with Neil Burnell
England has long been a haven for rich woodlands of oak, birch, hazel, and pine, chronicled in famous stories like Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest or the real-life 11th century king William the Conqueror, who established a “Forest Law” that claimed woodlands as hunting grounds for kings. In the 19th and 20th centuries, native forests were increasingly transformed into pasture for grazing livestock, replaced with modern developments, or re-planted with commercial timber. The remarkable atmosphere of Dartmoor’s forests are captured by Devon-based photographer Neil Burnell (previously), who focuses on the mystical, otherworldly environments through all four seasons.
Burnell was inspired as a child by a visit to Wistman’s Wood, a remote, upland area of old, gnarled oak. “Little was I to know the lasting impression this would leave me with as a young lad, as I find myself re-imagining how I felt, and how I could spread this awe and wonder through my passion for photography,” he explains. Although Dartmoor National Park currently advises that visitors avoid walking through Wistman’s Wood to allow it to heal from damage caused during lockdowns, Burnell’s images offer a glimpse of moss-coated limbs and fern-covered forest floors that seem to freeze time. He also visits dense stands of conifers, with canopies that create dreamlike effects as they block the sunlight from reaching the ground below.
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Devon-based photographer Neil Burnell captures a mossy labyrinth of gnarled roots and twisted branches in a new series that manifests nature’s most fantastical qualities. Mystical exposes the otherworldly elements of Wistman’s Wood, an ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor, Devon, England, while it’s enveloped by a dense fog. The overgrown forest is thought to be the remnants of a similarly wooded area dating back to 7,000 B.C.
Burnell tells Colossal that when he visited the spot as a kid, he was reminded of “the film set of Empire Strikes back in the forest of Dagobah.” The photographer has spent much of his career in graphic design, but after delving into photography more seriously, he returned to the forest to try to capture the mysticism in his cinematic style.
It’s taken four long years of visiting and learning to capture a series I’m truly happy with as compositions can be tricky in such a claustrophobic wood. 90% of the successful images are either shot in the first hour of light or the last hour when the light is really soft. The other key element for a successful session is thick fog…I can count the successful trips over the four years on one hand. Many times I’ve been the conditions just don’t suit for the style I want to achieve.
As climates change around the world, areas like Wistman’s Wood will feel the effects. The photographer says the area requires a balance between being protected from destruction while also being available for human interaction and enjoyment. “Over the four to five years I’ve been photographing, it’s clear to me that the woodland is (at) its most vulnerable in the winter months and particularly after heavy rainfall,” he says. “The harsher weather climate throughout the year really can be damaging…During the past five years, I’m thankful to say I’ve not seen one person who hasn’t been respectful to the woodland.”
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British photographer Neil Burnell captures striking environments void of human subjects, often traveling to remote areas far outside of civilization. His ongoing series Mystical takes a look at the fairytale-like atmosphere created by the thick fog, gnarled trees, and moss-covered stones of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England. This particular wood has long been the subject of folklore and myth, with many writers describing it as the most haunted location in Dartmoor.
Despite the supernatural tales, Burnell is attracted to the atmosphere and photographic challenge of the English forest, and often visits the site at “blue hour” or the hour before the sun rises in the morning. “I have probably visited the woodland around 20 times in the last year, but unfortunately it has only had the required mist on two occasions,” Burnell explains to Colossal. “Photographing it without the mist/fog is a hard task and almost impossible to make images with the atmosphere I am looking for.”
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