Taking Photographs and the Still Dynamic

All photographs are ambiguous. 

All photographs have been taken out of a continuity…..Even a pure landscape

breaks a continuity: that of the light and the weather.  Discontinuity always produces ambiguity   

John Berger, in Ways of Telling


I am a Professor of Hydrology at Lancaster University.  In my academic research I have developed ways of trying to imitate landscape dynamics by means of computer simulations but one of the fascinating aspects of this as a research area is the sheer impossibility of capturing the wonderful natural dynamics of the landscape without ambiguity by approximate mathematical means.  Mathematics can have its own internal beauty; but the nature of water flows and the way in which they interact with rock and light are there for all to see and appreciate, with the sound of flowing water adding another dimension.

Water moves; it (mostly) flows downhill.  In doing so it organises and shapes itself into different forms that are dynamic while also retaining recognisable forms of waves and ripples and curves.  The light and the sound would seem to make the recording of these sensations the realm of video and not the still image.  Yet video, like mathematics, seems to result in a poor imitation of the real thing.  It seems to be difficult to capture the essence of a flow.  It has always been a challenge for the painter too, who generally copes by giving an impression of water rather than the real nature of it.  To capture its fleeting changes is a challenge.  Photography, with its fast shutter speeds and fast films can still those changes in different ways.

I have often wondered why those discrete moments of time somehow work so well.  The water is in stasis and no longer flows but the possibility of exploring the nature of the stilled flow is still somehow intensely satisfying (at least to a hydrologist!) as well as providing wonderful abstract images in their own right.  There is something about the nature of the flow and its interaction with the light that is revealed to the viewer by this stilled dynamic.  The flow has been closed in a balance of forces and boundary conditions that produces the intricate self-organised forms and imperfections to provide an image both true to the flow and attractive to the viewer.  Yet the underlying ambiguities of the dynamics of the reality remain; something that is also reflected today in mathematical theories of nonlinear dynamics.

Rock landscapes formed by water are also intriguing: palimpsests that reflect the history of flow events over generations and generations of time.  At any moment they are still, holding the image ready for the taking.  The analogy with an image of water stilled in its dynamics by a fast shutter speed is apt; the time scale of the dynamics of change for the rock is just (generally) that much longer.

The still image of such dynamic processes can be of value in both science and art.   I remain fascinated by the science that lies behind the forms that produce an attractive image, but I hope that these images can be appreciated for themselves: simple attempts to capture the essence of different types of water flows and their reflection in rock landforms.   I have written an article about the Art and Science of Hydrology for the on-line photographic journal On Landscape (Click [here] to go to the article).

All the images on this site are available as photographic prints made from the original negatives (contact me at k.beven@lancaster.ac.uk).  Over the years a variety of film and digital cameras have been used including a Mamiya 6MF (6 by 6 cm negative) using 50, 75 and 150 mm Mamiya lenses; a Linhof Technorama 617 SIII and later Fuji GX617 (6 by 17 cm negative) using a 90mm lens; a Hasselblad 501C with CFV back and 50, 80, 120 and 180 mm lenses; and, when travelling light, Fuji X cameras with XF and Contax lenses.  

Keith Beven