The question can now be answered because Peter and I have met up at last, in a station coffee shop at Higashi Omiya, close to his workplace. I say, at last, because – incredible as it may seem – this is the first chance we’ve had to actually meet, although Peter several years ago volunteered his magnificent image for the book’s front cover (left), sight unseen of the publisher or translator.
Taken on a mountain hike in late 2007, the original picture (below) also appears in Peter’s first photo book, The Japan Alps and in an online album. The view is westward, across Obuchizawa, towards Harinoki in the foreground and Yakushi in the far distance. For me, and I hope the book’s readers, it captures the essence of the Japan Alps: “vast, mysterious, sublime, as if wrapped in some purple cloud”, as another mountain artist expressed it.
|Afternoon cloud sea, by Peter Skov|
Sipping a less than sublime iced cocoa from a plastic receptacle, I put the inevitable question – what kind of camera did you use? It seems that Peter, like this blogger, decided to stay aloof from the mediocre early generations of digital cameras. So this picture was taken through a 24-85mm zoom lens on an old-fangled Minolta SLR with Fuji Velvia film, which may at least partly account for the subtlety of the image’s colours and tones.
A book prominent on both our bookshelves is Mountain Light, a kind of photographic manifesto by the late but still inspirational Galen Rowell. As Peter points out, pictures like this one amply vindicate Rowell’s claim that, if handled with care, 35mm film cameras can produce printed images that give larger formats a run for their money.
Peter’s freezer is still full of film, but these days there is less time to use it – the arrival of a baby daughter, the Skovs’ second child, has ruled out long mountain weekends for now. So what does a mountain photographer do when he can no longer get to the mountains? Peter’s answer was to change both focus and medium.
Picking up a used Sony digital camera – handier than film for dealing with weak early-morning light – he started photographing scenes on his way to work in Saitama. Appropriately, the inspiration for this project came as he was descending from one of his last mountain hikes, on Ryōgami, a member of the Hyakumeizan.
The resulting collection, Little Inaka, is a reminder that you don’t need to visit a national park to find camera-worthy scenery in Japan. And Peter demonstrates that you can apply the same skills to the woods near your house as you do to the Japan Alps, alternating the broad panorama with season-by-season micro-landscapes worthy of Elliot Porter, another influence on his work.
I also appreciate the colour palette of this collection. It’s lively enough to sustain the images, even on the printed page of the Blurb edition, but stops well short of the spectral and tonal shoutiness that seems to have overtaken so much landscape photography these days. One sign that Peter has hit the right note is that it’s all but impossible to say, if you didn’t know already, whether the original medium was film or digital. These are colours that you'd recognise in nature.
|Early morning fog, Saitama, by Peter Skov|
The Sakitama burial mounds – a group of tumuli from the third to the seventh centuries – appear several times in Little Inaka – indeed, one is on the cover. Their enigmatic forms run through the seasons as a kind of unifying theme, rather like the school belfry in Maeda Shinzō’s Seasons of a Hilltop Tower.
Alas, there won’t be any more images of Sakitama for the moment. Last summer, the Skov’s moved house, taking the burial mounds and other Little Inaka sites out of early-morning stroll range. But Peter is already scouting new locations for the next photographic project. And, who knows, NHK may be back with another idea for a mountain documentary – the last one took Peter back to the Northern Alps.
“When artists get together, they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine,” said Picasso. I could talk about turpentine – or cameras, lenses and locations – all afternoon with Peter. But the next appointment beckons, far across that vast abyss of time and space that men call Tokyo. I remember only when I’m on the train that I forgot to take a photo of Peter. So this post will have to do with a screenshot from his NHK page. Mōshiwake arimasen....