Long drives to and from work afford me the opportunity to take in a variety of radio these days and I’ve become an occasional listener of BBC Radio 4 because from time to time you hear something a little different. Sure enough a couple of weeks ago I listened to a piece about people who sought out their personal utopia. It was certainly a curious spin on modern life with some interesting conclusions and some of it really struck a chord with me…

I’m sure everyone has a view on what utopia really is or represents to them personally, but one thing I was surprised to learn from the radio show was that the word utopia is actually derived from the Greek words of ‘ou’ (not) and ‘topos’ (place); in other words ‘not a place’, somewhere that doesn’t actually exist, rather than the definition I expected to hear of ‘a perfect place’ or even somewhere to aspire to. This literal definition certainly got me thinking about what utopia represents in a completely different light, indeed my fellow humans are probably chasing an impossible dream if they are trying to build some personal utopia because even the ancient Greeks were smart enough to realise that it was a country that doesn’t exist.

The Radio 4 piece focussed on one man’s relationship with cycling and frankly his escape from a busy life. He sought out the physical rhythm of cycling as an almost meditative state, the natural endorphins he got from the process was like a drug he had to keep coming back to, so much so that when he was out on his bike he said he achieved a slice of personal utopia and it was enough for him to accept that this was as good as it got. The point of all of this reference is that as much as utopia doesn’t exist in a permanent state, it is indeed possible to enter a temporary utopian state for part of any given day, in segments of time, ensuring peace of mind and an essential escape for the mind and body. Not only are these moments achievable but they are necessary.

When I entered my thirties I became one of the seekers – people who occasionally try to escape fast paced living and slow it all down when the opportunity arose. My day job pushed me towards this, it still does, and photography remains a big part of that release but so does the sense of adventure in travelling around the UK, seeking out different aspects of our landscape, geology and fabulous coast lines. I’m never completely sure what I’m trying to achieve when I head out, I rarely have any objectives in mind, all I know is there is nothing like the connection and conversation you can have with the landscape and natural environment when you’re standing quietly behind a camera, carefully and precisely picking out those abstract scenes, views that I consider to be tiny segments of utopia in themselves. Right now I also remain heavily committed to building a print legacy to preserve these utopian moments and to remind my children and later generations of the folly of taking the landscape and environment for granted, but somehow permanently freezing those quiet moments. They serve as memory cards for me too.

Angels Hair – A recent utopian moment at the edge of Rydal Water in the Lake District

At this point I can hear yawning in the back rows on why this particular blog is even necessary. Well it does bring me to one of the central points – the advent of drones in the landscape, remote controlled quadcopter ‘photography’. This is sure to be a subject that divides; Is it photography? (no, not by my definition it isn’t) Is it invasive? (yes, definitely) Is it environmentally friendly? (no it isn’t – I don’t claim it pollutes but I guarantee wildlife are not happy) Is it safe? (I’m very much less than convinced) Should it even be outlawed? Not yet perhaps but it does raise a LOT more questions than it answers though.

When new technologies come along they may well test our existing laws and patience which is no reason to directly ban things outright, at least not immediately, but this is one genre that is not going to get any votes at all from me. Just in the same way that the Star Wars saga requires you to watch the films in a specific order, you may at this juncture wish to read Karl Mortimer’s blog post on this very subject here: http://www.karlmortimer.com/blog/droning-on/, a blog which I promised a reply on, because I am apparently one of the ‘luddites’ who this is aimed at.

For me one of the key aspects of photography is to show the viewer what my eyes have seen, to connect them to the environment in front of me, a field of view that I have physically experienced, to entice someone and challenge them to do the same. Right here this is where photography from a quadcopter falls apart. The field of view isn’t achievable, I hear people bemoaning all of the time that the ‘photography’ delivered from a drone isn’t either compelling or even particularly interesting and that’s because we are not conditioned to connect with the angle of view. Essentially there is nothing at all utopian about it.

My ongoing First Leaf and Backwater projects collide on a Spring morning…not a quadcopter view

But it gets worse. The first time I saw one of these in the landscape I was surprised and equally intrigued, but very quickly became incredibly annoyed by it. Unfortunately it’s the final feeling that stays with me – there may not be the prevalence of drones just yet, but if left unchecked it WILL happen, with any growing popularity manufacturing becomes cheaper by volume and prices tumble, bringing things in reach of mass markets. For me that would be a disaster for photography. There is nothing I would hate more than seeking out a quiet morning at Blea Tarn as I did recently, wait patiently for first light on the Langdale Pikes and have the silence broken by two or three quadcopters as they hovered in my shot in front of me. Hand me a shotgun if that’s the future or kill me now – it’s not cool, it’s not about being a luddite, it’s everything to do with preserving the last ounces of escapism where someone else’s pursuit doesn’t impede on my own. Quadcopters already have a well deserved bad reputation for safety issues and their sheer annoyance factor – the part that I fear is that they are bringing photographers further into disrepute, and that would be a disaster.

Interestingly as much as Karl’s blog post attempts to deride those that don’t welcome this new found freedom of expression he still admits that he “can’t bear the ruddy noise they make if I’m out in the landscape enjoying a bit of peace and quiet” as well as the fact that frankly the vast majority of images are simply not compelling. Well at least we agree on two points. Regardless, it’s not a future I’m going to support any time soon, instead I’m going to focus on what I think photography should be about – delivering people visions they can relate to and getting them to embrace what I consider to be the true meanings of photography.

I’ll leave you with a couple more of recent views, abstracts of the landscape, utopian slices and moments carved out of the environment:

Firestarter – Cotswold woodland, fortunately near impossible to get a drone through here

Late Langdale Light – 720nm infrared, no quadcopter in shot this time

Cotswold Minimalism – the unbroken silence of a Sunday morning, shatter it with your quadcopter and face my wrath!

And finally the alternative viewpoint and utopian quiet contemplation of drone ownership. Enjoy!