I’m going to echo an introduction that I’ve used before. This isn’t a review of a book it is a response to it. It may only be semantics but review seems to suggest a level of judgement that I don’t feel qualified to claim. A creative work is produced with a ‘message’. That message isn’t always the one that is received by the audience. This is my response and may not be the message that was intended.
I pre-ordered this book when it was announced and promptly forgot all about it until the postman delivered it a couple of weeks ago.
It is a thing of quite extraordinary beauty. This begins with the cover, the binding and the printing. A beautiful cloth cover with delightful gold embossed lettering. It is lovely to hold even before a page is turned and reminds us that books are special, their numbers are diminishing in the face of electronic publishing and distribution, but they remain and I hope earnestly that they always will. In so far as I am able to judge, the quality of the printing is very high, certainly for me it leaves nothing to be desired. This is a book with multiple layers to admire and in my opinion, an understanding of those layers will increase the enjoyment that will be derived from the book.
Firstly it is self published. Not a safe, budget, low cost low print run mainstream offering but a full scale, high quality, large print run, step out over a precipice, publishing. Heaven only knows how much Alex Nail has invested in this project but he is to be commended for his bravery and determination to do things properly.
The introduction is written by Chris Townsend, this as much as anything hints that the book is a book about mountains. There could be no better standard bearer for travel in mountainous country or indeed anyone in a better position to understand the extremes of discomfort and utter joy that may result.
The photographs are truly wonderful, they capture a magnificent landscape throughout the seasons and showing its finest aspects. These are not abstract or impressionist images nor do they seem to be significantly manipulated, they simply portray a breathtaking landscape and let it speak for itself. In his text Alex makes the point that he would rather be quiet and let the landscape speak. Many have walked in the footsteps of the great Colin Prior and his hymns to the landscape. Many of us will have Joe Cornish’s magnificent celebration of the Scottish Mountains on our bookshelves; Alex’s images maintain that tradition. They seem to allow the viewer to look at the Scottish hills through the eyes of someone who understands that landscape and who has experienced its raw power on behalf of the reader. For those who have never seen these places, they may be forgiven for being unaware that such magnificent mountains exist in the UK. We are treated to low raking winter sunlight, rainbows, storms, clouds and snow. Each element adds flesh to the bones of the land. One of the striking aspects to the images is the number that are made in less familiar or well trodden locations and more of that below.
There has been debate over the years about the degree to which the difficulty of capture adds to the response of the viewer to the final image. For some it elevates significantly for others it is immaterial. These are not roadside snaps nor fortuitous views from honey pots. They represent hard yards, hard miles,long days and long uncomfortable nights.
I’ve walked and climbed in the NW Highlands for 35 years summer and winter. I’ve camped in frost locked valleys and pitched tent on storm battered mountains and I’ve experienced the depressing ratio of fine weather to survivable weather to retreat weather. I know what it is to lie awake all night because of the seeping, gnawing cold or to lie similarly awake, arms aching trying to keep tent poles from collapsing in storm force winds. I’ll nail my colours to the mast and say that if you aren’t in admiration of the time, effort, energy, discomfort and pain that has gone into making these pictures you’ve never been in such places in harsh conditions. This is a magnificent achievement, I can only wonder and the aggregated time on the hill, time driving, wasted journeys, height climbed and nights without sleep that have gone into this book.
Does the effort involved or the weight of rucksack carried make a photograph better? Of course not, that would be absurd. However every fine image has layers and one of the layers of these images is the challenge associated with making them. The more we see the layers and understand them, perhaps the more we might appreciate the resulting images.
The images in the book are very fine indeed, arguably as good as mountain portraits get. I use the term portraits deliberately. By sheer effort, Alex manages to show a great depth too these hills and encourages them to present a side that is not visible to everyone. This exactly mirrors the work of any great portrait photographer. When deciding whether to choose comfort and warmth over the possibility of a great image, Alex uses the phrase ‘Go Big or go Home’. This seems to me to sum up this very fine book. It is not just a book of photographs, it isn’t even just a portrait of the one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is a testament to someone who believes in doing something the right way even when the risks are high.
If you enjoy landscape photography or love the NW Highlands or admire a risk taker, buy this book. I fail to see how it could disappoint.