A mes­sage from the wilder­ness


Sunday Herald Life - - LIFE FEATURE -

IN the age of digital com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the hum­ble post box can seem quaintly an­ti­quated in a con­tem­po­rary ur­ban set­ting. But it’s worth remembering that at one time, these ob­jects – first in­tro­duced to the UK in 1852 (in Jer­sey) – were em­blem­atic of a com­mu­ni­ca­tions rev­o­lu­tion. For re­mote com­mu­ni­ties, they of­fered a life­line – even if their bright red pres­ence must have ap­peared oth­er­worldly in their ru­ral set­tings.

Even to­day, those boldly coloured re­cep­ta­cles can look strangely at odds with the wilder­ness that sur­rounds them, as these strik­ing images by Martin Parr con­firm. The cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­pher’s work to date has fo­cused on mod­ern life among the var­i­ous so­cial classes of Eng­land and across the Western world. Early this cen­tury, how­ever, he be­gan a unique doc­u­men­tary project whose re­sults are about to be pub­lished in a new book, Re­mote Scot­tish Post­boxes. His first ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, it in­cludes pho­to­graphs taken be­tween 2004 and 2010 on the Scot­tish main­land, and on the is­lands of Orkney, Shet­land, Barra, Lewis and Is­lay.

Dur­ing their trav­els in Scot­land, the pho­tog­ra­pher and his wife, the au­thor Susie Parr, stopped to take pic­tures of the lo­cal Royal Mail post­boxes. Of­ten they would re­visit re­mote out­posts, go­ing miles out of their way so that Parr could cap­ture the post­boxes at a par­tic­u­lar time of day to take ad­van­tage of the best light.

Through Parr’s pho­to­graphs, these iso­lated, red out­posts of civil­i­sa­tion each take on a char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity of their own, set against the lonely yet beau­ti­ful ru­ral back­drop.

Ahead of the book’s launch, we pub­lish a se­lec­tion of those evoca­tive images, along with the fol­low­ing unique in­sight into Parr’s doc­u­men­tary process, as writ­ten by Susie Parr.


BE­ING driven by Martin can be a very nerve-wrack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – he is al­ways look­ing about, spot­ting things to pho­to­graph: a front gar­den, a shop win­dow, a pile of home-grown veg­eta­bles for sale by the side of the road.

When we lived in Ire­land, it was Mor­ris Mi­nors. Back then, peo­ple didn’t trade in their old cars or take them to the scrap­yard; they let them rust away in situ or some­times found a use for them in the form of a hen coop, stor­age for an­i­mal feed, a com­post heap. Martin be­came ob­sessed with spot­ting aban­doned Mor­ris Mi­nors – scarcely recog­nis­able shapes moul­der­ing away in the mid­dle of fields, un­der hedges, be­side barns. We would be driv­ing along and he would sud­denly jam on the brakes, leap out, climb over a wall and start tak­ing photos while I waited in the car. He was al­ways obliv­i­ous to the as­ton­ish­ment of passers-by.

I was re­minded of those days when he be­gan pho­tograph­ing post boxes in re­mote parts of Scot­land. It would be the ex­act same thing: driv­ing hap­pily along, screech­ing to a halt, then a pe­riod of time spent look­ing for the best an­gle for the pho­to­graph, while I drummed my fin­gers. Once he had worked out when the light would be right there was usu­ally an­other phase of ac­tiv­ity. So we would of­ten have to de­vi­ate from our planned route, some­times by miles, in or­der to get back to a par­tic­u­lar post box at the right time of day, or in per­fect weather con­di­tions. We spent many hol­i­days ex­plor­ing out­ly­ing Scot­tish is­lands and the far north-western reaches of the main­land. Orkney, Shet­land, Barra, Lewis, Is­lay ... all these places have their unique char­ac­ter and distinc­tive beauty, as well as pre­dictably un­pre­dictable weather. Driv­ing along, mile af­ter mile, I would be hap­pily look­ing out for ot­ters and eagles, while Martin would be hop­ing to add to his col­lec­tion of post boxes. Luck­ily, in these re­mote spots there was usu­ally not much traf­fic, so when he spot­ted a likely can­di­date com­ing up he gen­er­ally man­aged to stop safely.

On the Scot­tish is­lands, or in re­mote parts of the main­land, a bright day can make the colours of the land­scape al­most un­be­liev­ably in­tense: yel­low, pink, mauve, green and turquoise, glow­ing and iri­des­cent. But when the clouds roll up, the mists de­scend, and the light dims, colours soften and dull.

Bravely gleam­ing out against this ev­er­chang­ing back­drop, the bright red of the post boxes is al­ways the same: a cheery re­minder of the red sweater that was al­ways present in a John Hinde land­scape post­card, placed as a foil to the more sub­tle shades of the nat­u­ral world.

When you are in the mid­dle of nowhere, in a bleak land­scape and in wild weather, these lit­tle post boxes are strangely com­fort­ing, a sign that other peo­ple are around, that life is go­ing on, and that you are con­nected to the world.

Re­mote Scot­tish Post­boxes by Martin Parr is pub­lished on Oc­to­ber 30 by RRB Pho­to­books. It will be avail­able from www.rrbpho­to­books.com as well as on­line book­sell­ers such as Ama­zon and se­lected book­shops

Pho­to­graphs: Martin Parr/Mag­num

From left to right: Tiree, In­ner He­brides; The Isle of Coll, In­ner He­brides; East Yell, Isle of Yell, Shet­land Is­lands

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