# writing

What I've Learned about Composition in Photography

# photography# writing

I got a message from Carl, a friend from the climbing gym, asking if I have any advice about photography composition. In short, I feel really unqualified to give an answer. My practice of photography relies heavily on luck and intuition.

But, I’ve been attempting a more serious study of photography over the past year, which has included joining a local camera club and reading about photography. In particular, I’ve been reading Creative Photography, a 1984 reference book that I found at a charity shop. In the spirit of learning in public, I’m going to write down some of my functional understanding.

Before thinking about composition, there are two things that I hold as deeply important:

  1. Understand the exposure triangle

This is the basis of photography — even smartphone photography. You don’t need to understand it when you take your first pictures, but you’ll need to understand how it works in order to understand the mechanics of photography. The exposure triangle defines the rules of photography, even if you’re using a full-auto point-and-shoot or a smartphone.

  1. Keep a camera with you

The classic saying is: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Edward Steichen said it more incisively: “No photographer is as good as the simplest camera.”

I really believe this.To me, photography is about engaging with your subject and composing your image. Gear can help, but it can’t solve photography. The best advice I’ve received is to take photos often. That’s how you get better. And the easiest way to do that is to find a camera that makes you feel comfortable and bring it wherever you go. For me, that’s my Olympus Trip 35. I can always put it in my pocket when I run to the store.

Photographers often say that there are three aspects of photography:

  • Space
  • Light
  • Subject

(Rather than space, photographers tend to say “composition,” but I “space” fits better with how I understand it.)

Here’s how I understand these things:

Space

Space describes the area of the photo and how all of the elements of the photo relate to one another. The best way to learn how to work with space is to practice. Go outside and take photos of random objects, trying to arrange them in a way that makes the photo interesting. Take pictures often and you’ll develop a sense for arrangement.

Asymmetry

The first rule of space is to avoid symmetry. To me, symmetry creates a clean divide between objects that makes them feel separate.

A frosty landscape
An Enya sticker on a street sign
Symmetry can make a photo feel more bold.

A symmetrical photo can feel like two photos side by side. Asymmetry creates tension that pulls the objects together. That’s why photographers default to thirds in their composition.

Thirds

The “rule of thirds” says that compositions should be divided into thirds, or else objects should be placed at the thirds lines.

A signpost with frost on it
This signpost sits one-third from the right.

A man delivering flour
The sidewalk takes one-third of the photo and the truck takes up two-thirds.

A boy in an alley in Tanzania
You can create tension by pushing your subject to the edge of the photo or leaving large areas of negative space.

Practice taking photos with the rule of thirds to see how it feels. By default, I put my subject dead center in my photo. When I practice using thirds, I notice that (1) photography becomes more challenging and (2) my photos become more dynamic.

Lines

In photos, a series of dots (like buttons on a shirt), an edge (like a crease of fabric), or a ridge (like a railing) can create a line. The viewer’s eye will follow the line.

Sunlight on the sidewalk in the morning
These shadows push the gaze downwards.

An abandoned dock with fences
The fences and bushes guide the eye around a loose triangle.

Your goal as a photography is to use lines to engage the viewer. If your lines are too few, you will lose the viewer’s attention. If your lines are too many, you will confuse the viewer.

Allister and Jesse climbing a staircase
The railings brings the gaze to Allister and Jesse.

Strive for a balance where the lines guide the viewers eye around the photo. Most photographers try to engage the viewer with loose triangles.

A morning street scene in Paris
Roads converging at odd angles add energy to this photo.

Cities are built of rectangles — grid streets and box buildings. These make for boring photos. When I’m out walking, I look for unusual spaces, like a bend or a fork in the road, where I can find interesting shapes. If I can’t find that, I will take my photo at an angle to the street, to force the lines of the buildings into a triangular shape.

Intersections

An intersection breaks a line. This will create dynamism. Sometimes you want to avoid this. A line that intersects your subject’s head, neck, waist, or knees will break their body, creating a faint sense busyness (or in extreme cases dismemberment).

A man standing in the street
The lines of the curb and cars create unwanted busyness around the man’s head and neck.

Pay attention to where the lines of your photo are crossing each other and your subject.

Depth

Here, I’ll start to discuss gear. (This is where the exposure triangle become relevant.) Your aperture defines your depth of field — how blurry your background is. A wider aperture allows more light into your photo and creates a blurrier background. A tighter aperture allows less light into your photo and creates a sharper background.

A woman standing on the sidewalk
The sharp background situates this woman obviously in a neighborhood.

A blurrier background will be less distracting, so it will be easier to compose. It will also create a more arty or dreamy effect. The subject feels separate from their surroundings. This is why a shallow depth of field is popular in wedding photography: it makes composition easier and it puts all of the focus on the subject.

A man standing on the sidewalk
This extremely blurry background creates an surreal feeling that threatens to overwhelm the photo.

A sharper background can potentially produce a more interesting photo, because you can use the elements in the background to engage the viewer and create tension around your subject.

Breadth

You lens’s focal length determines the breadth of your photo. A 17mm lens is a fisheye; it creates a visibly warped image that can contain an entire room. A 200mm lens is a telephoto; it zooms in on a detail, like a bird in a tree. A zoom lens is one that allows you to change the angle, zooming from wide to narrow.

Your lens angle is probably the most profound variable in your camera gear. By widening or narrowing the field of view, you completely change your composition. A 50mm lens and a 70mm lens will produce very different photos of the same scene.

Personally, I mostly shoot with 40mm and 50mm lenses.

A couple
A 50mm lens narrows the focus on the subject.

50mm is the default lens that comes with most SLR cameras. I think it’s a beautiful angle because it just slightly constrains the photographer. 50mm forces me to commit to a specific subject, because most of the time it’s not really wide enough to capture a scene. But it’s still wide enough to include the subject’s surroundings and compose an interesting photo.

A couple crossing the street in Paris
A 40mm lens captures a wide scene.

40mm is a popular angle for street photography. It’s wide enough to capture an entire scene, like a group of people or a streetscape, but it still keeps the focus on the subject. I find that this challenges me to compose a photo that is harmonious.

A longer lens, like a 70mm, is very good for portrait photography, because you can get an intimate shot of your subject without putting the camera right in their face.

Light

Light — the interaction between energy and surfaces — determines how the objects in your image appear. Light creates color and shadows, which create photos.

Contrast

Your lines are created with contrast — either the contrast of one color against another, or the contrast of a bright area against a dark area. The implication of this is that your compositions will be very different if you’re shooting color film or black-and-white film.

Boxes of fruit on the ground
More boxes of fruit on the ground
The bright colors of the fruit disappear in these photos, leaving shapeless grey textures.

Empty boxes on the ground
The light and dark boxes contrast against each other and against the light and dark background.

A man walking down the sidewalk
Strong light creates drama in an otherwise boring picture.

In color, you can create dramatic effects with tiny elements.

A clothesline
The four red clothespins define the photo by contrasting against the green. With the wooden post, they create a triangle that guides the eye.

This is the strength of shooting in color: you can create compositions with subtle elements, like the blue of someone’s eyes or a fire hydrant on the street.

Use contrast where you want to grab attention. Put your subject against a contrasting background, or create tension between your subject and contrasting elements nearby.

If the light is drab and flat (like on cloudy days), rely on color for your contrast.

Shading

You don’t always want strong contrast. Sometimes you just want some gentle shading, like for portraits. Outside, you can get gentle light a few different ways:

  • filtered through light cloud cover
  • bouncing off of a building
  • angled by the earth’s tilt in the morning, evening, or winter

Gentle light will create shadows on the face that bring out features and wrinkles.

A man standing on the sidewalk
Indirect November light in Glasgow gently contours the man’s face.

A woman standing in the sun
Sun shining directly in this woman’s face removes all detail and forces her to squint.

The best way to find good light is to be prepared. Bring your camera with you wherever you go. Sometimes the sun breaks through and everything looks beautiful. The second-best way to find good light is to go out around dawn and dusk.

Personality

Film interprets light to produce a photograph (or a photographic negative). There is no objective “green.” Each film manufacture decides what they think green should look like. As a result, each film has its own unique quality and color profile.

Allister in a phone booth
This expired film is heavily de-saturated and tinted blue.

A man in a pedestrian tunnel
Kodak Gold is known for its lovely reds.

Beyond that, all films have a standardized level of sensitivity, called ISO (this is one of the points of the exposure triangle). ISO generally trades sensitivity for film grain. The more sensitive your film is, the grainier it will be. This used to be a much bigger concern. Today, you can find high quality film with very little grain, and most film photographers actually like film grain because it adds character.

Two young people on a bench
This crop reveals the grain of the film.

There is no correct film to use. Like a cheap camera, a cheap film can offer beautiful photos. But pay attention to the colors and quality of different films (including the difference between color film and black and white film) to see how the film affects the feeling of the photo.

Subject

You photo needs a subject, which could be a person, an object, or an empty space. It should be something that can catch the eye. Consider what the subject of your photo before you take your picture.

I’ve taken many photos of abandoned buildings and empty landscapes, which often feel unsatisfying. If your photo doesn’t have an obvious subject, you need to work a lot harder to create an emotional connection with the viewer.

Position

Once you’ve chosen your subject, explore how it is positioned relative to you and your surroundings. Make yourself uncomfortable: get down on the ground, climb up on a fence, get up close to your subject, stand in the street. Look at how different angles change the perception of your subject.

If your subject is a person, get comfortable telling them what to do. Tell them specifically what you want. “I want your hand on your face, but I don’t want it to block your mouth.” “I want this blue door directly behind you.”

Two men on the sidewalk
The two men create an unsteady balance.

Also think about the relationship between your subject and other objects in the photo. You can balance a photo and create tension with multiple elements.

This photo by Henri Cartier Bresson is one of my favorites. It should be a messy photo, but it’s incredibly harmonious. All of the characters in the photo play off of each other, making your eye wander.

Movement

The final point of the exposure triangle is shutter speed. A faster shutter speed demands more light, but the picture will be sharper. A slower shutter speed risks motion blur or camera shake.

Ferry
A slow shutter speed makes the passing water appear soft.

Depending on the picture, some motion blur might be desirable. If your subject is blurry, it can emphasize that they are moving. If your subject is sharp but other objects are blurry, it will emphasize that your subject is still.

Emotion

I want to take pictures that tell a story, and I want to do that by creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. So, as a photographer, I try to have empathy with the people I’m photographing.

I try to remain relaxed when I take someone’s picture. I pay special attention to my voice. If I sound anxious, the person I’m photographing will pick up on it. I want the person I’m photographing to feel and look natural.

I try to be polite and friendly. I offer an explanation for why I want the picture. And then I try to move quickly to get the picture before the person gets stiff.


The most important things I’ve learned about photography since I got back into it is this: I do it for myself. Photographs are beautiful not because they capture a scene. Rather, they capture the photographer’s subjective impression of a scene. They put the viewer in the mind of the photographer, looking outward. Photography is a chance to share your eyes with the world. In that sense, it’s very intimate. Self-consciousness kills intimacy. The best photos will be the ones that you take for yourself. As you take pictures, think about what you care about, what scares you, what you love. Try to approach those emotions as you look through the lens. At least, that’s what I’m going to try to do.

Five Lessons from the Ski Hill

Last week, I skied in the mountains for the first time in my life. My dad taught me to ski when I was five years old, and I went skiing a few times each year through my childhood and into adolescence.

The Prismic skiers at the top of the mountain.

I was thrilled to go on a ski trip in the alps for my company work retreat. We spent a Wednesday skiing down the side of a mountain opposite Mont Blanc. Maybe it was the views and the fresh air, or maybe it was the fear of death, but I thought about life all through the day.

Skiing in the mountains is intense — especially when you haven’t skied in five years. I learned five lessons about how to deal with high-pressure challenges.

Erik gathering speed.

1. Commit

I was convinced I was going to break a bone.

As an adult who used to know how to ski, it seemed inevitable. On my first run, I felt shaky. After one or two more runs, I remembered how to point my skis and tilt my weight correctly.

I shrugged, unsure, when the ski instructor asked me if I wanted more instruction. “I don’t think you need it,” he volunteered. “You’re a good skier.”

My confidence rose, which helped my technique. The ski instructor told me and my coworkers Levi and Erik to go off on our own. “Take the six-person chairlift,” he said.

Without knowing where we were going, we followed his advice. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. The trail difficulties are green, blue, red, black. But our instructor had told us that on this hill the reds are more like blacks and the blacks are more like double blacks. We stared at signs pointing to red (black) and black (certain death).

With only one way down, we took the red trail that looked the friendliest. It was amazing. Winding down the mountain, we had panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Towards the bottom, we got to a final slope that was wide, steep, and icy. We all looked over the edge with apprehension. Levi dropped down and skillfully skied down. A moment later, Erik went.

Skiing offers an amazing feeling: there is only one way forward. The path is dangerous, but it’s also exciting and beautiful. If you choose your runs wisely, you will have the skill to handle everything you encounter. So it was as I stood alone at the top of this drop. I dropped in.

I felt myself struggle to slow down, grating my skis along the icy slope, trying to generate friction. I wobbled as I carved back and forth. My legs shook. I slipped around as I tried to turn. I felt unsteady and unsure.

Commit, I thought.

There’s only one way forward, and I can do it.

I pointed my skis downhill and leaned into the speed. As I let go of my fears, the hill glided past. My skis sliced through the powdery snow, sending plumes of powder to my sides. This is how to ski, I thought.

Commit, I reminded myself throughout the day. When life gets scary, remember what you’re doing and keep going.

Simon and Côme at lunch on the hill.

2. When you lose control, let go

The rest of the day was smooth. I felt confident. We paused for a Savoyard lunch on the mountainside and then kept skiing through the afternoon.

Toward the end of the day, with an hour left on the hill, we asked the instructor what trail to take. He pointed us to another advanced run at the top of the mountain. We rode up the chairlift, and then skied cross-country style for a while along the mountainside to find another lift, which took us up higher.

We found ourselves at the top of a beautiful, isolated, meandering run that wove along the mountainside, out of sight of the rest of the hill. It was our favorite run of the day. About a third of the way down, we got to the first tricky part — another steep and icy slope.

I went first.

About halfway down, I hit ice. I tried to slow down by turning uphill, but I couldn’t. My skies scraped onwards down the hill, while my body pulled backwards. I fell over, landing safely on my side — my first wipeout of the day.

I signaled to the group that I was fine and waved them onwards. One by one, they skied past me. I regained my confidence as I watched them safely navigate the slope. Then, with great care, I stood up and inched myself backwards to a spot where I had space to maneuver.

Okay, I thought. This is ice. I can’t stop myself. Maybe I can’t control exactly where I’m going. But I can get down this hill.

I pointed my skis downhill and shot downwards. I can slow down when I get to the bottom. For now, I just have to let go.

When you have no control, it’s futile to try. You’ll only lose balance. As I shot down the ice, I knew I had enough control to get safely down the slope. I knew that when I got to the end of the section I could slow down. That’s the key: loosen the grip, then tighten it again.

Levi on top of the mountain.

3. Persevere

Towards the end of the same run, we reached the final boss battle. It was a long, steep, narrow stretch. We were all nervous. Levi went first and wiped out halfway down. He landed like a pro, catching a stray ski. He gathered himself, got his ski back on, and got to the bottom.

Leo (who had joined us after lunch) and Erik followed, and all three of them gathered at the bottom, waiting for me.

I felt my heart race while I summoned all of my lessons from the day. Pay attention to your weight and your feet. Relax. Know you have the skill for this. Commit.

I dropped over the edge.

As the steep slope came into view in front of me, I saw a patch of dirt directly in my path. I panicked and pulled back, but it was too late. I already had speed. I lost control, my skis came out from under me, and I fell onto my side.

In retrospect, I know that if I had persevered through the brown patch, I would have been fine. When obstacles arise and you can’t stop, you have no choice but to forge onward.

But, that’s not what I did. And so I learned my next lesson.

4. When you fumble, regain control

It’s fine, I thought. I can just get up and keep going.

But I couldn’t. The slope was too steep and icy. I slid. I grabbed at the snow, but there was nothing to hold onto. I accelerated down the slope like a human toboggan.

I hoped to slow down, but I felt myself gaining speed. I rotated one way and then the other. I watched the blur of my coworkers zoom past me.

For a moment, I was at peace. This is fine, I thought. It’s easier than skiing down. But as the seconds ticked past and I keep sliding, I realized I was in trouble. I had no idea what direction I was going. I could go off a cliff or into a post. My ski could catch on something, breaking my leg.

I need to get back in control.

I hacked at the slope with my ski poles, which did nothing. I realized the only way to stop myself was with my skis. I clawed at the hill to orient myself so my feet were below me. As I slid, my skis collected snow like a plow, and finally I slowed to a stop.

I looked up and saw that I had slid about 100 meters. My coworkers were now far above me on the slope. I felt a little rattled, but I had no injuries.

I signaled to my coworkers that I was fine, and they took turns skiing down past me. Finally, I stood up, and skied down the rest of the hill. I was shaken and a little trembly, but I mustered the confidence to ski smoothly. It was the last run of the day.

Mabel carving the slope.

5. Check your priorities

I’m not a thrill seeker. But, I like a challenge, and I can be a little impulsive. On the other hand, I’m a little scared of heights and a little clumsy. Altogether, this made for a lot of reflection throughout the day. As I got tired in the afternoon, I asked myself, Is this worth it? How would I feel if I really hurt myself? How would Claire feel if something happened to me?

The experience reminded my that I like my life. I want to keep it safe.

I suspect that half the skill in skiing is knowing your limit. You practice so that you can tackle the routes you take, but you also choose the routes you know you can handle.

When you find yourself preparing for a high pressure situation, it’s worth asking: Is this the right place to be?

My day on the ski hill was perfect. I learned a lot, I challenged myself, and I had fun. But all day I was making choices. Do I have the energy for this? Am I paying attention? Am I ready for this run?

When you do take on the right challenge — when you commit, open up, push through, and get safely to the end of the run — it is wonderful.

The Artifice

# writing

A new “artificial intelligence” tool called “Lensa” burst into social media this week. For $7.99, Lensa will upload a handful of photos of a person and output a collection of stylized avatars. Social media flooded with users sharing their new pop-art profile pictures, making them look like characters in comic books or movie posters. Critics quickly followed, attacking the software that powers Lensa.

“Artificial” comes from the latin ars, meaning art or skilled work — what we might call “craft” today. Artifex means craftsperson. Artificium means skilled work; the adjective form is artificialis, as in artificial. Ars comes full circle in the phrase “artificial intelligence art”: crafting intelligence that itself can craft.

But I use scare quotes around “artificial intelligence,” because AI is a buzzword, not a real thing. When people say “AI,” usually they’re referring to a computing practice more accurately called “machine learning.” Machine learning is a type of computer program that self-corrects based on parameters defined by human engineers, which they commonly call “learning.”

But machine learning never actually learns, because its metrics of success and calibration are always defined by human engineers. To demonstrate this, look at the mistakes that come through in machine learning models like the one that powers Lensa.

Women who use Lensa report that it outputs highly sexualized and even nude images. Women who input only headshots will get back full-body shots with huge breasts and a skinny waist. Some women find that they get more accurate and less sexual images by setting their gender to “male.” Asian users say that the app makes them look more stereotypically Asian.

The old-school definition of AI is a technology that can think for itself. Obviously, Lensa has no power to think. It consistently makes the same absurd mistakes. These aren’t thoughts: they’re the recycled work of the immature white men behind the curtain.

Our definition of AI has shifted over time, largely due to its over-use. Like the word “literal” coming to mean “figurative,” the phrase “artificial intelligence” has come to mean “pretend intelligence.” AI today is technology that mimics human intelligence, which — compared to the promise of technology that can actually think for itself — is a much lower bar.

Is a barometer, which can tell whether or not its raining, an AI? Is a nine-digit calculator?

That’s a pedantic argument, but there’s a real point: we use words like “learning” and “intelligence” to humanize technology. But at its core, most machine learning programming is proprietary software that generates value through cost-cutting by replacing human labor.

When we talk about AI art, we often fall into the trap of whether a computer can produce art. Are the Lensa portraits art? That question misses the point. The rarified ideal of “art” as separate from (and higher than) craft is a relatively new idea — and a strange one.

Art is labor. The creation of art demands skill, time, and effort. And, while some art may seem to transcend the artist, most art is the product of mundane and repetitive work — photo portraits, upholstery patterns, birthday cards, social media avatars. And, work that is mundane and repetitive can be automated.

Computers automate repetitive tasks — even nuanced tasks like painting a portrait. Does that mean that the computer is intelligent or artful? No. A computer has no “artificial intelligence” just like a cotton gin has no “artificial skill.” This isn’t skill or intelligence — it’s a machine that has been designed to mimic the skilled work of humans.

What makes humans different is that we can think for ourselves. And human artists spend thousands of hours studying artwork from around the world to develop their skill and style.

Maybe this is what Lensa has automated: the free and open tradition of artistic inspiration. After all, the greatest outrage over Lensa is how the company trains its model on billions of source artworks — many copyrighted, none credited. The company has sucked up the collective knowledge of mankind (with an apparent over-representation of white male fantasy comic book artwork) in an attempt to establish a sort of ownership.

Lensa claims to bring art to the masses. In truth, they’re taking art from the masses. They offer nothing new or superior in the world of pop-art portraiture. Instead, they compete by undercutting the human craftspeople who make their livelihood as portrait artists — turning the production of art into a factory process.

It reminds me of the textile artisans who lost their livelihoods through the 18th and 19th centuries as new technologies arose to produce bolts of cotton cloth by the mile. The factories turned cloth into a cheap consumer good. Undercut by industry, the artisans lost the market for their goods, lost their livelihood, and lost their traditional craft. They protested in the streets, but the police and government responded with gunfire. Across Europe, rebellions failed and textile craft disappeared.

Though Lensa hasn’t created a thinking machine, I think they have created something new. They might be the first company to sell “artificial intelligence” as a cheap consumer good. The consumers pays $7.99 in exchange for a few seconds of processing time on the Lensa servers, cutting out the millions of artists whose work built the software. Like the weavers centuries ago, artists today will lose the market for their intelligence, undercut by a pretend intelligence.

So, no, Lensa does not sell art, and they don’t sell artificial intelligence. But they still sell ars in one sense — that of the artifice: a clever or cunning device used to trick others. You might think you’re buying a computer’s original thoughts. In fact, you’re just cutting the artist out of the art. Call it the art of deception.

The Collapse of Twitter

# writing

Twitter has a governance problem.

I think a lot of people mocking and criticizing Elon Musk’s product decisions at Twitter. I have no idea if they’re right. But I think the product decisions are the smallest problem right now. Twitter has always had product problems. Virtually no one will leave because of a bad interface, useless features, poor performance, or bugs. Musk might ruin the product. But, he’ll also slash costs. And Twitter will likely totter along.

But this month it’s become obvious that there’s a problem on the platform. If it’s not Musk’s disastrous management decisions, then what is it?

People feel alienated. We humans crave control over our surroundings, and Twitter is an important part of our world. From essential emergency alerts to intimate personal diaries. For the millions of people who use it, it’s a part of their lives.

And of the millions of participants in Twitter’s influencer meritocracy, one user has now broken the rules and taken control of the whole platform. You can’t mute Elon Musk anymore — he’s in the woodwork.

And, now, as Musk bullies and offends millions of his users, those users are waking up to the fact that they have no power in this relationship — their relationship to the world. They’re panicked, and they’re angry, because they have no agency.

There are some user- and worker-governed social media platforms, like Cohost and Mastodon. I don’t know if they’ll get big adoption (I doubt it). But, if they succeed, I think it will be because they make their users feel like they’re in control.

Allister and Jesse in Scotland

Last month, my brothers Allister and Jesse came to visit me in Scotland. They arrived on Friday, and on Sunday me and Claire and Jesse and Allister departed on a highland roadtrip.

We visited Stirling Castle, which is one of my favorite landmarks because it’s the historic seat of the Scottish monarchs. You can stand in the royal bedchambers. It astounds me to imagine what our Scottish ancestors would have thought about their descendents standing in King James’ bedroom.

Allister looking at the ceiling in Stirling Castle

My friend Francois gave me a box of long-expired Kodak Ultra film, which I loaded up for Allister and Jesse’s visit. I pushed the exposure two stops, which still feels a little dim, but the photos have a fun texture. Here’s Allister staring at the ceiling in Stirling Castle.

From there, we drove through beautiful Perthshire to Pitlochry, where we did a distillery tour at Blair Athol distillery.

Allister and Jesse outside the distillery

Here are Jesse and Allister outside of the distillery, which was a beautiful old ivy-covered building.

Jesse standing in the middle of the road

Allister standing in a red phone booth

We spent the night in Pitlochry at the youth hostel. In the evening, we walked to the neighboring town of Moulin for dinner at the pub. Allister tried haggis, neeps, and tatties, which he said was actually pretty good.

In the morning, we drove across the highlands.

Jesse holding Allister upside down

In the middle of the country, we stopped at a coffee shop. I switched to my digital camera because I knew I’d be taking lots of pictures. We had some pent-up energy from driving all day. So, when I asked the guys to pose for pictures, Jesse immediately picked up Allister and dangled him upside-down.

Allister and Jesse standing on Aonach Mor, with highlands in the background

On the West Coast of Scotland, we took the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola up the side of Aonach Mor, for rainy views over the highlands.

Allister and Jesse standing in front of the William Wallace memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis

Through the week, Claire and I showed the guys around Glasgow. Here’s Allister and Jesse at the Wallace Memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis.

Portrait of Allister

Portrait of Jesse

Here’s Allister, moments later, crossing the bridge from the Glasgow Necropolis to the Glasgow Cathedral — one of the oldest buildings in Glasgow, and the site of the original Christian settlement, and then Jesse outside of the cathedral.

Allister and Jesse climbing stairs

The weather rained for a lot of the week, but one day this beautiful golden light came out and I spent at least half a roll on it.

Jesse out of focus

I missed these guys the minute they were gone.

Visit Arichonan

The ruins of a stone house in the forest.

Arichonan is an abandoned village on the West Coast of Scotland. In the 19th century, the landlord evicted the villagers — farmers — to rear sheep.

When the villagers protested, the police came and carried them away.

An abandoned house on a hillside.

Last month, we visited Arichonan. It was me, Claire, and our friend Erin.

Hidden down a path in the forest, the village overlooks a valley stretching miles out toward the ocean. The village itself sat on the slope, old stone walls criss-crossing the hill. The walls drew the outlines of store rooms, gardens, and cottages. A main house stood at the top of the village.

A fireplace heath in the ruin of an old house

The buildings appeared ancient, but some crisp details remained. A cracked cauldron sat on the ground in one house. An ornate iron hearth leaned against the wall in another.

It was just a few weeks prior when we hosted our friends Liam and Laura. Laura, a Canadian, had ancestors from Scotland. They moved to Canada in the 1800s when they were displaced from their land by sheep.

I thought about my own ancestors, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Canada around the same time. They were poor farmers, too.

According to historians, the farming way of life was difficult and leisurely in turn. Crofters, like my ancestors, rented a small farm from a landlord. Farm work was heavy in the harvest season. For the rest of the year, they had spare time for leisure and craftwork.

During the Industrial Revolution, demand for wool made shepherding more economically valuable than farming. The wealthy landlords who owned most of the countryside evicted their tenant farmers and let the farmland go fallow so they could graze sheep. The farmers were forced to find a new livelihood, farming on poorer land, working for wages in the cities, or making a new life over the ocean. This new flood of cheap labor provided the engine for Britain’s industrialization.

At the same time, in response to Scottish resistance, the British military was stamping out community and heritage in rural Scotland, destroying the traditional way of life.

The combination of military and capitalist subjugation drove Scots out of their traditional homelands, emptying the Scottish highlands. Countryside that was once full of farms and villages became desolate.

During the same period, Romantic painters discovered the dramatic mountains and desolate moors of Scotland. The Romantics popularized a new image of Scotland as a majestic, untamed wilderness — the image that persists today.

Flash-forward to the 1900s. Workers in the cities returned to the Scottish countryside — not to live, but for leisure. Sir Hugh Munro mapped Scotland’s mountains and made hiking the country’s national pastime. Landlords tried to ban hikers from their territory, but Scots fought back. You can’t own the land, they said. The people won, and access to the land became law in 2003.

When you ask a Scot what they do in their spare time, they’ll likely tell you they go hiking. Glasgow itself sits at the foot of the highlands, and you can see the hills from any high point in the city.

When you venture into the hills, it can feel like you’re completely alone.

But you’re not. And sooner or later you’ll walk past a crumbling fieldstone wall or the foundations of a farmhouse — reminders that this place wasn’t always empty.

Our friend Erin relaxing in a tree

After we got home, I Googled Arichonan to find out what happened to the villagers. After their revolt was quashed — like Laura’s ancestors and mine — they moved to Canada.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023