Chapaval by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
Recently I had the great pleasure of visiting the Isle of Harris where I recorded this interview at The Mission House Studio with one of the UK’s leading artists/photographers, Beka Globe.
GC: What were your first impressions of Harris when you moved here?
BG: We came up on holiday first, when I was about 10. We stayed at the Harris hotel, then at a self-catering place down the Golden Road. I remember the house being really tiny –V lined and it was right by the water. Mum putting the washing on the line, blowing a hoolie! I was delighted to be on holiday in Harris in November because we were off school for two weeks. I just remember sandy beaches, the wild landscape, being in the back of Dad’s old DS Citroen – its suspension was quite bad so it was a bit sickening to be on the road! When we moved up here it was a lovely hot summer in 1983. We had the freedom to play around which was great. When we lived in Gloucestershire we had freedom too, I used to play in the fields and copses, where there were trees in the middle of fields, I’d make dens. So I carried on with that type of thing. I would make my dens on the rocks, I used to make my little play house. Then there was an island where we were staying at the nurse’s cottage. When the tide was out, I made a little bridge of rocks going to it- that was my little island. I made that into a little house as well. I remember it being really friendly, the old folk- all of that.
GC: When did you first pick up a camera and what drew you into photography?
BG: My Dad had a camera and I remember when I was very little, he would develop prints in the dark. ‘Can I come in Daddy, can I come in?’ ‘Well, you can come in, but once you’re in you have to stay in- you can’t just open the door and go!’ ‘No, I’ll stay in!’ I remember watching Dad developing a picture, and it could just be my imagination I don’t know, of old Jim next door with a pumpkin. I remember the image coming through in the red tray in the red light and I thought Wow!
GC: There’s something magical about that process.
BG: It really is magical.
GC: It’s still magical, even as an adult.
BG: Yes it is. I do miss it in a lot of ways, but in a lot of other practical ways I don’t miss the darkroom. I must have been about five or six at the time, my sister would have been around too. When we moved up there wasn’t much to do on Harris. I picked up my Dad’s camera at the age of twelve and made my darkroom in the airing cupboard upstairs. I don’t know why I got into it, but my Dad had a camera and I could go out, it was a grown up thing. I went out with the camera and it gave a purpose for going for a walk.
GC: Did it change the way you looked at things, perceived things?
BG: Yes, it does, straight away- the moment you have a camera in your hand. Even if there’s a camera in your pocket you look at the world in a different way. Even if you don’t have a camera with you, or when I have the camera with me and I don’t take it out, you do look at the world in a different way. It’s nice really.
GC: How does that change?
BG: Without being romantic about it or anything, when I go out on my own and take a picture, you’re just aware of everything around you. The purpose is to produce a picture- it might take a little while to get into the groove of it. It heightens the senses, your hearing. I don’t have a sense of smell. I kind of wonder if one sense is taken away you get better at another one.
GC: I was looking at the prints in the gallery and they’re incredibly tactile. There are points where cloud and water meet each other, where earth is meeting water -there’s lines of force, a dynamic within the composition. Is it those kinds of elements that are heightened with the camera?
BG: I think it’s where the tide comes in on the shore; it’s an ever changing strip of land, there’s so much going on in that area all the time. That’s what really interests me. Maybe it’s the fact that I live on an island. I love the sea, I couldn’t imagine living far away from it. It does have this pull, this magical quality about it. Even when you’re on a beach looking at the sea, there’s nothing there but the ocean- over there is America, there’s such a massive body of water between and it’s always changing. From gales to flat calm, to the light that shines on the water, I just love the texture and patterns that it makes.
GC: For me your photographs are really painterly, the way that you print them. It gives depth, real depth and texture. There’s something so tangible, like the one downstairs (Shelibost Sky) with the smaller cloud patterns and elements disintegrating at the edges.
BG: Yes. It’s what this place is. I’m really lucky to have such an amazing landscape on my doorstep.
GC: Your upbringing here- how did that affect your way of seeing when you went overseas, to America and New Zealand? Did it affect what you were drawn to?
BG: I think I was looking for something totally different out there. I will look out the Maori portraits for you. I wanted to get out into the world and see what was going on in other places. These are back in 1999, of hunting wild boar. These are all films I developed myself. I’ve always loved big whites and big blacks. I remember at college; ‘You’ve got to have blacks, you’ve got to have whites and all the tonal range in-between.’ Like the dog there, it should be darker, so that you can see the hairs on it. They were so technically orientated.
GC: Having that foundation of technical knowledge allows you to have your own voice. You can choose what techniques to use.
BG: Yes, I think so. These are of the pig hunt. It was a great experience that has stayed with me. It’s an activity that brings the whole community together for a shared purpose.
GC: Have you shown any of the New Zealand images before?
BG: No, the Maori portraits I photographed, I said it wouldn’t publish them. My idea was to do a whole lot of Maori portraits. It was almost a documentary of the tribal markings but through a portrait, that’s what I intended to do. Everyone I photographed I gave a picture to as a thank you. True to my word, I haven’t used them for anything. I think some photographers have gone out there and used people. Then these tattoos have appeared in tattoo magazines, completely out of context. These tattoos are part of the spirituality of the people and that was where I was coming from…I think there’s nothing like going to the other side of the world and putting some distance between, to make you look at your life back here in a different way…
Roddy, Hebridean Portraits by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
GC: People will be familiar with your land and seascapes but not with your work as a portrait photographer. Can you tell me about your Hebridean Portraits series?
BG: There are about 120 taken over about 20 years, 80 or so are good. They were photographed using medium format, so you’re looking down, people aren’t noticing what you’re doing so much and you’ve got to get it right because its film. I’d like to make a book of them to complete the project.
Nellie, Hebridean Portraits by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
GC: Do you have particular favourites?
BG: One I took of Roddy my neighbour 20 years ago, he’s in a home now. One of the guys doing peats, it’s time disappearing, a lot of the people I photographed are dead now.
GC: Your St Kilda photographs also have that sense of a way of life disappearing.
BG: The ones I took of St Kilda- I wanted to have the zone quality to them, like Adams. I wanted them to look as though they had been taken with a plate camera, back in the 1880’s, like they were disappearing into the past.
GC: For me the birds also feel like that, departing from the rock. You’ve got this ancient, solid, immovable mass and all of that energy of birds in flight above.
BG: It’s an awe inspiring, beautiful place. I would love to do a series of all lighthouses in the UK. I remember listening to the Shipping news-following that voice around the Hebrides and the UK, to photograph all those areas would be a fantastic thing to do. I used to hear ‘the Hebrides’ -that’s us! Where is everything else? Where’s German Bight? North Utsire, south Utsire, where are they, what are they like? A lot of these places are inaccessible; you would have to go to them by helicopter. It would be great to do a photographic exhibition of them.
GC: The scope of your photographic work is quite amazing. What was your initial training at Napier University in Edinburgh like?
BG: I went straight from school. It was old school developing and printing. The teachers were really good, I was pretty happy there. There was no digital then, it was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I was the youngest in the class. Some were in their 30’s. It was a board spectrum of people who’d been around the block and come back. I think I could have taken a year off, travelled around the world and had a bit of life experience- it may have done me some good.
GC: Do you feel it was a good grounding in photography, in crafting images?
BG: Yes. I wouldn’t know what college to go to now. It was like a little family, it was a separate building, like an old church. There was 25-30 in our class. There were 40-50 people in the building at one time, a nice atmosphere, I enjoyed it.
GC: When did you feel you’d found your feet as a photographer?
BG: I don’t know. I did the Acts of Faith exhibition photographs for Dad in my final year at college.
GC: Which are incredible by the way.
BG: Thank you. I didn’t tell the college I was doing them.
GC: Why not?
BG: The photos were part of my graded portfolio, but I didn’t tell them that it was an actual, proper catalogue.
GC: Can you remember what your thoughts were about making the catalogue- what were your thoughts about capturing certain aspects of the work?
BG: In different areas. I wanted it to document this is where Dad is, this is the making of the work, these are the final pieces. It just seemed normal to do it that way.
GC: It’s a fantastic document of his work of that period.
BG: Sometimes I think you can be so close to something that you don’t really see it for what it is…People say you’ve spent such a long time in one area. The reality is that with a family I haven’t time to sit in one place. All I’m trying to do is to create, not just a well composed picture, but a feeling, the feeling you get from it. I don’t know if I’m succeeding. I feel I am a little bit.
Campion 2 by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
GC: Do you have a sense of what you’d like to explore in the future? The Hebridean flowers felt like a shift.
BG: With the Hebridean flowers, I wanted to photograph them all in natural light. All back lit, I wanted the feeling of being a fairy in the bottom of the garden, underneath the flowers, photographing it almost from below looking up, like an insect eye view. You know when you have a tooth, you either put it under your pillow or make a fairy house, put it in the fairy house, make a present for the fairy and then there’s a little coin waiting for you. I would love to have them all on a large scale- just the feeling of them, of being amongst the flowers.
GC: There’s a feeling of the wonder of early photography in them, of illumination. There’s something eternal in them, they transcend their place. Do you have any favourites?
BG: My favourite is this one. (Campion 2) Plants are such sexual things, this is so prickly and spikey and this is soft, it’s almost like a womb, so opposite- but together.
GC: You’ve got that delicacy and detail, and then the diffuse light in the petals which shift out of focus. It’s elevated and ethereal – it makes me think of the Divine in Nature, in a flower or a blade of grass. Not in a religious sense, but a spiritual sense. What are some of the other key works in the gallery for you?
South Scarasta by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
BG: This one of South Scarasta because it’s so quiet. Someone said that it looks quite Japanese. I love it because it feels otherworldly somehow, like you’re not here. You’ve got all the texture in the foreground and the mountains in the background- so black. I really like this one too- the Pebble there.
Pebble by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
GC: There’s something primordial about it.
BG: It feels like you’re enclosed in there. It’s almost like a primeval land, the mist coming over it- this could be the egg about to hatch. It’s not a nest as such but…
GC: There’s something elemental and protective about the stone.
BG: When you’re down in there, it was blowing a gale at the time and the waves were pretty horrendous. When you’re doing such a long exposure you have to find a spot that’s safe and not too windy- the practicalities of taking the shot. It was quite scary, I was hedging my bets, you’ve got to watch, I wanted to be close in, but wide. You’ve got to be there rather than zoom in. This one here – this is my Mount Fuji, Chapaval. There’s so much going on there, the sea coming in, it’s always changing, this bit is calm, the sky, the way it sweeps you into the middle.
GC: And into the depth of it tonally, it pulls you right in.
BG: They’re very dark, my pictures. A lot of photographer’s wouldn’t want to go this dark.
GC: That depth is part of their quality I think.
BG: This one, very simply- it’s a windy beach. There’s so much going on.
GC: It’s an image that the viewer can step into. You’re part of the foreground. You can touch it.
BG: I was literally right there. I want to be right there, rather than just zoom into it and use the wide angle. Maybe I do that without thinking about it too much. A tutor once said to me, ‘the best zoom lens you’ll ever have is your feet’ and that’s one thing I’ve always done. Don’t be afraid to get too close to the subject.
GC: I think that translates to the viewer being able to put themselves into the image imaginatively. I think the viewer is naturally drawn into your work; part of it is the composition and the investment of the blacks, investment in the marks. They’re incredibly rich texturally and heightened tonally. This one over here (Sheilibost Sky) is really interesting because it is almost disintegrating at the edges, like something elusive that you can’t quite grasp. I think human beings are always drawn to that in nature, it’s the fleeting moment, fleeting movement, fleeting life. Which is what the shoreline is, it’s a bridge between worlds.
BG: I guess photos are just a moment in time and that moment is always changing.
GC: I think they’re more than that-more than just a moment. In terms of human experience and timelessness, the way that curve draws you into it, such a strong line. The tangibility of texture in it, everything is moving, its alive not a dead still. They’re living elements, when you having them hitting each other- wave hitting sky, hitting earth, simultaneously. (Borve Break) It’s like an eruption- very powerful. This is a quieter image, but still a meeting of elements. The shoreline is a loaded place spiritually.
BG: A lot of people come to the sea to grieve, to have their ashes thrown in the sea, to play in the sea. The sea looms large for humans everywhere. It’s a very spiritual place to be.
GC: It’s also very humbling, the enormity of it.
BG: Especially when you’re in the sea.
GC: How vulnerable you are.
BG: You have to respect it.
GC: This one is like a meditation. (Looking at Seilibost Dune)
BG: In here is black but I wanted there to be subtlety in it too.
Seilibost Dune by Beka Globe. Photograph by kind permission of the artist.
GC: Can you tell me about some of your influences, you mentioned Sugimoto and Ansel Adams…
BG: With Adams it’s the zone system, a tonal range. A master printer, beautiful print quality, that’s what I admire in him. Sugimoto, his seascapes- totally sea and sky, so simple – to have that guts to photograph- that’s it, water and sky. Some of the exposures he left longer than others, some of them feel like you’re flying over them, just amazing! I admire the fact that they’re so simple. I would like to be as simple of that. If I was to own a photograph it would be one of his.
GC: When you look at an Adams or a Sugimoto they are unmistakably that artist. What would you say makes a Beka Globe?
BG: I think there will always be a lead in with my pictures, the blacks and the whites, how I print them. That would probably be my trademark. I don’t know. They are my individual pictures. It’s a feeling. Ansel Adams, I don’t get a feeling from his pictures- like a longing, even though I admire his images and technique. But with Sugimoto’s pictures I can look at them for a long time and be drawn into them emotionally.
GC: So the technical aspect and the heart of the image combined is something to strive for?
BG: Yes, I appreciate the heart in Sugimoto’s seascapes. That’s what I aspire to.
GC: The feeling of place, the moment?
BG: Yes and hopefully I’ll get better and better. I’ll just keep going. You have to keep experimenting and playing. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than take photographs