On the rare occasion that I chat with other photographers, sometimes the topic of influences comes up. It’s an interesting question, which I’ve recently realised goes deeper than it appears. In interviews, in forums, on blogs, etc etc, people seem to be all too willing to trot out their influences. Such as, in a hushed tone, “Ansell”, or H.C-B, or . I do wonder though, if people distinguish between influences, and heroes. Heroes, or role models, or whatever the appropriate description is, being people we look up to and dream of emulating. This can take many forms. I was once on a workshop with a well known “personality” photographer, and it was quite remarkable that a good proportion of the participants not only had exactly the same (new out of the box) cameras as the Great Leader, but aspired to drive the same car, drink the same wine, etc. The photography seemed irrelevant. And then there are the more straightforward aspirants, such as the pilgrims who gather by their hundreds in Yosemite to reproduce faithfully - or at least as faithfully as they can, without getting more than 10m from the car park - Ansell’s famous works. They would, doubtless, claim that Adams is an influence.
Currently, in British landscape photography circles, which I guess I’m vaguely associated with by passport if nothing else, the namedropping very frequently includes David Ward. And indeed why not - his work is sublime, and in my opinion is one of a very, very small band who takes landscape photography to the level of art rather than craft. I’ve named him as an influence myself, but looking at my archives dispassionately, I find it very hard to spot any influence. A few clumsy attempts at simulation, yes. But influence? In my dreams.
So how did this flash of enlightenment come about?
Well over 10 years ago, when I was in an intensive phase of exploring landscape photography, I devoured books by various photographers, including John Shaw, Andy Rouse, Andris Apse, Craig Potton, Joe Cornish, Lee Frost, Peter Watson, and a host of others. But perhaps most of all Charlie Waite. Charlie Waite was at the time at name pretty much on everybody’s lips, but these says, his star seems to have faded a bit, with tastes turning more to the more dramatic, windswept styles of Joe Cornish and his host of disciples, and the more overtly artistic / philosophical approach of David Ward. And my Charlie Books gathered dust.
But a few weeks ago I remembered that he had recently published a new book, Arc & Line, and on a whim I ordered it.
Opening it up I found a revelation: this was the style I’d been unconsciously emulating, with a mixture of urban, travel and landscape scenes, also ignoring the “rule” that says you can’t photograph landscape in full daylight. Now, I’m no Charlie Waite, but reviewing his work now after a hiatus of 8 years ago, it seems quite clear to me that he has been a strong influence on my approach. I can see now where some of my better formed ideas come from. There are many other photographers that I might have wanted to “be” more, but finally, I could do a lot worse than recognizing Charlie Waite as a clear influence on my photography.
For the third and final in my recent mini series of Iceland photo book reviews, I’m looking at one that seems to have achieved some kind of contemporary classic status: “Iceland”, by Josef Hoflehner.
One thing really needs to be adressed up front. Anybody who decides to specialise in square format, monochrome, long exposure landscape shots is going to get compared with Michael Kenna, and that’s a scary prospect. So let’s leave that aside, for now.
I’d been dithering about buying this book for ages. Looking at Josef Hoflehner’s website though, I was never that blown away by the photos. But it seemed that my collection really would be incomplete without it, so finally I ordered it direct from the author. One thing I really have to comment on is that the packaging was amazing. So much bubble wrap that it would probably have survived a drop from several hundred feet. But unfortunately this caught the beady eyes of the Swiss Customs, who charged me the 2.6% import duty they normally waive - and a handling charge over half the cost of the book. Oh well. Anyway, after half an hour or so of unwrapping, I got the book open, and was immediately blown away by the print quality. It really is gorgeous, and makes the photos spring to life. So good you feel like you should wear cotton gloves to read it.
So, excellent first impressions. Josef Hoflehner’s style is clearly minimalist. There are a number of photos of poles sticking out of the sea, with or without bird perching on top. Seascapes tend to dominate, these being something of a primary material for long exposures. The locations will, by and large, be pretty familiar to anybody who has spent a few days or so in Iceland. And this is where things start to go a bit wrong, for me. It’s that I necessarily need to see new locations, but if I’m going to see the same locations that the world+dog snaps, then I’d like to see a personal interpretation, something that’s going to catch my attention. And, sorry, but using the Michael Kenna preset, in a fairly heavy handed way, doesn’t qualify.
I’m aware that this sounds very harsh. I’m also aware that Hoflehner is highly regarded by people who know what they’re talking about - after all, he was the IPA’s Nature Photographer of the Year 2007. But I find this collection strangely unengaging. It’s pretty telling that I’ve got 3 or 4 photos which are almost identical to his, apart from the 4:3 frame and the colour. And I know just how obvious they were. The “rocks in the sea”, and the telegraph poles in the sea (within urban Reykjavik, by the way), just don’t do much for me, in particular in the context of a book which is supposed to be about Iceland. Of course, it is entirely possible to put a very different twist on “about Iceland”. It doesn’t have to be pretty landscapes. It doesn’t have to be landscapes at all. In fact a book of photos of overweight people with badly fitting clothes stuffing hot dogs could easily be “about Iceland”. But for that to work, you’ve got to be consistent. And long exposures of rocks in the sea which could be anywhere in the world, and if anything resonate with a more Far Eastern visual ethos, don’t fit in comfortably.
It’s ironic that in the narrative that serves as an introduction, he describes a very different vision, albeit in the somewhat clichéd let’s-get-romantically-stuck-in-a-snowstorm pseudo-explorer style which seems to appeal to the Germanic contingent. But I searched in vain for any real photographic counterpoint to that tale.
There are some good photographs in this collection - there are even a couple of great ones (one of which is on the cover). But there’s also a lot of repetition, some dodgy compositions, and a fair of amount of humdrum which cranking up the contrast to 11 doesn’t rescue. Josef Hoflehner is clearly a very good photographer, but I don’t think that “Iceland” is his best work.
“The North begins and ends with Iceland” - Marco Paoluzzo
There are a lot of photography books on Iceland and Icelandic landscapes in particular. They’re split, pretty much, into several categories: books by Icelandic photographers that are never seen outside of Iceland, but are ubiquitous in their homeland. “Lost in Iceland” by Sigurgeir Sigurjonsson is a good example. Then we have books by foreign photographers, which are never seen in Iceland, but in some cases are quite ubiquitous outside of the country. Interestingly black & white Icelandic landscape photography books, are, as far as I know, a uniquely foreign category.
And then we have Iceland Landscapes by Daníel Bergmann.
Daníel is without a shadow of a doubt Icelandic, but thanks to time he spent outside of the country, he’s had something of the experience of discovering Iceland as a foreigner, and this gives him something of a mixed perspective. He is able to see the country at a remove, while at the same time knowing it extremely well, with the result that he’s able to bring something new to a rather over-crowded field.
Iceland Landscapes is, I think, his 5th published book, but it is the first that really focuses on the landscape. It’s beautifully printed and presented, and includes a foreword by British photographer David Ward. This is very appropriate, because Daníel’s approach is well in tune with Ward’s “Landscape Within” ethos, as well as his discrete but strong spiritual undertone.
One thing that stands out for me is his response to and treatment of light. He prefers the subtle approach, and often goes for quite muted light, and avoids the sometimes ghastly “Velvia tones” so characteristic of a sector of the landscape community, as well as the heavy-handed contrast treatments so beloved by the Flickr crowd.
In general he tends to avoid the more over-photographed locations in Iceland. In particular I’m think of the coastal area to the west of Vik, which has really been done to death - although he has included a couple of beautiful scenes from there. But the most successful shots tend to be from well off the beaten track, perhaps not so much because they’re unknown, but perhaps more because they communicate a stronger connection to the land.
There are many outstanding photos, but here’s a small selection of my current favourites (which I hope doesn’t break “Fair Use” copyright rules!).
“Iceland Landscapes” is at completely the other end the spectrum to “Terra Borealis” by Marco Paoluzzo, which I reviewed last week. But they’ve one special thing in common: they avoid the hard sell, the dramatic-but-cheap shot, but instead slowly draw you in to the worlds they create.
I think it’s obvious that I highly recommend “Iceland Landscapes”. You can get your own copy directly from Daníel Bergmann, or apparently it’s available in Icelandic bookstores and tourist shops.
The North, as well as a lot of other things, does indeed begin and end in Iceland. For me it’s been too long…
Disclaimer: In fairness I should mention that I’m happy to count Daníel Bergmann as a good friend who I’ve spent too little time with. But I’d be as positive about this collection of photographs even if my worst enemy had published it.
A couple of years back, I reviewed Marco Paoluzzo’s book about the Faroe Islands, Føroyar. This followed on from his other “Arctic series” books, Iceland and North/Nord. Finally, he has put together his magnum opus, Terra Borealis, with photography from Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, Svalbard and Norway.
Terra Borealis has been out for about 6 months (and Marco was kind enough to send me a PDF proof over a year ago), so I’ve been a bit slow to write about it. Meanwhile it has been getting good reviews in various publications, and is currently being promoted on the site of the well recommended photo book retailer, Beyond Words. So this is old news.
Marco Paoluzzo is far from the typical landscape photographer - in fact I doubt he’d describe himself as that at all - even if landscapes figure large in his work. He has much more of a reportage view of the world, and is equally fascinated by the human presence in the landscape, or indeed shaping the landscape, as the place itself. He doesn’t photograph people very much, at least not in the Arctic, but he doesn’t shy away from the worst excesses of environmental damage, for example at Barentsburg, Svalbard. In this he reminds me a little of Edward Burtynsky, but less formal. He also shows a fascination with how man has managed to survive and prosper even in these harsh climates, not only in the more obvious Inuit communities, but also severe concrete constructions like those found in Kirkenes.
However, landscape, or perhaps better, “place”, figures very strongly. Since he uses only black and white, and generally avoids the heavy contrast, long exposure style of others such as Josef Hoflehner, this is almost a “decisive moment” approach. It’s certainly very individual, and may not appeal to the general landscape audience. It’s also in stark contrast (ha!) to the highly colorful Iceland “standard” style piled high in Keflavik airport - or indeed found all over Flickr. And it’s all the more refreshing for that. Terra Borealis is a book that requires, and rewards, a certain degree of engagement and time.
Personally it has a style which resonates with me, even if I’m no black & white photographer. There are strong undercurrents of wonder mixed with ironic humour, and more than a degree of quiet romanticism. Paoluzzo’s photography doesn’t grab you by the throat, it just invites you to contemplate for a while.
My personal favourite is from the back of the dustjacket. It’s a shot taken from a ship cruising up the west coast of Svalbard, and typically, Marco has framed the wild, empty landscape using the ship’s structure, and as you look, you become aware of the coffee cup tucked away in a corner, and just become part of the scene.
I don’t know where he can go from here with his Arctic series. Russia maybe ? But as you can see from his web site, he has plenty more tales to tell.
If you’ve got a bit of the Arctic in your soul, you need this book.
I’ve been a fan of Marco Paoluzzo’s photography since I discovered his “Iceland” book a few years ago. I was very impressed by his uncompromising monochrome approach to exploring the icelandic landscape, and his skill in conveying the feel not just of the landscape, but also the people who inhabit it and contribute to shaping it. I found his style very different both from anglophile, Velvia school as well as the more austere and formal Germanic style. As demonstrated through his wide range of works, and especially the wonderfully melancholic “America Blues”, It is perhaps more accurate to describe Marco Paoluzzo as a travel photographer than “just” a landscapist, and this shows through in the way he has of conveying a sense of place rather than abstracting from the landscape.“Iceland” was followed up a few years later by “North”, which in fact focussed mainly on Iceland itself, but offered a fleeting glimpse of another old North Atlantic Viking dominion, the Faroe Islands. Now, with his new book “Føroyar”, Paoluzzo gives center stage to these islands.
Føroyar actually reprises most of the Faroes section of “North”, within a collection of 72 photographs of windswept, often fogbound scenes of a land at the edge of the world. Although Paoluzzo favours dark, one could almost say dismal, tones in his landscapes, nevertheless they radiate light, sometimes soft, sometimes brighter, always hinting at something slightly lost, slightly mysterious. The landscape work tends perhaps less towards the abstract than in “North” and “Iceland”, but nevertheless there are some wonderful studies of form and movement. To my mind this book seems to be the work of someone exploring his inner landscape as much as the external world, blending in a touch of a reportage perspective.
It comes as a shock when the sequence of desolate cliffs and mountains descending sharply into the sea is broken up by an overhead shot of a road - a real road, with cars, snaking along a narrow strip between steep slope or sea. Other photographs remind that this is actually an inhabited landscape, sometimes obviously, sometimes more discretely. One wonderful shot shows the bows a ridiculously large cruise liner barely distinguishable just off a fogbound port. Such a ship must be completely out of place in these settings, but finally the fog reclaims it and it just becomes another angular bulk looming up out of nowhere.
But finally, these departures from the “classic landscape” repertoire do not detract at all from the collection. They give it an extra dimension and that sense of place which is often lacking in more formal works.
You can also see a wide selection of Marco’s photography on Flickr.