Photographer Bernie Brown talks to Joanne Savage about capturing the landscape and mood of Strangford Lough with her wily lens
Strangford Lough takes its name from the Old Norse appellation meaning 'strong fjord', in recognition of its fast-flowing narrows. In Irish it was known as Lough Cuan, meaning ‘calm lough’.
It has this tension of momentum and stillness. Days pass when the waters are still and tranquil, a shimmering mirror of the sky. On other days the fast tidal flow of the island-studded Lough takes hold.
Common seals, basking sharks, Brent Geese and cormorants converge there. The hues of light move from metallic greys to laundry white to luminous pinks at sunset. This is, at least, the idyllic vision captured in photographer Bernie Brown’s latest exhibition.
The Life of the Lough is a paean to the beauty of Strangford, switching from landscapes to portraits of local people caught against the backdrop of the waters or in their everyday milieu.
'My love is landscape, wildlife, the environment,' says Bernie, a former news photographer who has turned her long lens to more artistic imagery.
'The Arts Council commissioned me to capture the life of Strangford Lough and so I set out to try and photograph the heart of the place. The life of the area is summed up not just in the landscape and the wildlife, but also, of course, by the men and women who live and work there, boatmen, fishermen, farmers, the people working in the newsagents, a lady in her seventies who does tap dancing who I photographed on the shore, the musicians…all of that.'
There are photographs of sky meeting lough at sun down and in moonlight, of Scrabo in snow and Inch Abbey in sunlight. One captures a farmer with a calf licking his face and another a fisherman holding a lobster up to the foreground. It is an idealised, wholesome vision of the Lough.
Bernie is a nature-lover in the romantic sense:
'My favourite thing is to take pictures of landscapes without telephone-poles, houses or anything that shows man has lived there. The best thing is focusing on the beauty of the untouched land, getting you back to the purity and rawness of nature. For me it’s about capturing the quietness of a landscape, time standing still.'
In one of the photographs a red tractor appears to be rolling along on the surface of the Lough. It seems supernatural, but is, of course, just a trickery of the light.
When the tide is at the right level, the causeway is hidden behind the blue water, making it seem from the other side, as though the machinery is suspended on the surface. It’s compelling for the way it underlines how the eye can be deceived by the light or the magic conjured by the angle of a photographer’s beady lens.
'Photography like that is all about being there at the right moment, catching something before the light or water-level changes,' says Bernie. 'There is always an element of chance in getting the right picture.'
They say the camera never lies, but of course, it filters and makes static the movements of life. In that sense it can deceive beautifully and apotheosise the banality of the real, transforming land or figure until they acquire altered, immortal form.
The camera captures the moment, the fleeting gesture, and freezes it. It can make some rare purple orchids in Strangford or an elderly woman tap-dancing on the shore become symbols of the mood of a whole place, vignettes that acquire unexpected resonance and meaning.
'Every single photograph that a photographer takes says something about them as a person,' observes Bernie.
'In that sense part of you determines the final image. It’s subjective. But what makes a great photograph? That depends on the viewer and what appeals to them. You won’t find a photograph that appeals to everyone. Other than that, I don’t know, I let my camera do my talking for me.'
And of Strangford, its particular light and mood, her camera speaks eloquently.
The Life of the Lough by Bernie Brown runs at Exploris, Portaferry until June 27. To view the exhibition online visit www.berniebrown.biz.