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Sebastian Copeland - A Global Warning

is “autohagiography” a word?

in Book Reviews , Monday, March 29, 2021

I’m not quite sure how to approach this book review. Mainly because I’m not quite sure what drove its publication. Sebastian Copeland has been publishing eco-activist photography books about polar regions for a while now: “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev, “Antarctica, a Call To Action”, foreword by Orlando Bloom, “Arctica, The Vanishing North”, foreword by Sir Richard Branson, and now “Antarctica, The Waking Giant”, foreword by Leonardo di Caprio. Do you see a pattern emerging there?

Copeland cover

Let’s be clear, we need as much clear, informed, balanced and accessible information on the impact of climate change as we can get. But when this drifts towards self-glorification, I’m not sure it helps. For example, the various inventive ways which “explorers” find to establish firsts in Antarctica is getting a bit wearisome. Fine, it’s quite an accomplishment to be the first non-gender specific person to hop single-footed without airborne support (but with all kinds of emergency beacon…) from the Pole of Inaccessibility to Mawson’s Crack, but wrapping this up as some kind of environmental action is just mistaken - at best.

Sebastian Copeland is at least partly in that community. Apparently a fairly wealthy chap, he gets up to all sorts of escapades In The Name Of The Earth, roping in his famous buddies, and every now and then persuading a publisher (never the same one) to publish his latest selection of snapshots.

He may be on message, but he doesn’t put a lot of effort into broadcasting it. I recently watched a webinar he gave on “how can polar photography help bring about change?” under the umbrella of the Antarctica Now series run by the Shackleton clothing company. His presentation was shambolic. Even accepting that maybe some technical issues were out of his control, it was blatantly clear that he done zero preparation and was just winging it. He certainly did not address the topic of the presentation. He appeared to think it was enough that he had turned up. He’s a famous photographer, you see. The contrast with the effort put in by all other presenters in the week’s other presentations was stark.

So, ok, let’s ignore all that and look at the photography.  For a start, if you already happen to own “Antarctica, A Call To Action, Foreword By Orlando Bloom” (pub. 2009), then you may want to skip “Leonardo Di Caprio, The Waking Giant, Foreword By Antarctica” (pub. 2020), as it includes pretty much all the photos of the first book (itself a retread of “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev.”). Since Copeland is one of the few photographers to have ventured well into the East Antarctic plateau, it would have been interesting to see what a photographer could make of that unique landscape. Unfortunately we get very few photos of this area. Admittedly it is not obviously photogenic, but is certainly open to interpretation and imagination, and presents a challenge one might expect a truly talented photographer to rise to. Instead what we get are largely tourist-level snaps of the Antarctic Peninsula (and, to emphasise, a large number of these previously published), clumsily over processed to make things seem darker and gloomier than they really are, to fit in with a political message (and I’m saying this as somebody who is 200% onboard with the political message). I don’t want to sound arrogant, but frankly I’ve got better photos of Antarctica than most of these in my rejects pile.

This is then all interspersed with various diatribes on eco-disaster and confused popular science. Sebastian Copeland presents himself as a “climate analyst” but his Wikipedia entry states “Copeland began his career in New York City directing music videos before moving on to commercial directing as well as professional photography with credits including fashion and advertising, album covers, and celebrities”. Whatever, his explanation in “Antarctica, The Waking Giant” of why ice is blue is the most convoluted I’ve ever seen. Here’s a snippet: “unlike air, which contains all three colours, water holds only green and blue hues”.

Of course, I’m just an opinionated bad tempered old git with a vastly exaggerated idea of my own knowledge and skills, but you might want to consider what Michael Reichmann had to say about “Antarctica, The Global Warning”, foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev.  And by the way, Gorby was pretty good at destroying the Soviet Union and abandoning its people with no backup plan, but I’m not sure of his credentials either as a photographer or a climate specialist. Finally, the list of testimonials on Copeland’s own website rather speaks for itself.

Copeland sos

The SOS image to my mind is particularly contrived as well as rather pointless. It puts me in mind of Spinal Tap’s stonehenge stage prop. The people involved in creating this montage were clearly somewhat at risk, needlessly so, and the fact that the whole contrivance is dwarfed by even this limited view of the landscape kind of negates the message. Reading Copeland’s account of how it was created, it’s difficult to understand given the complete failures of planning and logistics why he even discusses it. Of course, the same photo is repeated in all his books.

Don’t buy this book. It is not about Antarctica. It is not about climate change, It is about Sebastian Copeland’s need for acclaim. Probably he doesn’t get enough likes on Instagram.

To answer the question “how can polar photography help bring about change?”, I would rather refer you to the brilliant, softly spoken but hard hitting work of Olaf Otto Becker.  His beautiful photography - for example, “Above Zero”, from the Greenland Ice Sheet, is largely allowed to speak for itself. There was also real risk and danger involved in getting these photos, but Becker isn’t into self-glorification. Another commendable alternative would be Melting Away by Camille Seaman, to which the same criticism of over-darkened imagery could be applied, but at least is free of the whiff of hypocrisy and the self-glorification.

Persuading the world of the perils of climate change is a necessary and commendable activity. Grandstanding, attention grabbing and name dropping in order to build up a personal mythology, less so. That the photography all this is constructed around is at best unexceptional is neither here nor there in the wider scheme of things, but it certainly doesn’t help.

 

 

 

Another Place Press

happy birthday to you!

in Book Reviews , Monday, October 19, 2020

Time to confess to another addiction: Another Place Press photobooks.

APP is nearly 5 years old, and since its birth, has been a prodigiously frequent source of publications remarkable for their consistency of quality of both form and content. APP is run by Iain Sarjeant, himself a fascinating photographer, and has a focus is loosely aligned with Iain’s own work. I suppose I would describe this as an intersection between landscape, street and reportage, found also on the pages of the associated Another Place blog. The boundaries are clear, but with them there is vast room for a variety of voices, approaches, and styles.

APP follows certain guidelines: first, authors do not pay to get published. Second, costs and prices are kept under control by keeping formats small and fairly standard - although with plenty of scope for creative design. With some 40 books and short-form zines published, this seems to be a sustainable model. One can contrast with Triplekite Press, which sadly appeared to crash and burn under the weight of an unsustainable ambition (although I’m guessing, they never made any statement as far as I know).

While every APP book is different, they have certain things in common. Design and production standards are very high, layout and sequencing also. The cost of standard editions is usually well under £20, which is excellent value for money. If you want to get away from the Look At Me! world of Instagram, and the Look At My Gear! world of YouTube, reading and studying these photobooks is a path back to sanity and enjoying photography as art and personal expression.

I guess if one is looking for downsides, it could be said that the overall feel of the APP catalogue tends towards the melancholic. Being a miserable old git this strikes a chord with me, but perhaps limits the audience a little. Note however there are exceptions.

Personally while I enjoy and find inspiration in each book I buy, they do leave me with a certain sense of frustration that I cannot myself aspire to this level of coherent expression or quality of photography, but at least I can get some sense of residual satisfaction from supporting the authors and APP itself.

Generally I think the whole photo community owes a debt of gratitude to Iain Sarjeant for bringing the work of so many unsung talents to light, and for his dedication to this project. I’m sure it has been far from easy. Here’s to the next 5 years!

Postscript

I certainly haven’t bought every publication from the APP catalogue, but from those I have, here are 4 of my favourites:

photo of 4 books

 

 

Sara Wheeler

a polar star

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 07, 2020

Admin Note: one decision to emerge the hand-wringing period I had over this website is that I would close off my non-photography blog, The Evenings Out Here, which was anyway moribund, and publish occasional off-topic posts here. Whatever "off-topic" may mean - since it is all personal anyway, everything is on-topic. So, here is the first "off-topic" post. And a heavily overdue one, at that.


Many, many years, I wandered into Waterstones in Guildford (probably), and noticed a book cover with a bulkily-clad figure kneeling on ice apparently attempting to interview a group of emperor penguins. I bought it immediately. After many moves and changes in my life, this copy of this book is still with me. I've read it more than a few times, and always get lost in its pages. "Terra Incognita", by Sara Wheeler, is a travel book that has spoken to me like no other, and her other books are not far behind. At that time I would certainly have ranked "Foreign Land" and "Coasting" by Jonathan Raban at the same level, but these have faded over time. Terra Incognita shines as bright as ever.

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Pretty much all first person narratives set in Antarctica are written by what Wheeler accurately and amusingly describes as "Frozen Beards". They are about conquest and discovery, and the superficiality of the continent. They are about geography and landscape, and going from here to there (and hopefully back again), generally having the worst possible time while doing so. I find Wheeler's book, instead, to be about a search for a sense of place and belonging. Such a book could very quickly becoming terminally cloying, but not Terra Incognita. It is written in such a captivating, engaging way, and with a very healthy dose of self-deprecation, that the deeper currents only become clear later. Of all the "travel books" (whatever that means), there is none that have stayed so close to me as this one.

The idea of being able to travel around a significant part Antarctica as a writer would problem seem bat-crazy today, never mind 30 years go. That Sara Wheeler managed to do this, fitting in diverse locations in the Ross Sea area, the Pole, the West and East Antarctic ice caps and both ends of the Peninsula is a gold-standard tribute to her ingenuity and persistence. Totalling up the cost to various supporting organisations, agencies and individuals would come to a pretty scary figure, but the result is priceless. Others have said this, as have I, and I'll repeat it again: Terra Incognita is simply the best book ever written about Antarctica. Or to be more precise, about the experience of Antarctica. The only vaguely similar book I am aware of is Jenny Diski's "Skating to Antarctica", but that is a completely, and darker, kettle of fish.

I can't help but empathise with much of Terra Incognita. Antarctic was a huge part of my early adult life. I spent 2 summers there a few years before Sara Wheeler, and while I was there as a salaried scientist, it felt far, far more than going to do a job. The first part of Wheeler's book describe her time largely under the wing of the United States Antarctic Programme, with sorties to Italian and New Zealand bases. Within the narrative are dark hints at what is coming next, her sojourn in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula abetted by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

If ever she was unhappy in the Antarctic, it seems it was during this time. She describes BAS sadly dragging a stifling male-dominated class culture with it, featuring public schoolboy behaviour, a complete ban on expressing any kind of emotion, essentially pretty much what you would find in any wealthy village pub in southeast England. I can corroborate this. Although I had some unforgettable experiences and shared time and tents with some fantastic people, my experience in particular at Rothera base was pretty miserable. And unnecessarily so. My later experience in Antarctica with a haphazard gang of Scandinavians was something of a redemption.

Interestingly, Wheeler's better times with BAS appear to have been spent at the mythical Fossil Bluff, which I never reached, as we had a bit of a prang with our jolly old kite over Palmer Land. However I suspect she would have enjoyed spending a few days out at our happily isolated camp on the Ronne Ice Shelf.

You can reach in and touch the ice, the clear air and the stillness - as well as the storms - in the pages of Terra Incognita. It is multi-levelled narrative, as much about the author as the places, but handled in superbly skilful way.

Much like Terra Incognita, Wheeler's earlier book, "Chile - Travels in a Thin Land" is the kind of book you never want to end. Written about a 6 month wander from one tip of the country to the other - and even beyond - it feels like it distorts time. After (re)reading it over a few days last week, I feel like I had myself spent 6 months in Chile. Personally Chile is a country I came late to, and have only scraped the surface of. We planned to return shortly, but obviously events have put that on hold.

Chile, the book, is another delight. Again, with a light touch, Wheeler pulls you into her explorations, both inner and outer. There is a stronger element of her Christian faith in this book, something that is touched upon in Terra Incognita, but to a lesser extent. Although I don't share her faith, the way she writes about it could make be come to regret this. Clearly it is a source of inner strength and inspiration to her, and I only wish I could feel the same way. And equally clearly it does get in the way of her having a good time!

The final pages of "Travels in a Thin Land" seem to be almost a different world. Wheeler returns from the paradisiacal world of the South to Santiago, and in a very unexpected move veers off to spend 10 days immersed in one of the more deprived parts of the city. Many a writer would have gone into full virtue-signalling here, but not Wheeler. In fact she downplays this part very much, not indulging in explicit social commentary, but the contrast with the (kind of) gringo trail atmosphere of the main body of the book is very striking. As is that with her final few days living in the world of the privileged upper middle classes of Santiago. It is an extremely effective jolt back to reality.

I'd like to spend more time writing about these books, but I'm not very good at writing, and I would only do them a disservice. All I can say is seek them out and read them. They will surely touch your soul. And I would not stop there: her later books, such as "The Magnetic North" (inspired title), set in the Arctic, and "Access All Areas", set pretty much ever, are equally admirable. Actually, thanks to "The Magnetic North", I renewed contact with a companion from my BAS days while travelling around Svalbard. And then there is her latest book, "Mud and Stars", which is sitting a few feet away from waiting to be read.

I feel there could be a sequel to this post in the not too far future!

Links to books:
Chile - Travels in a thin country
Terra Incognita
The Magnetic North
Access All Areas
Mud and stars

There also a couple of videos online of Sara Wheeler giving talks on her writing and travels:

Sara Wheeler @ 5x15
Access All Areas: In Conversation with Sara Wheeler

 

Undertow, by Frances Scott

tracing the landscape

in Book Reviews , Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Undertow, by Frances Scott, is one of the most recent publications from Iain Sarjeant’s innovative and energetic Another Place Press. Like all of Another Place’s output, “Undertow” is small, beautifully designed and excellent value for money.

Undertow2

It’s quite difficult to pin a genre on “Undertow”. The closest I can get to is landscape reportage, but that could make it sound superficial, which most certainly is not. On the surface, Undertow is a travelogue of sorts, recording Frances Scott’s tracing of the coastline of her home, Orkney Mainland, an island off the north coast of Scotland.

The sequence of black and white photographs is complemented by spidery traces of GPS tracks of the various coastal walks which join together to circumnavigate the whole island. Along with some of these come captions joining the factual (time spent) with the highly impressionistic, for example “Forty-eight minutes - Wintry waves, small black cat”.

The photography will not win over the classic Wild & Wonderful Landscape Photographer. It surely isn’t meant to. There are some pure landscape scenes, but they share space with whatever else populates the coastline, be it random junk, disused military installations or fragments of wrecks. Personally in a way I wish the photos were colour, not monochrome, but I can also understand why colour would detract from the overall effect.

Undertow3

I don’t really have the erudition required to place Frances Scott’s work in artistic context, but two fairly random reference points for me which Undertow stands up well against would be Fay Godwin (especially, and obviously “Islands”), and Marco Paoluzzo (for example “Føroyar”).

In the introduction the author concludes with the thought “By walking these coastlines ... I’ve found a new sense of belonging”, which is a feeling I can identify very strongly with.  Personally, having no real roots, I’ve often found meaning in wandering around areas local to where I work and live, gathering together photos and thoughts, building up a narrative for myself. I’ve also at times started to attempt to put these collections into some form of publication, but I’ve never really achieved anything.

“Undertow” is quite charmingly successful at nailing down such a sense of place.

 

Torres del Paine, by Francisco Espíldora

an individual approach

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Whenever I travel, I keep an eye open for books by local photographers, on the grounds that they will almost certainly be full of photos better than I could ever make. Of course there are always garish anthologies of sub-postcard level stuff which manage the near impossible feat of being full of shots even less adequate than mine, but these I skip over.  I’m more interested in the kind of book generally found tucked away in the corners, not those piled high for undiscerning tourists.  Francisco Espíldora’s book, “Torres del Paine” is very clearly in the former category.

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Francisco Espíldora is an award-winning Chilean wildlife photographer. I believe “Torres del Paine” is his first book, and it’s an impressive start. The classification “wildlife photographer” tends to make one think of highly detailed, close up animal portraiture, which is more about technique than expression. That’s not the case here, indeed it’s drastically not so. “Torres del Paine” is a narrative, taken the reader from pre-dawn to dusk in a wintery setting, through photos taken within the national park boundary.  The initial photos are taken in near darkness, with just recognisable animal silhouettes seen in some of them. Stopping to think about it, from a technical point of view these really are quite remarkable, but more to the point they strongly convey a sense of time and place.

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Moving on, light creeps in, and dawn-lit landscapes are mixed in, some with distant wildlife visible, some not. The colour palette is restrained, none of the exuberant saturation that a lot of wildlife, and indeed landscape photography goes in for. In fits in with a certain idea of “film-like”, provided you associate film more with the kind of subdued feel delivered by Fuji Astia, rather than the screaming psychedelia of Velvia. It’s a very appropriate look.

IMG 6448

Further in, the wildlife does take more of a centre stage role, but still very much within or even concealed by the landscape, as opposed to somehow cut out of it.  The narrative moves towards brighter midday and afternoon light, before finally returning to night.

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Overall the book really feels like something much more than just a collection of photos, which is quite unusual in the genre. Francisco Espíldora clearly has a deep feeling for the land, and a story to tell. From a photographical point of view, his approach has some parallels with that of Vincent Munier, but without the extreme minimalism Munier tends towards (sometimes too much, for my tastes), or the impressionistic approach of Stanley Leroux, while remaining very individual.

I’m hardly an authority on wildlife photography, or indeed any kind of photography (or anything else, to be honest), but my feeling is that Francisco Espíldora is on a path to becoming a leading contemporary wildlife photographer.  I strongly recommend this book, which you can buy directly here, and look forward to seeing more of his work.

 

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