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The Light Elsewhere: Encounters with the Elemental World   (RRP: £42)

by David Pickford, PUBLISHED BY ARTEMIS MEDIA, 2013

SIGNED COPIES:  £30 (including United Kingdom P&P)   

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Good mountain writers come along once in a generation: there was Peter Boardman in the 1970s; the emergence of Ed Douglas in the 1990s; and now here’s Ed writing a foreword to the first book of the next in this illustrious progression – and just to confuse us, and to assert the multi-disciplinary nature of modern artistic expression, it’s a large-format and very costly photographic book. David Pickford’s The Light Elsewhere: Encounters with the Elemental World is a sumptuous volume, redolent of the work of Bill Brandt, Eliot Porter, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Pictorial aspect aside, it contains the best writing on travel and climbing that I’ve read in years – a startlingly good, invigorating entry to the published word. Aside from being beautiful, it’s also thought-provoking, highly intelligent, immensely cultured in ways we might not expect from a book dealing for the most part with the nomadic, physical culture of international rock-climbing.

The photographs here, of an extraordinary odyssey that’s seen Pickford climbing and adventuring in America and the Himalaya, India and Indonesia, Kyrghyzstan and Bohemia, Madagascar and Catalunya and every nook and rocky cranny of Britain’s coastline from Pembroke to Mingulay, Swanage to West Penwith, are themselves a text that demands to be read with the closest attention. We’re given the gloss to this in the introduction: “We live in an age of neomania, an aggressive condition in which the quest for the new seeks to exterminate the value of the old. Because this process has recently become so dramatic and so widespread, these images are an acknowledgement of that which does not need to be removed, upgraded or replaced.”

This directive note to look beyond the immediate to the long-enduring expresses itself as a remarkable dialectic in the photographs between images of timeless serenity and seized-moment records of intense physical activity. There is, too, a restless fine balance between human and elemental energy achieved here: studies of clearing storms in the Valais, huge waves at Pedn Men Du, avalanches in motion, breaking surf by starlight – natural dynamics! – are counterpointed by finely visualized architectures of cliff and mountain, by exquisitely observed intensity of effort from men and women on the climbs (David Pickford himself, incidentally, is one of the very best pioneering rock-climbers in Britain). It’s this profound engagement with intense adventurous experience that imparts to his book its uniquely satisfying and attractive tone. The caption to one magnificent shot of lenticular cloud on Mont Blanc du Tacul reads, “I was ski-ing the Petit Envers route down the Vallee Blanche with Jonathan Griffith and Will Sim when a warm front came in from the south and the weather changed from cloudless skies to high winds and very low visibility within an hour. We skied out at a snail’s pace between big crevasses and on disappearing tracks in the cloud-filled gloom.” Look at the picture, and feel the involuntary shudder!

There is so much in this book: from epiphanic beginnings as a fourteen-year-old on Pentire Head, where the rock, “traced with delicate veins, fused and made visible the ancient life of the earth,” and in his young mind was “as if a fault had cracked open”, to a long road-trip through Indonesia on an ancient Soviet motor-bike, to the beautiful women he meets and the exquisite, outrageously difficult new rock-climbs in places like the Lofoten Islands, Pickford strikes not a single crass or discordant note throughout. Ignore that price-tag. Treat yourself! To a first classic by the coming man…

 – Jim Perrin, TGO magazine, 2014


 The coffee table picture book can degenerate all too easily into bland prettiness, but David Pickford’s debut delights and surprises with its breadth of vision.  At a mere technical level it is superb, with beautiful printing doing justice to stunning images.  Unlike so many large landscape format productions that squander paper, this book makes the most of its lavish space, particularly in the stunning opening sequence of full spreads.  Like all the best photographers, Pickford finds the unique moment, or makes you see familiar landscapes afresh.  He breathes new life into Madagascar’s now hackneyed Tsaranoro Massif with a wide close up of crimson and jade plants, orange granite and distant racing cloud shadows.  HIs monochrome ‘ice circle’ on the familiar Llyn Idwal could be an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture.  A routine ski down the Vallée Blanche is transformed by sudden storm clouds over the Aiguilles Diables.  In Zanskar he opts for monochrome to dramatize the intensity of a bright foreground jagged ridge against the black silhouette of a distant, equally jagged, ridge.  Moving from macro to micro, he devotes a double spread to the brilliant gold, crimson and purple leaf details of Yosemite and Westonbirt, eight thousand miles apart. On another memorable page, a single luminous red poppy personalizes the grey-green uniformity of a Norfolk monocultural wheat field.

When did you last see Norfolk feature in a climbing book?  Or Westonbirt Arboretum for that matter?  But it is that ability to find interest everywhere – that combination of curiosity and vision – that makes for great landscape photography.  Likewise the final section – a poignant, at times melancholic, record of ancient barns, gates, mountain chapels, rusting cars and peeling villas, which Pickford entitles ‘Survivors’ explaining in his Foreword that these images are an antidote to what he calls neomania.

Anyone like me, weary of modern society’s glib obsession with the new, will warm to that.  But, just in case you might think Pickford is some grumpy, bearded old retro-fart, a quick look at the dustwrapper  portrait – with leather jacket and white-framed glasses complimenting a flamboyant shock of straw blond hair – will reassure you that this is one cool dude.  Likewise the climbing shot of same dude’s well-honed, properly bronzed, torso in action on the uber posing location of Sardinia’s Capo Testa.  Surely a touch of self parody?  Because he is actually one hell of a good climber.  The throwaway line about leading Eroica at fourteen gives it away.  Not to mention his ferocious new routes in Huntsman’s Leap and his second ascent of the extremely scary The Monk’s Satanic Verses at Lower Sharpnose Point.

Note the sea cliff locations.  This man loves the seaside and celebrates it with some gorgeous compositions of climbers poised above the marbled turquoise froth of the ocean. These and other climbing shots are the treasure at the heart of the book – fine studies of some of the finest climbers around, exploring some of the most beautiful rock around.  Ever the artist, Pickford has Tim Emmett poised (or is that posed?) in luminous green shirt, to mirror Squamish’s fecund rain forest.  Hazel Findlay dances balletically, dangling in turquoise top from a Turkish tufa.  Kate Rutherfood balances elegantly across the luminous red sandstone of Indian Creek, framed between dark walls.  Malin Holmberg tiptoes up the immaculate granite of Lofoten, on the first ascent of Lady of the Lake, accompanied by Pickford’s eloquent article that first appeared in last year’s Alpine Journal.

Yes, he does words too.  Perhaps the most entertaining are the ones transcribed from the ‘Minsk Diaries’ – his record of a 15,000 kilometre solo ride through eight countries of Southeast Asia on a second-hand Russian motorbike, which required seventeen welding repairs before the journey was complete.  What an adventure!  And what acute observations, from the grim description of a headless corpse on Vietnam’s ‘Highway of Death’  to the workshop where he arrives to collect his bike, only to find ‘motorcycle components scattered like spilt beans on the street outside.’  There are nice touches of humour too, like his inscrutably British account of a romantic encounter en route, where, ‘I left Vientiane later than I planned, partly because of the need to get the bike in good order, and partly because of a girl from California.’  He does eventually leave, ‘since the bike would undoubtedly have got jealous if I stayed on.’  Fun, adventure, thoughtfulness, artistry … just some of the ingredients of this beautifully produced celebration of the ‘elemental world’.  The cover price is quite hefty, but, as with most things in life, you gets what you pays for.

 – Stephen Venables, UKC, 2013