My valentine generously bought me this book and I’ve been looking forward to spending a bit of time with it. Removing it from the cellophane, it becomes a beautiful, tactile treat. The lovely textured binding and cover mounted print prepare you for the quality to come when you actually open it.
I first became aware of Sammallahti last year when images from this book were featured in Black + White Photography magazine. A badly cropped version of his picture of flamingoes was on the cover with a further seven pictures inside. The accompanying text was an excerpt from the book’s the opening essay. I saw more of his work last December when I visited the Photographer’s Gallery in London. A show of his work was in the basement gallery, next to the shop and despite only spending a couple of minutes with the work (I had somewhere else to be), I realised it was something special.
The book is a retrospective of his 50 year career. The images are all black and white and feature images from major projects in Finland, Eastern Europe, Russia, Morocco and Ireland. I am occasionally baffled by the sequencing of some monographs but here the order flows and becomes an entertaining narrative, occasionally juxtaposing, but often linked in some way. For example, two early minimalist compositions of seascapes have their horizons perfectly aligned. Later, a dog appears to be chasing pigeons from one frame to the next. The fly on the step in one frame appears one the old lady’s hand, despite being taking six years previously.
The book is split thematically into chapters and begins with watery views of Finnish lakes, before a frog breaks the surface. From then on, more animals begin to appear, but rarely (to begin with at least) in centre stage. They occupy the edges and corners, but always add balance or tension to the composition. The best example is the picture on page 59, taken in 2003 of horses in Bulgaria. It is a masterpiece. The composition may look a little off at very first glance, but as one spends time with the picture, we see that the perfect symmetry of the horses and the arrangement of the trees are perfectly positioned to allow space for the storm or mist that is appearing in the left edge of the frame. In the book, it looks fantastic – I would love to see it printed.
The wide crops and wonderful detail in the printing give a cinematic feel that particularly lends itself to a motif that Sammallahti repeats on several occasions. He’ll shoot from a street corner, showing views in two directions that run away from the viewer. Interestingly, we will see people walking towards each other on each street even though the subjects cannot see each other. It works especially well in his Moroccan series and is something that I’ll be trying at the next opportunity.
A friend of mine says that a picture of a person is worth a dozen without, which I have some sympathy with. Sammallahti repeatedly demonstrates that an animal, particularly a domestic animal can provide an interesting substitute. Don’t worry though, this is not all cute puppies and kittens. He seems equally brilliant at portraits, landscapes, abstract minimalism or street scenes, but all bare his trademark attention to detail and compositional excellence.
The pictures are often funny, surprising and visually stunning. It is a book that I’ll return to often and I thoroughly recommend it.
OCA copyright guidance means that I can’t share his pictures here, but check this board on Pinterest or type his name into your favourite search engine for more. Believe me though, they look better printed. There’s also a pointless video of someone flicking through it on Vimeo.
Black+White Photography – March 2013
Sammallahti, P (2012) Here far away. Great Britain; Dewi Lewis
[…] as often as colour and many of my favourite photographers specialise in monochrome (particularly Pentti Sammallahti). Some of this is down to my use of analogue cameras and that I can process my own black and white […]