Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book review

The Japan Alps by Peter Skov: An outside person brings a fresh perspective to Japanese fine-art mountain photography

The strengths of Japanese mountain photography are also its weakness. So Olympian are the skills and vision of the undoubted masters – yes, I’m thinking of Shirahata Shiro here – that aspirants dare not plant their tripods anywhere but in the holes left by the maestro. Too often, the result is images that are technically perfect, but also generic and lifeless.

Peter Skov has avoided this trap. Carefully picking his own tripod sites, he’s put together a lively debut collection. Snow plumes from a ridge, a creeping pine tosses its branches to and fro in a stiff wind, ripples of cloud move swiftly across the sky: these are the living mountains, the way mountaineers experience them.

Winter in the North Alps
Originally uploaded by tsubame

The late Galen Rowell, an inspiration for many a mountain photographer, famously went out in search of the dynamic landscape. Peter Skov has gone out into the Japan Alps and found it. His vision is versatile as well as dynamic, the vistas are interspersed with micro-landscapes – a fire lily sheltered by a pine bough, komakusa flowers peeking out from between sandy quartz blocks – that show a mastery of significant detail. On his blog, he reveals himself to be an admirer of Eliot Porter. These pictures are a worthy acknowledgement of that influence.

Autumn in the Alps
Originally uploaded by tsubame

Peter Skov grew up in Vancouver, moving to Japan in 1999, one reason being to study the Japanese way of landscape photography. Judging by this book, he’s stirred these background elements into a very effective mix. The meticulous technique and the gear – film cameras, mostly large and medium-format – may be Japanese, but the viewpoint is his own. You don’t have to be a gaijin – an ‘outside person’ – to bring a fresh perspective to mountain photography, but sometimes it can help.

“The Japan Alps” is a self-published book, printed and distributed by blurb.com. No automated production process can do full justice to the original colour transparencies – Skov is an all-film photographer – and some images come off better than others. Snow scenes, being relatively monochromatic, do best, while autumn colours and high-contrast scenes have lost something in translation. Overall, though, the colour rendition is good enough to hint at the high quality of the original photography. And the splendours of the Japan Alps shine through.

Blue Sunset
Originally uploaded by tsubame

What is it about the Japan Alps? Even their strongest supporters – and your reviewer is one – can’t promote them into the greater ranges of the earth. They simply aren’t high enough. When it comes to photographic impact, though, they give nothing away to the Alps, the Karakorum, or the Himalaya. For proof of that bold statement, look no further than the works of Shirahata Shiro, who has planted his mighty tripod in all three ranges. Yet it is the Japan Alps that provide the maestro with his most compelling images.

Yakushi and Kanon
Originally uploaded by tsubame

That’s by way of saying that Peter Skov is working a rich vein. And this debut collection shows that he’s developed the skills – and, most importantly, the vision – to work it. What this reviewer would like to see now is a big publishing house – yes, Kodansha, it’s you I’m thinking about – getting out of its comfortable leather armchair and publishing a collection of fresh new mountain photography by up-and-coming artists, Japanese and gaijin alike. One of them should certainly be Peter Skov.

>View and buy "The Japan Alps" on blurb.com

Above images are by courtesy of Peter Skov, linked from his Japan Alps gallery on Flickr. (Click on image to see larger version.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hyakumeizan: images & ink (5)

Illustrated excerpts from One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Image: Tateyama-Bessan, from the Northern Alps series, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1926)

Ink: On Tateyama, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

White-robed supplicants flocked to Tateyama from every corner of Japan. Whatever the merits of prostrating themselves before the Gongen, many of these pilgrims must have rejoiced in the climb itself, on a mountain so varied in its scenery … Mida-ga-hara itself is an upland plateau, so beautiful with its scattering of pools and rich array of alpine flowers that pilgrims from the world below might well have thought themselves in heaven.