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BOOKS: Hampstead Heath - London's city countryside

BOOKS: Hampstead Heath - London's city countryside

Published: 17 June, 2016
by DAN CARRIER

IT has been an unconventional journey for photographer Matthew Maran (pictured, below). He has gone from capturing bears in Alaska and big cats in Kenya in his lens to ducks on Highgate ponds – and the result is a stunning four-year photographic study of the life and times of Hampstead Heath.

 Matthew Maran

The book, called Hampstead Heath: London’s Countryside, is published this week and Matthew has drawn on nearly two decades of experience shooting in wildernesses to bring alive nature on our doorsteps. 

“In the beginning it was a bit odd,” he admits. “I had been shooting bears, eagles, primates around the world and now I was looking at pigeons and squirrels. But I then saw the kestrels and this beautiful bird of prey has made the Heath its home. Watching it above fields with London in the background was lovely.”

His study tracks the seasons, the wildlife, the trees and people who wander over the 790-acre common land. “I wanted to do something locally and photograph something that was on my doorstep,” he says. “There are seven million visitors to the Heath each year and I really wanted to tap in to that.”

Matthew was first introduced to the thrills of photography by a babysitter who had a darkroom. “I saw her develop prints and I was immediately hooked,” he recalls. After taking GCSE and A-level photography he studied at the London College of Printing and then decided he wanted to take up wildlife photography full time. “I loved wildlife as a child– I was brought up watching things like Big Cat Diary, the BBC wildlife shows, David Attenborough. I wanted to go and travel.”

After finishing his degree, he and a friend bought a Land Rover, drove it to Marseille and then shipped it to Kenya. They spent a year driving through African National Parks and Matthew took hundreds of pictures on route. He was hooked. “When I got home, I worked as a landscape gardener and saved up the money so I could then take off again and do more travelling. I wanted to go anywhere where there were amazing concentrations of large carnivores,” he says. “I went to North and South America and South-east Asia. I loved the lifestyle.”

But he was always drawn back to Hampstead Heath. “I would always come home from a trip and head to the Heath while I was in London, to help me keep my eye in. And this Heath project is a home coming for me.” 

Despite the Heath being a free and common land, it was a grey area as to whether he could simply turn up and start snapping. 

“The biggest hurdle was actually getting the City’s permission [Heath mangers The City of London],” he says. “I had to convince them. I could have just turned up and done it, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed the project as much. I asked them to give me some support and they did – I was allowed in special areas and I drew on the expertise of the staff who work on he Heath.”

Matthew began by photographing some of the magnificent trees. And for someone who has clung to the side of small boats scudding through the north Pacific to catch shots of whales, shooting in woods posed a new set of challenges.  

“You hope for an overcast day so the light is uniform,” he says. “Under woodland canopy a cloudy day it is always best. In the sunlight it is very mottled, for a picture it can distracting.”

Such studies made him look at the landscape in a new way. “I thought I knew the Heath very well, but when you are photographing it forces you to look harder,” he says. “It means going off the beaten path to areas even the most ardent Heath-goer won’t immed­iately know about.”

He was given access to the bird sanctuary on the Highgate pond chain. Drawing on his experi­ence of photographing larger animals in foreign climes, he built a hide near a bank that was known for kingfishers.

“I put up some camouflage netting. The trick is to then leave it for two weeks so the animals become used top it. I cut two holes in it and you push two plastic bottles through the holes. They mimic a camera lens. Animals aren’t stupid – if they see two lenses suddenly poking out, they’ll notice it and say ‘what’s going on here?’”

And he was rewarded.

“When you go in a hide, you think you have to be patient – but within five minutes a kingfisher sat on a branch near me with a fish in its beak. I felt a bit of a fraud. People usually wait for weeks to get that type of shot.”

But there is one aspect of the Heath that has been on everyone’s mind that doesn’t feature in his magnificent book. Matthew has avoided taking images of the controversial dam project that has been going on around him. “I am not a photo­journalist,” he says. “A lot of people said I should cover it but this was about celebrating the wildlife we share the Heath with.”

• Hampstead Heath, London’s Countryside. By Matthew Maran. Hemi­sphere Publishing, £30. matthewmaran.com/

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