Born and raised in the Scottish Highlands, Ross Trevail was initially inspired by his mother’s passion for photography and started his career shooting fashion. At the age of 27, having lived in Edinburgh and away from the Highlands for several years, Trevail then moved to London where he is still based today. The memories that he left behind are now what he aims to retrieve through his ongoing practice.
I remembered everything from my childhood,
all this stuff that they've forgotten about
As an abstract landscape photographer, Trevail currently has a series of ongoing projects. The most recent of which is The Search of the Source of the Mysterious New River, which acts as a metaphor for Trevail's attempt to reconnect with his past – having avoided the Highlands since his mother passed away. The project investigates the relationships between man-made and natural environments, and memory, absence and nature.
We spoke to Trevail about what his latest project means to him and what it’s like trying to reconnect with his home again...
Could you explain what the project is about?
I don’t know if it started out as a project, but it's about two years work of stuff that I've been shooting up in the Highlands. It's a series of abstract landscapes I guess of places that I remember being fond of as a child, or places that I have been to. Some of them are of places I went to meet people or places I just came across – all of which represent images of nature, or representations of nature or images of where nature has taken over man-made structures.
You grew up in the Highlands of Scotland. How long did you live there for?
I was in Inverness till I was 19 or 20 then I moved to Edinburgh till I was 27 and have been in London since then. So, I've pretty much lived almost half of my life away from Inverness, which recently seems to me as a big chunk of time to have lived half of my life away from the Highlands.
You must have a serious emotional attachment to the Highlands then?
Yeah but I didn't go for years, I had a really difficult relationship with the place for a long time and I never used to go up. It’s only been the last couple of years that I have started going back and wanted to start shooting up there. My mum was a member of the camera club when I was a kid and got me into photography – at a time when it was really geeky to be into photography.
After she died they brought out a trophy in her name and I started off photographing all the winners of this trophy. Obviously portraiture is kind of my background as well as commissioned work.
I’m just trying to figure it all out, I didn’t go
for such a long time and now I love going up
So as I was up there shooting I gradually got taken to places that I liked and remembered as a child, and I then just started shooting these more random loose documentary-style landscape images, and it just seemed that these landscapes just started to overtake the portraits I was taking of the competition winners.
Can you tell me a bit more about the competition?
Yeah it’s the June Trevail Trophy, an annual competition that has been running since 2002. The winner wins the trophy that’s in my mum’s name. I gave a talk there in March and I'm going back up there to give another talk at another camera club, so it's really nice to have that connection there. But taking these portraits of the winners led to my landscapes, as I was just shooting these random ones but, there’s a few projects like that on my website, there’s another one that’s more of wide landscape shots of all kinds of stuff in and around the Highlands and around Murray, which is east of the Highlands towards Aberdeen – which is where I have just been actually, travelling around and photographing stuff that I happened to see. And then this project takes elements of that but, I want it to be more abstract.
I didn't really want to photograph things that people would be able to recognise, even people from the Highlands. Some of them are silly places that I just remember as a kid and liking. I guess then that I started seeing this theme as a representation of nature, as well as in London when I shot my project The New River That Never Was (featured on rosstrevail.com), it kind of made sense. In London you need a lot of green space, whereas when I'm up in Inverness you're surrounded by lochs and mountains. You're surrounded by all this nature, but there’s still all these little representations of nature within a city. As you can be looking at one thing, you can look behind it and see all this amazing real nature, so I started to find that interesting and a bit weird. So the work's kind of gone down that path, in terms of what's in the imagery. But then again theres that other element of it thats tied into memory and absence with me trying to reconnect and fit into it.
So would you say you're trying to work out whether or not you still fit up there?
Yeah kind of. I guess those images are a representation of nature and kind of fake slightly. I wonder whether now, having lived away for so long, that when I am up there, do people think of me as highlander anymore or do people think of me as a tourist? Or a white settler? The answer is that, I don't know. I'm just trying to figure it all out. I didn't go for such a long time, and now I love going up. I'm applying for residency plus for funding for projects to shoot up there.
It strikes me as quite a lonely process shooting all these landscapes by yourself?
Yeah I quite like it actually, I suppose that’s because generally I'm always shooting people, I've shot documentary projects, I shot The Detonators (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 5) and I originally shot fashion. So you're so reliant on other people to take pictures, as you need somebody to actually take a picture of.
A photograph is always invisible: it is not
it that we see
So yeah, it was great when I started doing it. It was really nice to wander off with a camera and a tripod and just do my own thing really. I guess I'm just visiting these places that I remember, so I don’t know, it's kind of going back in time a bit. I get to go to places I haven’t been to in probably 20 years.
What's the feeling that goes through your mind when you realise you were here all those years ago, that you remember that exact place. Is there a change?
I guess it's that nothing looks quite like you remember it. I like that Roland Barthes quote, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. I've always really liked that. When you look at an image it triggers a memory and that's what we respond to more than the content in the picture itself. So I think it's almost the reverse of that, all these memories which I then go and try to take a picture of, the picture never really lives up to the memory. I haven't gone anywhere where I have suddenly felt really connected to that particular place, when I go up I don’t know whether it kills it a little bit. It never looks quite like it does in my head.
You say that your work is concerned with memory, absence and time, what do you mean by that?
I guess the reason as to why I am taking all these pictures is memory in general, memories of growing up in these places. It's about how I picture the Highlands and trying to reconnect with it and having lived away from it for so long. Then I moved to Edinburgh and wanted to shoot fashion photography. I guess there was this need, as I got older, to reconnect with my friends and family from home that I had ignored for such a long time. I think that's where this thing of memory comes from, like how Roland Barthes said. In general, I remembered almost everything from my childhood. I remember all this stuff that they have all forgotten about.
The absence is just me not being there any more and I guess the places I’m photographing aren't the same any more. I've spent ages trying to find this homeless guy’s hat who lived up in the woods. I remember that we used to go up past this hut that he built and lived in and we used to get creeped out going past it, I’ve spent ages trying to find this but it obviously isn't there any more. I guess everything is smaller now that you're older, everything seemed bigger at the time. I used to go to places that I'd think were amazing, but now they don’t look at all like I remember. I find that interesting though, a lot of the pictures are quite mundane. In this project I guess they are more abstract.
I think my favourite picture out of all of them is the one of the park which is besides my house that I grew up in which is from If Your Name Is Here We Have Your Tartan. There's a football match going on (featured on rosstrevail.com), and it has so much in it that relates to me. But anyone else looking at it, it wouldn't mean anything. It's got the house I grew up in right behind it – I used to play football on that pitch. The church where my parents got married is off to the right and the hospice where my mum died is also just off to the right to where I'm standing.
That's a lot of memories within a single frame.
Yeah there is so much within it that all relates to me and a lot about my experiences growing up there. But to other people, it's just your really average picture that doesn't jump out in any way. I really like that though, they're not trying to be really clever or heroic or really amazing. They're just quite honest pictures of what I like that another person wouldn't think twice about.
I kind of want someone to look at it and
create their own story line
With nature, I was working on the The New River That Never Was and I found it really funny that in the picture of the football pitch you have all these hills surrounding it, yet people go for a run around the track instead. So when you're surrounded by so much, we recreate instead. It's something that came gradually. There's a picture in The Search for the Source of the Mysterious New River that's taken on a business park. There is a man-made lake with a reflection of the tall, straight trees behind it right next to the sea. I find it really weird to build a lake when the sea is so close. So then it gave me a way to tie the images all together, that nature became more of a theme. Some of them are taken in a museum in Inverness, then there's a picture taken in a pub of a painting. So I started to see that they all linked together in that way.
Looking at your body of work you've shot it all on black and white film, why is that?
It wasn't a deliberate decision at first, when I was shooting The Detonators for Jocks&Nerds I knew it was going to be a lot of film and I was processing it myself so I thought it would be easier to shoot on black and white and save me a lot of money. Then I started shooting portraits in black and white as I had a lot of black and white film. I think I just find colour a distraction. If I am shooting colour I look for it, and my photos become about colour. If I'm shooting a big area that would be too difficult.
Everything is smaller now that you're older, it all seemed bigger at the time
If I'm shooting on black and white, it strips out all that colour and becomes about shapes, lines and tones. I think it's easier to leave things to have an element that they can fix about it. When you get rid of colour, it becomes a little more abstract I suppose. They're real images, they are documentary images but at the same time I don't want it to be just a document, I kind of want someone to look at it and create their own storyline to it, for it to be abstract and have a narrative to it.
When are you planning on going back to the Highlands then?
At the moment I might get up in June anyway, but I'm planning on going up for a few months. It's kind of working out how to do it, whether or not I just go up on my own and just shoot what I want to shoot. It costs so much though, and I am trying to get funding. There are a couple of projects that I am thinking of that I would like to shoot in the Highlands but I need to think about them a bit more, and get funding.
Do you have lots of family still up there?
I don't have a lot actually, my old man is down in Plymouth and my sister is living in Aberdeen. So I've got an auntie and uncle and cousins, but most of my best mates are still there, who I am still really close to.
Where you one of the few from your friends from home to leave and head to London?
Yeah, I guess there's about 10 of us that were really close, but the majority stayed at home and no one came as far south as I've done. There's always that thing as you feel a bit guilty for leaving.
Guilty for leaving them?
Yeah I felt guilty, even though my mates were like, go for it. After my mum died I didn't like going up, which then dragged on for a few years. I think the longer I didn't go up, every time I did I just felt a bit awkward and didn't know how I fitted in. I just ended up going out and getting hammered as I didn't know how to fit in. Then one time I went up and had a really nice time, probably because I had a camera with me.
So before you had been going up there without a camera?
Yeah I'd be up there for a wedding or something and not know what to do and be out on the piss for three days. I just didn't know how to act, or how people saw me and I would feel really uncomfortable. Thats been the really great thing though that now when I go up, I always have a camera with me and no one bats an eye lid really.
I think before it was because I was shooting fashion, my friends didn't really get it that I was in London being a fashion photographer. Whereas now that I'm up there photographing a lot, my mates will ask me where I want to go and drive me all over the place, no matter how far. Everybody now messages me asking when I'm coming up next. I've done stuff for the camera club and the local newspaper has written about me and my exhibitions.