Northwest by Alex Nail may be a landscape photography book, says David Lintern, but it’s a thoroughly modern one: “Alex has a mountaineer’s ethic at the heart of his photography”.
Review by David Lintern
Another Scottish Landscapes coffee table book? I confess that thought did cross my mind, until I received a copy to review. I’ll say from the outset that Alex has done something a bit special here – something I’m not sure he’d have had the latitude to do with a regular publisher. Northwest looks and feels like a no-compromise piece of mountain art… which given that, on the face of it, yes this is another Scottish landscape photo book, is definitely just as well.
Inside the brown wrapper there’s a cloth-bound hardback book, divided into four chapters: the Coulin Hills, Torridon, Fisherfield, and Coigach and Assynt. There’s an introduction from TGO’s very own Chris Townsend, and some initial thoughts from Alex on his approach to photography in general and this project in particular. Each chapter is prefaced with a slightly Tolkienesque illustrated map, and a story from one of the main shoots. And there are the photos of course, which are finely detailed, shot in exquisite light conditions, and beautifully printed.
All well and good, but there are a few things that set this apart over and above just presentation. As I’m forever saying to my own students (quoting Frank Zappa) the ‘most important thing about art is the frame’, and Alex has framed his project well, covering not the whole of Scotland but focusing on a specific geographic region. He admits time and weather didn’t allow for the far North – which is a shame – but perhaps that will be the subject for a follow-up. A completist or perfectionist wouldn’t have done this, but I think it illustrates the sense of discovery and excitement in Alex’s photographic journey. He took the majority of the images in the book in the last three years, and despite the sublime, sometimes poised lighting conditions depicted, the book still feels pacey. You can tell Alex was quickly enchanted by the area, and impatient to experience more. A few of the images are genuinely astonishing – a rainbow-seared double-page image of the Coulin Forest from Liathach early on, a technicolour Slioch from the islands of Loch Maree looking something like a set from an original Star Trek episode, a matte plastered Suilven emerging from a snow shower and a moonlit shot from its summit which Alex admits was a personal turning point, to name but four.
“As mountain photographers as well as mountain travellers, I think it’s beholden on us to show these places both as they are and as they can be”
The adventures described in each chapter help convey this personal journey – written in a chatty, unpretentious style and covering both the hillgoing aspects as well as the photography itself. And some passages are sequenced to give the sense of almost a frenzy of photography… which of course is how it can be, when the conditions are just right. So while the photos are technically very impressive, there’s none of the ponderous ‘master photographer’ atmosphere to them – instead there’s some energy on the page. The shots don’t feel laboured over or overly composed, there’s a sense of improvisation, even play. This may be a landscape photography book, but it’s a thoroughly modern one.
Alex is on record as being an advocate for realism in photography, and he explains this very well in his introduction to the book. It’s clear that he prefers to let the places do the talking wherever possible, eschewing overly aggressive edits and not wanting to force his own ‘style’ onto place. He admits he made the book selection for the most dramatic weather and lighting, of course, but this is ‘made in camera, not in software’ work. All of this is an evergreen debate, but for what it’s worth I think he’s right. As mountain photographers as well as mountain travellers, I think it’s beholden on us to show these places both as they are and as they can be. And if they are dramatic, glorious, even bombastic places at times, then to underplay that purely for conceptual purposes would be the height of arrogance. To my mind, Alex has a mountaineer’s ethic at the heart of his photography, and that’s to the credit of both the pictures and the places.
So, not just another Scottish landscapes coffee table offering. Something a bit unique; a self-published labour of love, an exactingly presented passion project.
Northwest is available from Alex’s website: www.alexnail.com/book