Auchencorth Moss – An image Deconstructed using Savannah Theory & Jay Appleton’s “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

I feel strongly that the composition of the following image works but cannot yet articulate why. Viewed traditionally the composition appears to break several “rules”. The horizon is almost exactly across the middle and a tree splits the image into two separate halves. The image also has multiple elements, none of which are on any of the “1/3rds”. Finally, what are we supposed to be looking at? The image appears to be a jumbled set of elements.

Yet the image works for me. I will use these notes to analyse the composition using two different but related methods to gain a better understanding of why this might be.

Auchencorth Moss by Neil McCoubrey

Viewed using Savannah Theory

Here is a scene where the two sides of the image have very different opportunities when considered using Savannah Theory (Mansfield 2014).

Both sides are being viewed from a high vantage point which should be beneficial for seeing any threats and or benefits (prey, for example) from a great distance. This is true on the right side of the image. However, this side also has relatively little cover (refuge from threats). It also has several horizons beyond which there may be invisible threats.

There are parallel tracks, mid ground, just left of the dead tree stump. Being parallel tracks they are likely to be human, not animal constructs and so indicate that people have travelled towards the horizon on a regular basis.

On the left side, there is water, one of the basic requirements for survival and so an attractive prospect. However, the water is in a narrow valley and once someone is in this valley to collect water threats could approach quite closely without being seen.

There are tracks made by either humans or animals heading along the fence towards the mid ground trees and, presumably, onwards to the wooded area in the distance. So, this side has lots of refuge opportunities but these refuges could also be hiding threats and the fence would impede any escape out of the image to the left.

Due to the difference in the colours of grass to the left of the fence, this area looks less fertile than the rest of the image. That may be an illusion but, emotionally, it would drive the viewer towards staying on the right of the fence. It is a strong inner frame.

There are two light coloured rectangular constructions at the centre of the image. Being geometric these are most likely to be human constructs and therefor attract the eye. There is also some form of derelict brick construction between the stream and tracks in the foreground. Both, evidence of human presence and, presumably, survival in this landscape.

Viewed using the “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

Jay Appleton’s techniques look at the scene in terms of the paths made by the light towards the viewer’s eye and classifies the different elements around the:

“…relationship between the observer and the observed landscape in so far as his view is encouraged or impeded by the content of the intervening environment.”

(Appleton, 1975, p.85)

Note – a panorama is wide view from a good “vantage point”, typically with a 360o view, whereas a “vista” is a view bounded by a frame.

In this image, we have a high vantage point of an “interrupted panorama”. Interrupted implies an object is hiding a portion of the view but not so much as to destroy the overall impression.

The fence, a path and stream form strong regular and irregular “vistal axes”, which guide the eye towards the mid-ground woods. However, progression is blocked by several scrubby trees and the derelict brick construction. Our eyes will not, naturally get to the woods from here. On the left side of the fence there is also space to move but once in there we are visually trapped in a triangle formed by the edge of the image, the fence, and the distant trees. The colours on the left of this fence are cooler than those in the rest of the image which would be less attractive to the eye.

If, instead, we follow the stream it forms a “deflected vista” guiding us passed the near trees and towards the mid-ground woods and the light coloured, geometrical constructions.

The two central trees effectively split the image into two different vistal themes, the left relatively close and contained and the right open and distant. The strong sunlight on the reddish bark of the central tree accentuates it role as a dividing line between the two sides of the image.

To the right of the trees we have several “magnetic lines”. These are the 2 horizon lines, without trees, which attract the eye because they are “secondary vantage points” from where we could also view the scene from a high place. The third horizon appears heavily wooded and, as such, will only work as a vantage point when viewing outwards, from the trees. It is less attractive as it cannot provide a 360o panorama.

On this side of the image there is also a vistal axis, resulting from an imaginary line starting at the base of the central tree going through the fallen tree, its stump and then on to the horizons.

Appleton also notes how “clear light”, as in this image, aids our ability to see everything, even at distance, and this helps when perceiving hazards or threats.

Triangles & Balance

The two previous methods have allowed some interesting analysis of the image content but not of the composition. In fact, Appleton’s analysis suggests that the composition may not work because of the visual blockages that do not allow the eye to flow around the scene. Instead I will try a less analytical and more graphical approach.

I have converted the image to B&W in order to focus upon shape and tone and remove the complexities of colour.

I see two primary, visual triangles in the scene. Both are roughly the same size. They are shown in white and are connected by a secondary triangle, shown in red.

Triangles are always an appealing arrangement in an image.

The left triangle is very solidly sitting on the base line. Being such a firm base and connected by the foliage (red triangle) to the central tree. It appears to act as a support for a mast (the central tree) with the right-hand triangle (being lighter in tone) seeming like a sail.

For me the three triangles together form a delicately balanced structure, with the red triangle as the fulcrum. Whilst, at first glance, the central tree appears to divide the image, it is actually these triangles that hold it together. I believe it is this imaginary structure that is the foundation of the image’s compositional appeal to me.


Savannah Theory suggests that, for a human, this scene has a good balance between potential resources, open views and refuge and any areas of risk are fairly obvious. Therefore, as a scene, it appeals to our basic human instincts as somewhere we can exploit. We like the content of the scene but what of its arrangement?

Appleton’s analysis techniques don’t talk about our likes and dislikes, the threat versus benefits, but about the processes we use to survey and evaluate the scene. These techniques show how our eyes move around to capture and so enable analysis of what we are seeing.

In using Appleton’s techniques it is clear that, in some directions, the route our eyes take around the scene is blocked and we have to jump over visual barriers, from one area to another. Such discontinuities are not generally considered to be a sign of good composition. So, there must be some other factor that makes the composition appealing to me.

I believe my enjoyment of this image is largely driven by the delicate structure formed from the three imaginary triangles and how this structure links the two halves of the image across the apparent dividing element of the central tree.


Appleton J. The Experience of Landscape Wiley & Sons, London, 1975

Mansfield J. Landscape and Evolutionary Psychology, 2014. viewed at on  19/01/17.

Auchencorth Moss

Looking for something different from Cramond I decided to try Auchencorth Moss as a little research showed it was (relatively) remote and had old constructions.

It was very windy but dry and the light was exactly what I wanted.

I want to make images that are capable of significant enlargement (A1+) so I took extra care to get the composition and the sharpness correct in camera. I also used only my 35mm F2 prime lens. I found myself spending far more time than I usually do at any one location, thinking about and trying different compositions. I believe my repeated trips to Cramond are starting to pay off by my taking a more considered approach at the taking stage.

This was the first composition I saw and immediately wanted to use the background hilltop, peaking through the fire break in the trees. Although the tower (~1900) predates the trees by many years it feels as though the trees are some kind of fortification laced there for the benefit of the tower.

This is the head of a ventilation shaft, apparently part of the Talla Aquaduct and sits in the hidden valley of the Harlawmuir Burn. I was trying to capture something about the captive (fenced in) construction being further held by the straight wall of hillside beyond with the small construction (a survey point – top right) like a sentry, on guard. Here is a closer viewpoint.

Despite the fence the construction now appears dominant in the scene rather than being constrained by the environment.

This is my favourite image of the day. It has so many different elements (and stories) that work well together in small groups but without any strong, overall composition.

This scene, with the small group of farm building amongst the trees in the distance reminded me very much of the foothills of the Colorado Rockies where I used to live. The grasses here are Scottish moorland types rather than the dry prairie grasses of Colorado but the (apparently) long straight road and the power lines could be anywhere in the US prairies. This is a type of location where I feel very comfortable – feels remote, wide open views but with signs of human habitation.


Why I am a tourist – Issues around being a photographer in a remote environment. Part 2

Dereliction has become a popular subject for photographers. I will not discuss why, but I will talk about the ethics and my personal positioning. To quote from Alice Mah’s paper on “The Dereliction Tourist”:

“Dereliction tourism is the act of seeking out abandoned industrial sites as sites of aesthetic pleasure, leisure or adventure”

“Ethical problems….. including voyeurism, romanticisation, and reproduction of negative stereotypes about marginal people and places.”

“to call the ruins aesthetically beautiful is already to put oneself at a distance. It is a privileged position”

My photography does include elements of dereliction in the form of abandoned farms and other constructions that have become impossible to operate or have lost their usefulness. From my position they are evidence of past success (rather than current failure) and should be included, along with modern, currently functional constructions, for example; Geo-thermal power stations, Hydro-electric dams, Harbours, etc.

The derelict farm at Vidburdssél , shown below, is a substantial structure with a double width, two-storey main building. This was not a short term project, that failed quickly but a family, perhaps more than one, lived here and built the farm over many years. The tyre tracks show that the farm land is still in use but perhaps the main farm buildings are now located elsewhere. I see this as evidence of past success in overcoming a remote location, relatively poor land and a harsh climate.

So, am I a “dereliction tourist”? Probably!

I admit to my photographic experiences being sometimes “voyeuristic”. I always build a narrative around my images and that is so much easier when the subject is a derelict construction that has obviously been the site of human experiences and emotions. I do feel a sense of presence when I enter such a location and that I am invading someone else’s privacy, especially when there are personal objects still lying around.

I am, in effect, using these “found” objects to build a story about the building and its former occupants. This story is unlikely to contain much truth as it will be based solely upon my own experiences and limited knowledge rather than the reality of the people who actually lived there. I will be “romanticising”.

And finally, I do find such sites “aesthetically beautiful”. It is about how nature begins to take over, lines soften, colours mute and the structures start to be absorbed back into the earth. That process is beautiful and I find it comforting that nature will erase all human signs, eventually.

When photographers visit places of dereliction, like the heavy industrial sites in the former Soviet bloc, their images can (possibly accidentally) reinforce negative stereotypes about industrial backwardness and its (assumed) contribution to the collapse of Eastern European structures. Photography of similar sites in the US and Western European “Rust Belts” may be intended by the photographer to garner sympathy but can also be seen to imply Luddite tendencies in the local communities.

Reinforcing, even suggesting, such negative stereotypes is something I want to avoid.


I am a “tourist” with baggage.

I could never put myself into the mind-set of a local, which is an advantage as, per Tuan, as this will give me a clarity of vision greater than a local could achieve.

My “baggage” is that I am not neutral. I do hold the position of regarding the locals with great respect and I want to celebrate their tenacity and self-reliance. This baggage is not a disadvantage as I am not trying to be dispassionate about what I see.

It would be easy to make images that can be interpreted negatively. I cannot control all interpretations but I need to direct viewers away from negative conclusions about my subjects or the local communities.


Mah A. The Dereliction Tourist. Sociological Research Online, 19 (4), 13 viewed at on 28/02/2017

Tuan Y F. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota, 1977.

Cramond 5th visit – part 2

The following 2 images show the walls and rails from a former WWII gun emplacement. I tried the 2 different compositions to understand the different meanings that would result.

This is the first attempt where I was trying to evoke the potential for attack from over the hill. There is a path leading somewhere that disappears quite quickly and could hide potential threats.

The cave like holes gives the impression of somewhere to hide but once in there it would not be possible to see or counter any advancing threat. The rocks in the cave appear to be cowering. Overall the whole scene is typical of old defensive installations yet appears to be the wrong way around given the narrative I have created.

The graffiti does not really impact upon my story telling in this first image.

In the second image the bigger story has gone and, for me, all that is left is the, now significant, swastika like graffiti. Did the artist intend for that interpretation or is it just me knowing the history of these defensive constructions? Overall, I find this composition less satisfying because I cannot build as much of a narrative around it.

Why I am a tourist – Issues around being a photographer in a remote environment. Part 1


My research is about why photographers (and other tourists) find human constructions to be attractive focal points in remote and otherwise “natural” environments. In particular derelict structures appear to be favoured. This essay will position myself and my approaches to photography relative to these locations, other photographers and the locals. I will focus on Northern Iceland as my primary research location.

In part 1 I discuss my own relationship to such locations and their people. In part 2 I will look at “dereliction” and the issues around its popularity as a photographic subject.

Part 1 – I am an urban, Western European, white male and so I bring my associated, conditioned responses to any location I am photographing. Therefore, what I see and how I interpret it will not be neutral and will be different to that of a local.

Considering my responses, relative to Northern Icelanders and their small communities, the greatest differences will be between my urban life experiences and expectations of structure and comfort versus their social and physical self-sufficiencies. I do not believe I could live in a small, remote community for any significant time as I would miss the ease of access to services and to the wider variety of people and social activities available in a large city. I think it would feel quite claustrophobic. As a consequence, I have a respect for those who can and do live in small, remote communities, whether by choice or not. They must have types of self-reliance, tenacity and stoicism to survive and even thrive that I have never been required to develop. This probably make me less critical in my approaches to photographing their environments.

My view is likely to be quite different to the way a resident of the area would interpret their own, vernacular landscape as describe below by Yi Fu Tuan:

“In our mobile society the fleeting impressions of people passing through cannot be neglected. Generally speaking, we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. The visitor’s viewpoint, being simple, is easily stated.. The complex attitude of the native, on the other hand, can be expressed by him only with difficulty.”

The image below is typical of the “sublime” that many photographers expect to find in Iceland.

However, and characteristic of my personal interests, I have included the functional gravel road and the snow markers to show this is not a wilderness. This is a vernacular landscape.

If you move to the other end of this gravel road a very different scene appears as shown below.

Such a scene is typical of remote, sparsely inhabited areas I have visited in both North America and Europe. Tourists (and many photographers) may consider this jumble of wood and metal to be a “blight on the landscape” and wonder why it is allowed. They might ask; do the locals not care that they are disfiguring the sublime scenery that the tourist seeks? Do they not appreciate the privilege of living with such scenery?

I would suggest, as noted by Tuan, that the locals are too engrossed trying to make a living in this environment to be overly worried about or even aware of touristic perceptions.

A related response that I bring to such situations is my dislike of the sanitisation and monetarisation that organisations, like the National trust, impose upon “areas of natural beauty” within the UK. Rather than protecting such areas they turn them into easily accessible theme parks which destroys the sublime and seriously distorts the local economies through over-crowding and the influx of capital. Thus, I am far more aligned with remote communities living their lives the way they need to than with urban and business values being imposed upon them.

Consequently, I am a “tourist” but my personal position identifies with the “native” rather than the “visitor”. I want my photography to celebrate the activities of people who survive and make communities in harsh environments, far from urban amenities. I certainly would not want my photography to be seen as a criticism of these communities.

Part 2 to follow.


Tuan Y F. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota, 1977.