TAC 49 Index
Ever since its inception ten years ago, TAC has been banging on about the commercialisation and regimentation of the hills - the gear, the gloss, the gurus, the guff. And so, as the magazine enters its second decade, it's entirely appropriate that Jon Sparks should rail against the worsening situation...
WE LIVE in a ridiculous world. People drive to the gym in order to sit on a static bicycle, yet it never occurs to them to actually cycle anywhere.
In the Freelance Photographer's Market Handbook for 2000 and 2001, the following requirement is given for Trail magazine: 'Walkers seen close up should be in their 20s-30s, attractive, and wearing proper outdoor gear'. This isn't just ridiculous, it's downright offensive. Imagine the furore if instead of saying 'in their 20s-30s', they had said 'white'. It goes without saying - I hope - that racism is not to be tolerated. But is ageism really any more acceptable?
I contacted the editor of Trail for a comment and was told that this entry is 'way out of date'. Currently, he said, 'there is no stated policy on people appearing in pictures, although they should reflect the readership of the magazine and be wearing clothing suitable for the environment'. My nasty, suspicious mind wonders whether this isn't just a coded way of saying the same thing. If you keep putting trendy young things on the cover of a magazine, you'll probably attract a trendy young readership, and vice versa.
Whether it's 'proper outdoor gear', or 'clothing suitable for the environment', I can't help feeling that what they mean is gear that is new, trendy and preferably expensive. One can't entirely blame Trail for this, and it would be unfair to single them out any further. All glossy magazines depend on advertising, and manufacturers and advertisers depend on us continuing to buy new gear. Either way, the emphasis remains on what the people look like and what they're wearing. There's no real reference to where they are pictured. The late lamented Mountain magazine used, on occasion, to put pictures of mountains on its cover - not a person in sight, let alone a shiny new jacket or rucksack. When was the last time you saw that? I've seen covers for Trail that could have been shot in a studio, with a few bits of rock and grass as props and a back-projected, out-of-focus, could-be-anywhere landscape behind.
There's more at stake here than ageism, or the demand for 'attractive' subjects, important though these are. Cover pictures are important to magazines. There's plenty of evidence that what goes on the cover has a major influence on sales. The way cover (and other) shots have changed doesn't just reflect the whim of individual editors. It must also say something more generally about changing attitudes to the outdoors.
You don't have to be gorgeous, pouting and 23 to love the outdoors. But, looking at many of the magazines - and not just at the adverts - you could be forgiven for thinking that it helps. Rampant consumerism is everywhere. Shopping is the new sex, brown is the new black and, God help us, Diar-muid Gavin is the new Capability Brown.
Ask people why they go to the hills and you will, of course, receive a variety of answers. But even in our climate, 'it's an excuse to spend loads of money on gear' is surely not going to be top of anyone's list - although the proliferation of gear shops in places such as Fort William and Ambleside should give pause for thought.
However, when we live most of the time in a world of frenzied consumerism, it's hard to change mental gears completely. And herein lies the real danger: not that we spend too much on gear, but that we may come to see the hills themselves as just another product, just something else to be consumed.
Of course we are literally consuming the hills. Erosion by boots is only nibbling at them compared to the gargantuan bites taken by forestry, quarrying, or hydro power, but it's an uncomfortable reality that we all have to acknowledge. Erosion of paths did give ammunition to those who unsuccessfully opposed the right to roam legislation for England and Wales. And the realisation of the right to roam will have a physical impact on some areas.
What concerns me here is not so much consump-tion in this literal sense, but the packaging and marketing of the outdoors. As an outdoor photographer, I have to wrestle with this question every day of my working life. I work in the Lake District much of the time, where the landscape has been lived in and worked on by people for thousands of years. The obvious marks, such as walls and tracks and quarries, bear witness to this, but the whole ecology of the area has been profoundly influenced by humans, from the first clearance of trees by stone axes to present day sheep grazing. Larch trees were introduced relatively recently: Wordsworth hated them, as he did the fashion of white-washing farmhouses and cottages. Yet today larches and white-walled cottages are postcard and calendar fodder par excellence, and most people think Lakeland has always looked like that, just as they think that everything above the tree-line is untouched wilderness.
I am also aware that it is rare to be alone on the fells today. It's still possible, of course. Many walkers work nine-to-five in the hills, just as they do every other day of the week. And most walkers stick to established routes to established summits. Here's a little exercise that will appeal to TAC readers: which Lakeland summits are not listed as Wainwrights? Come to that, what were Wainwright's eligibi-lity rules anyway? Unlike Munros, Corbetts, Grahams, Marilyns or whatever, no clear criteria are either expressed or implied; the list is full of anomalies.
Brim Fell claims a separate chapter, as does Sergeant Man and even Mungrisdale Common, the steatopygous backside of Blencathra. Meanwhile, some quite distinct tops barely get a passing mention. I don't just mean Pillar Rock or Napes Needle, either. No rock-climbing is needed to reach Little Stand or Ladyside Pike. They are there for all to see, on the map and on the ground, but because they are not Wainwrights they receive significantly fewer visits.
This is not meant to be a critique of Wainwright (don't get me started). The point is that it's a lot easier to get away from the crowds when you start to seek out alternative ways and avoid the 'name' fells. And, from the photographer's point of view, pictures of crowd-ed hills generally don't sell. Magazines and tourist brochures usually like to see couples, families or small groups, probably '20s-30s, attractive, and wearing proper outdoor gear'. For cards and calendars the usual demand is for pictures without people in at all.
There seems to be a contradiction here. Some of these pictures are used in direct or indirect promotion - in other words, encouraging more people to visit the hills, making it harder and harder for the photographer to get those unpopulated shots.
Others are bought as souvenirs. I once sat for well over an hour - and pretty chilly it was - with the camera on a tripod framing a classic angle on Striding Edge. I wasn't waiting for the light to do anything special - if anything it was getting steadily less exciting. I was just waiting for a moment when there was no one in shot. I was happy to take shots with people in, too, but guess which one was chosen by the national park for a poster? This poster has now sold several thousand copies. I can't help wondering how many of them are bought by people who were No.257 or whatever on Striding Edge the day they did it, and how many ever ponder on the divergence between the image and their actual experience.
By some reckonings, tourism is now the world's largest industry, and we are often told that tourism is all about selling dreams. Myths would be another word. Jayawardene Travel Library is one of the top picture libraries in this field, and beach shots are their main sellers: 'What clients are looking for are smooth sands, perfect blue skies [...] and beautiful palms [...] Even footprints all over the sand can make the picture untidy and unusable' (Professional Photographer, August 1999).
Again the contradiction is obvious, and again there are lurking dangers. In many parts of the world beaches are more or less forcibly cleared of incon-venient, untidy, indigenous people. Exclusive or all-in resorts have appropriated miles of beaches formerly used by local people for their own leisure or livelihood. Couldn't happen here? I wonder...
Reality is untidy. Nature is chaotic. You are going to be surrounded by dozens of other people when you want to be alone, and will feel terribly isolated just when you'd really like a bit of company. You are going to get cold, wet and knackered, often all three at once. You are definitely going to get those nice shiny waterproofs muddy. We all know this. For some of us, it's part of the attraction. For all of us, it's part of the reality. Pity it isn't part of the image a bit more often.
Oscar Wilde is hardly the first name you think of for writing about the outdoors. But in that extraordinary testament, De Profundis, he produces one of those lines that gets under the skin: 'We all look at nature too much and live with her too little'. I suspect I'll be working out what that means for a long time to come.
There is also the idea that we can treat the outdoors simply as an arena in which to perform. 'Ticking' the Wainwrights, or bagging the Munros, can become nothing more than a collecting of trophies. This is just another form of consuming the outdoors. Now, if you have enough money, you can collect the Seven Summits too. Everest is for sale and the South Col is the highest rubbish tip in the world. Even real mountaineers can lose perspective when they have bagged most of the 14 Eight Thousanders. Three million cheers for Stephen Venables, who tasted the ballyhoo after his ascent of Everest via the Kangshung face and promptly went off on an ex-ploratory trip to mountains most people had never even heard of, in South Georgia.
Ask people why they go to the hills and a very high proportion of answers will feature words such as escape, simplicity, peace, tranquillity, 'getting away from it all'. It's easy to buy into the image, but untidy reality likes to throw us a curve: there's not much peace and tranquillity in a blizzard on the Ben. It does, however, make things pretty simple. You tend to stop worrying about whether you look cool and groovy.
If we're serious about 'getting away from it all', then consumerism is one of the things we need to get away from. Fortunately we don't have to go all the way to South Georgia. We have plenty of untidy reality right here at home. Our hills aren't all perfect soaring peaks. Some are ten splashy miles from the nearest road and pretty much pudding-shaped when you get there. That's the way it should be.
Untidy hills deserve untidy people, though not ones who leave litter. Just people who love the hills on their own terms, and who aren't too fussed if their trousers don't match their jacket.
TAC 49 Index