Essays: examples of my photo book criticism.

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(Adam Donaldson Powell, selfie)

EXAMPLES OF MY PHOTO BOOK CRITICISM:

ALBERT RUSSO: A professional photographer finds his «inner tourist».

Review of «Norway to Spitzberg», photography by Albert Russo; published by Blurb Inc., 580 California Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA, http://www.blurb.com. Price: US$31.95, published in 2007, hardbound, glossy paper, 144 pages (also available as softcover, glossy paper, price: US$24.95).

Albert Russo’s photographic essay illustrating a cruise ship voyage with the Costa Atlantica («La città ideale») along the coast of Norway, from the city of Bergen (birthplace of composer Edvard Grieg) to the top of the globe (Spitzberg) is fascinating not only because of his realizing the full circle of «post-post-realism» in modern photography, but also because Mr. Russo transforms the tourist «photo-stalker» experience into the creation of a professional visual compendium – combining dramatic and magnificent seascapes, fjordscapes and landscapes with the intimacy of still lifes, the humanity of people at work and play and in their quiet, alone moments, as well as the extremities of fauna, and indigenous peoples and their cultural expressions and living environments.

It is not difficult to understand that Mr. Russo is also an accomplished poet and a master of prose-writing. The stories he tells in this photographic essay are not a mere show of proficiency as regards each individual work of art, but rather a dance of images as vivid as an operatic performance – full of passion, drama, silences, humour and music.

Mr. Russo has employed a Canon digital Ixus 55 – 5.0 megapixels camera, with 3x optical zoom. His «eye» for discerning, and his talent for capturing the «photographic moment», the mastery of light and clarity vs. slight distortion etc. is a testament to his delicious sense of artistry as well as his empathy for the experience of being human.

Review by Adam Donaldson Powell, 2007, Oslo, Norway. Adam Donaldson Powell is a professional reviewer, visual artist and the author of five collections of poetry, short stories, essays, literary criticism, and photography. He has performed his poetry all over the world – from New York City to Buenos Aires to Oslo to Kathmandu. His reviews have been published in several countries.

ALBERT RUSSO – Poet as photographer / Photographer as poet.

Albert Russo – novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet ….. photographer.

Of some fifty-five book publications to-date, eighteen of Russo’s books are photographic essays. These titles include impressions from travels around the world, quirkiness and humour in human experience, studies of sculptures, autobiographical essays with photography as the medium, and more. Had Russo not had such a passion for art and literature, he would surely have had a fine career as a photojournalist for commercial publishers of travel books, travel guides and travel magazines. However, Russo’s inclination towards the artistic and social elements of human predicament and expression, coupled with his love of poetry, has resulted in a myriad of publications which effectively express poetic and literary curiosity through poetry’s modern-day “first cousin”: photography. I use the word “curiosity” intentionally as Russo never forces his impressions upon us as an expression of “truth”, but rather guides us through his own personal experiences and thoughts through visual exposés. Sometimes the progressive order of photographs in some of his books can seem somewhat illogical as Russo presents us with his own “connections” between impressions as he sees them as an artist – rather than grouping photographs in an order that an advertising executive or commercial travel book might choose. This is Russo’s prerogative, his perspective .. and an important aspect of his own unique poetic expression.

Some of his photography books are combinations of texts and pictures, and others are without texts. The absence of titles is a bold artistic statement in itself, relying upon the strength and the progression of photographs themselves to tell the author’s/photographer’s personal story. Personally, I prefer the books that consist of photographs alone as I do not always relate to the accompanying texts and find them sometimes to be as annoying as I find signatures on the front side of paintings (when the signatures not only do not add to the overall work of art, but actually detract from the viewing experience). But this is a question of personal taste. Having a background both within visual art and poetry, I – like Albert Russo – am capable of understanding the “poetry” in the photographic presentations without explanation or added literary decoration. I think this is true for many (if not most) persons who enjoy photography books as works of art.

Russo’s photographic essays to-date include: “A poetic biography”, “Brussels ride”, “Chinese puzzle”, “City of lovers”, “Granada”, “En / in France”, “Israel at heart”, “Italia nostra”, “Mexicana”, “New York at heart”, “Pasión de España”, “Quirk”, “Rainbow nature”, “Saint-Malo”, “Sardinia”, “Sri Lanka”, and his newest: “Body glorious” and “Norway to Spitzberg” (both released in 2007). These are almost exclusively full-colour photos .. a medium which Russo plays with combining childlike naiveté and curiosity for the unusual aspects of the “banal”, and exciting excursions into the nature and the planet’s overall cultural diversity, with a broad palette of professional techniques. Russo goes to great pains to mix traditional images with their contemporary partners and counterparts, and to play with exposure, light, filters and clarity/non-clarity in order to exaggerate aspects of the culture and to communicate his own personal experiences and sensations. I would like to see a photographic essay by Albert Russo, in which he translates his interactive communication between photographer/poet and subject to the medium of black and white photography. I am certain that Russo would find even more exciting nuances and enigmatic photographic puzzles through the usage of light, shadows, layers of greyness etc., which would even further enhance his natural highly-effective ability to penetrate beyond picture-taking .. and far, far into the inner energy forms and thoughts of his photographic subjects/objects and their surrounding environment/conditions.

Perhaps the most unusual photographic essay is his “A Poetic Biography”, published in 2006. The book is exactly what the title suggests: a collection of photographs of Russo, his family members and friends in various situations and environments, and over a period of several decades. Here Russo includes both photographs of people (colour and some black and white), photographs of letters and telefaxes, telegrams, articles on Russo as an author etc. – all without explanation or commentary. In this way, Russo uses the classic “first person” style of prose-writing to create an almost surrealistic glimpse into the inner reaches of Russo’s personality, history, personal life, ambitions and self-identity. The book leaves us with a yearning to discover that personal aspect which Russo has not commented on, but which most other artists and authors usually make no bones about proclaiming ad nauseam: namely, his dreams .. and what his life might have been like otherwise.

Another fun and beautiful photographic exposé is Russo’s latest book: “Norway to Spitzberg”. I have previously reviewed this book and commented:

“Albert Russo’s photographic essay illustrating a cruise ship voyage with the Costa Atlantica («La città ideale») along the coast of Norway, from the city of Bergen (birthplace of composer Edvard Grieg) to the top of the globe (Spitzberg) is fascinating not only because of his realizing the full circle of «post-post-realism» in modern photography, but also because Mr. Russo transforms the tourist «photo-stalker» experience into the creation of a professional visual compendium – combining dramatic and magnificent seascapes, fjordscapes and landscapes with the intimacy of still lifes, the humanity of people at work and play and in their quiet, alone moments, as well as the extremities of fauna, and indigenous peoples and their cultural expressions and living environments. It is not difficult to understand that Mr. Russo is also an accomplished poet and a master of prose-writing. The stories he tells in this photographic essay are not a mere show of proficiency as regards each individual work of art, but rather a dance of images as vivid as an operatic performance – full of passion, drama, silences, humour and music. Mr. Russo has employed a Canon digital Ixus 55 – 5.0 megapixels camera, with 3x optical zoom. His «eye» for discerning, and his talent for capturing the «photographic moment», the mastery of light and clarity vs. slight distortion etc. is a testament to his delicious sense of artistry as well as his empathy for the experience of being human.”

Out of curiosity, I took contact with Albert Russo to ask him to comment on his love for photography. Here is his comment:

“In response to your question: I’ve always liked photography, from my adolescent years in Africa; actually I loved filming too and my 8mm or super 8mm films looked more like stills than films. People would complain telling me: “Oh God, five minutes on the same object, flower, trees, landscape, whatever, enough already!” Ever since my African days I’ve been taking photos with all kinds of cameras, from the standard Kodak box, to the famous German Minox, to the Fujica ST-605 (wonderful camera that accompanied me everywhere) – often using the Rexastar lens for close-ups) (1:3.5 – f- 135mm) alternately with the smaller but very friendly Minolta 70W Riva zoom, and now with the Canon digital Ixus 55. I have probably forgotten a few other cameras I had. Oh I used to take many colour slides in Africa (which I still have tucked away somewhere, and should think of printing the best). Poetry and photography? They are always closely related. A good picture tells a thousand things to the beholder if he/she pays attention to it, and the ‘right’ word suggests a thousand other things, that is why I never like to simply write captions under my photos. Actually now I do not wish to write anything at all, the photo must speak to you on its own.”

In conclusion, I would recommend that art photography and poetry enthusiasts take note of this talented artist. As one who has reviewed his collected poetry and read many of his novels, short stories and essays, I can attest that his literary talent complements his photographic expression. Albert Russo is artistically self-integrated in all of his creative disciplines.

Copyright 2007, Adam Donaldson Powell.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL (Norway) is a literary critic and a multilingual author, writing in English, Spanish, French and Norwegian; and a professional visual artist. He has published several books (including collections of poetry, short stories, short novels, photography and literary criticism) in the USA, Norway and India, as well as numerous works in international literary publications on several continents. He has previously authored theatrical works performed onstage, and he has (to-date) read his poetry at venues in New York City, Oslo (Norway), Buenos Aires and Kathmandu (Nepal).

GEERT VERBEKE & JENNY OVAERE

 

ABRACADABRA: NOT JUST ‘BLACK AND WHITE’.

Review of «Abracadabra», black-white photography and haiku book by Geert Verbeke and Jenny Ovaere; self-published, printed by Ye Print Kortrijk (Flanders), published in 2008, softcover, glossy paper, 112 pages, ISBN: 9789081291828. Order the book directly from the artists (see http://www.haikugeert.net).

ABRACADABRA, true to the style of Geert Verbeke and most mature artists, poses more open questions than gives concrete answers. This collection of black-white photographs and haiku is an ambitious endeavour, challenging both the artists and the public in many ways. What would otherwise be perceived as yet another beautiful coffee table book of brilliant black-white photographs is transformed into a journey – not only to different physical destinations, but also to diverse states of mind and culture, all the while creating many levels of intellectual and artistic complexity which far surpass black-white photography in its most simplistic form as a medium in that Verbeke and Ovaere actually create “colour” in their use of the medium. This “colour” is further accentuated by the bilingual haiku that accompany each photo. I use the verb “accompany” loosely here, as the two mediums (photography and haiku) function at times both together, at times in complement with each other and at other times separately, from page to page. The discussion regarding combination of photography and text is a complicated and potentially controversial one, which I will introduce shortly.

Verbeke and Ovaere have employed Pentax IST-DS, zoom lenses 18-55, 28-80 mm, 80-320 mm and D-A Fish-eye 7-17 mm; and Pentax IST-DL, zoom lenses 28-200 mm and 18-55 mm. The photographers’ natural abilities to “see” and to “capture” images, and to find the poetry of the moment are quite remarkable. The individual photographs in this book, the reproduction of the photographs, the sequencing of the images, the quality of paper used, and the layout and format of the book all work very well together with the photographic artistry – giving the reader a sense of having been in or having observed the depicted situations himself/herself. In addition, the photographs often give the impression of expansion of format: transforming small images to the big screen in the mind’s eye – sometimes “inside looking out” and at other times “outside looking in”. This is, of course, very much the function of poetry … and perhaps even more specifically of the haiku.

These photographs function very well as a pure book of photography, and even as a private photography gallery exhibition. I have written elsewhere that I prefer photography books without captions and titles. Therefore, it is only natural that I address this question in the case of Abracadabra. As stated above, this is often a sensitive and over-debated question. However, I do not believe that it is solely a question of aesthetics or subjective ‘likes and dislikes’ / personal preferences. There are also the questions of functionality, total artistic impression as well as technical questions such as “when is more actually too much?” Are the haiku captions or poetry? Do they serve a complementary function or an interpretative function, and are they (in fact) essential to understanding the photographs? Is the placement of these haiku optimal, or would another approach to combining photography and haiku have a stronger effect? These are all questions that strike me in my own personal experience of this extraordinary book of photography.

Firstly, I am rather indifferent as to whether one technically categorizes the texts as captions, loose short poetry or haiku in this particular work. I have read the haiku individually, attempting to not see the photographs … and then again together with the photographs. I personally find the combination as presented to be a bit “over the top” – often functioning as an afterthought to the photographs which is largely unnecessary and sometimes directly competitive as art forms. It is not my impression that the haiku have a complementary function in all instances, but that some cross the boundary over to becoming interpretative. In addition, I feel that many of these short poems could function quite well on their own – i.e. independently of the photographs – but perhaps not all of them. What would I have preferred? I would have preferred a version of this book where the photographs were permitted to live their own lives on each page, followed by a haiku section. This would allow the reader / viewer to experience the visual, intellectual and emotional openness of both artistic forms of expression – both independently, and in “indirect” comparison, without the one form competing with, overshadowing or directly leading / affecting the experiential and interpretative process of the reader / viewer. Just as one cannot really directly compare a book and a film based upon the same book, photography and poetry are quite related in functionality and expression but they both have their own distinctive voices. This discussion is (as previously said) a complicated one.

All in all, Abracadabra is a brilliant, captivating and personally transporting work aesthetically. One is easily drawn into both photos and texts. As I previously have seen in the haiku, tanka and haibun of Geert Verbeke: nothing is just ‘black and white’, and there is always in his work an invitation to discussion. Perhaps that is part of what “art” is all about …

— copyright Adam Donaldson Powell, 2008.

RENDEZVOUS:

 

Seldom does a book leave me totally speechless, and when I do have such an experience (mind you only for moments – I do love to express myself in words) it more often than not is a book of art photography or superbly-written haiku. In their latest artistic venture: «Rendezvous», Geert Verbeke and Jenny Ovaere have worked their «magic» and spun gold out of pure simplicity. I have reviewed many a haiku book, many a haiku plus illustration or haiku plus photography book, including several by Geert Verbeke, but in this instance the total symmetry of art plus literature has approached new heights in terms the «book as an artistic medium». Both because of the superb art presented and because of the superb presentation of the art. In «Rendezvous» they have found the optimal format for combining haiku and art photography, giving each its proper place in the limelight, and together forming a musical backdrop egging the book admirer to dance forwards and backwards, again and again. This is not merely a book with good art in it, the book is itself a work of art.

Geert Verbeke is renowned as a haiku artist, musician, painter and photographer, but in this work he has successfully combined all of his talents to portray the essence and spirit of Nepal, in its various spontaneous and traditional cultural perspectives. Anyone who has been in Nepal will most likely instantly be transported back to their experiences there while looking at this beautiful book. And that is what good art does: it affects and inspires the observer/recipient in a way that he/she becomes a participating creator himself/herself.

It is customary to list the cameras and objectives used by the artists, so I will do so just briefly: Geert Verbeke: Pentax IST-DS, Pentax K200 +zoom 18-5, 28-80 mm, 80-320 mm. Jenny Ovaere: Pentax IST-D-L+ 40 mm, 28-200 mm & 18-55 mm.

The «magic» created by these two artists goes far beyond their technical abilities or the photographic equipment used. The book is tastefully not numbered (as that would detract from the overall sensation of the work) so it is difficult for me to cite particular photos. All are wonderful, but in my opinion the portraits are breathtakingly exquisite and are (together) worthy of a contemporary art museum exhibition in their own right. The art photography books that I have seen by Geert Verbeke and Jenny Ovaere have all been professionally-produced, with excellent reproduction, design and binding. Here there is no exception. And like all works of genius, this work of art is presented with simplicity and modesty. This is a book to be treasured, but also to be brought out and looked at from time to time, over and over again. Namaste!

– Adam Donaldson Powell, Oslo, Norway, 2010.

BOWLS.

 

BOWLS: Geert Verbeke’s follow-up art photography book to “Rendezvous” is entitled “Bowls”. This small book is a pearl amongst pearls. The mastery of technical and artistic decision-making employed in exacting art and sound from these highly-meditative photos is astounding. To write any more would simply detract from the beauty of this work of art. Geert Verbeke rules!

– Adam Donaldson Powell, Oslo, Norway, 2010

 

GEERT VERBEKE: Born in Kortrijk, Flanders (Europe). Geert began writing haiku in 1968. The decisive factor to study haiku was the discovery of the Himalayan singing bowls and the travels to Kathmandu, the Sinaï-desert, Istanbul, Tunisia, Djerba, France, Tanzania, Zanzibar and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. Geert has also written a few books about singing bowls. He has, in addition to have published several books on haiku, haibun, senyru and tanka and singing bowls, recorded 11 cd’s with singing bowls, gongs and percussion. Geert is self-taught as a photographer, and often combines art photography with his literature.

JENNY OVAERE: Born in Stasegem, Flanders (Europe). Jenny is self-taught as a photographer. An ex-teacher, she has travelled the world and worked as a professional art photographer for many years.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL (Norway) is a literary critic and a multilingual author, writing in English, Spanish, French and Norwegian; and a professional visual artist. He has published several books (including collections of poetry, short stories, short novels, photography and literary criticism) in the USA, Norway and India, as well as numerous works in international literary publications on several continents. He has previously authored theatrical works performed onstage, and he has (to-date) read his poetry at venues in New York City, Oslo (Norway), Buenos Aires and Kathmandu (Nepal).

(All photos on this webpage courtesy of Albert Russo, Geert Verbeke and Jenny Ovaere.)

(Adam Donaldson Powell, selfie)

 

 

2 Comments on “Essays: examples of my photo book criticism.

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