Preface by Kenneth Hanson, Author and Photographer
Himalayan Portfolios; Journeys of the Imagination
Journeys beget journeys. As a child at the beginning of the Second World War I lived in Birmingham, England. There were identity cards and gas masks in cardboard boxes. The munitions factories of Birmingham were an inevitable target. On my way home from school I trekked past a searchlight emplacement and tarried by the barrage balloons waiting to be reeled skyward as nightfall approached. Before the serious bombing began my parents decided that my brother and I should be sent to live with my grandmother in the North. Such wartime journeys were endless: trains made long waits in sidings alongside the black tailings of coal mines, platforms were crowded with troops. My childhood journey was from a place of great uncertainty to a secure world of the imagination. My grandmother’s house was on the edge of Morecambe Bay to the south of the English Lake District. The beach was only minutes away. Seasonal storms from the Irish Sea battered the coast, the Cumbrian Mountains were an ever-changing profile on the horizon, to the north were limestone escarpments and to the east were the Pennine moors. In the following years the mountains inevitably became a defining presence. The Himalayas were the subject of local legend.
The post-war world was profoundly unstable and morally confused. Victory had required the acceptance of the unacceptable. Nuclear weapons had been used and as warheads accumulated their further use seemed inevitable. John Milton, writing after the chaos of the English Civil War and long after his passage through the Alps, incorporated into Paradise Lost a vision of destruction. As Satan approached the Gate of Hell, wandering fallen bands journeyed “ O'er many a Frozen, many a Fiery Alp,/ Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens and shades of death,/ A Universe of death which God by curse / Created evil.” The vision seemed all too relevant. It was probably the uncertainty of the times that turned me to the pursuit of science and ultimately biochemistry. I entered a community in which an understanding of life’s processes in terms of biochemistry and Darwinian natural selection was suddenly being realized. Progress was by imagination and experiment. A picture of how enzymes transform one three-dimensional compound into another was emerging and the manner in which enzymes collaborate, as in photosynthetic metabolism, was being understood. My days were spent devising and performing experiments. I stress the nature of this quest because it has some bearing on my approach to photography.
When I first started using a camera for activities other than photographing my children, the impulse was to show the underlying order and symmetry of natural objects —to complement in art the beauty and order associated with the world of science and mathematics — the Enlightenment dream opposed to Miltonic chaos. The 4x5 Toyo view camera, together with a sturdy wooden tripod, that I acquired in 1975 seemed an appropriate scientific instrument. Snapshots are not possible; the head is covered with a dark cloth and the image is viewed inverted and reversed on the ground glass screen; deliberate choice is necessary. But the process of photography is subversive. Whereas the scientific experiment deliberately restricts emotions, a photograph carries with it a complex iconography that can take the photographer by surprise. A photograph by its intensity may point to a subconscious image that the photographer only partially understands — a lone figure on an empty beach, for example. A portfolio may have a controlling image that is similarly mysterious. At the same time the individual image and the portfolio can incorporate layers of public iconography — a photograph of Everest cannot be separated from the history of its ascent. In short, the photographer proceeds by intuition that is more related to poetry and philosophy than to science. The carryover from science is the experimental spirit: the camera provides a means to examine afresh the emblems and tokens of the world. I like to think of my work as a Philosophical Enquiry in the eighteenth century sense. The strength of the Enquiry depends on the constraints imposed: the rejection of color, the choice of the large negative. An Enquiry is open to astonishment
My Himalayan photography came about almost by accident. In 1986 my wife suddenly announced that she had been awarded a Fulbright grant to go to India and teach International Relations at the University of Puna. Furthermore, she declared, having hopped to India we should skip to the Himalayas. I was able to scrape together just enough vacation time to make a Himalayan trip possible and, being totally unrealistic about the travel complications, I decided to take the view camera. On returning home from the trek I concentrated on printing a few selected pictures. Carrying the camera, repeatedly setting up and taking down under adverse circumstances, the struggle to cross the high pass — all these were an essential part of the psychological process. The concept of ‘the journey’ became a controlling image. As I struggled forward it seemed to me that I was exploring two imaginative realms: that of the Tibetan Buddhist culture represented by prayer flags and monasteries; that of the mountaineers and explorers who, in crossing the high passes and shattered ice falls and in ascending ice carved peaks, have traversed regions of great beauty and great danger. It is a land that cannot be possessed; no right of transit can be assumed. To cross the high pass requires a total concentration of the will: there is total clarity, total isolation and enveloping light.
The photographs in this book are linked to specific journeys and gathered into regional portfolios. With minor exceptions, the photographs are presented in the sequence in which they were taken. Each region has its own visual and iconographic character. I have provided introductions, notes and maps. The notes are more informative than anecdotal; the viewer may well prefer to allow the images to speak for themselves. The issue of iconography is addressed more fully in an essay at the end of this volume. There I consider not only the history of Himalayan mountaineering, that owes less to sport than to politics and science, but also the contributions of poetry and faith. The poetic range includes both the Miltonic image of “A Universe of death” and John Bunyan’s image of unbounded light — the beauty and the glory of the heavenly Mount Zion. To a significant extent my guide has been Wordsworth. The Himalayas are emblems of the ultimate challenge and the final passage between life and death. As such they deserve our serious attention.