From Victorian Scotland in 3D to Pyongyang in pastel shades: the best photography books of 2019
Roger Cox selects the best photography books of the year, where the focus is on the bigger picture
Scotland small?” wrote Hugh MacDiarmid in his 1938 long poem Dìreadh. “Our multiform / our infinite Scotland small?” And in case anyone still needs convincing, eight decades later, that there’s more to Scotland than first meets the eye, some of this year’s best photography books show just how multiform and infinite it can be.
Having produced a stunning, warts-and-all portrait of the island of St Kilda in 2017, which gave as much prominence to utilitarian MOD structures as it did to the picturesque abandoned houses of Village Bay, in his latest book, Isle of Rust (Luath, £20), Alex Boyd turns his lens on Lewis and Harris. Inspired by Jonathan Meades’ essay of the same name, in which he muses “whoever would have thought that the last remaining bastion of fundamental Calvinism would become the site of a scrap cult,” Boyd once again goes in search of a representative mixture of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
There are sweeping island vistas here, sure – Storm Approaching the Valtos Peninsular, Lewis, for example, is a spectacular study in contrast as a huge black cloud threatens to envelop a peaceful, sunlit patch of farmland – but for every picture-postcard view, there are three or four images of decay: cars and buses left to rust out in the open; boats and bits of boats slowly disintegrating along the tideline; and multitudinous ruined crofts with rusting corrugated iron roofs. This isn’t ugliness for the sake of it, however. Some of Boyd’s rust pictures – Rusted Bicycle, Bragar, Lewis, for example, in which the handlebars of a child’s bike poke up out of a bog like some strange, alien totem pole – are as aesthetically-pleasing as any of his more conventional landscapes. What he’s aiming for, I think, is simply a degree of honesty. Boyd is an equal opportunities snapper, one who refuses to discriminate based on conventional ideas of what is “worth” photographing and what is not.
The Secret Life of the Cairngorms by Andy Howard (Sandstone, £24.99) could almost be dedicated, after MacDiarmid, to “A fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’” His wildlife photographs are divided into four main habitats – Lochs and Rivers, Woodland and Forest, Moorland and heath and the High Plateaux – and they show the region, far from being an endless expanse of heather, to be teeming with life. All the usual Cairngorms suspects are here, from red squirrels, mountain hares and red deer to ptarmigan, red grouse and ospreys – and there’s a sequence of one of the latter plucking a large trout from the water that will have jaws on the floor. However, some of the highlights are of creatures less commonly associated with the area: the regally coiffed Slavonian Grebe, for example, the quizzical-looking red legged partridge or the ingenious crossbill. There’s even a ferocious-looking mink chowing down on a salmon almost twice its size. Multiform doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Books that combine photography and poetry can go either way, but in Strath (Easel Press, £25), Norman McBeath and Robert Crawford prove to be something of a dream team. Crawford, who as well as being one of Scotland’s leading contemporary poets is also a professor of English at the University of St Andrews, has set out to translate some of the most notable poets from the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279AD) from the original Chinese into “synthetic Scots” – an endeavour of which McDiarmid, a committed internationalist who first pioneered such linguistic experiments, would surely have approved. These poems, along with English translations, appear opposite beautiful, semi-abstract black and white nature photographs by McBeath. Patterns seem to be McBeath’s main concern here, from those made by leaves floating on the surface of a pond to those left by the feet of birds walking on mud. The overall effect is soothing, almost meditative, but this being Crawford things never get too po-faced, and there’s the odd chuckle along the way too.
Some of the earliest photographs in existence were made in Scotland, thanks to the pioneering work of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and as such Scotland is a nation with a particularly rich photographic history. It’s true, of course, that pictures taken more than a century ago can seem so remote they sometimes seem like artefacts from another world, but in Scotland in 3D: A Victorian Virtual Reality Tour (p3Db Publications, £25) Peter Blair invites us to look at pictures from this era in a whole new way, using a special fold-out stereoscope that comes with the book. It might take your eyes a few moments to adjust to this new way of seeing (mine did) but when they do, you really will see these pictures in 3D, and suddenly, magically, those stuffy old Victorians won’t seem quite so remote after all.
Is Calum Colvin a photographer? “Multi-media artist” might be nearer the mark, yet as his unique works wouldn’t be possible without a camera, and as they essentially end up as photographs, it seems fair enough to include The Constructed Worlds of Calum Colvin (Luath, £25), a major new survey of his work by the academic Tom Normand, in this round-up.
Colvin is now well-known for his instantly-recognisable composite images, which involve painting images – often well-kent faces from Scottish history and culture – over carefully-arranged assemblages of bric-a-brac which both blend in with and subtly subvert and disrupt the primary image, then photographing the results. However, he didn’t always work this way, and Normand builds up a fascinating picture of how the artist’s early experiments with everything from Pop Art to Action Men gradually led him to his current modus operandi.
Mocking the more comical excesses of the oppressive regime in North Korea has long been an international pastime (see Team America: World Police), but in Model City Pyongyang (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) Christiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapić do an admirable job of trying to set aside any Western prejudices they might have and taking the city’s monumental architecture at face value. In keeping with the techniques used by Korean artists when depicting the supreme leaders in sacred places, the duo chose to give all the photographs in this book a stark, stylised sky: no clouds, no birds, no planes – just simple gradients of pastel colours, either pinks, blues, oranges or yellows depending on the time of day. As they explain in their introduction, their aim in doing this was to create “a visual alienation, where the real becomes unreal and the unreal becomes real” and the effect is certainly more than a little unsettling. Still, they say their hope with this book is to “open a window into a different culture, and to reveal... a different kind of beauty.” Whether readers are able to find beauty in the stark, Brutalist lines of Pyongyang or not will be a matter of individual taste, but you have to give Bianchi and Drapić credit for trying to open their minds, and ours.
Leapfrogging from one of the most repressive societies the world has ever known to a time and a place where almost anything went, California Trip by former Magnum photographer Dennis Stock (Anthology Editions, £28) is a mesmerising record of a journey he made through the Golden State in 1968, recently re-issued. As seen through his lens, California at this time was a place of extremes – a place where semi-naked hippy couples rode through forests on horseback while engineers in hard hats built enormous satellite dishes to send information into space; where surfers strolled along the beach at Malibu while elderly gents in Homburgs played petanque in Monterey. As Stock put it in his somewhat visionary introduction: “Technological and spiritual quests vibrate throughout the state, intermingling, often creating the ethereal... Our future is being determined in the lab out West.” And so, of course, it proved.
Thames & Hudson continue their series of books drawing on the photography collections of the V&A with Autofocus: The Car in Photography by Marta Weiss (£24.95). Rather than try to wrestle her subject into some sort of overarching thesis, Weiss keeps things loose, stating very simply at the outset: “This book is not about cars. This book is not even about photographs of cars. This book is about photographs with cars in them.” That said, she still finds time to make some interesting points about the symbolism of the automobile, via the work of Brian Duffy, whose image of a couple of models driving an open-top E-Type Jaguar down a deserted M1 in 1961 prefigures the optimism of the Swinging Sixties, and via Robert A Widdicombe’s more ambivalent 1979 shot Cadillac Ranch, showing a row of Cadillacs half-buried in the desert next to Route 66. Also dating from the 1970s, and deliciously seedy thanks to their reliance on artificial light, are Langdon Clay’s “Cars” pictures, showing cars parked at night on the streets of New York and New Jersey, looking like so many scenes from a David Lynch film.
And finally, for those who love to marvel at technical perfection, Astronomy Photographer of the Year (Collins, £25) is packed with images that push the medium to the outer limits of what’s possible. How did Alessandro Cantarelli of Italy manage to capture, with a sharpness of focus that’s almost hyper-real, a figure holding a torch in the foreground, a lighthouse in the middle distance and the Milky Way above, all as part of a complete 360-degree panorama? And how long did Satie Yang of China have to wait before the aurora borealis provided her with a perfect ribbon of green light with which to frame her picture of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland? Mind-boggling stuff. Oh, and what’s that? You want a shot of the Giant Cosmic Squid Nebula, Ou4? You’re in luck: there’s one of those as well.