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NORTHWEST by ALex Nail

  

When I was getting into photography, Alex Nail's photos of Dartmoor, where I then lived, were an inspiration. I remember reading about famous photographers like Galen Rowell whose pictures were fantastic but always rather distant and remote to someone trapped in Okehampton. Alex’s photos of the moor were something I could directly relate to and as such he was a big influence.


Before Christmas, Alex contacted me and asked if he put an advert for his newly published book on ATC. Having heard lots of good things about the book, knowing how widely travelled Alex was (especially in Scotland) and the book’s title of “Northwest”, I rather flippantly replied, “of course, it’s bound to have some Cuillin photos in.” You know what they say about never assume anything but my take was that the book covered north west Scotland and that Alex’s reputation as a wilderness photographer meant the inclusion of Skye was a given.


In fact, Northwest refers to the north west highlands and more particularly to “a band of Lewisian Gneiss topped with Torridonian Sandstone” that runs up the west coast from Glen Carron to Cape Wrath. Being in a bit of a quandary since it obviously had no Cuillin connection, I decided that a review could be done in good faith since there are a lot of beautiful mountain photos, many were taken from high, wild camps and there’s a lot of info cross transferable to any mountain environment. More importantly for me it’s an inspirational book and I’d love to produce a similar volume about the Cuillin.


The fact that this review has appeared only days after the book arrived speaks hugely about my thoughts on it. The whole package is incredibly well designed and produced. Initial impression are good when the cardboard packaging is opened to reveal the book sealed in brown paper. No plastic in sight and all easily recycled. A nice touch was the inclusion of Alex’s business card.


Alex is known for his strong views on photography and this self published project was the perfect chance to literally put his money where his mouth is, as they say. It’s a specialist book, the production oozes quality and can’t have been cheap. It’s only too easy to produce yet another Scottish landscape photography book of hackneyed locations with over Photoshopped images to pile high in book shops.


Northwest is a personal project and as such Alex had the leeway to exactly what he wanted, things mainstream publishers may have constrained or vetoed. Thus the book is fairly localised geographically (perhaps geologically would be a better word), most photos were taken over a three year period and in essence the work is unfinished since time and weather don’t always play ball.


First impressions are crucial and the cloth binding is subtle and understated, almost a metaphor for the unadulterated photos inside. The binding seems to be optimal, allowing the book to be laid open yet magically springing back afterwards. The photos are stunning not just in content but in the print quality. Apparently the first print run was a disaster with the whole lot being scrapped due to problems with the paper. Whilst this must have been stressful for Alex, it did mean he had printed proofs of the work and the opportunity to rejig files to perfection for the reprinting. Potential disaster was transformed into a blessing in disguise and the resulting book reflects this.


There is a forward by Chris Townsend, backpacker extordinaire and the BMC’s Hillwalking Ambassador. Later in the book, Alex admits he was a photographer first, and backpacker second but now feels he is a fully fledged member of “both tribes.” The amount of physical effort put into getting the photos certainly endorses this, with many locations being visited multiple times under adverse conditions.


With it’s powerful images and text, the book acts like a TARDIS and transports the viewer/reader from their desk or living room to a vivid mountainscape. Hardships are shared as the striving for good light continues. The book is divided into 4 geographic chapters, each with a Tolkinesque map of the area.


As expected, the photos are epic but what gripped me was the compelling writing, short chapters on background to the experience. The one entitled “ A Lesson On An Teallach”, is particularly good and as the two photographers are battered by the winds in their fragile tent it is only too easy to envisage their vulnerability. Next morning, the weather looks doom and gloom but they press on and Alex gets one of the most atmospheric photos in the book. As they return to their tent which has been destroyed by the wind, it’s all too easy to see how close to the edge they’d been the previous night.


Lots of photographers are obsessed by gear and maybe Alex could have included details of his preferred gear but this might have cluttered up the focus of the book. Alex has lots of informative articles on his website about photography and wild camping and it’s well worth checking out 


https://www.alexnail.com/book/


Northwest is pivotal book that welds together the genres of landscape photography and mountain photography but also backpacking and full blown mountaineering, into a seamless mix that does full justice to the magnificent area it covers. 


Northwest costs £36 plus postage and I wish Alex well selling the first printing of books. I’m sure further volumes will follow.

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Tides, A Climber's Voyage

A review of Nick Bullock's second book

  


Nick Bullock’s second book had a lot to live up to after the gritty realism and success of his first volume, Echoes. Many writers seem to have one good book in them but to produce an equally good sequel is always a challenge. Echoes finished with Nick leaving prison as a free man, his life as a warder over, his mortgage paid off and thus able to devote himself to climbing.

 

Personally, I was eagerly anticipating the second book which takes up where Echoes left off. A similar, short and to the point title, Tides suggests exactly what the story is about; Nick’s life changes to one regulated by the time of year, the changing seasons and places, different climbing partners, everything is fluid much like the coming and going of the sea.


Tides is a very honest exposure of the life of the dirt bag climbing life style. There are great portraits of fellow climbers including some of the best on the planet; Kenton Cool, James McHaffie and Andy Houseman to name but three.

 

The routes climbed are world class, many verging on the serious to fatal end of the seriousness scale. Serious rock climbs like Gogarth’s The Bells! The Bells! And Denali’s Slovak Direct are amongst a host of notable climbs graphically depicted.


Tides enhances and continues Nick’s writing reputation and spans 2003-16. Split into lots of short chapters, a lot of ground is covered and this is both a strength and a weakness. It makes for compelling reading but does leave me wishing to know more about each story.


Tides is an ebbing and flowing story as Nick lives the life of a migratory climber, mimicking the journeys of the fauna (and flora) he so ably describes. In a way it’s a selfish life and he is brutally honest and sincere in his writing especially about himself and his chosen life style. His fears and phobia, hopes and dreams are all examined with introspective detail. It is very much a book of high highs and low lows, of success on remote climbs, deaths and accidents.


One small criticism is the cover design. I love the artwork by Tessa Lyons but think the book would attract a wider audience with a more climbing centred design. The art and title work superbly for those who know Nick and who and what he is but the writing definitely deserves a wider audience.


Ten out of ten for this book by a climber, for climbers but also for anyone after a gripping read from a talented athlete at the cutting edge. Also a good metaphor for living the dream and that it’s never too late to achieve what you want. 

Wild Light Extreme Scotland

Two new photo books from Vertebrate Publishing

Craig Aitchison, Landscape Photographer

Nadir Khan, Extreme Sport Photographer

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Recently Vertebrate Publishing kindly sent me two books for reviewing;


Extreme Scotland by Nadir Khan

Wild Light by Craig Aitchison


Both are large, beautifully produced volumes each with a subtitle explaining it’s content. Thus Nadir’s is “A photographic journey through Scottish adventure sports” and Craig’s gets the simple “Scotland’s Mountain landscape”.


Two stunning but very different books, the only common ground being photography and Scotland. Both volumes are long term projects that have come to fruition; Wild Light took seven years and Extreme Scotland was similarly shot over many years. One genre requires infinite patience for the right light, the other needs split second timing to capture a moment in extremity.


Nadir is a member of All Things Cuillin and has dropped in at Sconser so we have met, albeit all too briefly. His passion for photography and Scotland oozes from every pore in his body and that shines through in the book. 


Scrambling and climbing are covered but also running, surfing, mountain biking and more. As Hamish MacInnes says in the forward, “all the major outdoor disciplines are here.”


Personally, this was a book I had been looking forward to reading and, as hoped, it included some of Nadir’s well known photos but also a range of new shots. Much of his work will be familiar from big name adverts. There are a lot of photos taken in the Cuillin which forms the perfect backdrop be it for gear adverts or extreme sports. The fish eye shot of Guy Steven and Lee Fleming on Sgurr Alasdair is breath taking and encompasses a vista from the Red Cuillin and Bla Bheinn, the end of the Cuillin Ridge and Coir a Ghrunnda with the sea beyond. Cloud perfectly frames the photo and light picks out the brightly clad climbers.


The book gets off to a good start with a nice forward by Hamish MacInnes and Nadir’s photos are buttressed by chapters written by big name climbers like Nick Bullock and Tom Livingstone. There are poems by Elana Bader and Nadir writes about composition and gear choice. 


The format works well with most of the words by others and Nadir’s photos but I couldn’t help feeling it would have been good to have a more solid body of writing by the author. It’s probably just me being a bit picky bit I’d like to know more about what makes Nadir tick. It is a photography book and I’d like to know more about each photo. Some are covered in detail but it would be nice to know more about the rest.


The chapters of writing and poems work well and compliment Nadir’s photography. Powerful words, powerful photos.”Ice Climbing” by David Canning, to my mind, worked really well with the words next to a wide angle shot of ice climbing on the Ben. 


It was a shame that “Coire’N Uaigneis” by Stuart Campbell seems to have been accompanied by the wrong photo; although titled “Sgurr a Ghreadaidh, it’s clearly a shot looking down into Coir a Ghrunnda


I know Nadir has a long history with climbing photography and this shines through in the mountaineering shots which are world class. Some of the other sports covered seem a little added on as if to justify the all encompassing term “adventure sports”. The paddlesports and biking photos don’t quite reach the same quality as the mountaineering shots.


Overall though, I love the book and think it would be a worthy addition to any collection. Not only does it showcase an adventurous landscape but details some of the many sports that make the most of Scotland’s rugged environment. The photography is brilliant and ranges from wide panoramic views to close up details such as ice screws, guide book and a single malt in the CIC Hut.


Nadir writes about, “an image has to be the vessel for an emotional message, and that message has to connect with the viewer in a heartbeat, to draw them in and engage them.” The majority of his photos certainly do this in spades and the book is a fine testament to Nadir as an adventure photographer at the very top of his profession.


Whilst all Nadir’s photos were shot on digital, I believe, the work of Craig Aitchison is totally analogue, old school film, in other words. All were shot with the Hasselblad XPan and Fujichrome Velvia film. His website is entitled “Land & Light” and this sums up his ethos and exactly what his book is about.


His work is premeditated, pre planned as much as possible. Everything is taken into consideration; time of day, time of year, prevailing and forecast weather and much more. As he says, “ultimately the success of each image is down to all these elements coming together in the right place and at the right time. To achieve this, ground work and foresight is mandatory but luck always plays an important role in the creation of every image.” Obviously the more the photographer gets out, the better their chances of getting that elusive shot but it has to be said that Craig definitely deserves what some might call luck but others would put down mostly to determination and stamina.


Whilst Nadir might have had a big team effort, organising logistics, arranging highly capable athletes, his shoots were very much subject to the vagaries of the weather. Check out the conditions for shooting Ines Papert climbing The Hurting. The inclement weather adds to the photos, enhances the image. Craig,on the other hand, might have visited destinations many times to get the light and conditions he imagined and planed and hoped for. 


Both photographers put in a huge effort both in advance planning and preparation but also once on location. One might be waiting for hours for the light to come good, clouds to lift or rain to stop, the other might be dangling on a thin rope, swinging in the wind and waiting for the crux moment of a climb. Similarities and differences but both masters of their own genres.


Craig’s book is very simple, a case of less is more. Basically, an introduction, the photos and a map of the locations. The photos stand alone with few words. Craig is renowned for his panoramas and the ones chosen for the book are all first rate. 


The introduction is very well written and provides an insight into Craig, his motivation, planning, thought processes and gear but like Nadir’s book it only left me wanting to know more. Unlike Nadir, Craig’s gear is very simple; Hasselblad XPan, 3 prime lenses, Fujichrome Velvia 50 and presumably a sturdy tripod. No digital wizardry and minimal scope for post processing so simple and a case of getting the shot as close to perfect as possible in camera. This I can really relate to. I love using just a couple of prime lenses and time in the field is definitely preferable to time gazing at a computer screen. The XPan allows a full frame panoramic image of 24 by 65mm captured in a single frame so no complex stitching of shots, no distortion, no need to factor in fast changing light or conditions. It allows the purest possible panoramic capture and this is reflected by the quality of the images through out the book.


Craig has photos of many popular mountains but with the bonus of having shot them from less commonly visited viewpoints. This makes for interesting new vistas that can be thought provoking and makes a change from the many photographers simply rehashing jaded shots from must visit viewpoints.


If you are looking for a superbly produced, large format photo book about the Scottish mountain landscape then this should definitely be on your shortlist. My only disappointment was that despite it’s subtitle of “Scotland’s Mountain landscape” there are no photos shot on Skye which seems a glaring omission to my (biased) mind!


(As a small after thought, I am not too sure how well the larger panoramas spread over two pages work with the page fold/join being a very obvious impediment to enjoying the photo in it’s full glory. Some publishers use a “lay flat” technology where the panorama is much less disrupted by the book design and I’d love to see a large book of Craig’s work done in this style but guess it may be prohibitively expensive)