Book review: Across The Ravaged Land, by Nick Brandt

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I think many of you will recall me being quite blown away by the power of the images and the quality of the printing/ presentation in my review of Nick Brandt’s earlier twin book On This Earth, A Shadow Falls (here). I’m fairly sure many of you were too, judging from my email traffic, the comments, and the number of orders via Amazon. I’ve turned into an enormous fan of Nick’s work: he is the photographer’s photographer, a man who clearly thinks about what he’s doing, photographs with integrity, for a reason, with an idea, with the most appropriate tool for the job, and presents the images in the best possible way. Across The Ravaged Land, the final volume in the trilogy, raises the bar even further. I spent an hour with the book and felt like I’d been smacked upside the head with the Pentax 67II he favours. Allow me to explain why.

Note: in this article, I’ve attempted to reproduce the tonal feel and colour of the images as accurately as possible, but reality is that it’s simply impossible to do so via a screen and a JPEG. Just buy the book, and from the print quality alone you’ll see why every photographer should spend some time making prints. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact of the large format images.

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Book review: Vivian Maier, Street Photographer

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One of the more interesting, and popular, new photography books this year is a collection of street photographs from the 1950s and early ’60s, shot by (until very recently) unknown photographer Vivian Maier. She would have remained unknown, too, had a box of her negatives not been fortuitously purchased by local historian John Maloof. The circumstances of even this purchase were even more random: the contents of Maier’s storage locker were auctioned off by the company due to non-payment of account, raising all sorts of interesting issues over copyright and image ownership. Interestingly, the back of the book’s credits list ‘Photographs © Vivian Maier 2011’, even though the photographer herself died in 2009.

Aside from the images, perhaps the most compelling thing about Maier’s story is the fact that if it were not for a couple of very lucky chance occurrences, she would have remained completely unknown and forgotten as a photographer – definitely not for lack of talent, but simply because she did not get a lucky break, nor did she even go out and seek one. Born in 1926, in New York, Maier lived in both New York and Chicago; she worked for most of her adult life as a nanny and caretaker of a family, carrying a camera everywhere she went, and photographing everything and everybody she saw – however, the crucial point to note is that she didn’t show her images to anybody. This of course meant that nobody saw them.

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I’m guessing these images are from her earlier body of work.

All sorts of questions immediately come to mind, the foremost being, why? Every photographer with the slightest hint of self-pride would love to have their work exhibited, and for much less, frequently hold court with an iPad long after their audience has fallen asleep or started browsing pornography sites on their mobile phones out of boredom. Perhaps it was a confidence issue; maybe Maier didn’t think she was good enough compared to the photographers of the day – don’t forget, she was shooting in the Life/ Magnum-dominated era of photojournalism and reportage; technical limitations meant that the distinguishing factors between your images and the next guy’s were just light, timing and composition; never mind color, extreme DOF or perspective effects. There were few film emulsions available, and as a rule, everything looked like a television test pattern once it got dark.

Or perhaps it’s that crisis of self-confidence that got Maier out shooting in the first place. Unfortunately, due to the curation afterwards, it’s impossible to know what chronological order the images were shot in; but there are two or three clear styles visible in the book – from where she photographs scenes with people in them, to people, but furtively, and finally, people and nothing else. In the latter style, there’s an intensity of gaze from the subject into the camera, and it’s clear that at very least they were all aware of her photographing them; even this last category can perhaps be subdivided further into grab shots, and those where she had some relationship with the subject. The former are often filed with disapproving, suspicious or surprised expressions – this wasNew York, after all; the latter have intensity, soul, and an openness about them that only comes with familiarity.

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A later, more confident Vivian Maier?

One of the most difficult things for any photographer to do is edit their own images – and by edit, I don’t mean run through Photoshop. I know this feeling intimately; your photographs are like your children, and you don’ts ant to let them go. The problem is that objectively, like all children, there are better behaved ones than others…and without a certain level of detachment, it’s impossible to decide which one of them gets the scholarship to Harvard and which has to make do with the local polytechnic.

Over the course of her lifetime, Maier must have shot thousands of images – yet the book contains no more than about a hundred. As a curious, process-oriented photographer, I wonder what her outtakes look like – were there a lot of disasters? Did she work the scene in the style of the Magnum photographers, or was she a walking one-shot wonder? Or was it hard for Editor Maloof to choose what to leave out? Maybe there’s enough for a second book. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, Street Photographer is a hugely engaging book that everybody who’s ever attempted the genre can enjoy and appreciate; in fact, today’s ‘street photographers’ could definitely learn a thing of two from Maier. At the same time, it’s also a slightly sad tale of how you can be really quite talented at something, but either not realize it, or not have the opportunity to develop it. Like all satisfying narratives, however, there is a happy ending – Maier got her lucky break in the end, even if it she didn’t get to see it herself (Maier died in 2009, but the book was published in late 2011). Moral of the story: images need to be seen. Don’t leave it too late. MT

Vivian Maier, Street Photographer is available here on Amazon.


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Book review: Supercell by Kevin Erskine

Image from Amazon.

Suppose you only ever photographed one subject in your life – hell, you’re not even a photographer by training or trade – what would your images look like? Supercell is the answer. Kevin Erskine is a farmer living in the American midwest, who also happens to be a storm enthusiast (storm chaser? I have no idea what these types of people are called).

What’s unique about this book is that Erskine photographs nothing but clouds and storms – he might well be great at portraits too, but it seems unlikely judging from the text. I must admit that a huge part of the appeal of this book for me stems from the subject – granted, the images are technically competent and nicely printed, but I want to look at the clouds, not the photograph. It’s one of those collections whose images speak for themselves – it’s rare, but you can actually look through the image, through the ink, through the page, through the book, and into the scene itself – nothing more, and nothing less.

Image from Amazon

And you know what, I really, really like it. To be honest, this book isn’t for everybody. Many viewers will find it extremely boring; page after page after page of nothing but clouds, tornadoes, rain, and myriad other forms of atmospheric precipitation. But to a huge Magritte fan like myself, who lives in the tropics and sees nothing but perhaps two or three common varieties of cumulus (and if you’re lucky, the occasional cirrocumulus) – it’s like looking at pornography. I can only imagine how much more interesting my cityscapes would be against a backdrop of enormous dramatic clouds; the interplay of light and shadow off the glass facades of modern architecture. Alas, Erskine’s problem is perhaps the opposite of mine: he has no end of clouds to play with, but nary any more construction than a grain silo or barn – the equivalent to our local clouds.

Image from Amazon

Almost all of the images in the book were shot with a wide angle, large-format camera; there really is no other way to capture the scale and majesty of the formations otherwise. I’m curious though, with such a slow method of working, how on earth does he get out of the way of the weather in time? It must be a pretty near thing in some of the images.

Image from Amazon

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in the great empty plains, or wanted to, then this is the book for you. It’s as much about the infinite fractal variety in nature as it is about the powerful beauty of clouds. And if you don’t like clouds, or prefer to live in the city, then it would at least make a great present for your meteorologist. MT

Book review: Magnum Contact Sheets

Like most photographers, I do like a good fine art book of images – especially if the content is first rate. Books can be a source of inspiration and ideas, as well as a good reality check to see what’s out there in the world of photography. This will be the first in a longer term series of book reviews, in which I’ll highlight anything I find particularly interesting, and how it’s relevant to photography or developing your skills further. The minimum benchmark is of course that I must find the book worthwhile enough to purchase, but I’ll reserve the right to call out work so singularly execrable that I would be doing a disservice to the buying public if I didn’t warn them away from it.

First off: it’s a Magnum anthology, which means there aren’t going to be any bad images in here. Even the ones that are perhaps compositionally less strong are pretty darn impressive, more so when you read the context and understand the back story.

The book is also full of interesting little tidbits: I didn’t know that most of Robert Capa’s negatives from the Normandy invasion were actually spoiled by the developer – they were overcooked in the drying cupboard and melted – the few that were salvageable were the ones where the emulsion had slipped from the celluloid, but not completely come off; this is why all of the series seem to have some motion blur in them. I thought it was either due to the intensity of the moment, or the technical limitations imposed by cameras and films of the day. Interestingly, I think one could argue that the images are just as powerful despite being technically imperfect; the additional dynamic added adds a real sense of urgency, panic and chaos – which is precisely what war is.

However, the real kicker here is that the images presented aren’t just the single ‘selected’ iconic ones, but also the ones before and after – i.e. a contact sheet of that entire roll of film. For me, this was mind blowing: I have long been under the impression that the photography greats just take one, or at most two, shots and then nail the image; they don’t. They work the scene with at least one, sometimes more, rolls of film before they get what they need. It’s an incremental process. You can actually visualize the compositional development process in the mind of the photographer from shot to shot, especially if the subject is relatively static and predictable so they have the opportunity to try different things and execute incremental refinements.

What I’d take away from this – other than the powerful images and great (but not excellent) printing is that although the great photographers no doubt have huge innate talent – you can see that already from the first shot in the series, usually – but they also have the determination and patience to keep shooting until they know they’ve nailed it. That, combined with the selection process afterwards, is what makes all the difference between being perceived as a mediocre to average photographer, or an incredible one. It’s not that famous photographers don’t take crappy shots; we usually don’t get to see them.

There’s no referral program for people who live in Malaysia, so go ahead and buy it from your favorite retailer. Product images from Amazon. MT