I’ve always liked the photographs of René Burri. Burri came from Switzerland and was a longtime member of the Magnum Agency. His documentary work and his portraits appeared in many of the great news magazines. I picked up the major retrospective of his work, simply titled Photographs, a few year ago and recently acquired the two volume work, Mouvement.
I read a number of obituaries when he passed away in 2014 and was intrigued by a comment in the one which appeared in The Guardian. Amanda Hopkinson wrote:
A commission might provide him with the means to visit a new region, but then he would extend his stay, to ‘get beneath the surface’. It is almost possible to tell how long Burri stayed in a particular place by how close he got to his subjects: two monks performing deep bows to one another before a temple in Kyoto are in long shot; later shots are taken in close-up, inside the monastery.
I expect great photographers to be the sort of people who can land in a new situation and instinctively comprehend and record that world. The idea that a photographer of Burri’s calibre needed time to find his way under the surface of a new place came as quite a revelation, for this is my situation. For me it takes time, often a long time, to move beyond the general and the sweeping and begin to get closer, to understand a place and a people and try to represent that. It’s good to know I’m in good company. Of course for Burri it may have been not so much that he needed time, but that he took time. Either way, I find it an encouraging thought.
There is a great short video from PORT magazine of Burri discussing a number of his photographs on Vimeo.
Here is another short video from Phaidon Press shows Burri discussing his colour work at the time of the launch of Impossible Reminiscences.
On a visit to Reykjavik in 2018 I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, one of five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum holds a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and around 35,000 of these are accessible online. The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. The museum also has a library of photography books and while browsing these I came across several by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but had never looked closely at his work, so this was still something of a new discovery.
Of the books by Axelsson available in the library Fjallaland was the most striking. The books subject is the annual autumn round up of sheep that have spent the summer grazing in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and are being brought down from this highland region for the winter. Axelsson has followied the farmers who take part in the round up for more than two decades, photographing them and the rugged volcanic landscape of the region. The result is a stunning collection, part documentary and part landscape.
I decided I wanted my own copy but a search on the usuals sources showed only a few new copies available which were selling for $300 and upwards, with used copies not much less and often more. So it seemed best to try to find it locally. One Icelandic retailer did claim to have it in stock on their website but when I visited the bricks and mortar outlet they had never heard of it. Another I tried turned out to a fashionable clothes store that also sold a few photobooks and CDs of Icelandic music on the side. When I asked the sales assistant she started wandering round the store searching on random shelves and bits of old furniture that served as display stands for the clothes but also had a few scattered books. So I joined in. And then I found it. The last copy in stock. Some negotiation on price and it was mine for an acceptable $80.
The book itself starts with a satellite image of the Fjallaland region, then a number of aerial shots that give a sense of the landscape, before bringing us to ground level with the farmers as they go about their work. Apart from the aerial images all the pictures are shot in a punchy monochrome. There is some descriptive text scattered throughout but since mine is the Icelandic version I have no idea what it says. No matter, the pictures are what counts.
What makes this project stand out, I think, from his other books I have seen is the concentrated focus on one community, one event, and one location. The project and the book have a coherence that is often lacking in photobooks of more broadly based projects. That Axelsson has been visiting the same community of farmers year after year for decades must create a sense of familiarity and ease with the photographer and his camera that facilitates great images. There is a certain timelessness to the pictures, as though they could have been taken anytime in the last hundred years. Only the ocasional presence of a Land Rover or a truck reminds you that this is a – more or less – contemporary event.
I would highly recommend this book if the images here appeal to you but you will need to have a sizeable book buying budget since it is out of print. I have not seen my Icelandic version on sale anywhere for some time and the English version, Behind the Mountains, goes for 800 – 900 dollars / pounds / euros when it occasionally comes up for sale.
There is an 80 minute documentary made by a Greek television company on YouTube. The video covers the subject of this book at around 50 minutes with some spectacular aerial views of the landscape. The documentary is mostly in English though the conversations in Icelandic are subtitled in Greek only.
An email from Snapfish arrived a couple of days ago reminding me that I hadn’t ordered anything from them for some time. A quick check on the current deals revealed that 20-page 8 x 11 photobooks were going for $1.99 (plus p&p which brings it up to $10, but it’s still a good price). So, not yet having printed any of my pictures from Sofia I decided to do a Sofia photobook and then decided to make it a Sofia on film photobook.
While Snapfish photobooks are not the greatest quality they are decent enough and I’ve probably bought 7 or 8 of them over the last few years taking advantage of the regular deals. It shipped today and assuming there are a few planes still flying in COVID-19 lockdown world it should be here by the end of the month. Over the next few days I’ll post all the pictures.