In these Covid-times most of us are forgoing any travel, except imaginatively through movies, television shows, books, websites, and other forms of media. Nor are we regularly meeting people we don’t know, and what rare social interactions we do have are socially-distanced, our interlocuters and ourselves masked, speaking in muffled tones and wary—
even fearful— of each other. In such circumstances, illustrated books have an increased allure. Four recently published photography books are cases in point. Here, potentially, are versions of the kind of experiences we miss.
The art of travel grew in popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and depicted people and places that the intended audiences would never see. The types of images basically split into two camps: documentation and interpretation. One can imagine the two camps of artists saying either, “this is what I saw, let me tell you about it,” or, “this is what I saw, let me tell you what I think it means.” One was an aide-memoire, whether for an actual memory or a borrowed one, the other an attempt at understanding. Both approaches are mixed in contemporary practices, though photography has supplanted painting and drawing as the primary means of conveying travel imagery. There are distinct differences in the approach to making pictures adopted by photographers, of course, most of whom, I am willing to guess, think of themselves as artists, but not all of whom make pictures that the art world would call art. But that’s an old conundrum, and I’m not going to try and define art here. I am going to draw a distinction between the purpose of these books, and the intent of their authors. Quite simply, of the four titles, two are “rhetorical.” That is, they strive to communicate ideas about a place so as to convince of their theses: “these places are beautiful, and you should visit (or revisit) them yourself.” The other two are “existential,” in that they are about the fact of the things depicted, their presence in the world: “these things are, isn’t it fascinating?”
Lost in Newfoundland by Michael Winsor, and Coastal Nova Scotia by Adam Cornick, both feature the work of extremely skilled and persuasive photographers. Anyone who does not want to visit the places they depict is simply not paying attention. Whether it is in Winsor’s photographs of icebergs, or Cornick’s images of lighthouses at the golden hour of dusk, their images both convey and convince. They convey a sense of what we think we know about their subjects—these are the things we want to see when we visit these places—and they convince us because the images are so skillful. Most of us would happily substitute Winsor’s photograph of moonrise over Barbour Living Heritage Village for any of our holiday snaps, as we would Cornick’s sunset picture from Driftwood Beach. Their use of varied lenses, knowledge of effects made possible by aperture settings, time lapses, and post-production techniques, all combine to create images that are somehow more real than the actual views would seem to the naked eye. Apologies to painting— but it is really only photography that has the ability to be hyper-real because the camera sees more than we ever could.
Lost in Newfoundland (Breakwater Books) is itself about the size of a snapshot—around 5 x 6 inches. Leafing through it is like looking at a photo album, with Winsor’s descriptive captions playing the part of the handwritten notes in such an album. For the most part it works well, though the occasional full-bleed images have captions on the images themselves, which is sometimes distracting. However, the book works like the perfect photo album of the perfect trip to Newfoundland—one not limited by vacation time, and in which we see all the beauties promised to us by the advocates for Newfoundland tourism. If you wanted to convince someone to visit that province, this book would be a powerful aid.
Coastal Nova Scotia (Nimbus Publishing) by Adam Cornick is another ode to home, in this case, the home of choice of an expatriate Briton. Why Cornick chose to pull up stakes and move to another country is an underlying theme of this book, it bubbles over with his enthusiasm for Nova Scotia. His comment about his reaction to Cape Breton actually carries through the whole book: “I need to get every person I care about to experience this at least once in their life!” Subtitled “a photographic tour,” Coastal Nova Scotia is a fun trip around the province with a gregarious enthusiast.
But what of the second category of illustrated books, those I’ve called, rather loosely, “existential?” Lintels of Paris (Anchorage Press) by Thaddeus Holownia, is the latest in a long series of books by one of Canada’s most highly regarded photographers. Holownia works mostly with large format view cameras— the photographs in Lintels of Paris were shot with a camera that produced 4 x 10 inch film negatives, and the images in the book are printed at that size. The decorated lintels that Holownia has chosen as his subject stretch over doorways of buildings dating from 1860 to 1930, often featuring elaborate sculptural decoration. They are the kind of urban detail that is invisible until one looks closely, and, once one does, the city’s fabric is enlivened.
These strips of buildings, however, are hardly typical travel photography, not vistas nor views, but intent examples of looking, of focus. The book itself is a work of art, a portfolio of duotone prints that continue Holownia’s long exploration of how best to present photography in book form. One could not navigate Paris using Holownia’s book, but one can, and does, get pleasurably lost in the rich detail of these photographs.
Another thing that the pandemic has taken from us, at least for a while, is other people. We live in bubbles, which expand and contract with each succeeding wave of infections. Sadly, strangers are no longer friends we haven’t met, but potential carriers of a dreaded disease. James Wilson’s Social Studies (Goose Lane Editions) is a book of portraits, black and white studies of individuals mostly photographed in Wilson’s Saint John studio, over a period of almost two decades. The act of inviting friends, acquaintances, even perfect strangers, into one’s living and working space is almost shocking in early 2021, the once-normal transformed into an artifact from a more innocent time. Photographs of artists, writers, actors, musicians, and dancers are interspersed amidst those of farmers, labourers, cooks, lawyers, journalists, and architects. Wilson shares portraits of the very old and the very young, of the socially prominent and of the outcasts.
All of his models are photographed using only natural light against a neutral grey background, a leveling effect that takes nothing away from the inherent dignity of each subject. The individuals, for the most part, stand quietly, many holding or otherwise displaying objects that relate to their status (artists with an example of their work; a chef in her toque and coat, holding a knife at her side; a medical resident in scrubs wearing a stethoscope; a WWII veteran proudly wearing his medals). A scientist and a farmer both hold birds, an artist and a writer hold books. These details, chosen by the models, add a level of interest to the photographs, a clue or a message, and certainly another point of connection.
As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, photographs “are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” These four books, couched in different tones, express their viewpoints in different ways, yet all present us with ways to see more than we might otherwise. Whether rhetorical or existential, documentary or interpretative, these books provide us with experiences that, more so than ever, we would miss otherwise.