California blues in the grey blur of London

My name is Heather McCutcheon, I was born in 1994 in North London and I am currently based in a little fixer-upper house in Hertfordshire. I live opposite a river and from my window I have seen as many as 39 Canadian Geese at once on the banks! I’m able to go for long walks along the canals and the surrounding forests, and the town itself has been occupied since the Mesolithic period. After growing up in North London I had really fallen out of love with the city and I haven’t been able to reconnect since moving away to Canterbury for university in 2012.

London was making me feel anxious and uninspired, as if I had become too familiar with it during my childhood.

London was making me feel anxious and uninspired, as if I had become too familiar with it during my childhood. I found I was treating it as dull grey blur when I passed through, not really looking at anything around me. I was unhappy when I wasn’t close to nature too, and as a result I didn’t shoot much at all. When I travel out of London I am free of these stresses. As I explore a new landscape, the magical moments I photograph become clearer for me because I treat them as precious, seeing and capturing them in an instant. Hertfordshire has provided me with a whole new perspective, I see beautiful misty sunrises over the river and one mile down the road I can feed carrots to the horses in the fields, and I try to carry my camera with me wherever I go.

I make a living by selling vintage home-wares in an Etsy shop called Forest Falls Vintage and I take as many photography jobs that come my way. By also working a part time retail job I am able to save up as much as I can for a year full of travelling with my partner. Travel is something that drives my day to day living and becomes a continual motivation for working the mundane. I have learnt independence and confidence through travelling alone and I have strengthened relationships travelling with loved ones. It has made me always appreciate other cultures and lifestyles, and has made me fall deeply in love with the natural world.

I am passionate about living simply, and I dream of homesteading and a life on the road. One day I would like to build a log cabin and grow my own vegetables, somewhere in the Californian woods. My partner and I have watched documentaries and read books on alternative living and have sketched out different ways of living self-sufficiently such as considering different ways of natural heating and questioning how many goats to own. I’ve always thought there has been more to life than collecting material objects; to do things a little differently would I’d hope eradicate the inanity of an “ordinary life”? To live in an ecologically positive way, surrounded  by nature, creating and repurposing my way towards independent living is something I would be very proud of.

I’ve always thought there has been more to life than collecting material objects; to do things a little differently would I’d hope eradicate the inanity of an “ordinary life”?

I believe that the production of a photograph relies on the ‘moment’ of exposure; to capture emotion, instant and memory in a single moment in time. This moment is ephemeral, but through photography it is given the privilege of immortality, preserving it in the films negative. I try to photograph these natural and honest moments in my life before they quickly pass by, using only analogue format and without digital manipulation so as not remove the artefact too far from the ‘moment’.

I think there is something beautiful about having a single moment in time physically caught in the celluloid of the film. There is something far more precious in the delicate frame than a digital file. I have to send off my colour film for processing, but whenever I can I love to work in the darkroom to develop my own black and white film. If there is magic in taking the photograph, there is something otherworldly about seeing your images appear in the chemical trays. Unfortunately now that I’ve graduated and left university I don’t have free access to a darkroom, but building an underground studio is definitely part of my homesteading dream.

I believe photographs are important as physical objects as much so as visual ones. A photograph must be handled delicately so as not to smudge the surface, or tear the paper, or cut your fingers along the edges, and each image rouses in me nostalgia for the moment I have captured. The entire process is for me like a ritual I get to perform whenever I shoot.

These images were taken during the four months I spent living in San Diego. My university offered a study abroad program in North America and I was accepted to San Diego State University wherever I studied Literature and taught free poetry workshops to underserved youth communities. It was the longest time and the furthest distance I had been away from my loved ones, which in the end allowed me to find the confidence and independence I needed to rouse in myself.

With these photos I’m always reminded of the sunsets at Torrey Pines playing on the ocean, the golden rocks and the pine trees. I found in my loneliness a comfort in staring out at the water, sometimes golden from the sunset, sometimes rough with greying blues, imagining my loved ones across the horizon and feeling connected.

As I look through these images I remember the feeling of standing at the top of Cowles Mountain, of Mount Woodson and looking out at the panoramic views of the desert after hiking with my friends. I can relive the hot summer walks around Balboa Park and seeking shade under the palms. Horseback riding in the mountains of Julian and seeing the sun set between the trees. I’ve captured moments from our road trip through Laguna and Newport up to Santa Barbara, where we saw starfish under the pier.

On the journey back to SD we took the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu and Los Angeles and saw the sunset at Venice Beach. I finished my last roll of film in San Diego, just before it was time to come home. The California blues of the sea were being pulled away from me, and the grey water was setting in, readying me for England, and it was hard to say goodbye.

As I think of my last moments on the West Coast the sound of The Grateful Dead plays in my head, ‘such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there’.

Words and imaged by Heather McCutcheon