Up & Down the Pyrenees

Up & Down the Pyrenees

Tim Mitchell, Up and Down the Pyrenees, (Self-published, May 2013)

Up & Down the Pyrenees


Walking, Mountains and Photographs Too

Mention walking, journeying or even wandering and I’m eagerly listening. Mention mountains and I’m as fascinated as Robert Macfarlane.  So ‘Up and Down the Pyrenees’ – a modest publication with tempting words that pepper the front cover (walker, tent, forest, path etc.) is worth opening for a look.

Photographer Tim Mitchell joined fundraiser David Lintern for part of the route on David’s 600-mile walk across the High Route Pyrenees (HRP) back in the summer of 2011. When he returned, Tim edited his photographs and produced this compelling volume that shows the curious viewer some of what they saw and shared as they went walking ‘Up & Down the Pyrenees’. Often not coming down for days on end.

Reading Tim’s words at the front of the book tells me how space is micro-managed in a rucksack for a walking trip. He describes what they carried as he joined his friend on a fundraising mission through this very arduous terrain; being a photographer he found space for a camera too. For those of you not familiar with mountainous environments, it’s difficult to explain and even harder to capture the unfolding drama and beauty that spreads out at every step.  As sheep stare, mist descends and every step becomes hypnotic as the next bend becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser.’

The start of a walk is often peppered with inquisitive onlookers, day trippers and tourists that want to see at least something of the spectacular environment and follow a little of the path that leads ever forwards into some geological paradise, that only a few can manage. Such long and difficult walks are often described as epic, challenging even spiritual. All of which is true, if perhaps a little clichéd to the uninitiated, but there is something soothing, meditative and deeply personal to be found on a long walk too. It’s a different type of navel gazing – certainly from a photographer’s point of view. A photographer needs to look outwards and choose what to select, represent and share with viewers that have not been that far and that high, from some civilization below.

But here we have a walk that began for charitable reasons. It is the mysticism of such a task, or so it seems from the outside, that makes such endeavours sponsorable – we admire those who challenge themselves. So this small book celebrates a walker who raised funds for 2 very different charities: The John Muir Trust and Soundmix, a Scottish conservation charity and an arts project that supports young refugees in London to find something inspirational and creative to do with their time.

Tim shows us what he saw in a very personal way as he gradually walks away from the signpost that points the way ahead at ‘510m’.  Each of the photographs in the book are free from the anchor of a descriptive caption as we see what the walkers saw as they climbed far above sea level into the towering metres of the Pyrenees. At 1486m we see a plateau perfect for camping whose height could be lost except for the cheeky cloud skimming along almost underneath the tent. At 1846m we see a walker pushing upwards, past and through a beautiful field of wild irises. One can only imagine what it was like to be there within them against a backdrop of a chasing mist.

Tim does not portray a perfect landscape and he does not easily allow notions of unreachable, remote wilderness in to his images but instead injects a sense of access and journey more than task. His pictures are about walking through the ‘real’ stuff (not just the sublimity) of the mountainside, inwards and outwards, as well as up and down. Collectively, Tim’s photographs control our access to pure nature; he reminds us they went there to walk through villages as well as fields, and past flowers in boxes as much as flowers growing wild on some hillside.

If I was to call the type of photography that takes place ‘up there’ mountain photography it wouldn’t have the same resonance as say ‘street photography’ does as a useful term. It would conjure up technical shots of sunburst peaks that are sadly so familiar in a corner of the landscape portfolio. But quite usefully it would describe photography that takes place in mountainous environments that is every bit as peppered with traditions, rituals, codes of conduct as the street. Even fashions.

There is culture as well as nature up there and Tim shows us some of the homes, roads and cars that remind us as we travel through the book that we are journeying up and down these high hills. His photographs take us into the culture of the Pyrenees and we peek into the lives of those who dwell there or went there and carved some comment into some rock. A cheeky car parked behind a hedge injects a splash of humour and vernacular reality into the broader experience of walking a mountain way. Tim’s photographs tell us that it is not all mist and beauty to be found on the way – there is ordinary, everyday stuff too that can rest in humorous, yet considered, visual comments. 

I suppose not enough of the right type of photographers have gone walking with cameras in this very particular kind of landscape to look at the happened upon, the vernacular in addition to the sublime or the stunningly beautiful. Perhaps not many viewers are familiar with the terrain and the experience of walking in pursuit of pleasure, challenge, charity or escape to name but a few. To Tim, mountainous environments are as full of culture and tradition as they are full of beauty. This project is a worthy tribute to a journey shared with a walker who fundraises to protect and conserve such environments so that they are protected whether we go to see for ourselves or look at the photographs that return.

In ‘Up and Down The Pyrenees’ we find a photographic journey that is not really about a beginning and an end but the act of walking itself – up and down, in and out. Tim treats the mountain as street and meditates on the gentle play between nature and culture along the way rather than simply celebrating some remote mountain splendour. Such photography has many accomplished masters and followers, rightly so, but it is also exciting to see a photographer that explores the everyday visual fabric of such walks in a way the documents the act of what was seen and experienced. Photographs that will, perhaps, tempt a few more to walk and follow a path somewhere. Respectfully so.

 – Helen James



All profits from the sale of the book will be shared between Soundmix and the John Muir Trust.  For more information please click here