by Matt Botwood
Photographer Matt Botwood’s project Travels in a Strange Land: Dark Spaces is featured on of the land & us today.
We spotted Botwood’s enchanting project online, and it was the strange and inconceivably detailed photographs that appear to be monochrome landscapes from another world that drew our attention so completely. Are these mountains? Rivers? Sand dunes? No – they are simply the dark spaces found in nature.
With this work, Botwood reminds us that the most fantastical and magical things can be found in our own backyards. We just need to open our eyes and mind and look.
First things first, please introduce yourself.
My name is Matt Botwood and I’m originally from the village of Kings Langley in Hertfordshire. I’ve moved around the country a fair bit but have finally settled in my current adopted home in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. It’s pretty much my ideal house; 1000ft up a mountain and quite remote, with very few neighbours. I like the isolation and being able to see mountains out of my window – I can’t really get much closer to the landscape I love than this.
Since 2005 I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, to allow my wife to return to a career in medicine, and have used my free time to pursue photography both commercially and for my own personal projects.
I tend to work in projects or series of images for a number of reasons, but mainly because I don’t think that single landscape images tell much of a story or have a great deal of depth to them.
How did you become interested in photography?
I initially became interested in photography at a very early age, maybe 7 or 8, when a friend of the family gave me an old Zorki rangefinder. This interest continued into my teenage years when I converted my bedroom into a darkroom and spent a lot of my time teaching myself how to develop film and print. I still have some of the images I took back then, but most were rubbish!
I always wanted to be a photographer when I was at school, but careers advice and my better judgement prevailed and led me into studying biochemistry to postgraduate level and then ending up in a scientific IT career while photography was very much on the back-burner. It was just holiday snaps mostly, although we did visit a lot of the Middle East back then and I now have images of places that you could not visit today, which are interesting to look back on. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and historical sites, so the landscape has always featured heavily in my images.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to escape the rat-race and become the primary carer for our son when my wife returned to work. This opened up the opportunity for me to pursue photography as a business, and I initially started with the predictable family portraits, commercial commissions and selling landscape prints and greetings cards in local galleries, gift shops and regular craft fairs. However, I soon found this taking me away from the type of photography I wanted to pursue. I have steadily side-lined these more commercial aspects of photography to concentrate on producing the sort of work that I am really interested in, focusing more on ‘dark landscapes’ and taking advantage of the transformative approaches available in photography to express my own view of the landscape.
Why does the ‘dark landscape’ interest you?
I think it is mostly because of the mystery and intrigue that accompanies these type of images and the feelings that they invoke. It avoids the ‘chocolate box’ approach to the landscape that seem to me to be quite superficial (although I appreciate that they are incredibly popular). Perhaps also it reflects on my own personality. I hate the Hollywood movie or TV series that feels like it has to have a happy ending when it shouldn’t, and I much prefer an inconclusive end or something darker and perhaps more realistic to life.
You said above that you live in your ideal house up in the mountains in quite a remote area – what is it about nature that attracts you to it time and time again?
It is the infinite variety and constant change that I like most. Although many may think that the landscape is fairly static on a human timescale, it is in constant flux with the seasons and weather, especially in the mountains. When you start to look more closely at nature there are things changing on an even quicker timescale too. The solitude of being out in the landscape is also a big draw. I don’t really enjoy being in very busy places with lots of people rushing around. Walking in the hills and forest is a great way to achieve some personal space to think. Plus, I love the feeling of breathing all that fresh air and getting some exercise!
What is this project about?
Travels in a Strange Land: Dark Spaces started with a chance find – I’m a great believer in serendipity in photography as a way to start exploring something new. I had found a rather interesting location but wasn’t sure if a straight image would really show the beauty of what I had found, and I started to play around with negatives of the image – a method I had been using in another series.
Suddenly the scene was transformed into what seemed to me was a fantasy landscape; a strange land. There were elements of it that were recognisable, but something a bit different about it made me want to look closer. I like this transformative element of photography.
I then went out to actively search for new locations that would also yield new fantasy landscapes. I initially had few preconceptions about what I might discover, just a vague idea of the types of location that might make fertile hunting grounds. I often say that I liken myself to a Victorian naturalist; venturing out into the landscape to collect samples not knowing what I had discovered until I returned home to look ‘under the microscope’, or convert to negative in my case.
Ultimately I found what I was looking for mostly in the dark spaces underneath fallen trees, at the edges of riverbanks and old holloways etc. These are places that most people don’t give a second glance to. Partly this is because they can’t see much in the darkness and my approach of ‘lighting’ up this darkness by converting to negative reveals much of the detail. What initially started with a few images ended up with 150, and I have now produced a book with 100 of these images.
The real aim of the series in the end was to show that there are interesting and new landscapes that we pass every day, and that people don’t have to travel the globe to discover something new.
What inspires you?
When it comes to inspiration I think you have to be very careful about being inspired by other artists who work in the same medium as yourself, because there is a fine, dividing line between inspiration and plagiarism. In the world of landscape photography I greatly admire people like Michael Jackson and Chris Tancock, both also based in Wales, for their determination to follow very long-term projects exploring their own local environment, while still producing new and exciting work.
In the wider world of photography I was probably inspired most early in my photography by Bill Brandt’s work, both for his photography aesthetic (a dark and contrasty style which I’ve always loved) but also for his ability to produce images covering different genres: portrait, street photography and landscape.
Street photography as a genre is one that I personally find really inspiring because it is one in which a single image can tell a story. I think images should do more than just serve as eye candy, which is a common problem with a lot of landscape imagery, and street photography has the ability to say a lot and often makes the viewer raise questions too. I think I’m also inspired by street photography so much because I find it impossible myself!
Outside of photography I love the writing of Robert MacFarlane, which always makes me want to look closer at the landscape around me.
In terms of other visual arts I’m a great fan of the simplicity and minimalism of artists like Mark Rothko, the use of light by Turner and the fascinating surrealism of Salvador Dali. Dali was probably one of the first artists I took an interest in and there is perhaps a surreal nature to some of the images in Travels in a Strange Land : Dark Spaces which harks back to my love of his own “landscape” images.
All of this year I’ve been working on another long term project photographing Maen Llia, a large standing stone not far from my home. I started this project because despite living here for over 15 years, I’d not made a single image of the stone that I was happy with.
Throughout the project I’ve been exploring some more creative approaches to capturing images which really reflect the exposure and weather I’ve experienced while at the stone. I’m not sure where these images are going or what I will do with them at the end of the year, but it’s been an interesting exercise! You can follow all of my visits to the stone on Twitter using the #maenllia2015 hashtag.
I’ve also just started a series based in a local forestry plantation – it’s currently at a very early stage but focused on ephemeral views that give a fleeting glimpse of the forest and a sense of its darkness and mystery.
Ultimately I always seem to end up in the forest; I don’t really know what attracts me most to this location, but I suspect it is mainly because few people venture in to these places and this allows me to find more ‘undiscovered’ landscapes, which I think appeals to all landscape photographers.
As winter approaches, I’ll also be keen to get up in the mountains. First and foremost I enjoy walking in the Brecon Beacons and there are always images to be made in winter conditions, as they show the National Park off at its best.