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Walking, A Way of Photography

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Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish

Professional landscape photographer. His personal website is www.joecornishphotographer.com/

“We don't make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.” - Ansel Adams

In this memorable quote, Ansel Adams distills the idea that photography is truly an act of self expression. He urges us to apply our entire life experience, especially what we have learned from other art forms, and from our relationships, to our photographic seeing. It stands as a luminous signpost to anyone ready to further their photography beyond good craftsmanship/technique.


We recognise that the human character is a fusion of nature and nurture. It's no surprise that when we look at our friends and family – those we know well – we find that their behaviour, their habits, patterns, outlook on life is, along with their own natural instincts, abilities and gifts, a reflection on what happened to them as children, and beyond. This recognition becomes much harder though when we look at ourselves, for the mirror we hold to our own experience is also heavily tinted (and perhaps even cracked) by the very experiences on which we need to reflect. Nevertheless, it is from the joy and suffering of a life – our own – that we ultimately find inspiration. 3_Grasses_reflections_YosemiteThe ideas, the shapes, the proportions, the energy, the colour, the light and darkness that invades our images are at their most eloquent when they are connected to, and reflective of, our life as we have lived it.

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  • Robin Jones

    As somebody who photographs close to home most of the time, walking in to the countryside is a given, but I had not thought about it as essential preparation until now. Just transport.
    You tend to rationally plan and do the checks at home, or in the car-camera,tripod,battery etc. Then you go out and “do the photography”. What lens? Composition? All the rational stuff.But in reality,now you have pointed it out,it is not like that.
    As you start walking, the rhythm of the walk,your breathing and heartbeat all settle after 20 mins or so and the brain waves steady. You become aware of your senses,informing you about the sights and sounds and feel of the environment. getting in that zone that David describes. the photographs evolve,from being in that receptive frame of mind. I am beginning to put it all together.

    • The walk is the source of ‘material’ isn’t it, but also of stimuli, of feeling, of observation. It frames the photographs as much as the camera’s viewfinder. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Michael Hogg

    Walking came first, long walks short walks, always contemplative, always taking in the slowly changing surroundings. The need to record the landscape, I found, coincides with a need to express ones heightened emotions, hence the picking up of a camera – and the long journey of photographic discovery began.
    There is nothing to compare with walking to connect with nature, and the surrounding landscape. It is only with this connection can ones emotional level be raised to where we can properly see.

    • Thanks Michael, you probably said in two or three sentences what took me two thousand words to express!

      • Michael Hogg

        But not nearly as eloquently though Joe, as I’m sure all your readers would agree.
        I enjoy reading On Landscape’s articles very much, and all the wonderful feedback they engender!

  • Adam Long

    Wise words Joe. I have always been in awe of Richard Long (no relation) for managing to build his walks into art, and very lucrative art at that. I’m not sure of the timings, was he an influence when you were at university?

    For my own part I find walking has to fairly non-committal to be inspirational if that makes sense, more of a wander than a hike. Climbing though I find a very reliable trigger to creativity, perhaps it is the greater level of concentration and constant problem solving required? Although if I camp in an area for a few days I often find you can get into such a mind state almost permanently, so perhaps it is more a case of tuning the land in and modern society etc out…

    Have you read Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’? A very interesting meditation on our species’ origins as a nomadic creature, constantly on the move. For the aboriginal Australians the world is created by walking, not just back in the dreamtime but every day… we have to ‘walk up’ the land to bring it into existence. An important lesson in our increasingly urban-centric world I think!

    • Yes, I do remember Richard Long from the late-70s. I loved the concepts, although as I was probably comparing his photography to Adams and Weston at the time, he came off second best… obviously, a ridiculous and unjust comparison! Will definitely have another look at Richard Long, so thanks for that.
      Interesting to hear your thoughts re climbing as inspiration, Adam. Without much experience of technical rock-climbing I can’t really compare notes, but would have expected this to have concentrated the mind on staying alive rather than making pictures! For my part, the less life-threatening pace and poise of a wandering walk seems more conducive to creative thinking.
      Not read Songlines, but quick research suggests it’s a must-read. We obviously cannot chat to Chatwin now (sorry!), but perhaps we should see if there are ‘landscape sages’ from the literary world who would like to chat to Onlandscape. Robert Macfarlane springs to mind, and would be interested to know if you have any suggestions. The world of words and the visual arts do have a lot of common ground after all.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Hi Joe,

        Another vote from me for approaching landscape on foot. Robert Macfarlane would top my list too; I’d also recommend books by Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey incl. Wildwood and Beechcombings respectively.

        All the best, Michela

        • Thanks Michela, sadly we have no chance of speaking with Roger Deakin, but thanks for the reading tip. It may be possible to arrange an interview with Robert Macfarlane; we will work on it!

  • Jean-Christophe Surateau

    I had a severe heart operation some times ago and my biggest fear was that I won’t be able to hike anymore. I don’t think that I would keep on photographing if I couldn’t wander in the landscape as I want. Fortunately, it took time, but I am now as fit as before.
    Walking is a very important process in my photography and you described it beautifully.

    Thanks for this article Joe.

    • Your story does help put it all in perspective. So glad to hear you are in full fitness once again, and long may walking and photography be part of your life. Thank-you for commenting Jean-Christophe.

  • Marc Elliott

    Hi Joe. I’ve now combined my love of the camera, my passion for the outdoors, and the landscapes with backpacking. And have had some wonderful trips with the kids, and camera into the moors of Dartmoor. For me this gives a real purpose to the process of making pictures, along with the strong sense being in such a wild, remote landscape makes for a ( dare I say) spiritual experience. I can see this developing into longer , more challenging trips further a field as the kiddies get older too. Thanks Joe . And thanks for all your recent articles. I have read, related, and enjoyed all of them. All the best. Marc

    • Thanks Marc, great to hear that. Walks I have done with the children, are simply life’s parental highlights; and it is important for them too. As they get older, so the walks can be more ambitious! It’s so rewarding hearing them recalling those adventures with their friends, and I really believe it helps to distill the love of nature within them too.
      Really appreciate your thoughts.

  • For me, walking is one of the most basic ingredients in the creative process. Each footfall grounds me to the earth as my eye wanders through light and sky. The camera is merely a mechanism to record the poems found in those movements. Much like the “Songlines” mentioned above.

    Thank you for your contemplations on the this.

    • And thank-you for such a lyrical description of your practice. Poetry and photography are very close ‘forms’ in the way you describe, distilling observation, experience, memory, desire, joy, suffering into crystallised expression.

  • I have to agree with Joe and all the comments.. Even if I drive to a location I simply have to park far enough to make my way into the landscape (or even architecture) on foot… And everytime I am in the car, passing through some new locations, the ever-present idea in my head is: if only I could walk here instead of driving. (But I have to admit it would be a hard walk with the 8×10… :)

    Some years ago I have walked across Spain on the Camino and although I have not taken many pictures the images of the road and the landscape are more vivid in my memory than almost any other parts of my (visual) memory. And they are not just images – the memories include even the scents in the air and the feelings of warmth / cold – something that would be really difficult to convey in a photographic print.

  • Walking to reach a photograph is a obvious task but often overlooked. We are not just walking to a location but walking in a rhythmic pattern, unwinding but also awakening into a state of being of observing and appreciating the natural world at its own default pace. Luckily we still carry a evolutionary baggage of senses from past natural living to help us collect input and translate creatively into meaning.

  • Scott Rae

    Walking is the only mode of transport that can get you, basically, anywhere on earth. You’re not constrained by roads of paths, so your opportunities are endless. It’s a natural, relaxing form of exercise, both for body and mind requiring little thought or conscious effort, so it’s far more likely to get your creative juices flowing and the slower pace gives you time to look around and appreciate your surroundings. Most importantly, you can just stop! Take a moment in without it just flashing past at 60mph.

    Taking this to it’s extreme, nothing is as relaxing for me as being able to just step out of the door and walk. No roads, no traffic, no hassle and no stress to cloud the journey. As a Borders lad, this was how I grew up. The countryside was my playground – it was easy and safe to use. A 5 minute walk from the house and I was in the wild rolling hills or playing in the wooded valleys – I could freely walk in any direction. Even when I go home now, this freedom and ease of access is probably the thing I find relaxes me most – the ability to just walk. The result being that I’m photographically most prolific there than anywhere else, despite only going back home a couple of times a year!

    Oddly, this isn’t something I’ve felt anywhere else. Even living in rural East Devon, I can’t just walk out the door and easily explore what is beautiful countryside. I have to drive and contend with traffic. I have to walk on narrow, high verged roads worrying about what’s about to come around the next corner. The paths are cut deep into the fields, so the views are hidden. It is such an odd contrast, and really does show in my work!

  • Thanks for all these comments and personal memories, reflections, anecdotes. It is not really a surprise but nevertheless inspiring to find that walking is more than just a way of reaching the viewpoint literally; you could say it helps in reaching a viewpoint metaphorically too. It is clearly a topic that resonates, and hopefully one we can come back to regularly on the magazine. It seems so important too to encourage and inspire the younger generation to get out and walk, which millions obviously do (although many more don’t). What a brilliant instrument photography is in this respect, as it provides (digitally) an instant reward system for taking time to look carefully at what we see; I am sure most young people can relate to that. And since most of them have a phone they don’t even need to buy a camera.

  • Alan

    I’m a great believer in the slower you go the more you see, trouble is I used to return with plenty of images but no fitter. My solution is to walk briskly to where I am going, amble and take images, then a brisk walk back (the best of both worlds).

  • Deirdre Huston

    This is a subject dear to my heart. Your blog, Joe, and the subsequent comments capture many of the intricacies and wonders of the walking experience. For me, photography is as much about the physical and creative processes involved as the end result. It’s about us trying to capture the visual elements of our world in a way which somehow reflects our experience and enables us to understand ourselves and what we want to communicate to others about the world too.
    I included Creative Starting Points in my last guidebook, Sussex Walks, as I wanted to encourage readers to enjoy the link between walking and creativity which I myself have found so uplifting. It’s all about being outdoors and perhaps the important word is ‘being’ and giving ourselves the time and space to reflect on our experience in a hectic world.

    • Thanks for your contribution Deirdre. Your last sentence sums it up perfectly. I had been thinking these last few days about whether it might be possible to build in “the gospel of walking” ;-) to the workshops I co-lead with my colleagues. But since that is not what participants necessarily sign up for I remain uncertain as to the legitimacy of this aspiration. Interestingly I have noticed that landscape photography is not by any means an interest and pursuit limited to the outdoor experienced and ‘hill-fit’. And that is good, because I would hope that the physicality of landscape photography is a healthy outcome for everyone (accidents excepted!). However, I am coming to realise that very likely the only way to encourage more walking is to nurture confidence and excitement in photographic seeing. And to reinforce the point that the work done in the field, and the effort and pleasure that comes with it is vital.
      If anyone reading this is from the nhs and wondering if this is a therapy that can be applied constructively promoting personal health and well-being, especially into middle age and beyond, please get in touch!

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