Lancaster University: Leading University scientist publishes magical images of water

A leading Lancaster University hydrologist has published a book of his photographs ‘capturing the wonderful natural dynamics of water’ to raise funds for Water Aid.

Professor Professor Beven FRS, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, is one of the world’s most highly cited hydrologist who specialises in measuring and modelling how water moves through the landscape. He is an expert in the uncertainties involved in predicting anything from flooding and rainfall run-off to water quality and the movement of sediment. But for Professor Beven, water is not just a scientific obsession, he is also fascinated by photographing the interplay of water, movement and light and the effects of water in carving and shaping the landscape.

‘One of the fascinating aspects of hydrology as a research area is the sheer impossibility of capturing the wonderful natural dynamics of water flows without ambiguity by approximate mathematical means,” says Professor Beven.

Photography offers him a means to capture that movement. ‘In taking an image you are stilling those dynamics, you can look at what is going on, the textures, the way in which light gets concentrated and you have time to look at it to appreciate the colours, and patterns and textures. Painters and video makers find it very difficult to capture water really successfully exactly because it is always moving – somehow it can be appreciated more deeply by having a still image.”

Professor Beven, a self-taught photographer, started taking photos as a teenager on a ‘very wet’ family holiday in the Lake District, which also stimulated his interest in the movement and force of water.

He started to take photography more seriously 25 years ago on upgrading to a medium format film camera and has since photographed his favourite subject as he travelled the world carrying out his hydrological research and presenting at conferences. But one of his favourite subjects is still the River Eden, 100 metres away from his home in the Cumbrian hamlet of Outhgill in the ‘magical’ Mallerstang Valley, just inside the Westmorland Dales, part of the Yorkshire Dales National park. His new book, The Still Dynamic, is a collection of his favourite photographs.

Professor Beven, the author of ten scientific books, has published The Still Dynamic through a small publishing house, Mallerstang Magic Press, which he helped to set up. The photographs are mostly abstract, showing close up detail of moving water, alongside some larger landscapes and a section showing the marks made by water in the past. “In the images I have wanted to show the life and intrinsic beauty of water flows in a realistic way, while recognising the approximate manner in which we can represent the dynamics in a still image. The challenge is for it to be still dynamic,” Professor Beven explains.

Professor Beven is donating the proceeds to Water Aid, a charity he has long supported which works to bring clean water, decent toilets and better hygiene to some of the billions of people who lack proper sanitation.

“Water is an increasingly important issue with climate change, particularly in the developing world. With covid it has become clear that little priority is given to the developing world, but the same has been true for water for many years.”

Professor Beven hopes that the book will appeal both to hydrologists and to people interested in abstract art and photography and that it will encourage people to value water more highly. The photographer, Paul Kenny, wrote the forward to the book. He is long term contact of Professor Beven’s, who spent a year as an artist in residence at the Lancaster Environment Centre, where Professor Beven has worked for 35 years.

Paul writes: “I was mainly struck by the similarities between artistic and scientific approaches to the environment, not the differences. I saw recently a quote by Grayson Perry: ‘it’s an artist’s job to notice things.’ It is also a scientist’s job to notice things and the job of both to present the conclusions of their investigations in their unique way.

“I think Keith’s photography is …a recognition that alongside the science there needs to be an acknowledgement of that which cannot be easily quantified or measured but has equal importance if the world around us is to be understood.”

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