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.
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.
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.
For quite a while I’ve felt I’m way outside of the audience for photographic educational material. In particular stuff like “How To Make Perfect Landscape Photos”, etc. Not that I’m saying I don’t need them, just that I’m impenetrable to such words of wisdom. I’ve read, and watched, everything I could find on the topic, and very little has sunk in. So my reaction to seeing such things on offer tends to be rather cynical.
So why my interest was sparked by a web site I stumbled upon during the post-Christmas doldrums, offering an “exclusive, travelogue-style video tutorial” featuring landscape photographer Athena Carey on location in South Africa, I’m really not sure. But since clicking on the preview was a lot less like hard work than, say, editing several extensive photo collections I’ve built up and ignored in the last year or so, I did so. And I was intrigued, And since it was on special offer, I clicked.
I’ve seen my fair share of “video photo tutorials”. They generally promise a lot, and end up being endless, tedious talking head shots of men, usually of a certain age, fondling their cameras. Some are more professional than others, in that they’ll do some level of editing. Others just set the camera to record, stop after 2 hours and 55 minutes, and sell you the resulting yawn-a-thon for $75. And of course after watching this you’ll have fully assimilated their precious workflow and wisdom. So I’m a hard sell.
“Africa with Athena” is nothing like these, and on several key counts. First of all, it is obvious from the first seconds that the video has been produced by somebody who actually cares about communication, inspiration and entertainment, and also cares about producing the best possible experience. It is clear that very little cost or effort has been spared in the making of this video. It has nothing to envy anything you’ll find under the National Geographic or BBC banners. I’m sure that Armand Dijcks, the producer and videographer, makes mistakes just like the rest of us, but we’re not treated to them in the final product. Instead we’re treated to a technically and artistic excellent video, with a perfect mix of sweeping, dramatic but also intimate location shots, and indeed talking heads. But these talking heads - well, always the same head - are expressive and varied and shot with different angles and situations which emphasise and help to carry the message. I’m a million miles away from being any expert on the topic, but as a pure consumer, I find it a very impressive production, which is well worth the asking price.
I haven’t even really mentioned the content yet. Well, the content is basically Athena Carey. Hers is not a name I’d come across before, but she seems to have a good reputation. Certainly her photography has a strong personality, mainly orientated towards long exposure monochrome. This might immediately, and inevitably, bring Michael Kenna to mind, but her work is quite different. Of photographers I know, she’s perhaps closer to Steve Gosling, but in any case she has a distinctive style. Her approach in the field, and to photography in general, which is well documented here, remind me more of the approach of my friend Alessandra Meniconzi. Both are interested in equipment up to the point that it allows them to do what they want, and absolutely no more. Indeed, the section on the contents of Athena’s camera bag veers towards humour. Essentially, and clearly getting things out of the way as quick as possible, she tells us she’s got a big camera and a smaller one converted to infrared, oh, and some filters, and that’s basically it. I don’t think brand names are even mentioned. A similar segment over at the Luminous Landscape would be 45 minutes long and sound like a 10 year old child reading the B&H catalogue. This is pretty refreshing to me, but I’m not entirely sure if, unfortunately, it’s what the mainstream audience for this type of offer wants to hear.
But there is technical content. In fact her description of how she uses Nik SiverEFX to convert to monochrome is the best I’ve ever seen, and although I’ve been using this software for years, watching this I discovered a few key points I’d never realised before.
Most of all the video is about a dedicated and committed photographer collaborating with a talented videographer to illustrate her process to produce a couple of photos in a particular location. It does this without being arcane, patronising, or boring. I think it is generally very hard, if not impossible, to truly express in words what makes us photograph, especially for landscape photography. All attempts come across as pompous, clumsy or ridiculous. Generally of course they’re produced by the photographers themselves, which prevents the necessary detachment. Here instead the creative partnership works very well, delivering the goods both as medium and message. It sets a very high standard for others to follow.
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.
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”.
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.
Yesterday afternoon we had a wander around Milan, with the general idea of seeing the Walter Bonatti exhibition at the Palazzo della Ragione, the kind of great venue for photography exhibitions that Italian cities are so good at. The exhibition is well worth a visit if you’re interest in exploration photography. The majority of the exhibited photographs are from the mid-70s, along with Bonatti’s commentary. There’s also an opening section dedicated to his early career as an extreme alpinist, touching of course on the K2 controversy, but also on exploits such as his pioneering solo of the North Face of the Matterhorn.
And if you’re more into street photography, well, Milano has plenty of streets, as illustrated below. And indeed shops, catering to all tastes and deep pockets.
All these photos were taken using the Ricoh GR. It’s a really well designed camera, and extremely discreet, yet the lack of an active eye level viewfinder makes it a rather imprecise tool for me, and I tend to forget the lack of a stabiliser. But it certainly can deliver fantastic results in the right hands.