Blackrock Cottage: Photographic Paintings vs Abstract Paintings

Blackrock Cottage

Blackrock Cottage is such an iconic building that if you do a Google search for ‘highland cottage’ then it is likely to appear in the first couple of pages of images.

If you then search ‘Blackrock Cottage’ specifically you get page after page of images, all of the same cottage, and all virtually identical in terms of layout, framing etc.

I’m not a photographer so I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘perfect’ photograph of this type of scenery, but I imagine that if it was possible to take, say, one hundred images of the same scene and order a computer to deliver an ‘average’, it would closely resemble the image shown in the video.

Blackrock Remembered 

Memory vs Reality

It is certainly a remarkable setting. The dramatic backdrop of Buchaille Etive Mor (‘The Big Shepherd’) almost guarantees an interesting view, and those familiar with the territory will also be aware of the stark difference between Rannoch Moor and Glencoe – from boggy, windswept, dangerous wilderness to the plunging, winding road.

A solitary image cannot capture the broader environment, but it can hint at it, acting as a reminder for those who have walked and/or climbed in the area.

Aleatory View of the Landscape surrounding Blackrock cottage

The cottage is owned by the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club and is available for hire to accredited parties of walkers/climbers - it would be interesting to know precisely ‘how’ the thousands of people who have stayed in the cottage actually ‘remember’ the place.

It is a safe bet that a relatively small percentage of them will ever have captured the kind of photographs we see in the image search online. Much more likely (especially if they visited in the winter months) are memories of mist, rain, midges, gloom, damp, mud, wind, snow, ice and everything else the Scottish weather has to offer!  (It is not an exaggeration to propose that many of the visitors to Blackrock Cottage will have gone there, stayed, and left again without seeing Buchaille Etive Mor at all.)

Real-life Abstract 

That iconic image does represent Blackrock Cottage, yes, but only a very specific aspect of it, in a variety of seasons and weather conditions - what they all have in common is that visibility is good and the building can be viewed from a relatively short distance.

The lived experience of those who know these elevated, isolated places is very different and cannot easily be explained to town-dwellers such as myself. Most of us never spend any significant time *in* these landscapes as opposed to merely viewing them.

Robert Mcfarlane and Blackrock Cottage

Consider this passage by Robert Macfarlane, from the introduction  to Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’ (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2011, p xxi):

Those who have travelled in high mountains or to the poles are likely to be familiar with the white-out: the point at which snow, cloud and blizzard combine such that the world dissolves into a single pallor. Scale and distance become impossible to discern. There are no shadows or waymarks. Space is depthless. Even gravity’s hold feels loosened: slope and fall-lines can only be inferred by the tilt of blood in the skull.

Bearing this kind of description in mind, it is easier to imagine how some so-called ‘abstract’ paintings may, in actual fact, be much more representational than even the most detailed ‘realistic’ images.

Representational vs Represented

The difference between the representational and ‘represented’ takes on different magnitudes if the viewer is prepared to accept the vast array of techniques now available to the artist to convey his/her experience.

Consider again the search results for ‘Blackrock Cottage’ if viewed in ‘images’ – there are literally hundreds of them: photographs, paintings, pastel drawings, time-exposure photographs, filtered photos, and a relatively small percentage of more expressionistic pieces where, for example, the dimensions of the cottage itself may be exaggerated and/or distorted for effect. This recalls another passage from the same Macfarlane essay:

In one amazing passage about illusions, Shepherd describes looking from a distance at a stone barn on a humid day. The moist air acts as a lens, multiplying and redistributing her sightlines, so that she seems to view all sides of the barn simultaneously. (p.xxiii)

Conclusion - Perceptual Illusion 

One does not have to be an art expert to recognise that what is being described here is, in effect, a ‘way of looking’ which had already been explored via Cubism and produced some of the most controversial work of the twentieth century.

But what Shepherd is attempting to capture, in words, is more to do with meteorological phenomena than art philosophy – she is providing actual ‘proof’ that so-called ‘normal’ sight is itself an illusion and cannot be trusted as much as we perhaps would like. (Anyone who would like a chilling horror story based on similarly mysterious effects of light may wish to find out about another Highland resident called The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui!) Again and again, as with de Stael, Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists and so many other ‘schools’ of artists, the constant problem of representation which simultaneously reminds the viewer that s/he is participating in illusion comes to the fore.