew to love all animals. As a child, my parents would often take me to a sanctuary for retired working horses and I just loved spending time with these wonderful creatures. We’re very fortunate to live in the country, so when my wife and daughters later came to own our own horse, I was able to spend time with horses on a regular basis. It was also inevitable that I would come to photograph them, a bit like doing family portraits of the kids!
So, when the opportunity to photograph the horses of the Camargue came up, how could I not go for it? So, first of all, I spent around five days working around the west coast of France, shooting my signature style long exposure images before heading over to the Camargue region for a few more days of photographing horses. It effectively meant I had to carry a lot more photographic equipment with me, to allow me to shoot two very different genres of photography. I’m still not sure how I managed to get it in my hand baggage on all the different flights. Just as well the airlines didn’t weigh my camera bag, which I had to try and pretend was just a light backpack!
So after a few days lying in the mud on the salt flats, I was very pleased with the sort of images I was obtaining, often in some very low light, pre-dawn or after the sun had set.
I think it’s really important as photographers to shoot different styles of photography. Whether this be horse, your own pet dog, street photography, macro or anything else, it is this variety that I believe keeps us fresh as photographers.
LEMAG: I’d like to ask you about your concept of intentional photography now. Can you please explain to us what you mean by this?
John Miskelly: So often, photographers go to a location with no real idea of what they’re trying to achieve. Maybe they even just go for a walk at the weekend with their camera and see what opportunities present themselves. I’m certainly not saying this approach is wrong, but it’s not how I work. In my case, I do a significant amount of planning, well before I get to a location. I may have been inspired to check somewhere out, based on an image in a holiday brochure, or a book or even being in the area for a different purpose, and I see something that may be of interest.
This is where the ‘planning’ starts on my ‘intentional’ journey and means that I’m much more likely to get the sort of shot that is my signature style. So, as for what this means in practice, I will give you a real world example. When I first planned to visit the Outer Hebrides quite a few years ago, I had never been there before, but had seen some images from other photographers and websites, but that was the limit of my knowledge. So, with it being a considerable distance from my base, involving two separate ferry crossings and about 7 hours of driving, planning was essential.
Long before I travelled to the location, I looked at the whole area on Google Maps to identify potential locations. I also looked at photographs of the area, not so much from other photographers, but just typical brochure shots which gave me a sense of the opportunity. It was then a case of using a piece of software, that’s very popular with landscape photographers, the Photographers Ephemeris ( or TPE), to work out the direction of the sun, along with sunrise and sunset times, all to enable me to work out the best dates to be there. Nearer the time of travel, I will look at the tide times, as this is a critical area for me and my style of work as well as weather forecasts. Armed with a lot of information, when I actually arrive at a location, I can make the most of my time there, rather than running from place to place trying to find something worth photographing. This is the starting point for my intentional style of photography, as I want to spend my time finding the best possible composition and how I can use the light, all to give me that shot that I know will make a great print.
As you can see, this isn’t the sort of measured approach that will work for everyone, but this is a tired and tested strategy that works well for me.
LEMAG: When you look for inspiration where do you look?
John Miskelly: I find inspiration almost anywhere. Whether it be from Japanese gardens, as I’ve already mentioned earlier, other photographers whom I respect, or any other form of art, from paintings to ceramics to sculpture. I’m also a great lover of music. In fact, when I’m on a beach somewhere in the middle of nowhere, I will often listen to music while I work, picking a genre of music that will give me a sense of calmness, which means I focus on what I’m doing without any distractions. So, in effect, I love many different art forms and can find inspiration, in all or any of these forms.
I’m also passionate about books and have a serious weakness for going into bookshops wherever I am traveling, often bringing home another book or two for a continually growing collection. I particularly like books from some of the great photographers. My collection includes books from the likes of Michael Kenna (probably an obvious one!), Galen Rowell, Sebastiao Salgado, Don McCullin, Joe Cornish, Tony Stromberg, Joel Tjintjelaar and Bruce Percy, to name just a few. I think we are all influenced and inspired by many different photographers. The key here is to welcome and absorb these influences, while not trying to just create a copy of your favourite photographer’s work, instead aiming to find your own vision and style through these influences.
LEMAG: What would your favourite photo assignment be?
John Miskelly: That’s an interesting question Derek. I suppose every assignment is my favourite while I’m working on it, as I’m passionate about what I do. Yes, some locations are more difficult to make work for a client than others, but that’s part of the challenge, and when you manage to get something really good that the client is happy with, then that’s a great feeling. If I could choose my ideal location, it would involve snow covered landscapes, quite possibly including mountains. Snow is like water, in that I can provide a great compositional foil for other items in the landscape.
I mentioned books before, and my absolute favourite photographic book from my collection is Michael Kenna’s, Hokkaido. Since seeing the 84 sublime images in this book, which are printed on a fine art paper, all bound in a maple wood cover and held in a linen slipcase, I knew I would travel there someday. I have already done a little photography in mountainous landscapes, but I would love to do more. Seeing the images from Hokkaido, convinced me that, while I want to visit this part of Japan, I’m also determined to try and express my own photographic vision and not just duplicate what’s already been done before and which is also is widely copied. So, the bottom line here is, watch this space.
On the subject of favourite assignments, if you can indulge me for a moment, I will give you another one! I remember some years ago, seeing a feature in National Geographic magazine, showing the horrific conditions experienced by the workers in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong, in Bangladesh. I’m sure most readers will be unaware that I used to work for BBC News many years ago, so I still enjoy the challenge of doing some personal work in the whole area of documentary photography, in particular through a charity I work with in Kolkata, India. There are no long exposures involved though! As such, I’m really drawn to edgy documentary photography from around the world, and the ship breaking yards are one that I know brings some very significant challenges, but one I would love to cover for a magazine feature. Anyone out there who would like to commission me, then just get in touch 😉
LEMAG: Lastly, let us know what you consider as your weakest points as a photographer.
John Miskelly: Unlike many people who work in the area of long exposure photography, I personally find black and white a more challenging area to work in. As I mentioned earlier, I see things in colour, albeit often in desaturated or monochromatic tones, what a very good friend recently called “monochromatic pastels”, but I don’t feel that I can express my vision in quite the same way when I convert them to black and white. It’s not that I haven’t previously worked in B&W, as I used to do a lot of monochrome portraiture, not to mention developing and printing in the darkroom, but all in days gone by.
To help me improve my B&W interpretative skills, I’ve recently started working on a series of more abstract or architectural images, that are in a folio called ‘Back to Black’ on my website. I’m also about to get back to printing some of my landscape images in platinum/palladium, which I last tried around 14 years ago. I think it’s really important to challenge those areas we think we are weaker in, and we often find that we become better artists as a result.
LEMAG: John, once again thank you very much for finding time to speak to us and best of luck with your further work.
John Miskelly: Thank you Derek, it’s been a pleasure.