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Primavere Toscane

publishing empire launches today!

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, May 06, 2015

I have an announcement to make: I’ve finally managed to complete a project, and have self-published my first book, on Blurb.

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Still in the plastic wrapper

To be honest, “Primavere Toscane” is a very personal project, and was partly a kind of dry run, in advance of several other ideas I have in mind. It is a slim volume, weighing in at a mere 40 pages. Here’s what I have to say about it:

For over a decade, every springtime has been marked for me by a short visit to an area of Tuscany, just south of the city of Siena. This book is a distillation of hundreds of photos taken over these years, in the same places, and the same time of year.

Hundreds, if not thousands of photo books celebrating Tuscany have been published. The landscape, the towns and cities, the people, the culture, the food, even are richly visual and deeply attractive to photographers. Many of these are strongly biased towards the misty, early morning light, to the classic vistas across the Val d’Orcia, and the golden light illuminating the farmhouses and rolling hills. Certainly I’ve been drawn to these too, and this book does contain a few examples of such scenes. But more and more I’ve been attracted to the stronger, even harsh full daylight, which we landscape photographers are told to avoid. The problem with the morning light, apart from the fact that early morning in Tuscany is usually painfully early in late springtime, is that it ends up showing a very romanticised view, representing only one aspect of the complex character of the region.

I’m certainly not going to claim to do any better at representing all facets of Tuscany, or even the small area within which these photographs are taken, but I do hope to show a personal interpretation rather than replicating the work of celebrated authors.

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I decided to go the full DIY route, creating the layout in InDesign, and preparing the photos myself. For creating the layout, I used JPG proxy images, and then created exact size CMYK versions, sharpened at the output size. It was a lot of work, but the results are good. I chose a hardback format, and heavier Proline paper. Two things came out of that: 40 pages is barely enough to fill out a hardback format, and the Proline paper is nice, but has a degree of print-through, which surprises me. Only a little,but still. For subsequent printing I think I’d select Proline coated. The selection of paper stock is a bit of a pain with Blurb, and they could make it easier. For example, I have a couple of Blurb books by other authors, but I have no way of telling which stock they are printed on. But generally, the Blurb experience is great, apart from one eye-watering detail: the prices. They’re just way too high.

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The photography in the book is a mixture of “normal” and panoramic frames, and was edited down from about 700 shots. It is roughly divided into thematic sections, but these are not labelled. I’ve set it so you can flick through the whole thing on the Blurb site, using their preview tool.

If you get a chance to have a look at the preview, I’d love to hear what you think. I may create a PDF version for download sometime, but that will require a completely revised layout. Blurb’s “auto PDF” generator produces truly abysmal results.

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Wow. I’m a (self) published author now!

 

Avannaa by Tiina Itkonen

book of the year (so far!)

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, April 22, 2015

This is a book review I’ve spent longer than usual thinking about. I’ve wanted to get it out there, but at the same time not rush it, because the subject really is something quite special. And I’ve been busy with a lot of other stuff so finding time hasn’t been easy.  The subject is Tiina Itkonen’s book, Avannaa, for which I was pleased to be able to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign.

Avannaa

Avannaa is subtitled “Photographs of Greenlandic Landscapes”, but it is much more than that. It is an expression of one person’s discovery and connection with a faraway world that most of us can only dream of. And unlike so much landscape photography, especially that in the polar latitudes, which largely consists of trophy hunting, this is the product of a long term, deep relationship with both the natural and human landscapes. Added to that, Tiina Itkonen as a photographer has a delicate, precise touch which brings alive the subject matter, and communicates her passion for Greenland, without falling into the trap of the over-processed, superficial quick thrill effects which are so commonplace these days. 

These photographs are clearly born from patient observation, of clicking the shutter only when the moment demands it, rather than from rushing around snapping everything in sight and hoping that something can be made of it all later. They have plenty to say, but prefer to say it quietly. The strong visual and thematic coherence add to the sense of depth and meaning.

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Uummannaq II, Greenland 2007 © Tiina Itkonen

You can dwell over the landscapes in Avannaa without them grabbing you by the throat. Every new visit reveals something else, and serves to increase appreciation for the photographer’s talent. This is not the kind of photography which is going to appear on the front page of “Awesome Digital SLR Photography Monthly”, or gain 1000+ faves on 500px, but it could well grace the walls of art photography lovers, which is probably why Itkonen is better known in the art photography world, with serious gallery representation, than in the camera buying world.  Indeed, there is not one word about cameras or technology in either Avannaa or the earlier Inghuit.  Having said that, the technical quality of the photography is flawless. As a large proportion of the photography is in panoramic format, with a ratio of 3:1, and has a very film-like palette, with remarkable detail, one could guess at the use of 6x17 camera. But it really doesn’t matter.

It takes a lot of dedication to complete a body of work such as this. Greenland, although reasonably accessible these days, is still a remote a difficult place to get to grips with. Many people would consider a quick summer flight to Nuuk, or even Kulusuk, as epic enough, but reaching the communities of the north-west coast, and living amongst them not only in summer, but also in winter, and repeating the experience time and again, well this ventures well into the territory of obsession.

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Masaitsiaq 1998 © Tiina Itkonen

In her earlier work, Inughuit, Itknonen focused on the Greenlandic people, mainly through intimate portraits of daily life. In Avannaa the people are still there, but the landscape now takes centre stage. However, you still get the strong feeling that the landscape is shaped and given meaning by the people who live in it.  This is the big difference between the High Arctic and the Antarctic. The Antarctic really is an alien place, survivable only in artificial circumstances.  But the High Arctic, as terrifying as it may seem to a comfortable West European, is and has been home to many, many generations, and these people have given the landscape life through myth, legend, and everyday life. The landscape and it’s inhabitants are closely intertwined, and removing one or the other from any photographic representation removes the magic.

If I had to find something to criticise, it would only be a slight regret that the format isn’t a little bigger, so that the panoramic frames do not have to run across two pages. But the economics of book publishing these days probably push that kind of luxury out of the bounds of reason.

I guess you can tell I like this book. I’m looking forward to Tiina Itkonen’s next works. You can - and should - buy Avannaa here.

A couple of shots of the book, to give a general idea:

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Tiina Itkonen Greenland book

A deserving cause

in Book Reviews , Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A little while ago I wrote about Tiina Itkonen’s Greenland photography.  Well, a few days ago I received an email from her announcing a crowdfunding campign to publish a book, “AVANNAA – PHOTOGRAPHY BOOK OF GREENLAND´S LANDSCAPE”.

Currently 22 funders have raised €1570. Basically funding equates to a pledge to buy the book. A pledge of €115 additionally gets you a copy of Tiina’s earlier, sold out book, “Inughuit”. Also on offer are limited edition prints.

Seems a pretty good cause to me.

 

 

 

Iceland Within

Impressions of Bruce Percy’s new book

in Book Reviews , Monday, November 12, 2012

I didn’t think I really needed any more Iceland photography books. I’ve got quite a lot, in all shapes and sizes. Some are excellent, some so-so, a couple are outstanding and one or two are crap. But altogether they add up to a lot. Or indeed too many.

lots of iceland books

Rather too much of a good thing?

So, when I first heard that Bruce Percy’s second book was to be about Iceland, I was perhaps a little underwhelmed. But eventually, for various reasons, I decided to order it, and it arrived a few days ago. Now, this is absolutely not a review. Bruce has stated that he doesn’t like reading reviews, and I’m not much good at writing them. But this book, “Iceland - a Journal of Nocturnes” makes me want to write about it. It’s a bit like that feeling you got as a teenager when you discovered a new band, that you wanted to keep to yourself, but tell everybody about at the same time. This book is like that. First of all, it’s not just a book of photos. It’s a work of art in its own right. Beautifully presented, with every detail obviously obsessed over, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to find wrapped around a David Sylvian CD. The typography alone is worth the price of entry. An astonishing number of photographers show absolutely zero design skills, or taste. Bruce Percy is not among that number.

The photography is masterful and close to unique. I’ll admit I’d got a bit jaded with Bruce’s long-exposure style, finding it all a little repetitive. But that was from looking at small JPGs on the web. Here, in print, all together and given space to breathe these photos come alive. Many people, starting with Michael Kenna of course, have done the low-light long-exposure thing. But Bruce adds his own character, and in particular an extremely delicate sensibility for colour to the mix, and avoids the heavy-handedness and sterility which so many Kenna copyists suffer from.

Iceland is a magnet for photographers, and these days is heavily over-exposed. As a source of dramatic, contrasty, saturated landscapes it’s pretty much endless. Point, shoot wind up the contrast to drama+11 in Photoshop, post it on Flickr and wait for the “great capture” comments to come flooding in. Well you won’t find any such great captures here. There is plenty of drama, and indeed contrast, but it is subtle, controlled, and feels part of the scene rather than plastered on top. Perhaps because Bruce works exclusively with colour slide film, a restricted and unforgiving medium which offers little scope for Photoshopping, the natural ambience doesn’t get suffocated, and a realistic luminosity pervades.

The cornerstone of this book, though, is a few hundred meters of black sand beach, where the outlet from the Jökulsarlon flows into the Atlantic. Although many thousands of photographers have visited this area, Bruce has captured - and seemingly been captured by - it’s soul. My reading is that this beach is in some way his muse. In a collection of photographs totally devoid of any sign of life or human intervention, these lonely scattered ice fragments are recomposed into living sculptures. I was very prepared to just shrug my shoulders and think “same old”, but I was very wrong. In fact I find the rest of the photos, to one degree or another, rather incidental in this context, and I keep coming back to the beach.


What I see here is not a book of landscape photographs, but a book which obliquely reveals something of the photographer. That’s pretty common in other areas, such as street or reportage, but not in landscape, where we tend to go for the pretty picture and the quick win. This book shows how a collection of work can be much stronger than a set of random images. Iceland is the stage, not the subject.

I didn’t need another book about Iceland. But I did need this.

 

Rauðisandur, by Rut Hallgrímsdóttir

Another Iceland book review

in Book Reviews , Saturday, March 10, 2012

My bookshelves currently feature 16 books of Icelandic photography. I guess one way of describing that is “enough”. Another might be “obsession”. So much, that I decided that on my most recent trip to Iceland that I would not be buying any more. Absolutely none. That didn’t turn out so well…

I could claim that “Last Days of the Arctic” by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson doesn’t count, because (a) it isn’t about Iceland as such, and (b) I bought it from Amazon because it was too heavy to carry. Not to mention costing half the price. Then again I did order it whilst in Iceland. Let’s say it’s a borderline case.

However, for “Rauðisandur”, by Rut Hallgrímsdóttir, I have no such excuse. I was snagged by it at the deadly trap of the Eymundsson bookstore at Keflavik airport, and with a few thousand kronur left in my pocket it was a foregone conclusion.

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So why did I fall for it ? Well, “Rauðisandur” is different. So far, a very large majority of Iceland landscape photo books are generic. Basically they take the wide view, and take you all around the island. Different photographers have different approaches, but by and large they’re still working in the first generation of “serious” icelandic landscape photography books, which as far as I can tell only really got going around the start of the century. It’s a young market, and although it is beginning to mature, I’d say it isn’t saturated - yet. But it’s edging that way. So, it was interesting to see what could be a precursor of the next stage, a book with taking a deeper approach to a (much) smaller area.

This has been done before, in a way, but more as hybrid trail guide / photo books, such as Daniel Bergmann’s “Skaftafell National Park”, and even that seems to be a rare exception.

As far as I can tell, Rut Hallgrímsdóttir is a professional photographer living and working in Reykjavik, specialising in formal portraiture, so this is not a typical project from her. Rauðisandur, an area in the extreme West of Iceland, on the South-Western edge of the Westfjords, is an area she discovered through her husband. It’s an area well known for its vast, sweeping sandy beaches, a bit reminiscent of the Irish northwest coast, but little visited due to being really well off the beaten track.

Although it has a rich and fascinating past, Rauðisandur is largely deserted these days. The (relatively) rich farming lands are not much of an attraction compared to the (ahem) riches of Reykjavik, and the old farms are derelict and fading. This is the natural and human landscape that Rut sets out to capture, and in my opinion she does it very well.

To be clear, this is not classic landscape photography. While there are some decent shots in the book, and some of the seascapes are excellent, they’re not really in tune with the modern landscape ethos. Indeed, I get the feeling that more than a few were shot quite some time ago ... on film!! There are no technical details in the book, not that I care at all, so I’m just guessing. What the photography does do very well though is to convey an intimate connection with this small, faraway - but still quite awe-inspiring - corner of Iceland. The commentary is full of fascinating anecdotes, and spent ages getting drawn into the stories about the farm at Vellir, and the photos of the surrounding landscape.

The book also include a nice section at the end on the area’s history by local expert Ari Ívarsson.

The photography is largely split between wide angle landscape vistas and semi-abstract close-up rock, wave and beach details. Again, it’s a combination that works well in conveying a sense of closeness to the land, and the more abstract work adds a considerable touch of artistic weight to the book, which otherwise might end feeling a bit bland. It’s through these abstractions that I feel we get a glimpse of Rut’s true skill as a photographer. It would be interesting to see more of these.

I guess “Rauðisandur” isn’t going to win any major prizes: it’s not that kind of book. But in its own quiet way it’s a very interesting and worthwhile book, which might leave a more lasting impression than just getting Lost in Iceland.

As far as I can tell, you can buy “Rauðisandur” directly from from Rut Hallgrímsdóttir’s website. I guess you could also order it from Eymundsson. It doesn’t appear to be on Amazon :-)

APOLOGY: The following shots are, I’m afraid, very poor quality. I’m not really set up for product shots (i.e too lazy too bother…). But they should give a rough idea of the book’s direction.

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