I’m gradually building up quite a large library of Antarctica literature, science and photography books, but my most recent acquisition is easily amongst the best.
“The Last Ocean - Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project”, by John Weller, caught my eye in a fairly highbrow Art bookshop, the sort that usually only stocks books with blurry, grim, preferably black & white photos. Certainly nothing as common as nature photography.
But The Last Ocean _is_ nature photography. Actually, it is extremely good nature photography, possibly the best contemporary Antarctic photography I’ve ever seen. John Weller’s photography is restrained, giving the land, the sea, and its native inhabitants space to breathe. Unlike so much other work, these photographs are about their subject, not about where the photographer has been or how hard he/she can push the saturation slider. They are sometimes dramatic, but it’s never forced. This photography draws you in and captivates you. It doesn’t make you go “Wow! Great Capture! You must have a great camera!”, but rather it demands that you linger and let you eyes explore. It’s meditative, subtle and thoroughly gorgeous.
But that’s not the end of The Last Ocean by any means. Photography is only half the story. The book is full of excellent, reflective essays on the Ross Sea ecosystem, and anecdotes about making the photographs. In fact I found that I had to read the book twice, once for the essays, and once for the photos. And then I read it again, twice. The essays are not of the clingy, preachy, hand-wringing variety one might fear, but rather are informative, scientifically literate and very readable.
The Last Ocean is associated with the wider Ross Sea Project, a voluntary organisation started in 2004 to promote the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA) in order to conserve the pristine qualities of the Ross Sea, Antarctica. There’s also a film. But start with the book. You won’t regret it.
And if you happen to browsing Orell Füssli’s art book section in Zürich, watch out, they may still have some copies. They’re near the blurry, grainy black & white naked ladies books.
It’s just as well that nobody ever reads this stuff, because I have feeling this could be one of the most unpopular posts I’ve ever written, comparable to the time I dared to be critical of the great Andy Rouse.
David duChemin styles himself as a World & Humanitarian Photographer. Apart from this, he has authored a series of vision-oriented semi how-to books on photography, which, if you’re prepared to roll with his world view, are interesting. He seems like a very genuine, likeable, enthusiastic person, and he’s built up a great brand and a loyal following. Me, being a cynic, I find it quite hard to avoid a certain sense of nausea when he goes overboard with the (non-denominational) preaching and the hey-what-a-wonderful-world, but I guess that’s my loss. He’s also built up an impressive eBook publishing venture, Craft & Vision, providing a platform for his own pamphlet-length books on various topics, and also those of various other authors. They’re inexpensive, and worth a punt. I’ve read most of them. Some I enjoyed, others less so, but duChemin’s own series of collections of essays are definitely worth your time and money. Finally, he also launched the Photograph eMagazine last year, which I reviewed, and subscribe to.
Along the way he’s been prone to downplay the importance of gear, which is fine, but also to some extent technique, which sometimes is ok, but sometimes not. For example, saying that a photo shot at f/22 and ISO 800, which would have been much better at f/8, is like so because he got too involved in the shot to notice … well ok, I do that too. And then usually I realise that the photo just has to be binned, however good it might have been.
Which brings us to his magnum opus to date, his first monograph, “SEVEN; Seven Continents + Seven Years: A Photographic Journey”.
He states “I wanted to create something beautiful, inside and out. Something that was a delight to touch and hold. I wanted something that would inspire and show you the world the way I see it, in these fleeting glimpses of beauty, hope, and wonder”. It’s a lofty ambition, which raises great expectations.
Physically the book is quite nice, but not exceptional. The dark brown linen hardcover binding doesn’t really fit with the content, in my opinion. But what immediately strikes me is that the layout & typography are a bit clunky. This is strange, because actually the quality of the layout and presentation of many Craft & Vision eBooks exceeds the contents, and his web site is very elegant. But online, electronic layout practice does not simply translate to print, and I think this is the problem. I can’t help but compare with Bruce Percy’s books - there are some parallels between Percy & duChemin, but it is clear that Bruce is a talented, meticulous designer as well as a fabulous photographer, and his book designs are exquisite. SEVEN suffers from far too big typefaces, and a serious lack of white space to let the text content breathe. The image layout is basically “default”. Photos are overwhelmingly centre page, with little thought of dynamics. Tellingly, the digital version is MUCH easier on the eye, and the photography looks and works better.
Ok, so what about the photography ? Well, I’m not enjoying this at all, but honestly, for what my opinions worth, left to sink or swim on their own merits, rather than supporting essays or blog posts or how-to books, for the most part they do a good imitation of the Titanic.
Individually there are some good, or even great photos. Some examples are Plate 56, a great street candid, Plate 136 (which is included on the product page), one of the few landscapes I like. But really, I’m just trying to find some positives.
But there’s just too much chaff, and a lot of it really doesn’t do him any favours. A candid photo of an orange juice vendor in India inexplicably focuses on a pile of oranges rather than the vendor. Four shots of a whaling boat hulk on Deception Island - which world+dog has photographed - when one would do - easily. Many shots just seem to be strangely devoid of content or dynamic. Far too much backlighting which just doesn’t work. The shots from Iceland using a tilt/shift lens hand-held were maybe entertaing on the blog, but here, especially in context, they’re a bit ridiculous. The best stuff is a set of commissioned posed portraits of villages in Loiyangalani, Kenya, which is very competent commercial photography, but really looks like an outtake from a Benetton shoot.
But the biggest problem is that there is no coherence to this book. As a monograph, one would expect some kind of continuity or visual narrative, but it just jumps all over the place. From black & white candids to wide screen landscapes, from the inevitable photos of colourful, wrinkly, gap-toothed Asiatic ancients and cute kids, back to some more black & white candids, jumping to the weird Iceland stuff, to some even weirder stuff from Venice, to a set from an Antarctic trip where clearly the weather wasn’t playing along. It’s not giving much of a sense of a style or vision. The total opposite of Bruce Percy’s “Iceland - A Journal of Nocturnes”.
SEVEN is very ambitious, but ends up drowned by a wildly over-reaching concept of showing the whole world, and therefore having to include work of quite considerably varying quality just to “tick” each continent. The New Zealand photos are particularly disposable. Perhaps a much stronger approach would have been to structure it as a set of self-contained mini-portfolios from a selection of global destinations. Basically, it needed a strong editor, and a layout artist.
One of the reasons I buy photography books, especially from less well-known photographers, is because I like to support their work. I’ll continue to buy Craft & Vision eBooks, and I don’t regret the not inconsiderable cost of SEVEN. I would normally say this, or indeed expect to say it, but I have to say for all the locations in the book which I have also visited, I’ve either got better shots, or similar shots (near identical in the case of Milford Sound) which I’d never even think of publishing. I expect books like SEVEN to contain photography far better than I could achieve. It’s a bit of a shock when they don’t.
Despite the fact that nobody will read this, I’ve hesitated a lot before publishing it. I’ve searched for other reviews of the book, and found just one, which frankly doesn’t say very much… one can infer anything from it. So why publish such a negative review, especially when I really, really wanted to love this book? Who am I to say such things? I think it’s a reaction to the massive dumbing down of photography everywhere, the “great capture, please visit my page LOL” theme that runs through the community these days. SEVEN unfortunately to me seems to ride on that sort of empty praise, and sometimes line have to be drawn. It should, and could have been so much better. And yeah, I know, my stuff sucks and I have no right to criticise genius etc etc. I know. Save your breath. It’s not the point.
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.
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.
A couple of days ago, while searching for photo books on Paragonia, I discovered the work of Linde Waidhofer, on the Western Eye Press website. Linde is, it seems, a long established landscape photographer with a particular affinity for Patagonia. She has an extremely nice eBook available on her site, Unknown Patagonia, which she is freely distributing in the hope of raising awareness on the risks to a stunningy beautiful, isolated part of Southern Chile which is at risk from the energy industry. This sadly reminds me of similar destructive forces in parts of Iceland.
The location is amazing, and the photography even more so. Linde Waidhofer has an understated style which does not impose itself on the subject matter, does not overly abstract things, but presents natural beauty with great taste and judgement.
Since the eBook is available for free, I would encourage you to download it, enjoy it, and pass it on, and hopefully the message that Linde is trying to put out will spread. And at the same time you’ll discover some classic nature photography (actually not just nature) which deserves to be widely known.