Revealed: Ambitious project to photograph every square kilometre of Yorkshire Dales National Park

Low Row, Swaledale, by Sylvia Slavin.
Low Row, Swaledale, by Sylvia Slavin.
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Tom Marsh sometimes goes by another name. Owing to his choice of headwear when he leads groups on photographic walks around the county, he has become known as the Flat Capped Photographer and the nickname also reflects his love of the county where he was born and bred. He’s been photographing the place for years, but having just completed an 18-month project to capture every square kilometre of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, he now knows it even better.

Tom Marsh sometimes goes by another name. Owing to his choice of headwear when he leads groups on photographic walks around the county, he has become known as the Flat Capped Photographer and the nickname also reflects his love of the county where he was born and bred. He’s been photographing the place for years, but having just completed an 18-month project to capture every square kilometre of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, he now knows it even better.

Tom Marsh who founded the Dales Photographic Project.

Tom Marsh who founded the Dales Photographic Project.

“I used to be a website designer, but I gave it up to follow my first love which is landscape photography,” he says. “However, all those days I spent sitting behind a desk have come in useful for this project. When I had the idea to photograph the Dales using Ordnance Survey grid points as the blueprint I knew that it would be impossible to display all the images in one gallery, but I also knew that it would be easy to create a virtual gallery online.”

Aware that it would take him years to complete on his own, Tom, who has exhibited work in London and his home city of Leeds, decided to marshal an army of volunteer photographers who could share the load.

“I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but I put a few call-outs in newspapers and on social media and almost straight away people were getting in touch saying they wanted to help.

“From the start, I was keen that we had a real mix of people from all ages and backgrounds and including both amateurs and professionals.”

In the end, 120 photographers took part and having signed up to cover one of the 134 areas, each covering around 16 sq km, the brief Tom gave his volunteer squad was simple. “The only absolute was that they had take their photographs on, or as close to as possible, each point at which the OS map grid lines intersect within a designated area.

“I didn’t tell them what month of the year I wanted the image of what they should focus on when they got there. All photographers had complete creative licence to capture their personal interpretation of an area that is close to their heart using whatever photographic medium they saw fit.

“Before they had signed up I had asked everyone interested to email an example of their work. I knew they could all take a great photography and that coupled with a real enthusiasm for the project was all that they really needed.”

Since early last year photographers, armed with OS maps, have been popping up in remote locations and each had their own routine.

“Everywhere I went I would do a 360-degree rotation and tried to take a view north, south, east and west,” says Peter Kerr, a retired town and country planner and keen amateur photographer who took on six locations. “The National Park is obviously beautiful, but I thought it was important that I didn’t shy away from capturing the corners which aren’t so picture postcard.

“In one area I turned up to find a great big quarry. I could have turned the lens in another direction, but this project was about showing the Dales in its entirety and to me that meant capturing the different sides to the place.

“It did feel like a privilege. I live in Baildon and over the years I have spent a lot of time in the Dales, but this took me to some places like Foxup in Littondale which I had never been to before.”

A selection of the photographs will be on display at the Yoredale National Park Centre in Bainbridge during August and September, but the full collection will be available to view online permanently.

“I thought it was important that once you had been given an area that you went back at different times of the year because it’s only then that you build up a proper picture of that spot,” says Alice Cummings, who bagged the grid above Malham, which was already one of her favourite parts of the Dales.

Together, the images will take viewers on a photographic tour of the National Park, leading them from the tourist hubs to the most remote corners of the Dales.

“There are some really popular spots in the Yorkshire Dales,” says Sara Spillett, who really got to know the area by being a mountain rescue volunteer and began her photographic journey in Kettlewell. “But you don’t have to go very far off the tourist track to find yourself alone and in the middle of nowhere and that’s what I really love about it.

“However, while I thought I knew the area quite well, taking part in this project made me look at it totally differently. I would navigate to the exact spot on the map and then I would look for the less obvious photograph.

“The Yorkshire Dales has so many impressive landmarks, like Kilnsey Crag and Malham Cove, but the more I looked at the landscape, the more I realised that a section of dry stone wall was just as interesting.

“What’s really good about this project is that it is has given us a baseline. There is a tendency to think that places like the Dales don’t change, but they do. They change every month, every year and this bank of images will allow us to chart that change.

“There have been major photographic projects before where members of the public have been asked to send in images of the Dales, but often they become overwhelming, with thousands of pictures of the same places.”

Tom reckons that the photographic odyssey has produced around 5,000 images and, while he was very much the brains behind the project, he did also find time to get out with his own camera.

“I headed to Burnsall because that’s always been one of my favourite spots. I grew up in Leeds and as a family we spent a lot of time there and so it has lots of great memories.

“Wherever you are in the Dales, what you notice is just how great the light is. Everywhere you turn there is an amazing scene and having collated these images it makes you realise even more how lucky we are to have this landscape on our doorstep.”

The Dales Photographic Grid Project exhibition opens at the Yoredale National Park Centre in Bainbridge on Tuesday.

To view the archive, which will be launched on the same day, go to yorkshirephotowalks.com/yorkshiredalesgridproject/