herald

Friday 9 December 2016

Beauty, in the eye, and words, of the beholder

The Irish Garden By Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession Frances Lincoln (2015) €51.99 HHHHI

Reading a book that is primarily photography is, of course, a unique experience - reading isn't always about words. The reason a cliché like 'a picture is worth a thousand words' is a cliché is because there is some truth in it (and that thought is a cliché too!).

When we 'read' an image, I would argue that it's more of an emotional response than a factual one; even though reading words obviously can evoke feelings, sometimes when we react to a picture, we can't even begin to use words to describe that reaction.

This is a challenge I must overcome as I look at photo and image-led books this week. I shall rise to the occasion. Happily, here we have a prefect wedding of words and pictures, united to create a gorgeous volume, full of factual and visual information.

From the big houses to rambles through vegetable gardens, Powers covers every manner of cultivated ground that you could think of.

Her voice is assured, not only in its wealth of facts and information, but also in its passion and its passionate approach to her subject. It is so enjoyable to be in such good hands, to be taken through places with such authority: sure, you can wander around the grounds of Bantry House, or the Japanese Gardens in Kildare, and enjoy the sensory input, but to do so with Powers makes it infinitely more rewarding.

Hession's photographs are the perfect accompaniment, providing a lovely balance of detail along with images that are of a larger perspective.

An extreme close-up of a snowdrop sits comfortably with a sweeping panorama, as if his camera has anticipated exactly where we would want our eyes drawn next.

It's soothing to page through and see just how diverse our landscape is, and how many talented gardeners have imparted their vision to the land within out imposing upon it.

The book is big, a hardcover of almost 400 pages, so it's not a casual read.

This definitely ought not be relegated to the coffee-table book brigade - those tomes that look good but aren't really up to much in the words department. This is an excellent balance between prose and photography, and I hope that those that invest in it give their best attention to both.

Isabella Bird

By Debbie Ireland Ammonite (2015) €37.50 HHHHI

Are you in the market for a new heroine? I've got one right here.

The first woman to be elected to the Royal Geographical Society in 1891, Bird was a world traveller and photographer in an era in which women didn't really get to do much of anything, unless they were plonked on a throne.

I read Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, and read it very slowly, as her account was astonishingly harrowing, yet was imbued with such blasé can-do attitude, it made me feel like running out an having an adventure. There's the same feeling here, along with a breathtaking admiration for the woman's sheer guts and grit.

Isabella wasn't the healthiest petal on the flower, yet despite this, she managed to get herself and all her unwieldy equipment to the Far East.

Most of her initial travelling was inspired by her ill health, and what had started as a rest cure became her life's passion.

Here, she made her way to China, a land which rarely, if actually ever, saw a woman travelling on her own.

The books covers the years 1894 to 1896, when Bird was in her 60s (told you: heroine). The photographs are accompanied by her own writing, and author, Ireland, sets the tone with just the correct amount of context in the front of the book.

The quality of the imagery is not what we have become used to in our modern age, when we can fiddle with our likenesses with all manner of filters in the palms of our hands - but given that they are over 100 years old, one makes allowances and adjusts one's contemporary vision.

And it is not only the subjects which are so impressive, the variety of the landscapes and the portraits that Bird captured; for me, it goes right back to Bird herself, an indomitable, talented woman, pushing the boundaries of her time, if not ignoring them altogether.

Despite the myriad adventures of her life, all the trials encountered and challenges overcome, she passed peacefully in her bed at the age of 73, her bags having been packed for yet another journey to China. Amazing!

Equus

By Tim Flach Abrams (2015) €19.99 HHHII

This is a coffee table book, for sure: the images are stunning, and any text longer than a caption didn't really merit a look in.

Flach travelled the world over, from India to Utah, capturing the horse in great detail, from its broad range of movement (including some seriously terrifying images of horses jumping over the photographer) down to the smallest tuft of hair on its coat.

We've got everything here from zonkeys to images of equine embryos, and if you're a horse enthusiast (like me), there's nothing here not to love.

From the wild mustangs of America to the extraordinarily pampered herd of Arabians in the United Arab Emirates, and almost every part of the horse, from its hocks to its limpid eyes, are treated to an intense perusal from Flach's camera.

I did find the organisation of the book to be somewhat haphazard, despite being so comprehensive - but the images are lovely.

See For Yourself

By Rob Forbes Chronicle (2015) €23.99 HHIII

Design books are also big in the realm of imagery-related publishing. Here, Forbes organises photos he's taken, during his travels round the world, into categories. He invites us to see the world around us differently, in terms of different categories, such as composition, colour, and repetition of form.

It's interesting when you start applying such concepts to your own slice of the world, and it is also a novel approach to talking about design ideas and making them accessible to the general public.

Forbes's tone is chatty and straightforward; he imparts big ideas with an easygoing passion that is truly engaging.

The photos are not of the highest quality, unfortunately. While they do the work of demonstrating the ideas, the images themselves aren't always terribly strong in and of themselves.

Still, a refreshing approach to thinking about shapes and colours and patterns - one we take for granted or never even notice.

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