Olli Thomson

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…

My true love, and various other people, gave to me…

A TWELVE year old malt whisky. That’s a lie. It’s actually a 14 year old malt whisky but I didn’t have a fourteenth day available. To be specific, The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14. I’ve never been a great fan of these experimental whiskies finished in all manner of casks but I once tried a 21 year old Glenfiddich finished in Cuban rum casks and it was excellent. Since then other whisky makers have joined the rum parade.

According to the Balvenie website they use traditional American oak casks and fill them with rum. This is different from the Glenfiddich approach where they bring in the casks directly from Caribbean rum producers. These days the Glenfiddich no longer identifies the specific origin of the casks. I wondered if the switch from the specifically Cuban provenance had anything to do with the American trade boycott, but one of the regional representatives for William Grant I met while in the Philippines told me the reason was that they were not able to guarantee supplies of a sufficient quality from Cuba alone so they had to look more widely. I haven’t opened this bottle yet but on the next cold wintry night I might have a taste.ELEVEN. I’ve got nothing.

TEN roles of HP5 Plus. It turns out that while developing film is relatively cheap here in Bulgaria buying film is quite expensive so I ordered this from an excellent online film store in the UK called Analogue Wonderland who have just about every film currently in production available to order.

This is something of a departure for me since I’ve always been a colour photographer but I’ve been shooting more in black and white since I started using film cameras again. Right now I have 21 rolls of black and white film and three of colour film. I’ve no idea why I’ve moved in this direction, but having done so I did decide to stop experimenting with multiple different film types and settle instead on two or three only and get to know them well. Since I already had some HP5, and since it is reasonably priced, it made sense to make this one of those preferred films.

NINE. Asgjë.

EIGHT. Nichts.

SEVEN. Wala.

SIX. нищо.

FIVE photobooks! Now we’re talking. These weren’t all Christmas presents as such. Some I had ordered many months ago for delivery to my UK address to be picked up when I was back over the holidays, but since I finally took possession of them at Christmas I’m going to consider them Christmas gifts.

First, Passing Time by Lui Hock Seng. Mr Lui is an amateur photographer from Singapore who is still photographing the city even though he is now into his 80’s. The book was produced to accompany an exhibition of Lui’s work last year and consists of images made in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Lui’s images convey a sense of what Singapore was like before the incredible burst of development that has created the modern city. Lui did not see himself as a documentary photographer but rather a pictorialist aiming to create aesthetically pleasing images. The end result is a collection of striking images that also happen to have documentary significance.

Unfortunately the book is not widely available. I ordered my copy direct from the publisher in Singapore, but they will ship internationally.

Next up is Tbilisi by the prolific Martin Parr. This is his latest book and having lived in Tbilisi for a couple of years it was a must have. These are instantly recognisable images with Parr’s typically vivid colours and a mixture of people – candids and portraits – places and objects. The pictures were taken during a number of trips to the city from 2002 onward with most being shot in 2018 and it seems that little has changed since I left there in 2012. For me he has captured the diversity and complexity of the city and the people beautifully. This is a Tbilisi that I recognise from my wanderings over two years in all its ‘everydayness’ and, sometimes, quirkiness.

While the production standards are generally good there is an unfortunate issue with the tightness of the binding on the spine. Many of the images are spread across two pages and the tight binding means that the book does not lie flat. The effect of this is particularly noticeable on those images that have human content – a body or a face – disrupted by the spine. While this is not an expensive book as photobooks go – £35/$50 – it’s not cheap either and I would have liked to have seen a design that allowed for double page spreads to be viewed more clearly.

If you are a fan of Parr or like the look of this book it’s currently available on Amazon UK for only £22.75. If you are in North America you will have to wait a little while since the book is not scheduled for release there until March.

Number three of five takes me back to another old haunt, Albania. John Demos is the photographer and the book, simply titled Albania, records life in the country during the time of transition from communism in 1990 and 1991. I arrived there in 2005 and while much had changed, much more had not and having been an election monitor for the OSCE during my time there Demos’ images of political rallies and voting stations are all too familiar.

As well as their powerful documentary impact many of these pictures are visually striking and emotionally powerful. I knew nothing about John Demos when I found this book but he is clearly a highly gifted and visually literate photographer.

I first came across the book by accident. While visiting an exhibition at the Leica store in Washington DC I noticed it among the books on display by Leica photographers. There was only one copy, it was quite battered and the people in the store weren’t offering any price reduction. So I made a note of the name and began searching for it later that day. Being out of print and probably not a big seller to begin with it was not easy to find but I eventually tracked down a couple of copies for sale from Anzenberger Gallery in Vienna. They had French and Greek editions and I went with the Greek edition since the French one was a little the worse for wear.

I did wonder why I had never come across this book while in Albania but then discovered that while the images were from the early 90’s they had only been exhibited for the first time in 2008, after I had already left the country. As it turned out both Mr Demos and some of his Albania photographs were in Bulgaria a couple of months ago. Photosynthesis, Sofia’s hub for all things photographic, was exhibiting some of the photographs in their gallery and Demos had been there for the opening. Unfortunately, I only found out about this after he had been and gone but fortunately still in time to see the exhibition. You probably won’t be surprised to know that the book which I had searched far and wide to find was also available, in English. Still, I’m happy with my Greek version. The pictures are what matter.

If you’re interested, good luck trying to find this one, though the Anzenberger Gallery bookshop still lists the French version as available for €40.

One Sunday in Beijing by Michael Kenna is the fourth of my Christmas books and also the fourth Kenna book I have acquired. I can’t explain why I like Kenna’s work so much since it is so very different from the kind of pictures I take and the kind of pictures that feature in every other photobook I own. Whatever the reason, when this one was released in 2018 I ordered it immediately.

Kenna’s take on Beijing is as distinctive as you would expect. While some images convey the architectural scale and busyness of the city many focus on the quiet places to be found away from the bustle – temples, lakes or parks. While the images reflect human activity, whether a sculpture of the Buddha or a skyscraper, people are absent.

Also distinctive is the design of the the book. First it comes in either red or yellow covers. I went with yellow. The two versions have different cover images and those images are lenticular shifting between two colour images (though all the images in the book are in black and white). A small colour print is also included which I believe is different depending on whether you choose the red or yellow version.

More interesting is the internal design. It’s hard to explain in words but I will try and the pictures below may help. Facing pages have one smaller and one larger image. On many of the facing pages there is a coloured page with a square cutout placed in between. The cut out corresponds to the size and placement of the smaller image and frames that image when the colour page is placed over it. When the colour page is turned to the other side, however, it effectively crops the larger image and creates a new view of it.

Some of these new ‘crops’ are extremely effective when viewed in relation to the larger image, though for me they are not always successful. I assume Kenna was responsible for deciding on the placement of these pages since it is hard to imagine him allowing a book designer to choose how to crop his images. These colour pages also subtly shift hue from one to the next starting out yellow and ending up red. While these design elements might sound gimmicky the effect is genuinely interesting and does add something to the impact of the images individually and the book as a whole.

This particular book is beautifully produced. Everything about it – the cover material, the paper, the quality of the printing – is just as a good photobook should be. Quality costs, and this was the most expensive of the five by some measure. Worth every penny, though.

If you’re interested the book is still available in both red and yellow covers from a number of sellers. The best US deal I have seen is from Photo Eye Bookstore who have it for $80. In the UK PhotoBookStore have it on sale for a very reasonable £60. I bought mine from PhotoBookStore and it came in a very large box wrapped in no less than 15 feet of bubble wrap. These are people who care about your books.

Just one left and it needs little introduction, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. Her story, and the story of how her work was rediscovered, is well known by now. I had been meaning to pick up this book for some time, having leafed through it in multiple bookshops but never quite got round to it. This one was a particular treat because while I knew all the others were coming this one was a surprise.

Maier’s story is similar to that of Xyza Cruz Bacani, a Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong who photographed on the streets of Hong Kong before being discovered. When I lived in the Philippines her career was just starting to take off and she has produced some wonderful work from Hong Kong, the Philippines and beyond.

Maier’s work is from a different place and a different time but at its best it is still incredibly striking. In the somewhat precious world of street photography this private woman who never shared her pictures with anyone was creating images more compelling than much contemporary street work from photographers clamouring to be seen and heard.

This is another well made book for which the publisher should be commended. Given the hype around Maier it could have been tempting to reduce costs by reducing the quality knowing that they might well sell a lot of copies. The book is well presented, with or without the dust jacket, and well printed on good paper.

All done on photobooks.

FOUR dum de dum…

THREE items of clothing: trousers, shirt, scarf.

TWO photo exhibitions. They haven’t actually opened yet but I’m counting the flights to London and the ticket costs as a Christmas present.

The National Portrait Gallery is showing Only Human by Martin Parr from 7 March to 27 May while Tate Britain has a Don McCullin retrospective from 5 February to 6 May. I expect I’ll be returning with a carry on full of books.

AND A Nikkor 105mm f2.5 AIS lens. I have my core set of Nikkor lenses – 24mm, 35mm and 50mm – and I’ve been keeping an eye on some of the longer focal lengths. Unfortunately most of the Nikkor 85mm lenses tend to be quite pricey for copies in good condition so when Used Photo Pro listed this 105mm in very good condition for a little under $200 I decided to buy it.

While the various 85s are the more popular choice and are by all accounts very good lenses the 105/2.5, from what I have read, is the equal of any of them in both image quality and build quality. I’m looking forward to taking a walk round some of the local markets and seeing what I can get with it.

So that’s my Twelve Days of Christmas. There are a few gaps along the way but overall it’s not a bad haul.

Comments (2):

  1. Jim Grey

    8 January, 2019 at 2:28 pm

    I really loved your walkthroughs of those photo books — you could have made a whole post out of each of them!

    This “finished in xxxxx casks” thing is a fad in whiskey across the board. I’ll try a pour of one of them at a bar but so far have been unwilling to commit funds for a whole bottle.

    • olli thomson

      8 January, 2019 at 7:55 pm

      Thank you Jim. I did think of splitting this up a little but I was on a roll and it all seemed to hang together nicely. After some time browsing through these books I may return to some of them at some point. I agree regarding the whisky finishing fad. It used to be possible to sample them through miniatures. I remember some years back buying a five pack of Glenmorangie whiskies with the standard, the 18 year old and three others finished in a variety of casks. Unfortunately miniatures seem to be a lot rarer these days. Rum casks do seem to work though – at least the two I’ve tried. Perhaps rum plays well with sherry in a way other finishes don’t. Best wishes in the new job. I hope it works out well for you and your family.


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