Splitting the Slate: Exploring North Wales with the X-Pro1

Wales, especially Snowdonia, is a special place for me. My mother was born in Llanberis and grew up amongst the glorious expanse of mountains and landscapes, until economic survival forced her family into the industrial heartlands of England, hundreds of miles east. 

During my childhood, each summer we would return to Llanberis and the surrounding areas. The landscape and the mythology became ingrained in my very being; each time I return it feels like a homecoming. Even now, if my Taid's (Welsh for Grandad) name is mentioned, it is instantly recognised and greeted with smiles and stories from the locals, a testament to a man who died some 30 years ago.

My mum during dinner at The Royal Victoria Hotel. Shot with the Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/1.6. ISO200. 1/1500.

This year, for the first time since I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to visit with my mum, making this excursion even more memorable. We stayed in The Royal Victoria Hotel which sits at the foot of Snowdon and was the scene of many a family wedding. The faded glory of this landmark is reminiscent of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. The stairs creek as you succumb to the complicated corridors filled with cupboards and crevices, romanticised by my own childhood memories. 

Having my mum with me and experiencing the connection to the land and my heritage inspired me to think outside of my usual photography comfort zone and explore with the Fujfilm X-Pro1, especially as grey cloud colluded with the sky to hide the sun behind it's jealous density. 

I've been having a lot of fun experimenting with long exposures using the 18mm f/2 and B+W 52mm +10 Stop ND filter. I was kindly advised by Dan to purchase Nikon AR-3 Shutter Release Cable which works perfectly, and I picked up a Manfrotto Pixi to ensure my kit was a light as possible. The results have been continuously enjoyable (although my knees are not overly happy with all the crouching down).

Dinas Dinlle - X-Pro1 + 18mm f/2 & B+W 110 ND Filter @ f/16. ISO200. 3.2 second exposure.

The beach at Dinas Dinlle was my playground as a child. Predominantly full of pebbles with only a small sandy section, it's expanse was perfect for me, the adventurer, always drawn to the vastness of the sea and the historical surroundings (it was once an Iron Age fort, a third of which as now been reclaimed by the relentless waves). I would scramble out across the rocks and survey my watery kingdom, imagining what lay beyond.

Dinas Dinelle - X-Pro1 + 18mm f/2 & B+W 110 ND Filter @ f/16. ISO200. 3.5 second exposure. Converted into monochrome in Lightroom.

The tide was coming in which allowed me to capture some of the fast moving waves in motion. In the image above I'm particularly fond of the impending wave caught mid flow, suspended just prior to the rush. In the monochrome shot, the peppered sky fanned out across the horizon mirroring the coastline below, symmetry in nature.

The weather in North Wales can be unpredictable, but I often find that once you put distance between yourself and the mountains of Snowdonia, there is a high chance of finding a break in the cloud. With this in mind we heading towards Trwyn Du Lighthouse situated on Anglesey. As we drove through the picturesque town of Beaumaris, and up towards Penmon, the cloud began to shift, and the sun illuminated the lighthouse, alleviating the eeriness of the bell that regularly tolls from it's top, echoing out over the Menai Strait. 

Penmon Point, Anglesey - X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/8. ISO200. 1/850

Trwyn Du Lighthouse, Anglesey - X-Pro1 + 18mm f/2 & B&W 110 ND Filter @ f/16. ISO400. 6.5 second exposure.

The shoreline was busy with fellow photographers and walkers alike, all enjoying the brief warmth of the sun as the cloud once again began to reclaim the sky. I slid out onto the rocks for the shot to the right. Not my favourite of this structure, but I like the still, deep rock pool in the foreground contrasting with the sweep of the sea behind. The land to the right of the lighthouse is Puffin Island, somewhere I would love to visit soon.

Back on the mainland, Llanberis was the destination for Dinorwic Quarry, one of the largest in the world. The blasted scars of the surrounding landscape are still visible, creating pools of deep water, still and quiet, revealing none of the danger and difficulties faced by the quarrymen long since gone. Remnants from that era are visible everywhere, like the rusted wagon suspended above Vivian quarry, reflected in the calm water below.

Vivian quarry, part of Dinorwic Quarry in Llanberis, North Wales. X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4  @ f/16. ISO200. 1/10.

My Taid was a quarryman until he moved from Llanberis. The connection I felt to him as I wondered through the ruins of this once stalwart industry was intensely tangible. He would have walked the paths I walked, felt the breeze that I felt, lamented the cloud the same way I do. He was a skilled slate splitter, and this talent took him all around the country to exhibitions.

The National Slate Museum situated on the site of the quarry offer demonstrations of slate splitting, so I was able to gain some insight to the practise. Afterwards I spoke to the gentleman, who had been a quarryman himself and he let me take some photos of him during the process.

I'm not particularly brave when it comes to pushing the ISO on the X-Pro1, probably because I have been spoiled by a full frame Canon sensor that shows little noise, even over ISO1000, and I'm always aware that this just isn't achievable on a cropped sensor yet. Still, I happily pushed it up around 500 for the image below and used my trusty XF35mm f/1.4 to capture this dying art. At ISO500 there's virtually no noise, and although I've pushed to ISO1200 previously, this encourages me to go further and relent in my obsession with noise.

Slate splitting at the National Slate Museum. X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4. ISO500. 1/140.

Slate splitting at the National Slate Museum. X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4. ISO500. 1/50

National Slate Museum. X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/2.2. ISO200. 1/60.

The journeys that take us back through not only our past, but through our history tend to have a huge impact on how we conceptualised our identity. Although brief, my existence has been split from the slate and crafted in what it is today. It's a privilege to photograph these places, experiences, coastlines and memories, moulding the old with the new. My craft used to document the craft of my forefathers, the playgrounds of my youth.

Throughout these explorations, there's something about the X-Pro1 that makes me want to shoot with it, that feels less like it's just a means to an end, but more an extension of my intentions, coupled with both our imperfections. We're working together in a collaboration, exploring these moments and these memories; a companion who shares in the sentimentality. Each scuff and shot is another piece collected, place explored, hope ignited in this vast puzzle of existence. 

Stacks of slate at the National Slate Museum. X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/2.2. ISO200. 1/110.

Stacks of slate at the National Slate Museum. X-Pro1 + XF 35mm f/1.4 @ f/2.2. ISO200. 1/110.