Birdwatching Landscapes by Kevin Davies

During his 'Birdwatching' story for the current issue of Jocks&Nerds, photographer Kevin Davies veered away from the project and began taking landscapes for himself.

Kevin Davies has been photographing for 28 years. His recent ‘Birdwatching’ story for the current issue of Jocks&Nerds saw him travel around England to meet various individuals invested within the reclusive culture of birdwatching. Whilst shooting the birdwatchers – including the likes of illustrator Matt Sewell, filmmaker Ceri Levy and musician Chris Watson – Davis found himself pulled away from his project with the interest of shooting the landscapes that surrounded him in Buckinghamshire, Northumberland, Barnes, Norfolk, Shropshire and Essex.

When you’re holding a camera, do you feel a general attraction to take photographs? 
On any of my jobs, I just try and shoot other things that aren't necessarily related. With this job for Jocks&Nerds, it's not a case of saying, I am going to take a picture of this person, get there, and get back as fast as I can. It doesn't really work like that. I like meeting new people and spending time with them. And part of that is doing the other things around it I guess.

My mum lived near Durham, which is not far from Newcastle, where I went to see Chris Watson. I had never been to Holy Island, this really famous place. It seems crazy to have gone there and not try and experience more of that on whatever level you'd like to, for me it was mainly a visual thing. 

Do you find landscape photography quite meditative in that respect?
I do. I've always thought, how do people do landscape photographs? When you’re standing there with 360 degrees in front of you, how do you decide which bit you want? It took me a while to figure it out and I do really like it. It is more relaxing. Having said that, most of that shoot was bloody, freezing cold. And fortunately for me, it either rained just before I got there or after I had left. 

While Jocks&Nerds is so focused on people, you seemed to pull away from that and go into landscape photography.
The birdwatching job was great because it was clearly a good idea to do it in landscape form. It was a bit challenging not to have people holding binoculars explaining that. But then you had Matt Sewell who sits there and draws, and I thought that was a really great way to go. They're just really nice people, who clearly find birdwatching a relaxing thing as well. 

So what sort of things did you find yourself looking for when you were moving away from the project and photographing for yourself? 
All sorts of things. In Rainham Marshes, the light was really beautiful, and I got really interested in the long reeds of grass there. There was also this really bizarre figure in the sand that reminded me of the The Wicker Man – which is relating to something that I knew when I was growing up, a film classic that was very scary. 

I'm not sure I'm an Ansel Adams, I prefer something a bit more immediate

In Wendover Woods, there were also these logs that looked like huge cigarette buts, which reminded me of the still lifes of Irving Penn. That’s what they looked like to me, these huge wooden cigarette butts. I suppose I looked at that because that was the visual that was in my mind. I don't tend to question some of those things, maybe if I did they wouldn't happen as much. I guess through birdwatching, I became much more aware of those things than I normally do.

And you didn't grow up in the countryside did you, you grew up in London?
I was born in London, but my parents moved to Cornwall when I was 14. So, I did spend four or five years there, so I kind of had a bit of both really.

Did you do much wandering when you lived in Cornwall?
Not in the same way, as I was a teenager. But there was certainly an awful lot of landscapes, beaches and coastal walks.

Are landscapes quite typical to your photography or is it something a bit more recent?
I think it's been there for a while, but more as a kind of hobby I suppose. I don't tend to get commissioned for that, I don't tend to push it. I might have a section on my website named ‘places' rather than ‘landscapes'. I suppose it's more about places I've been. I remember a couple years ago I went to a wedding in Nice, in the South of France. I just couldn't wait to get out on the promenade, it was a beautiful sunny day to take pictures.

Obviously this is a contrast to working photographers, who experience a certain amount of pressure when meeting someone and getting the right picture that reflects that person. That’s completely opposite when taking landscapes or still lifes.

I'm not sure if I would be an Ansel Adams, and spend six hours waiting for the light to be in the right position on the beach, I prefer something a bit more immediate than that but I certainly find it a really interesting thing as a balance for my photography. Even with the birdwatchers, it was great walking around with David Callaghan in Rainham Marshes because after we were finished shooting, he carried on and I walked back. I was quite happy to do that because on the way back I could take some pictures for myself, which I couldn't necessarily do with him. 

It’s interesting you mention time because it’s perhaps the contrasting element between landscape photography and portraiture or commercial work. When you’re approaching landscape, without having an individual to focus on, you have this space to prepare your image and immerse yourself in your environment. 
I felt that with the birdwatchers story, it was good to make that time. I think it's fine if it's commissioned to do a portrait of someone if it's just off Oxford Street and you only have 10 minutes. I don't have a problem with that, and I'm happy to do that. It's nice to balance that out with other things, and all those people were pretty generous with their time. Particularly in Norfolk with Tim Dee, he's very passionate about that area, and what ever’s happening, he writes about it too.

They were all aware of what was happening around them

Do you think then that landscape is something that you've come to appreciate more with your experience as a photographer?
Yeah, I think so, I think for a long time now, I moved on from studio photography, into people, where they live or work – I do do that as an extension of that really.

How long have you been photographing now, if you don't mind me asking?
Oh god, thats a good question, since about 1987.  

Thats a good period then?
Yeah, too long!

Have you seen that film on Don McCullin?

It's interesting at the end of the film, how he retracts back to the countryside to take landscapes. It seems it takes experience to enjoy that type of photography, the very reclusive side of it. Even more so than say the street photographers who wander around the city.
Yeah, well there might be some young people who are immediately attracted to that but I know what you mean. The big attraction now is for more immediate and more controversial imagery, so maybe it is an age thing as you get older.

When I was with David Callahan, we were walking along this road going through the marshes and he turned to me, to get me to move over because there was a car coming up the road behind me. I didn't even hear it, because I wasn't really thinking about it. He told me that, birdwatching was really good for your senses, as you need to be focused to see or hear that bird in the distance. The birdwatchers were all aware of what was happening around them as I walked with them. I wasn't really thinking about it at all because it was a more relaxing way of working, so I drifted off a little bit.