Welcome back to Warnscale Head, high up above Honister Slate Mine and one of the first bothies that photographer Nicholas JR White visited for the start of his photo project, ‘Black Dots’. Nick visited a total of twenty bothies over the course of his two year project, journeying to some of the UK’s most remote locations on the rugged coasts, high up in the mountains and nestled deep in thick, old growth forests. A maverick photographer juggling commercial work with his own documentary projects, it’s his 5x4 work that’s got people talking.
We celebrate the launch of his latest photo book ‘Black Dots’ and the growing curiosity surrounding bothy culture, with an in-depth conversation at Warnscale Head bothy in the midst of the bleak, Lakeland winter.
Packing a 65L bag loaded with fuel was reassuring, knowing that ultimately we were in for a sheltered night despite the wind, rain and hail. However, locating the bothy in white-out winter conditions was going to be nothing short of interesting. Bracing against the cold, our faces buried deep into our jackets, we began the familiar search out for the elusive bothy that conceals its profile, much to the delight of the few who know where to look.
Later that day, with a cup of tea brewing over a Jetboil and a roaring fire lit in the bothy stove, we sat down with Nicholas and asked him about the concept behind The Black Dots Project, his involvement with Coldhouse and looking ahead to his upcoming projects in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and beyond.
So let us take you back to where it all began…
Warnscale Head was one of the first bothies you visited in The Black Dots project. What were your initial impressions and expectations?
I honestly didn’t have any idea what I was going to find. In my head I had formed an idea of what a bothy looked like, and this one ticked the box. Warnscale Head is probably one of the most rugged of them all that I’ve stayed in. I knew that they weren’t luxurious - they’re nothing like the Alpine style huts or the wilderness cabins you come across in New Zealand. It's really well camouflaged so it kind of appears out of nowhere as you approach it - the landscape is basically covered in slate, situated in the fell side with scree slopes and slate piles hiding it from view. As I turned the corner and saw this one, I kind of realised the bothy represented the aesthetic I was after.
Was there a minimum number of bothies you wanted to start and end with?
For Black Dots Project, I kept it strictly to visiting The Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), a volunteer-run charity who support the running and maintenance of bothies across the UK. As I was starting the Black Dots project, the MBA had just celebrated its 50th anniversary, so it was a really good time to start. Keeping it within the MBA helped give me some kind of premise to work within, yet without feeling the need to do an architectural survey of every bothy.
Part of my planning involved working out a huge amount of logistics. I plotted every single bothy on a wall map and cross referenced it with each location. I figured out the route in, route out, how long that would take, the kind of landscape you pass through, the locations it’s in, compared this with research online and then whittled it down to a selection of bothies that gave a decent amount of variety in locations that form a wide overview of the British landscape. They’re not just in the mountains but they can also be found on islands, along the coastline and in the forests.
With the internet and your involvement with The Black Dots Project, giving a spotlight on bothy culture, how important is it that the overall bothy culture is preserved and protected?
We’re lucky to have organisations such as the MBA, made up of volunteers who maintain them to the point they don’t feel like holiday cottages. They still retain their character - you don’t want them to be polished, centrally heated accommodation with running water - it’s not what it’s about. On the whole, the majority of people that come out to bothies are the sort of people that are going to look after these places, going to protect the environment and take out their litter. I hope that my work isn't going to attract a wider audience of people that aren't going to respect it. The MBA isn’t a secret club, it’s an association, a charity of volunteers that maintain them for everyone, for all people [to access.] Providing they have the necessary right gear, if people want to come out and stay in them and as a result develop an interest in the outdoors because they might have seen my project, then that’s got to be a good thing.
How is a bothy experience affected by the introduction of people? Is it a different experience visiting a bothy as a solo trip by yourself compared to sharing a space with strangers?
I have met people who’ve come out and visited bothies because they want to be isolated, they just want some distance. For some people, they have quite deep reasons to why they’ve gone to these places; they probably weren’t expecting to meet other people. Yet when you think about it, the bothy experience is the ultimate meeting place outdoors. As inhabitants you’re sharing the same shelter, same fire and you’re both here because you have a mutual love of this environment, so instantly you have something in common, which I find fascinating. The bothy is a beacon where people are drawn to it, a remote social hub for people you’ve never met before, might never meet again but you know instantly that you’ll have a good chat because you’ve hiked in regardless of the weather.
Photographically that’s great because in terms of making portraits it means you can instantly form a bond with a person. I usually shoot the portrait images the following morning once I’ve got to know the people staying there.
It’s like that saying, ‘ People enter as strangers and leave as friends’.
I’ve heard that said before! (laughs) Yeah, that phrase… maybe I should get a tattoo of it. (more laughter)
Have there been any bothies that have been particularly difficult to get to?
There were a couple of bothies that stand out as particularly difficult to get to due to their accessibility, which by their nature that’s what they’re there for. I think for me I’d never experienced a Scottish Winter before this project, and anyone that has done it before knows it shouldn’t be underestimated.
Visiting the Cairngorms in winter was particularly tough, particularly someone who is a photographer first and a hiker second. It means adding another level of preparation and planning. I wasn’t going anywhere that was going to require ice axes, or up munroes, I was very much keeping down in the glens. We hiked out for two days, spent one day in the Corrour bothy one night, which meant we had to conserve fuel the first night. Hiking over Ben Macdui with all the fuel & 5x4 kit took a considerable amount of time and the light had started to fade, limiting available time to shoot. Generally speaking, the Scottish bothies aren’t impossible to reach but the weather had a massive impact on some of the more remote bothies.
How comfortable are you with representing the bothy culture as a photographer in interviews, The Black Dots Project film etcetera?
I think it’s an honour! (laughs) I think it’s great y’know. I found out about bothies through photographing them, I’d say it’s an honour to represent and talk about them to an audience. Having immersed myself in that culture for the last few years, it’s been a privilege to talk about it.
To an audience that watched the Black Dots Project film - who was involved with it, how long did it take to film and what was the outcome?
During shooting for 'The Place of the Gaels', I was introduced to Coldhouse and met Ryan Goff , a filmmaker at Coldhouse who approached me about the possibility of a film collaboration later in the year. The entire Black Dots film idea was Ryan's who proposed we shot it in the Lake District over the course of 24 hours, which is in stark contrast to the usual scale of a Coldhouse shoot. It was really nice actually - quite a quiet shoot, essentially two men hanging out in the hills! (laughs) By then I’d already completed photography for the Black Dots project. Ryan had planned out the shots in his head and he knew what he wanted to get, taking the creative direction with it. I was beyond stoked with the final outcome and was really proud when it was shown as part of the official selection at Kendal Mountain Festival.
With the kind of completion of the Black Dots project, are there any processes or stylistic things that you want to continue in other bodies of work?
Before Black Dots, one of the main things before was the fact I hadn't shot portraits - I refused to do it. I think seeing how the portraits play off the landscape and vice versa is a really interesting relationship that takes place in the work. I don’t really call myself a landscape photographer any more as most landscape photographers would favour beautiful golden light, which is a really false representation of what it's like to be in the outdoors. For me it’s going out in terrible weather making work regardless opens up a whole host of possibilities of what it’s like to experience the British landscape. I think that is something I’ll transfer into my other work, to not feel too limited if it’s not quite right. For example today - we’ve headed out in conditions which wouldn’t typically be favourable for a landscape photographer, especially one who shoots 5x4. It’s pretty flat light, wet and cold, but actually we’ve found a subject matter that works really well in these conditions by shooting amongst the slate piles. By going out, whatever the weather and making something happen, [this ethos] is something I’ll carry forward.
Have you got any future plans to do a new body of work? Talk to me about your involvement with the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).
I've been a member of the RPS for several years and am now an associate. This year, I was awarded their Under 30’s bursary in association with producing a body of work that is environmentally focused. I am currently embarking on a new body of work in the Carpathian mountains in Romania. It's a very broad topic but the idea came from a conversation about rewilding which lead to further research, learning about Romania and the relationship between the forests and the mountains and looking at what that relationship looks like in the 21st century. There are a number of surrounding issues, including social, economic, political changes and the drive towards ecotourism, the fight against illegal logging, the formation of a brand new national park. Rewilding isn’t necessarily the main issue I’m talking about, but it's part of it.
You've mentioned you’ve wanted to focus on one area for the Carpathia project. What's the reasoning for the specific geographical focus on that particular valley?
Similarly to the Black Dots Project, I realised that I didn't have to photograph the whole of the southern Carpathia to talk about a number of issues. During my recce with Coldhouse, I found an old Romanian saying, ‘The forest is Romania’s brother.’ The Romanian people would retreat to the forests as a place of shelter, a place they hold in high regard. It’ll be interesting examining the tension between issues, such as recent developments in deforestation versus the preservation efforts of the national park and by the local people.
So it’ll be the people that are the vehicles for this project?
Similarly to Black Dots, the Carpathia project will follow a similar template to as there will be a fusion of landscapes and portraits as they're both part of the conversation. It’s all about the people’s relationship with a place, so you have to include both things to have that conversation. Overall, the end outcome will be very much portrait lead.
Nicholas JR White's photo book, Black Dots, is availible to order through Another Press
Click here to watch 'The Black Dots Project.' With support from Rab.