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Photography and the Impermanence of the Landscape

I'm lucky to live not far from the Irish Atlantic coast in west County Sligo. The constantly changing light and the wild moods of the ocean mean there's always something to channel for inspiration.


A favourite location of mine lies at the end of Enniscrone beach, which is a massive spit of sand and dunes, with the ocean on one side and the tidal mouth of the Moy estuary on the other. It's about two kilometres long and backed by dunes up to 40m high. At its far western end, the dunes are split by a blow-out that has almost, but not quite, forced its way through the middle of the sand hills. It's been there for years and is known locally as the Valley of Diamonds.


For the first seven or eight years I lived in Enniscrone, the system seemed quite stable. I ran regular circuits along the beach, around the end of the spit and back through the dunes. Nothing much changed. Then I stopped going for a while and only went back this January, to find that everything had changed.


A series of exceptionally high tides and large storm swells had obliterated half a square kilometre of dunes. The end of the beach was unrecognisable, and the Valley of Diamonds was now separated from the waves by just a single, sharp ridge of sand. I took a few photographs from the same spot I'd previously made images, though it was difficult to find because everything looked so different. I wanted to make some comparison with what I had shot before. In fact when I went home and looked back through my files, I could see that some of the locations I had previously shot from simply don't exist anymore.

 

One of my original images from the Valley of Diamonds, looking west across the Moy Estuary. Canon 5D Mk2, 17-40mm lens @ 17mm

 

The same image with the approximate extent of dune loss shaded red. In fact I think that the spot that I took the picture from is no longer there.


The view from the same location now.

 

Over the years I've tried several times to 'repeat' some of my favourite images by returning to the same location at the same time of year, at same time of day and in the same weather conditions. It never works; you always end up with something different. It may be something as subtle as a difference in air quality affecting the lighting, but often it's a more significant change. New vegetation might encroach on a scene, trees may have been felled, a new house built or old one knocked down, a river might erode its banks or change its course.


Of course it's all a demonstration that the landscape is in a constant state of flux, sometimes changing at a rate that is beyond our perception on a year-to-year timescale, but sometimes transforming in a much more dramatic way too.


Against this background, the landscape photograph becomes a historical document, capturing one brief period in nature's evolution. It's a record of one moment in time, wrapped up in a cloak of timelessness, but destined sooner or later to be orphaned by the impermanence of the landscape itself.