In Conversation with Nicholas White | October 2019
Our next Fable & Folk interview is with photographer Nicholas White. Nicholas has done many long term projects, his most well known being “Black Dots” (2015 - 2018). This series is an exploration of mountain bothies and bothy culture after spending almost three years exploring some of the UK’s most remote landscapes. The work has been featured in many publications, such as British Journal of Photography and Lens Culture, and was published as a photobook from Another Place Press in 2018. He has won many awards including the Lens Culture Emerging Talent Award in 2017 and has participated in numerous group exhibitions.
We wanted to interview Nicholas because we believe that his work ethic is incredible and he is a fantastic example of what it means to be a photographer pursuing projects that you’re truly passionate about and require being in extreme conditions.
Fable & Folk: Firstly, thank you Nicholas for letting us interview you, we really appreciate it! I’d like to begin by asking if you could possibly give us a little background about yourself & how you first got into photography?
Nicholas White: Thanks for having me! I was born in Dorset, the younger of two brothers. We grew up on a busy estate on the edge of town, but nature and the outdoors played a massive part in our upbringing. My grandparents had a place in a small village on Dartmoor, and much of my childhood was spent there. Rather than jetting off across the world, we’d spend our school holidays traipsing over the British hills in foul weather. Probably most kids idea of hell, but the hours spent navigating peat bogs with my father inspired a great love for the British outdoors and eventually lead to me picking up the camera.
I began taking photography more seriously around 2008 when I signed up to a photography BTEC at the local college. I then chose to continue studying onto degree level, graduating from Plymouth College of Art in 2013. After graduating, I struggled to find my feet for a while, pulling pints and doing occasional retouching work on the side. Eventually I found a job shooting e-commerce bits for a sports company, and slowly worked my way into the creative studio team. I’d pretty much neglected studio work throughout university so this was a welcome opportunity to develop my skillset there.
I went freelance a couple of years back, and now divide my time between commercial assignments and developing personal projects. I’m fortunate enough to be based in the heart of Dartmoor National Park, and can usually be found struggling around the hills here, soaking wet and reliving my childhood.
F&F: Many of the people who follow Fable & Folk are aspiring to turn their photographic practice into their career. Did you encounter any challenges whilst doing this yourself and do you have any advice based on these experiences?
NW: I realised quite early on that it wasn’t possible to sustain myself simply through shooting the things I love. It’s easy to fall into that trap if you pass through arts education as I did. You can become so fixated on your project work that you forget to consider how you’re actually going to survive as a photographer in the real world (if that’s what you want). Being able to strike a healthy balance between commercial and personal work has been so important for me. Something else I grappled with was not being based in London – I’d lost count of the amount of people who told me that moving to London was the natural way of things if one was to pursue photography. I’m stubborn though, and insisted on staying rooted in the South West. If you want to leap into the scrum then be my guest, but I’ve personally found that being based away from the capital has been incredibly beneficial.
F&F: My first introduction to your work was discovering your series “Black Dots”, could you tell us a little about that for our audience who might not have heard of the project?
NW: Black Dots is a series about the UKs network of Mountain Bothies: small mountain shelters that remain unlocked and free to use all year round, located in the most wild and lonely corners of the British landscape. The project is as much about the buildings themselves as it is about the people that use them. Mountaineers, hill walkers and climbers stay in the 100-odd shelters every night to take refuge and I was interested in exploring this culture: who are these strangers who choose to gather many miles from the nearest town? Black Dots saw me introduce portraiture for the first time, and took around 3 years to create. The vast majority of the work was made in Scotland, with occasional trips made to the North of England and the Welsh mountains.
F&F: What inspired you to start the project?
NW: I’d been curious about bothies for a while. Not so much as a “protagonist” for a photo series, but I’d researched them whilst planning some hiking trips to the highlands. The more I researched, the more I began to develop the idea for a photo series. It was also a good excuse to spend a few years hiking across Scotland!
F&F: Did you have an idea of how the project would look before shooting or was that something that developed as the project progressed?
NW: Black Dots was a series I began thinking about during my final year at university in 2013, but it remained as a bunch of notes in a notepad until 2015 when I finally had enough funds to commit to it. Over the course of those two years I’d spent a lot of time researching and figuring out the approach I was going to take. As I’ve said previously, I’d never shot portraits before – and initially that wasn’t going to form part of the series, but over time I accepted that not only would they be necessary, but would also take a priority over the landscapes. With anything I shoot, I try to balance the feel of the photographs somewhere between traditional landscape photography and a more contemporary aesthetic.
F&F: “Black Dots” required you to be away from home for a long time. How did you cope with living, not just far away from home, but also sometimes in extreme conditions?
NW: To be honest, when I’m back home I get very bored, very quickly. I enjoy working away from home, and I work better alone – I think it’s always been that way for me. As I’ve already touched upon, my love for the outdoors predates my interest in photography – so being out in horrible weather is something I’m used to now. As long as I’ve packed properly and taken all the right steps to protect my kit (and myself!) then there’s nothing to be too worried about. With a project like Black Dots, it really needed to be an accurate depiction of the British outdoors, which is why it crosses seasons and doesn’t shy away from poor weather.
F&F: This series was made in to your first photobook, published by Another Place Press. How did you stop it from just being a book of random images? What did the images need to make it to the final edit?
NW: I don’t shoot much. I’m not one of those photographers who always leaves the house with a camera. I research each shoot for a project really obsessively – I like to know the route I’m taking, the weather, the behaviour of the light and what sort of photographs I’m hoping to get. So there were never hundreds of sheets of film to edit from at the end, I think I only cut out 4 or 5.
F&F: To build on that, how involved were you in the editing process for the book and did you enjoy it?
NW: Iain at Another Place Press knows what he’s doing. He took the lead when it came to the book. We sent proofs back and forth but it was good to have a fresh pair of eyes on it. I’d been staring at the photos for so long in a certain order, it was difficult for me to imagine it any other way. Iain was able to construct a cohesive edit and pair images together that I wouldn’t have previously considered. If anyone is looking at chucking some cash towards affordable contemporary landscape photography books, feel free to do that over at APP.
F&F: In terms of getting your work published as a book, is this something you would encourage other photographers to look into?
NW: Absolutely, but also remember that not every body of work needs to be seen in book-form. I didn’t consider Black Dots becoming a book whilst shooting it, it was only during the edit process I realised that was the best way to display the finished work.
F&F: We mentioned at the beginning of the article that you have won several awards. Do you have any advice for people looking to enter their work into competitions?
NW: I think it’s a good exercise, for sure. But just don’t obsess over it too much. Photo competitions aren’t the be-all and end-all. If you win/get shortlisted, great. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter. Just keep shooting the work you want to shoot.
F&F: Something that I think isn’t talked about enough between photographers is cost. Lots of people work from commissioned jobs that fund their personal work, others take up part time jobs to pay the bills. What path did you take and do you have any words of advice for young photographers looking to fund their work?
NW: Firstly, it’s important to say that there isn’t a “right” path. Some people would prefer to stay away from commercial photography and work a full or part time job in a totally different field, and that’s fine. When I graduated I spent a year pulling pints at the local before finding a retouching job nearby. From there, I moved into eCommerce photography and later took on a more creative studio photography position. It was during this time that I made Black Dots, planning the various trips around my shifts. Now, I make all of my money through commercial and editorial assignments. I also do a little bit of writing for landscape photography magazines, such as OnLandscape.
F&F: Moreover, have you applied for grants or any funding in the past? If so, how do you come across these and what was the application process like?
NW: The only bursary I’ve applied for was the Royal Photographic Society Environmental Bursary a couple of years back. I used that money to start working on my new series, Carpathia, in the Southern Carpathian Mountains of Romania. The application process was so simple, but I was already sitting on that idea so I was able to collate all my research and put together a pitch fairly quickly. I’d always advise putting together mini-decks for any projects you want to pursue, it prevents you from rushing through your research and entering a fragmented proposal.
F&F: Finally, I’d like to end by asking what was the last photobook you bought?
NW: Robin Friend’s “Bastard Countryside”.
Many thanks to Nicholas again for speaking to us!
To see more of Nicholas’ work, visit https://www.nicholasjrwhite.co.uk/
All images and text © Nicholas White