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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.

Titkonene1

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.

Titkonene2

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:

Avannaa 001
Avannaa 002
Avannaa 003
 

A couple of books…

black, and white

in Book Reviews , Monday, March 23, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, it was my birthday. It all rather got lost in the noise of a family crisis, but when I finally got home it was both to an oasis of tranquility, and a pile of presents from my dearly beloved, which included two rather wonderful books, which she had cunningly noticed me drooling over in a bookshop in Milan a while ago.

Nick Brandt‘s work doesn’t really need much introduction. There are plenty of reviews all over the web-O-sphere, many gushing over the fabulous print and image quality. Well, that’s all true enough, but what really sets this book apart from me is the sense of absolute furious, controlled rage which drives it. The anger at the catastrophic decimation of Africa’s megafauna, driven mainly by the inability of wealthy, elderly chinese men to get an erection. The fury at the barbarity and wretched inhumanity of the poachers, but always balanced by a clear understand of the socio-economic factors at play.

However, Nick Brandt has done something about. He’s been instrumental in setting up the Big Life Foundation, channeling funds to help set up an effective anti-poaching wildlife protection zone. My impression is the unlike so many such initiatives, this one does not go around preaching outside values, but rather enables local organisations and individuals to reclaim their natural heritage. I’m certainly going to be a regular contributor.

Let none of this detract from the photography though. It is impressive, eloquent and extremely moving. And yeah, awesome image quality.

Well, having got that off my chest, it’s time to cool down, and what better introduction to the second of these two books, “Behind The Mountains” by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson. Rax’s reputation as a documenter of nordic life is very well established, and this collection, illustrating and storytelling the summer’s end round up of sheep allowed to roam in the unreal, alien landscapes of the Icelandic highlands is up with his best work.

The photographic style is a little different from “Faces of the North” or “Last Days of the Arctic”, with a lot of motion blur and unusual angles. This is very effective though in communication the rush and confusion both of the round up and the often raw weather. The bool also starts off with some quite surprisingly uncharacteristic colour landscapes, setting the scene. These are very dark and moody, not much like the general approach to the rhyolite vistas of the Landmannaafréttur region. It would be interesting to see more of these.

The photos are woven in with tales from and about the stockmen working these regions. They’re evocative, often funny, and at same time elegiac. While nowhere near the catastrophe exposed by Nick Brandt, Rax is also documenting a way of life which has lasted maybe 1000 years, but is clearly close to an end. In Iceland people are rapidly retreating to the towns and cities, leaving the rugged countryside to tourists, adventurers and photo workshops. I wonder how sustainable that’s going to turn out to be, even in the medium term?

Both books are available at The Book Repository, by the way, and they take considerably more care with them than Amazon in my experience.

 

If I could see the sky above…

...and my mind could be set free

in Photography , Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sometimes, it takes a while for things to sink in. I’ve been vaguely aware of the “other kind” of landscape photography for a while, and of the whole “New Topographics” thing. I didn’t get it. On superficial browsing, all I could see where apparently involving photos of bland subjects, often totally violating the Rules I read about in glossy magazines and on self-proclaimed Fine Art websites. They were a million miles away from the sweet, sugary hit of Velvia-fuelled landscape photography, but little did I realise they were a million miles in the right direction.

A turning point was my discovery of the work of Stuart Klipper, a photographer who is perhaps not quite within the same school, but who has a lot of intersection points.  I recognised in his work something which I was trying to get to myself, albeit mainly unconsciously. Another key moment was reading the collected essays of Frank Gohlke, and finding not the dry academic I expected, but an erudite, entertaining, inspiring and very human voice. It seemed a bit absurd to read about photography I wasn’t looking at, so I went ahead and ordered the anthology of his work, “Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke” . And for good measure, I also bought Stephen Shore‘s “Uncommon Places”, which I’ve been scared to approach for ages, although I greatly enjoyed his book, “The Nature of Photographs”.

Gohlke

Shore uncommon

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to write about either book. Endless essays and theses have been written about both photographers. I have neither the art education nor the breadth of expression necessary to add to these. But I will say that I am enormously impressed by both sets of work. They are quite distinct, although roughly ploughing the same furrows. I think it would help anybody who fails to understand what a photographic style is to study these books. If you allow it to, the photography reaches very deeply. Precisely because the subjects generally lack any kind of “wow” effect, the only thing going on is the photographer’s expression of an exploration of visual space. I think it is as pointless to try to connect to some other form of expression: another case of dancing about architecture. A photograph can communicate without any support or form of explanation, much as music, or poetry, or other art forms can in their own domain. And both of these photographers communicate beautifully.

Of course there is a lingering suspicion that this is academic, University Professor stuff, with a pinch of Emperor’s clothing, and quite possibly really actually is just dull photos of boring places. Well, perhaps generically there is some truth in that, bit in these two books I’m finding a great deal more honesty and genuine inspiration than in the gobbledygook of the weekend warrior self-nominated Fine Art Landscape Photographers with their Mystic Visions, Golden Light and Artist’s Statements, their Buy my Prints, Take My Workshops and all the rest of the Canikon-fuelled bollocks. And I haven’t got the faintest idea what camera Stephen Shore or Frank Gohlke use.

Personally this is helping me to get a grasp on the look that I aspire to, futile as it may be, somewhere on the knife edge between the “topographics feel” and mainstream landscape. The emotionally detached, neutral, challengingly bland tone of the Dusseldorf school is a step too far for me. I can understand or even appreciate it intellectually, but I’m not an intellectual photographer. Then again, maybe it’s just another step I need to take. But apart from all that, these two books are an absolute must for anybody really wanting to take off the water wings and explore the wider world of photography. Oh, and they’re both absolute bargains.

 

Land | Sea

It’s Landscape, Jim…

in Book Reviews , Monday, December 22, 2014

My published photographic output has been decreasing a lot recently. I’m continuing to lose interest in my own output, a trend which has been ongoing for a least a few years. On the other hand my interest in other people’s photography remains high, and there are a few books and other publications I’ve discovered over the past few months which deserve an overdue mention.

Towards the very top of the list is the high-end periodical “Land|Sea”, published by Triple Kite in association with OnLandscape. The first (and I really hope not the last) issue features in-depth interviews and portfolios from a series of artists nominally working in the Landscape area, but who’s output diverges significantly from the standard long exposure crowd-pleasing beach+rocky headland+castle+sunset bilge. Throughout the pages there lies ample proof that there is at least as much scope to be creative in landscape photography as to be a copyist.

Landsea


The first issue features Joe Wright, Valda Bailey, Al Brydon, Giles McGarry, Finn Hopson and Paul Kenny. There’s plenty of variety but the quality is constantly high. The scope is very inclusive, ranging from (fairly) straight landscape, to abstract, to urban landscape and much else. The publication quality is sumptuous, beautifully printed on heavy grade paper, and the writing, typography and layout are of a very high standard. The online magazine OnLandscape has featured some very accomplished photographers and sets the bar high - Land|Sea carries on the tradition in print.

Personally I find printed photography much more involving than viewing on a screen, even when the screen is high quality. For me, layout and space contributes a lot to the experience, and being able to sit back and enjoy such a high quality (and ad-free) print experience easily beats squinting at my iPad.

Apart from Land|Sea, Triple Kite publishes equally high quality monographs from a range of photographers, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing about a few of these in the near-ish future.In the meantime, if you’re at all into quality photography, you deserve to buy yourself a copy of Issue 1 of Land|Sea as a New Year present!

Land | Sea is a courageous initiative from Triplekite Publishing, leaving behind the safe waters of so much landscape publishing and making a very strong claim to entrance in the “art photography” market. Given the “pretty pictures” baggage that goes with the general view of landscape photography - notwithstanding Gursky, Burtynsky, Lik (er, sorry?) et al, - it’s quite a tall order to gain any traction, but I certainly wish Land | Sea a long and successful life.

 

Xavier Roy

Mais ou est Brigitte Bardot??

in Book Reviews , Monday, July 07, 2014

Over the years, a late spring long weekend on French Mediterranean coast, specifically in or around St Tropez, has become something of a tradition. Although I’m not that much into the boutique shopping, or gawping at the ultra-rich (well probably mid-high net worth actually) individuals with their floating gin palaces and Bentleys and whatever, it’s no great hardship. The beach is relaxing, the food is good, and the surroundings are gorgeous. Usually, during the shopping breaks, I manage to sneak off and indulge in a little photography. I very quickly got bored of “street” photography, the denizens of “Saint-Trop” are rarely photogenic to my mind, but instead I like trying to find hints of the past quiet, isolated fishing village, away from the glitz, the painfully bohemian and the tourist tat. So this year, I was delighted to come across an exhibition by French travel-street photographer, Xavier Roy, who’s book “L’Autre Saint Tropez” I had read about. The exhibition was a more general sample of his travel photography, with some local stuff mixed in, and it kept me entertained for quite a while. I was also able to buy one of the last copies of his St Tropez book, and get to chat with him and get my book signed. I came out with a grin plastered all over my face.

Xavier Roy: L'Autre Saint Tropez

Xavier Roy’s photography is film based, black and white, and quite timeless. His style is subtle and the delicacy of his compositions takes a while to sink in. I mentioned to him that I thought it was quite a challenge to peel away the superficial in Saint Tropez, which he agreed with. Some of the most successful images in his book make use of off-season fog to soften the ambience, but others revel in the harsh summer light. Others in turn are quite abstract, in particular a set of dense, blurry, disorientated grainy views over the bay at dusk, which to me very effectively communicate the torpid, quiet Mediterranean heat.

© Xavier Roy, click to visit gallery

© Xavier Roy, click to visit gallery

There are many more facets to the collection, much of which is included in Roy’s web galleries. They’re well worth a visit if you’re into this kind of contemplative street / travel. Actually I would say his style is better deployed on the photos he shows from his travels to Asia and especially Latin America.

Anecdotally, I was particularly struck by the cover photo. It’s not a million miles away from something I attempted two years ago, but without the distant figure which makes all the difference between expression and technique. Never too late to learn I guess - and I’m sure I’ll get the opportunity to try again next year.

Drm 2013 06 01 EP33368

 

 

 

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