Nicholas JR White is an award-winning landscape photographer based in Dartmoor National Park in South West England. Three years ago, he set out to examine the relationship between man and wilderness, and the ways that humans interact with natural spaces.
He traversed the most remote landscapes across the British Isles and explored the secluded mountain shelters scattered across them (also known as “bothies”). Unlocked and free to use, these bothies provide a refuge from the wild terrain and have become an iconic feature of the British landscape over the past 50 years.
His project, Black Dots, is a photo exploration of those bothies and the culture that surrounds them.
How did the idea of Black Dots come to you?
Black Dots was a project that grew pretty organically from a genuine love of the outdoors. I was researching hiking trips to the Scottish Highlands and stumbled across these shelters called “bothies” on the Internet. The more I researched them, the more fascinated I became, and the concept of creating a photo series based on these bothies began to emerge.
What drew you to the bothies?
I think it was the fact that I’d never heard of these dwellings before, yet spent so much of my life outdoors. After looking at pictures of them online, I became increasingly more curious about why these buildings exist in such remote places, where they’re specifically located, who’s using them, and what they’re like inside — I wanted to answer all these questions through photography.
So, when and how did you start the project?
I first thought of the project in 2013, but didn’t have the money or the time to take it on. The idea lived in the pages of a small notebook for about a year and a half until I finally had the funds to start shooting in 2015.
I worked full time as a studio photographer in South West England for the duration of Black Dots, and planned my shoots during any holiday time I was allowed. I realized pretty early on that I didn’t have to photograph every bothy in the U.K. to tell this story, so I marked them all on a map I had pinned above my desk and made selections based on location, that way I had plenty of variety.
What does the name “Black Dots” mean?
The name “Black Dots” originates from an article I read while researching the project. The piece talked about how the Mountain Bothies Association traveled around the U.K. locating potential buildings to be converted into bothies. The old Ordnance Survey maps they used for navigation marked these buildings as little black dots.
With this project, you choose to photograph landscapes with an old, wooden, large-format camera instead of the digital gear you typically use. Why did you make that decision?
Large-format cameras completely change the way you work as a photographer, and perhaps more importantly, they change the way people act in front of a camera. It’s an incredibly slow and considered process, so I often find myself pacing around the same area for a very long time in order to find the right composition, wait for the right light, and so on. More often than not, I only take two photos of the thing I’ve hiked a day to reach. So in that sense, this type of photography encourages patience. With portraiture, I find that people adopt a very different stance. Since it takes quite some time to focus, they loosen up, relax, and their eyes start to wander away from me — they start to gaze into the distance, or at something happening around them. That’s often when I’ll take the picture; it’s much more natural.
What have you discovered when you’ve given the landscape “the time it deserves,” as you say? What has that practice taught you?
It’s just really important to take things slow, take the time to absorb everything going on around you, breathe in the fresh air, and so on. Whether you’re a photographer or not, that’s still important. All too often you’ll find yourself walking from A to B without properly observing the place you’re moving through.
With this project, you set out to better understand bothies and the culture that surrounds them — have you accomplished this?
I certainly understand them a lot more than I did two years ago! After having spent countless nights sleeping in bothies, meeting strangers, and making new friends, I have started to understand the bothy culture and what it stands for. Underneath the “bothy code,” which outlines general dos and don’ts, there’s a vast community of diverse characters that have their own reasons for using these places — some complex, some not so much. I’ve met people who use them for fun, others who use them as a base from which to go climbing, and a few individuals who embrace the isolation of it all — bothies provide a space in which to disappear for a while. Photographing these people helped make the project more relatable in a way. Moving away from pure landscape photography and showcasing the faces of those who trek for miles to temporarily inhabit these spaces added a special element that the project needed.
How do you plan to take what you’ve gleaned and use it moving forward in your personal life and/or work?
Photographically, nothing has changed. I approached this project in the same way I’d approach any personal project. However, I’m now a lot more open to approaching strangers. When you share a shelter with someone and you’re huddled around a fire, you’re almost forced into a social situation and, over the course of the night, you actually become good friends. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be translated into my everyday experiences too.
What is your hope for the project? What do you want people to walk away with?
Some would disagree, but I really want more people to make use of these bothies. There’s a general concern that if they get too popular, they’ll become overrun and lose some of their magic. But I don’t think they should be kept a secret. As long as people show the bothies and the landscapes respect, they should strike out into the hills and experience them. If my photographs help to encourage people to do that then I’ll consider the project a success.
Black Dots will be released as a limited-edition photobook through Another Place Press in 2018. To preorder a copy, click here.
You can also check out the corresponding video about the Black Dots project below, which was produced by Ryan Goff & Coldhouse Collective.