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Antarktis, by Gerry Johansson

the great white beyond

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A few weeks ago I made a serious recurrent mistake: I read the regular newsletter sent out by the magnificent Beyond Words photobook retailer. Somehow or the other I ended up discovering “Antarktis”, by Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson, and immediately ordered it.

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I was not familiar with Gerry Johansson’s work. His website follows the standard Serious Artiste template, a minimalist white design devoid of any personality, with small type, a list of works and exhibits, no sense of engagement and of course the de-rigeur obtuse method for navigating image galleries - if indeed you can find the image galleries, they’re well hidden.  This of course opposed to Fine Art Photographer template which was copied from Squarespace and features a blog talking about Gear, along with photos of said Photog taken 20 years ago (I leave it to you to decide which category this website falls into).  Anyway, I’ve got sidetracked again, but this po-faced white websites are really starting to irritate me.

Having said all that, it is worth finding your way through Johansson’s website, because there is some seriously good work there. I have a feeling I’ve read about his “American Winter” book, it looks very tempting.

Back to “Antarktis”: in the foreword, Thorbjörn Andersson says “...his way of blending foreground and background makes the picture both a representative subject and a structure”. Also, the description at Beyond Words states “The series of photos eventuate in an unusual reality relevant perspective, and capture the astonishing non-distance relationship between physicality and nature”.  This isn’t hyperbole, it is absolutely accurate. These days the expectations of photography in Antarctica are of spectacular mountains, icebergs, treating skies, deep blue seas, and of course penguins. Johansson, thanks a grant from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, was able to venture into inland Antarctica, which has none of these things.

I’ve had the good fortune also to have travelled in inland Antarctica, and the sense of disorientation from a landscape with no familiar frame of reference, very little colour, and very few mid-tones, is extremely well captured in this photography. Some frames triggered such a sense of recognition of that strange ambience that it actually made me shiver.

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The photography is black and white, taken with a large format 8x10 camera, which in itself cannot have made life easy. One might expect a certain nod in the direction of polar photography pioneers like Ponting, but instead the approach is thoroughly modern. The standout impression is how in using architectural photography practises Johansson has been able to capture the complete loss of perspective which one often suffers from in this territory.

It might all sound very cold, in all senses of the word, but in fact it is far from that. Antarktis tells it as it is, no HDR, no contrast or saturation boost, but rather letting the utter strangeness of Antarctica speak for itself.

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You can buy Antarktis from Beyond Words, with whom I have absolutely no affiliation other than that of a very satisfied (and over-frequent) customer.

 

Four books

Photography where it belongs

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I acquired four new photobooks over the Christmas period - 2 gifts and 2 gifted to myself. I’ve decided to bunch quick reviews of all four together here, because otherwise I’ll never cover all four.

four books

A Beautiful Silence - Steve Gosling

A Beautiful Silence is a collection of photographs taken over 3 weeks by Steve Gosling as part of the staff on a photographic cruise to the South Atlantic and Antarctic Peninsula. It reads much like a visual travel diary, but rises several notches above the average vacation shot collection. More than several, in fact: A Beautiful Silence goes beneath the skin of both the location and the photographer, and presents a deeply personal vision of an area that perhaps we’ve become photographically too accustomed to. The other-worldly beauty and fascination of the environment certainly comes across, but so too does the personal impact on the photographer. The sense of separation from the familiar tangibly comes across in the selection of the photographs, and the interpretation goes way beyond the superficial.

Steve Gosling also has developed a clear personal style, whether in monochrome or colour, favouring strong contrast and uncluttered compositions. I get a feeling that he tends more and more towards a preference for monochrome, and to my tastes his style works better there. In colour he prefers a certain kind of high saturation which although quite different from the usual “all sliders at 11”, burn-your-eyeballs-out style favoured by more populist photographers, it isn’t always to my taste. Nevertheless this doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere, and anyway, my tastes are not exactly a benchmark.

Technical note: The production of A Beautiful Silence was assisted by Olympus, who get a big credit, and all the photography was made using Olympus cameras. Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but since I use Olympus gear as well it is interesting to be able to compare results. In my polar photography I have seen a tendency for Olympus cameras to produce very harsh noise in the deep, saturated blues found in many iceberg shots. I see hints of the same issue in Steve’s shots. My solution has been to be very, very careful with sharpening and noise reduction in these areas. Still, the overall quality of the finished product does bear clear testimony to the fact that Olympus Micro four Thirds cameras are as significantly beyond sufficiency as any other type these days.

You can order “A Beautiful Silence” directly from Steve, via the contact at his website. No, he doesn’t make it particularly easy :-)

William Neill Photographer - A Retrospective - William Neill

I’m going to risk being burned as a heretic here, but I’ll say up front, I have not been able to engage with this book. This hefty tome presents a retrospective of work by US photographer William Neill over the last 4 decades. It is beautifully printed and presented, like all of TripleKite’s publications, and I even got my name in the credits as I pre-ordered.

There is no doubt that William Neill’s photography is technically flawless. Everything is fantastically controlled, from concept, through execution, to post-production. But the overall impression I get is that this is in fact really his objective: to achieve the perfect photograph. And the problem is, the actual subjects of the photographs seem to be interchangeable and of secondary importance at best.  All of the classic themes of “Fine Art” landscape photography are present and correct, autumnal forests, misty waterfalls, misty forests, macro flora, misty macro flora. There is even a short Antarctic section, drawn from a 5-day trip. Only towards the end does something a little unusual crop up, in a set of semi-abstract, intentional camera movement shots. And everything is flawlessly executed. The full photographic content of the book is actually viewable online.

Perhaps it is the nature of a retrospective, but I don’t get any clear sense of what William Neill is really trying to achieve.  Although, and I emphasise, the photography is exceptional, he appears to mainly travel around to find locations that will best allow him to demonstrate his commendable skills. That’s all well and good, and even ideal for a commercial photography, but it doesn’t inspire me much. Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have thought differently, but my photographic horizons and education have expanded, and these days I’m looking for something beyond superficial beauty.

I think classic landscape photographers will love this book, though, and they are obviously the target audience. This is made quite clear by the appendix, which carefully lists all of the technical details of the photos. I’m really not sure why photography books, other than educational manuals, do this - really, does it matter that the photography used a Canikony Rocketflash XYZ1000 Mark 36 Turbo with go-faster stripes? Not to me it doesn’t, in fact I find it vaguely degrading. True, the same can be said for Steve Gosling’s book, but that is offset by the fact that it was sponsored by Olympus, who will want their pound of flesh. I’m not sure what the reason is here.

But don’t mind me - you can, and should, order “William Neill Photographer - A Retrospective” from TripleKite Publishing, who are a truly fantastic company with unreal production values (but see postscript below :-( )

Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life - Julia de Cooker

The driving force behind “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” is one I can strongly identify with: the desire to capture the strangeness, but also the comfort, of a living space artificially layered over a fundamentally hostile place. Svalbard cannot of itself support human life, or at least not in the form of a modern Western culture. I suppose it could have supported Inuit communities had they ever reached its isolated shores. Nevertheless, there are three thriving outposts, Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny Alesund, and a handful of abandoned settlements (Pyramiden, Ny London). The photography in this book is drawn from inside and around Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.

The incongruous shot of a stretch limo against an Arctic background has already appeared in a number of reviews of this book in international and specialist press, but it is only one of many that could be selected as a highlight. The collection of landscapes, wide and intimate, of portraits, and of interior and exterior scenes of everyday life in Svalbard all combine to perfectly depict the atmosphere of this strange place. The photography itself is crystalline, befitting the subject. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It really strikes a chord with me, which might be a personal thing, but there is some really strong story-telling going on here.

The production quality of the book is excellent. The publisher, Kehrer Verlag, Berlin, has a very interesting and prolific catalog - I have a couple of other books published by them, “Steinholt” by Christopher Taylor, and “Restricted Areas” by Danila Tkachenko, and I’m sure these won’t be the last. There is no technical information on the photography at all (which is fine with me), but based on the general feel and the rather formal poses in the portrait shots, I have a hunch that it could be shot on large format film.

You can order “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” direct from Kehrer Verlag or from Beyond Words.

Abruzzo - Michael Kenna

Last but very far from least, Abruzzo by Michael Kenna. There isn’t really much I can add to any conversation about Kenna. There are very, very few photographers who have carved such a distinct, instantly recognisable style. Many have tried to copy it, but a square format, black & white and long exposures are just the ingredients, and the way in which they are blended together is pretty much unique.

Michael Kenna’s style is so fully established that it becomes almost transparent - as far as form is concerned, you know exactly what to expect, and all attention is available for the content. There is a strong element of a direct connection in his photography which I’ve rarely seen - the equipment, the mechanics of making photographs, the burden of making choices, all of which get in the way somehow, here are just invisible. We know exactly what the constraints are going to be, so we can fully absorbed by the image.

The element of direct connection is very present in Abruzzo. Immediately you feel that the photography has a strong emotional connection with the place, and wants to find out what makes it tick. Studies of otherwise banal scenes like beach umbrellas convey identity and character. There is one shot taken from a low perspective on a mountain road which just reeks of warm asphalt and pine trees.

Actually, because of this character in Kenna’s photography, I’m quite selective in buying his books. For example, personally I’ve never been especially interested in Japan, therefore his Japanese work doesn’t really attract me. Probably that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But in any case “Abruzzo” absolutely envelopes me, and I’m sure it is a book I will revisit time and again.

You can order “Abruzzo” from Nazraeli Press.


Beyond Words also stock the last 3 of these books.  Beyond Words is a bricks & mortar and online shop dedicated to photobooks, and very much deserves our support!

POSTSCRIPT - between the time I started writing this and finishing, Triplekite Publishing sadly announced they were ceasing all publication and selling off stock. This is pretty bad news - they haven’t provided any details at all, but I can only assume that financial reasons were a big part of this. Unfortunately these days the photography is all about gear and instant, fleeting validation. People complain about books costing $75 but quite happily pay $200 for a camera strap. These days, as they say, everybody is a photographer. But hardly anybody is interested in photography.

 

“Norway Texas” by Gianni Galassi

troll-free zone

in Book Reviews , Monday, February 06, 2017

I’ve been an admirer of Gianni Galassi’s photography for quite some time. His cool, stark abstracts drawn largely from Italian architecture manage to combine precision and emotion in a way this kind of photography rarely does. I was ever more impressed after seeing his exhibition of large scale prints, Elogio Della Luce, in Venice a few years ago.

He has produced a series of books, mainly I think self-published through Blurb, and recently announced a new one which was a bit of a departure from his usual work. “Norway Texas” is a collection of photography of vernacular architecture from coastal towns along the Norwegian coast, from Bergen to the Russian border. The title draws not only attention to the parallels of the depicted scenes with the constructed landscape of the Mid West and Great Plains of the USA, but also explicitly to the cinematic atmospheres created by Wim Wenders.

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Gianni Galassi works more frequently in black and white, but this book features exclusively colour photography, which I think is an appropriate choice. The perspectives are generally a touch wider than much of the work published on his web site. These two aspects combine to remind me a little of the more romantic side of New Topographics school, with perhaps a little more warmth and saturation to the colour palette.

The streets and buildings of “Paris, Norway” are devoid of people. Now and then a vehicle or a lit window might hint at habitation, but otherwise it’s an abandoned world. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but to me this gives the collection a slightly unsettling feel.

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It would seem that a Norwegian coastal cruise threw Galassi into a rather unfamiliar context, photographically speaking, and he responded by putting together a rich and remarkably coherent body of work which is significantly different to his usual style. Physically, the book design is nicely done within the confines of what Blurb allows, and the medium size softback format gives enough space for the images to breathe while keeping the price at a manageable level.

“Norway Texas” is a subtle work, which keeps pulling me back in. You’re not going to find any fjords, trolls or waterfalls within its pages, but you will find a compelling vision of parallels in frontier communities, expressed through very fine photography.

 

Timeless, by Rafael Rojas

Venice in monochrome

in Book Reviews , Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A quick survey of this website will reveal the author’s recurrent obsession with Venice. Indeed, if Venice had ice and penguins I’d never need to go anywhere else. Since another popular theme of mine is phonebooks PHOTObooks, damn it, Apple auto-correct - then there is an obvious intersection to explore. However, as I’ve noted in the past, this particular crossroads is less populated than one might expect. In fact to date I’ve yet to find a book of Venice photography that really grabs me, although I discuss on that last link, there are a couple that get close.

Well, now there’s a new candidate to consider: Timeless, by Rafael Rojas. Over the past 5 years or so Rafael has been steadily building a reputation as one of Europe’s leading and most inventive landscape photographers. It might therefore seem a little strange for his first published monograph to feature not wild, colourful open spaces, but instead restrained monochrome studies of Venice. And indeed, taking it another step away from the habitual by photographing exclusively on film. With a fully manual prehistoric Hasselblad. But I’m certainly not complaining.

The first thing that struck me about Timeless was the painstaking attention to detail and to providing a rich visual, subtle experience - and this was even before I bought the book: the dedicated website is a work of art in itself. The physical book fully backs up that impression. It arrives nestled in a black, silver printed slipcase, the book itself bound in vermillion hardcover. The whole presentation is somehow reminiscent of the spirit of La Fenice, an impression reinforced by the frontispiece. The print quality is just sumptuous, with deep, rich blacks and subtle tonalities. At the risk of repeating myself, the care and attention to detail that just leaps out of the pages is quite remarkable.

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photography copyright © Rafael Rojas

As far as I am concerned, any Venetian photobook loses points for the showing following subjects: gondolas, The Rialto, The Grand Canal from the bloody Rialto, gondolas, St Mark’s Square, carnival masks, actually pretty much anything to do with the carnival, and gondoliers. And San Giorgio Maggiore is right on the limit. Oh, and did I mention gondolas ? Naturally, I’ve personally photographed all of these hundreds of times. And naturally, most are to be found within the pages of Timeless. But, crucially, they are all treated in original and interesting ways. Moreover, Timeless visits the quiet backwaters of Venice, featuring places I immediately recognise without having any idea where they are, but could surely find. Laundry hanging out over a nocturnal Castello contrada, quiet details from areas so close to, yet so far from the swamped, stifling tourist hotspots.

The real star of Timeless, and indeed Venice itself, is stone. Stone in all its forms which has been used to create this absurd, impossible city, floating on a bed of mud and ancient wooden pilings. The photography revels in the endless combinations of texture of stone, the interplay with glancing natural and artificial light, with fog, with water, always reminding of the sheer unlikeliness and ingenuity of it all. Through the study of light and stone Timeless gets right to the heart of Venice. It’s a book to revisit and explore time and time again.

Obviously, I fully recommend this book. You should stop reading right now and get over here to order it. And yet…

And yet, Timeless is missing one important dimension for me. It’s obviously very subjective, but what else would it be: colour. For me, there is something absolutely unique about colour in Venice, especially winter light. It is incredibly hard to capture on film, needing an extremely delicate touch, and so I can understand the temptation of black and white. I don’t want to imply that black and white is some kind of surrender or second best choice - personally I’m completely inept at it, not that I’m much better at colour. But there still seems to be a certain strand of opinion that colour photography is for tourists. I’m certain Rafael Rojas does not share that view, and I understand that Timeless has certain set parameters, within which it succeeds brilliantly, but I’d love to see him produce a colour photography companion.

[Disclosure - I should note that Rafael and I are friends, but I’m a full-price paying customer, and this review was neither requested nor influenced in any way]

 

A Farewell to Ice

and possibly to common sense

in Science , Thursday, January 05, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I read the recently published book "A Farewell to Ice", by Peter Wadhams. It recounts Wadhams' long involvement in sea ice research, intertwining popular science and anecdote. It's quite an entertaining read, and makes some compelling points, but I came away from it feeling a slight sense of disquiet. This arose not from the predictions of the grim consequences of sea ice loss - which are hard to disagree with - but more down to the presentation.

At some point in the distant past I moved in quite close circles to Peter Wadhams. I'm not sure if we ever met, but I don't think so. But my impression is that he always had a reputation for being ever so slightly out on the fringe, which actually would probably have appealed to me. Although he has had a long and fruitful career, somehow he seems to lack a certain sense of gravitas. Of course you could also say that this is because unlike a lot of his peers, he's not a pretentious, self-important windbag. Nevertheless, his claims about a murder conspiracy directed at climate scientists a few years back were not only extremely far-fetched but also very hurtful to friends and relatives of the said scientists.

Wadhams also emphasises the importance of field data and actually understanding physical processes over modelling, a point that his critics in the denial looney corner conveniently overlook, but which I fully concur with. In fact my own skepticism about modelling as the solution to everything played a large part in my forced exit from the field, many years ago. It wasn't a good line to take when dealing with a boss who seemed to actually live in a computer simulation.

But back to "A Farewell to Ice". The big problem is that Wadhams cannot help himself from making dramatic predictions. Does it really matter if the North Pole is ice free next year or in ten years? Or even in a hundred years? The big fight now is countering the blatantly dishonest denial campaign, and its harnessing of an army of illiterate trolls and pseudo-scientists. Giving them a headline like "all ice will disappear next year - oh, and by "disappear" I mean only 1 million square km will remain - is a gift from the Gods. He may, god forbid, even be right, but it's neither here nor there. There is little point in writing a book like this and playing to the gallery. If it cannot even convince a mild skeptic, what is the point? Allowing it to be so easily dismissed as wild-eyed scaremongering is extremely careless, to put it mildly.

I'm also a little puzzled about the bibliography. If he believes that Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles were so important, why does he not reference their research, in particular Laxon's exhaustive, diligent and controversy-avoiding work on refining techniques for determining sea ice freeboard (and hence the key thickness measurement) by satellite remote sensing? All I can recall is a dismissive, generic comment on missions such as Cryosat. Well, ok, maybe upward facing sonar from submarine is more accurate, but he's hardly going to generate much coverage that way.

So, "A Farewell to Ice" is a good, accessible book, and a worthwhile and recommended read. The science is extensive, fairly comprehensive and sound. But in failing to rein back on some of the more emotive aspects, it also ends up as a lost opportunity, and does little, for me, to dispel the vague feeling that maybe he is just slightly bonkers.
 

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