Photographing the Wind

From the Mistral series, Photo: Rachel Cobb

Due to Corona social distancing measures, I spend most of my time at home in front of the screen. I’m used to working like this anyway and I must admit that I enjoy being confined at home. The world slowed down obviously. Fewer calls, fewer emails meaning more time to focus on personal stuff that was always lingering before.

Although I’m fine with spending time at home, I realize that there are a few things that I am longing for. The absence of the horizon line is one of them, the other one is the wind. Together with my wife, we occasionally make short walks to the large churchyard near our house, once or twice a week. When we step outside the house, the first thing I realize is the gentle breeze on our mask covered faces. I had never realized how blissful might an actual wind sweeping one’s face may be. Even though we keep most of the windows open at the house, the wind is not something we feel in our small terraced house flat in London.

A video clip I had made for my wife during a windy day in 2015 summer. 

I think the absence of anything makes it more valuable. I like the wind and now I’m lacking it. It’s an invisible feature of nature that tickles our senses. It may be a cool gentle breeze stroking our skin, or an almighty icy gust that forces our muscles.

As an architectural photographer, I tend to focus on buildings, the masses and voids in the built environment. I also enjoy being in nature. I was always wondering how it might be possible to capture the wind. The invisibility of it makes it intriguing for me as a photographic object. Obviously, as a wind-lover architect, I’m attracted to windmills. They are fascinating structures no matter how old or new technologies they use. The historic ones in Iran’s Khorasan district are nearly a thousand years old and they are as interesting as the offshore high-tech mega wind farms. If I were asked to photograph the wind, windmills would spring to my mind first.

In the village of Nashtifan, Iran, with what may be the earliest windmills in the world, still spin.
Turbines off the coast of North Lincolnshire, England. Photograph- David Sillitoe

Still, neither of these two pictures or any other windmill photographs actually captures the essence of the wind. The structures are the subjects but not the wind. It’s hard to visualise the quality of wind by looking at these images. Maybe, artists are more capable of depicting it rather than photographers. After all, a painter is free to modify and exaggerate the actual conditions. An artist may even add a few more trees to the canvas to amplify the effects of the wind.

Summer – Claude Monet

Yet, in all wind-related paintings, the main subject seems to be not the wind but rather the scene; either the bent trees, a large meadow with wavy grass or the breaking waves on a shore with a ship struggling further away.  While appreciating the sublime aesthetics of the scene, it is hard to feel the wind in these paintings. Though, maybe I should exclude my favourite artist, Andrew Wyeth from this bitter criticism. Although he focuses only on fishing nets or curtains that float gracefully in the wind, we feel the light breeze literally coming from us in the paintings.

In photography, a reversed umbrella or blown away skirts or hairs are favourite subjects of street photographers to reflect the power of wind on film or sensor. However, it’s actually very hard to capture the essence of the wind properly unless you are not recording a video.

Waves beating up the shore in Istanbul during a Lodos (powerful south winds) storm.
(Photo: Omer Kanipak)

Luckily, I came across photographer Rachel Cobb’s Mistral seriesLiving in Provence lets Cobb observe the powerful winds of France’s Rhône Valley in her life. Her photos are subtle yet striking enough to transmit the feeling of powerful winds to the viewer. She delightfully captures the invisible wind by turning her lens to people, animals and plants for over 20 years. The frames are not scenic but that’s what makes her images sincere and engaging. Her approach differs from the conventional way of capturing wind in a frame. My favourite one is the one she photographed the narrowed eyes of a horse resisting against the wind.

Rachel Cobb’s Mistral series had been exhibited in several galleries and published as a book.

“The mistral is not just a weather phenomenon: it is an integral part of the fabric of Provençal life impacting its architecture, agriculture, landscape and culture. Houses have few or no windows on the northwest, windward side and the main entrance on the southern, sheltered side.  Rows of trees lining fields create windbreaks to shield crops. Artists have long been drawn to the area for the clear skies that follow a mistral. Nobody who lives or spends time in the region can escape the mistral. It is everywhere yet nowhere to be seen. How do you photograph the wind?” Excerpt from the book, Mistral.