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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Sara Wheeler

a polar star

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 07, 2020

Admin Note: one decision to emerge the hand-wringing period I had over this website is that I would close off my non-photography blog, The Evenings Out Here, which was anyway moribund, and publish occasional off-topic posts here. Whatever "off-topic" may mean - since it is all personal anyway, everything is on-topic. So, here is the first "off-topic" post. And a heavily overdue one, at that.


Many, many years, I wandered into Waterstones in Guildford (probably), and noticed a book cover with a bulkily-clad figure kneeling on ice apparently attempting to interview a group of emperor penguins. I bought it immediately. After many moves and changes in my life, this copy of this book is still with me. I've read it more than a few times, and always get lost in its pages. "Terra Incognita", by Sara Wheeler, is a travel book that has spoken to me like no other, and her other books are not far behind. At that time I would certainly have ranked "Foreign Land" and "Coasting" by Jonathan Raban at the same level, but these have faded over time. Terra Incognita shines as bright as ever.

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Pretty much all first person narratives set in Antarctica are written by what Wheeler accurately and amusingly describes as "Frozen Beards". They are about conquest and discovery, and the superficiality of the continent. They are about geography and landscape, and going from here to there (and hopefully back again), generally having the worst possible time while doing so. I find Wheeler's book, instead, to be about a search for a sense of place and belonging. Such a book could very quickly becoming terminally cloying, but not Terra Incognita. It is written in such a captivating, engaging way, and with a very healthy dose of self-deprecation, that the deeper currents only become clear later. Of all the "travel books" (whatever that means), there is none that have stayed so close to me as this one.

The idea of being able to travel around a significant part Antarctica as a writer would problem seem bat-crazy today, never mind 30 years go. That Sara Wheeler managed to do this, fitting in diverse locations in the Ross Sea area, the Pole, the West and East Antarctic ice caps and both ends of the Peninsula is a gold-standard tribute to her ingenuity and persistence. Totalling up the cost to various supporting organisations, agencies and individuals would come to a pretty scary figure, but the result is priceless. Others have said this, as have I, and I'll repeat it again: Terra Incognita is simply the best book ever written about Antarctica. Or to be more precise, about the experience of Antarctica. The only vaguely similar book I am aware of is Jenny Diski's "Skating to Antarctica", but that is a completely, and darker, kettle of fish.

I can't help but empathise with much of Terra Incognita. Antarctic was a huge part of my early adult life. I spent 2 summers there a few years before Sara Wheeler, and while I was there as a salaried scientist, it felt far, far more than going to do a job. The first part of Wheeler's book describe her time largely under the wing of the United States Antarctic Programme, with sorties to Italian and New Zealand bases. Within the narrative are dark hints at what is coming next, her sojourn in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula abetted by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

If ever she was unhappy in the Antarctic, it seems it was during this time. She describes BAS sadly dragging a stifling male-dominated class culture with it, featuring public schoolboy behaviour, a complete ban on expressing any kind of emotion, essentially pretty much what you would find in any wealthy village pub in southeast England. I can corroborate this. Although I had some unforgettable experiences and shared time and tents with some fantastic people, my experience in particular at Rothera base was pretty miserable. And unnecessarily so. My later experience in Antarctica with a haphazard gang of Scandinavians was something of a redemption.

Interestingly, Wheeler's better times with BAS appear to have been spent at the mythical Fossil Bluff, which I never reached, as we had a bit of a prang with our jolly old kite over Palmer Land. However I suspect she would have enjoyed spending a few days out at our happily isolated camp on the Ronne Ice Shelf.

You can reach in and touch the ice, the clear air and the stillness - as well as the storms - in the pages of Terra Incognita. It is multi-levelled narrative, as much about the author as the places, but handled in superbly skilful way.

Much like Terra Incognita, Wheeler's earlier book, "Chile - Travels in a Thin Land" is the kind of book you never want to end. Written about a 6 month wander from one tip of the country to the other - and even beyond - it feels like it distorts time. After (re)reading it over a few days last week, I feel like I had myself spent 6 months in Chile. Personally Chile is a country I came late to, and have only scraped the surface of. We planned to return shortly, but obviously events have put that on hold.

Chile, the book, is another delight. Again, with a light touch, Wheeler pulls you into her explorations, both inner and outer. There is a stronger element of her Christian faith in this book, something that is touched upon in Terra Incognita, but to a lesser extent. Although I don't share her faith, the way she writes about it could make be come to regret this. Clearly it is a source of inner strength and inspiration to her, and I only wish I could feel the same way. And equally clearly it does get in the way of her having a good time!

The final pages of "Travels in a Thin Land" seem to be almost a different world. Wheeler returns from the paradisiacal world of the South to Santiago, and in a very unexpected move veers off to spend 10 days immersed in one of the more deprived parts of the city. Many a writer would have gone into full virtue-signalling here, but not Wheeler. In fact she downplays this part very much, not indulging in explicit social commentary, but the contrast with the (kind of) gringo trail atmosphere of the main body of the book is very striking. As is that with her final few days living in the world of the privileged upper middle classes of Santiago. It is an extremely effective jolt back to reality.

I'd like to spend more time writing about these books, but I'm not very good at writing, and I would only do them a disservice. All I can say is seek them out and read them. They will surely touch your soul. And I would not stop there: her later books, such as "The Magnetic North" (inspired title), set in the Arctic, and "Access All Areas", set pretty much ever, are equally admirable. Actually, thanks to "The Magnetic North", I renewed contact with a companion from my BAS days while travelling around Svalbard. And then there is her latest book, "Mud and Stars", which is sitting a few feet away from waiting to be read.

I feel there could be a sequel to this post in the not too far future!

Links to books:
Chile - Travels in a thin country
Terra Incognita
The Magnetic North
Access All Areas
Mud and stars

There also a couple of videos online of Sara Wheeler giving talks on her writing and travels:

Sara Wheeler @ 5x15
Access All Areas: In Conversation with Sara Wheeler

 

Set in stone. By Me.

self-promotion at its finest

in Book Reviews , Monday, May 11, 2020

It’s been quite a struggle, but finally a few fruits of creativity under lockdown are beginning to emerge. The first, completed a few weeks ago, had to wait for the physical evidence to be announced, and this arrived today.  My “proof” copy of a small Blurb-produced book, which I’ve called “Set In Stone: glimpses of Valle Verzasca” was delivered this morning by UPS, and I’m pleased to say it looks pretty good.

Set in Stone front cover

According to my self-penned, er, blurb:

“South of the Rhone Valley and the Gotthard massif lies the Italian-speaking Swiss Canton of Ticino. And while Ticino certainly has it’s fair share of tall peaks, the highlights, geographically speaking, are to be found in and around a series of glacial valleys descending from the high snowfields, with tumbling rivers feeding into the Maggiore Lake. Any one of these valleys, including the Maggia, Calanca, and the Centovalli, would keep most landscape photographers busy for years, but the jewel in the crown is the Valle Verzasca, through which the river of the same name runs. The Verzasca valley is around 25km long, stretching due south down from the village of Sonogno, through an endless sequence of cascades, rapids and gullies until it reaches the artificial Lake Vogorno. The bedrock of the Verzasca river is mainly gneiss, and over the millennia this has been eroded by the current to reveal fantastic banding and layering patterns in the rock, which in turn has been sculpted into spectacular forms. The transparent dark green and emerald waters and the scattering reflected light from the surrounding forests come together to create countless surreal and unexpected scenes, both wide and intimate. I am fortunate enough to live close enough to the valley to visit pretty much on a whim. The photographs in this small book are gathered from nearly 20 years of such visits. Yet on each visit I discover something new.”

It feels good to have this done. Nobody will buy it of course, but that’s not the point. What matters is that it draws a line under years upon years of seemingly aimless and unstructured photography and ties into a coherent project which I feel pretty satisfied with. Although this location is getting more or more well known, both by general tourists and photographers, to the extent that now (well at least up until current events) it has ended up being a no-go area from May to October, I haven’t seen much in the way of physically published photography from the area.

I have tried to select a format which keeps the price at least manageable. And it actually looks nicer than I expected. For my previous foray into Blurb self-publishing, I chose a what is practically a deluxe hardback format, which really does look nice, but ends up with an absurd price tag.

It would be tempting fate to say that this is the first of a series, but I do have some ideas…

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Undertow, by Frances Scott

tracing the landscape

in Book Reviews , Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Undertow, by Frances Scott, is one of the most recent publications from Iain Sarjeant’s innovative and energetic Another Place Press. Like all of Another Place’s output, “Undertow” is small, beautifully designed and excellent value for money.

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It’s quite difficult to pin a genre on “Undertow”. The closest I can get to is landscape reportage, but that could make it sound superficial, which most certainly is not. On the surface, Undertow is a travelogue of sorts, recording Frances Scott’s tracing of the coastline of her home, Orkney Mainland, an island off the north coast of Scotland.

The sequence of black and white photographs is complemented by spidery traces of GPS tracks of the various coastal walks which join together to circumnavigate the whole island. Along with some of these come captions joining the factual (time spent) with the highly impressionistic, for example “Forty-eight minutes - Wintry waves, small black cat”.

The photography will not win over the classic Wild & Wonderful Landscape Photographer. It surely isn’t meant to. There are some pure landscape scenes, but they share space with whatever else populates the coastline, be it random junk, disused military installations or fragments of wrecks. Personally in a way I wish the photos were colour, not monochrome, but I can also understand why colour would detract from the overall effect.

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I don’t really have the erudition required to place Frances Scott’s work in artistic context, but two fairly random reference points for me which Undertow stands up well against would be Fay Godwin (especially, and obviously “Islands”), and Marco Paoluzzo (for example “Føroyar”).

In the introduction the author concludes with the thought “By walking these coastlines ... I’ve found a new sense of belonging”, which is a feeling I can identify very strongly with.  Personally, having no real roots, I’ve often found meaning in wandering around areas local to where I work and live, gathering together photos and thoughts, building up a narrative for myself. I’ve also at times started to attempt to put these collections into some form of publication, but I’ve never really achieved anything.

“Undertow” is quite charmingly successful at nailing down such a sense of place.

 

Torres del Paine, by Francisco Espíldora

an individual approach

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Whenever I travel, I keep an eye open for books by local photographers, on the grounds that they will almost certainly be full of photos better than I could ever make. Of course there are always garish anthologies of sub-postcard level stuff which manage the near impossible feat of being full of shots even less adequate than mine, but these I skip over.  I’m more interested in the kind of book generally found tucked away in the corners, not those piled high for undiscerning tourists.  Francisco Espíldora’s book, “Torres del Paine” is very clearly in the former category.

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Francisco Espíldora is an award-winning Chilean wildlife photographer. I believe “Torres del Paine” is his first book, and it’s an impressive start. The classification “wildlife photographer” tends to make one think of highly detailed, close up animal portraiture, which is more about technique than expression. That’s not the case here, indeed it’s drastically not so. “Torres del Paine” is a narrative, taken the reader from pre-dawn to dusk in a wintery setting, through photos taken within the national park boundary.  The initial photos are taken in near darkness, with just recognisable animal silhouettes seen in some of them. Stopping to think about it, from a technical point of view these really are quite remarkable, but more to the point they strongly convey a sense of time and place.

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Moving on, light creeps in, and dawn-lit landscapes are mixed in, some with distant wildlife visible, some not. The colour palette is restrained, none of the exuberant saturation that a lot of wildlife, and indeed landscape photography goes in for. In fits in with a certain idea of “film-like”, provided you associate film more with the kind of subdued feel delivered by Fuji Astia, rather than the screaming psychedelia of Velvia. It’s a very appropriate look.

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Further in, the wildlife does take more of a centre stage role, but still very much within or even concealed by the landscape, as opposed to somehow cut out of it.  The narrative moves towards brighter midday and afternoon light, before finally returning to night.

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Overall the book really feels like something much more than just a collection of photos, which is quite unusual in the genre. Francisco Espíldora clearly has a deep feeling for the land, and a story to tell. From a photographical point of view, his approach has some parallels with that of Vincent Munier, but without the extreme minimalism Munier tends towards (sometimes too much, for my tastes), or the impressionistic approach of Stanley Leroux, while remaining very individual.

I’m hardly an authority on wildlife photography, or indeed any kind of photography (or anything else, to be honest), but my feeling is that Francisco Espíldora is on a path to becoming a leading contemporary wildlife photographer.  I strongly recommend this book, which you can buy directly here, and look forward to seeing more of his work.

 

Glacier, by Ragnar Axelsson

ice age

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, January 30, 2019

“Glacier” is the title of what must be the magnum opus of Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson, also known as Rax. Previously his published photography has been more orientated towards environmental portraiture and reportage, through acclaimed books such as “Faces of the North” and “Last Days of the Arctic”, but “Glacier” is pure landscape. It isn’t picture postcard landscape though - far from it. Glacier is a vast collection of aerial photography of Iceland’s ice fields.

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For the greater part the photography discards any sense of scale and proportion, and presents a near abstract, otherworldly view. Photographing in black and white further removes any easy connection to reality, and emphasises even further the quite unbelievable forms shaped by the forces on the ice. The net effect is captivating. Far from being a set of exercises in graphic composition, the emotional impact is remarkable, encompassing everything from fascination to - in the case of some of the volcano shots - terror.

In much of his previous work, Rax did not seem to place an undue emphasis on technical quality, at least not to the extent of discarding photos for purely technical reasons, but here, the precision and clarity is impressive, and indeed important. The fact that as far as I know most were taken from a pretty unstable light aircraft makes them all the more impressive.

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That it is aerial photography may put some off, but this is emphatically not some “Iceland viewed from the sky” kitsch. It is more like a distant relative of Edward Burtynsky’s work, and equally affecting.

Obviously I highly recommend losing yourself in “Glacier” for a few hours. It is one of the best photobooks I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. But I am going to leave off with a minor rant:

Clearly there is an environmental message as well as an aesthetic dimension underlying “Glacier”. I have absolutely no problem with that. But then, why deliver the book wrapped up in a pointless plastic wrapper, with a plastic “Glacier” sticker attached to it, both of which need to be ripped off and thrown away ? Yes, it protects the integrity of the (gorgeous) design concept, but in doing so it totally undermines the message. I am so, so fed up of the torrents of plastic running through this and every household every day. I appreciate it isn’t easy to find a solution, but if it was easy, we wouldn’t have such a major problem. Did the idea of recyclable paper outer wrapper occur to the book designer, I wonder ?

 

 

 
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