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In the Frame: Croagh Patrick’s Best-Kept Secrets



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It’s an increasingly rare thing these days to see a photographer spending day after day in the same place, shooting scene after scene in dedicated pursuit of that elusive perfect image.

In an era when pretty vistas are snapped on smartphones with breezy abandon and filters applied with the tap of a finger, taking time to wait for nature to deliver a fleeting moment of pure beauty can seem like a dying art form indeed.

 
  • The shape of the mountain really just stood out to me as being this perfect, ideal view of a mountain.
 

But head out walking along the periphery of Lough Lannagh, at the edge of Castlebar town in County Mayo, and you’re likely to find a man keeping the spirit of the photographic moment alive. At a bend in the lakeshore where the view across the water toward Croagh Patrick is clearest, visual artist David Smith sets up his tripod and waits for the Wild Atlantic Way to work its magic.

 
 

“There’s a unique quality of light, air and space that we have in abundance along the west of Ireland,” Smith says. “(It’s) basically a living, breathing watercolour painting.”

 

Smith, a Castlebar native who recently returned to Ireland after more than a decade in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, set to work on his latest project, 100 Views of the Reek, in 2016 after glimpsing a particularly alluring view of Croagh Patrick while out for a walk in the region.

“It was one of those ridiculously clear days – almost the kind of day that never happens in the west of Ireland, like crystal,” he recounts. “The shape of the mountain really just stood out to me as being this perfect, ideal view of a mountain.” Flawlessly mirrored in the lake, Croagh Patrick cut a stunning figure in Smith’s frame, so he seized the moment, snapped the shot, and, unbeknownst to him at the time, set in motion a chain of events that would lead to one of the most unique photographic projects to ever take place on the Wild Atlantic Way.
 

DEPICTING THE DIVINE

Croagh Patrick, or Cruach Phádraig (meaning Patrick's Stack), is a quartzite reek rising 764m above the bay-edged woodland landscape of County Mayo, not far from Westport. The third-highest mountain in its county, it’s an impressive sight, but equally as impressive is its place in Irish spirituality, folklore and ritual.

 
  • There’s a lot associated with it - pilgrimage, religion... There were all those questions of how to treat this properly.
 

Some say its bulk is laced with millions of euro worth of gold. Others say people have been journeying to the mountain since before Christianity took hold in these parts. Whatever the case, its significance can’t be overstated. “It’s a cultural centrepoint for Mayo and the west,” Smith points out. “There’s a lot associated with it - pilgrimage, religion...it wasn’t just a case of ‘oh, that’s pretty, I’ll shoot that’. There were all those questions of how to treat this properly.”
 

 

A NEW LIGHT

Holy mountains have been depicted in art down through the ages, perhaps most iconically in the work of Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, whose illustrated woodblock series 36 Views of Mt. Fuji famously depicts the Shintoist sacred spot in various seasons and weather conditions.

For Smith, a painter by trade, putting Croagh Patrick at the heart of his own project was a decision born not only of a desire to honour the mountain’s palpable draw but also to capture the essence of what, for him, is the Wild Atlantic Way’s most exceptional asset – the one that brought him back to the region after 11 years and continues to shroud “our Mount Fuji” in ever more captivating ways.

“You really just appreciate the air here, and the light – the whole thing. Hong Kong, characterised by dense spaces, towering skyscrapers, intensity and a very different climate and type of light posed a challenge for someone involved with painting landscape and trying to depict particular aspects of the natural world – in particular a sense of transience, light and change. The light (there) is much more static and doesn’t change with the frequency of Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

 
 

“Purely from an art point of view I need to be fed nature. I just enjoy seeing the ever-changing weather play around (Croagh Patrick’s) triangular peak.”

 

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME

It wasn’t intended to be a project,” Smith says of 100 Views of the Reek, the two-year project, now about halfway through, that aims to capture the most ethereal images of the mountain possible. “But the fact that I kept coming back to the same spot seven, eight, nine, ten times, and was starting to gather a little collection of images made me begin to see this as a potential project.”

 
 
David Smith, Visual Artist
 

“It’s very influenced by visual arts and by painting and art history and ‘the painter’s eye’, if you will,” he explains. “I didn’t want these to be just pretty images, I wanted each one to have a painterly quality to it; to be interesting and related in some way to how painting works.”

“It’s a combination of visual elements that collide in a unique way that I’m looking for,” he goes on, “whether it’s (the) soft feathered edges of a rain shower, or a heavy band of clouds that create a kind of brush-like gesture through the sky. In 100 Views, the visual anchor is a fixed viewpoint: the symmetrical mountain shape; a central strip of land within a square format. With this in mind, it really becomes a study of colour, contrast, weather, light and time.”

Time, it turns out, is a photographer’s best ally out here – the key to witnessing those once-in-a-lifetime moments where light and colour come together to create something truly special. For Smith, it’s the essential element that allows him to push the limits of what photography can reveal and capture breathtaking new views of the old mountain from moment to moment.

 
  • I wanted each one to have a painterly quality to it; to be interesting and related in some way to how painting works.
 

“I’ve got two years of images, covering each season twice,” he says. “The fact that the light is the way it is there means that each time you go it’s never going to be the same. It does change so violently often, it’s almost ridiculous.”

“You know the way they say we have forty shades of green in Ireland?” chuckles Smith. “I think I only have one shot that actually shows that sort of vivid green. The rest are far more interesting, to me, showing very surprising ranges of greys, golds, blues and browns – colours that you wouldn’t normally expect or associate with the west.”

He pauses. “There is so much more rich colour here than marketing would have us believe.”

If you have an eye for photography, art or nature, this is one project you should be following. Check out 100 Views of the Reek on Instagram, learn more about Croagh Patrick here, or plan your own photographic holiday on the Wild Atlantic Way.

 
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