As another year comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about what 2017 was for me. Strangely, though the world seems chaotic (and, at times, much worse than that), I personally feel quite grounded right now. And happy. Like, I don’t know where I’m going but I know it’s somewhere good. Maybe that’s what happens when you hit your 30s :)
Many things influenced me this year, for the better. In that spirit, I thought I’d compile a little list of the top 5 books that left an impression on me during 2017. It wasn’t an easy list to make (there’s my old friend indecisiveness rearing its head again), but these ones stand out for their beautiful prose, fantastic images, the boldness of the characters, or the life lessons I gained. Memoirs steal the show here, and I'm sorry to say that fiction doesn't feature (but I do love fiction!). And generally these relate to nature, wildlife, or art in some way... I may be a bit biased!
A Wild Life: A visual biography of photographer Michael Nichols
I honestly had to force myself to read this book slowly. I didn’t want it to end. Beautifully written, and visually brilliant, A Wild Life is an arms-wide-open story of the life of photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols. This is not really a book about photography, but rather of Nick’s coming as a person and an artist. It’s a solid account of someone who struggled through a tough childhood, difficult relationships, substance abuse, life-threatening diseases, and an intensely demanding industry, but did not fail or even slow down. It’s about the kind of people who give their all, and sacrifice many things, for the causes they believe in.
Nick is a remarkable photographer. He’s one of the rare guys and, in my opinion, one the best contemporary photographers of the natural world. His photos tell stories; deep, honest, confronting stories. They leave me questioning many things. This world. Our kindness, and also our selfishness. What we owe to other species. What it means to be human.
A Wild Life is filled with Nick’s photographs, from his earliest days trying to make a break into the industry in the 1970s, right through his time with Magnum and his decades-long career with National Geographic magazine. In the beginning, Nick’s photographs were more of the adrenalin-fuelled adventure kind. Humans doing extreme things – that sells. But as Nick established himself in the industry, he began to dictate what stories he would shoot. He had earned his place.
Thereafter came stories like the struggles of the mountain gorillas living in a world of human conflict, and the immorality of our treatment of chimpanzees in the medical sciences and entertainment industries. There are the journeys to find the ever-cryptic tigers of India, and the lions of the Serengeti, and to bring to the world’s attention the elephant poaching crisis. And then there’s the utterly crazy yet totally epic and inspiring Megatransect across Africa (led by biologist and longtime friend of Nick’s, Mike Fay, who is a key figure in the book) - to name but a few.
The evolution of Nick’s art, and indeed his heart, is there in plain view. His stories becoming ever telling and unhindered.
Though Nick’s images are typically of wildlife or conservation, he echoes my own troubles with the label “wildlife photographer”. He is also uncomfortable with being called a photojournalist, for all the constraints that imposes on an artist. To this end, Harris describes:
Nick is not, has never been, interested in simply illustrating the science. And his populist inclinations – his belief that minds and hearts can be changed through awe and empathy – deter him from focusing only on humanity’s violations of the natural world. Nick believes he must sometimes glorify what remains inviolate to express why we have to devote our resources toward its survival. And to keep people engaged, there must be storytelling – whether disquieting or radiant, tragic or ecstatic – always riveting. And it is about voice: first, the richness and clarity of his own, with which he can then convincingly give voice to his subjects.
What makes art impactful is an endlessly fascinating topic to me. In Nick’s case, I believe it’s the subtle rawness that he maintains throughout his work - which is to say that his photographs speak to person that he is and the story he is telling. There’s no cliché here whatsoever, nor is there any hint of photographic trends (yes, trends exist in art too). Even where a photograph was made using very advanced technologies (and logistics), you, the viewer, aren’t to know. Because that’s not the point - you will be moved by the image for what is it, not how it was created. In Nick’s own words:
I’m not good at finesse, I’m not good at really fine aesthetics. I’m just a hammer guy. My pictures hit you over the head with a hammer.
Talk about impact.
The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making
This is a book that takes you deeper into the art of photography. It forces you to question your “why”, to be honest about your intentions. This is not a book about camera-using. Technicalities like ISO or sharpness are irrelevant to duChemin’s message. This book profoundly influenced my photography for the better.
But first, a bit of a backstory. My love affair with duChemin’s work began in 2009. I had purchased my first DSLR about a year prior, and had just about found my feet with regards to using the camera to its technical potential. I had studied endlessly the ins and outs of manual shooting and the effects of different lenses and filters. I was stocked up on every version of photography magazine I could get a hold of, and incessantly trawled Flickr forums to read people’s discussions of how to make an image look like this or that.
By late 2009, however, I was feeling rather despondent. I found “wildlife photography” boring. Repetitive. Lacking meaning. Rarely did a wildlife image move me.
For Christmas that year, a friend of mine, very thoughtfully, gifted me a copy of duChemin’s new book Within The Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision. She told me that she got what I was saying. I didn’t need any more guidance on how to use a camera, but rather on how to make art.
Within The Frame took photography as I knew it and turned it upside down. Where I would once say “I’m shooting a waterfall, so I need to use a slow shutter speed with an ND filter to blur the water till it’s silky smooth”, I began to say “What do I want to say about this waterfall?” and then manipulate the technical settings accordingly. Rules like “Shoot sharp for moving wildlife” or “Always have the sun behind you” were thrown into the trash. My goodness, was that liberating! It was a 180 in my thinking.
The way I see it, Within the Frame grew up and became The Soul of the Camera. It cuts to the chase, quickly and unashamedly. In this book, duChemin forces you to confront yourself, for that is where your art lives. Photography is not about having the best gear or being in the right place at the right time; it’s about getting crystal clear on why you do what do.
Now this was hard for me. I have two strong, equally powerful motives. One is for conservation. To use photography as a means to spread the word of the causes that I live for. The other is to make art for art’s sake– photography needn’t always tell a story. Because creativity makes me who I am. Of course, I’m drawn to photograph the natural world in both these endeavours, but my intentions and executions are vastly different.
The Soul of the Camera helped me to crystallise these two visions. It helps me separate them, but also to keep them intricately linked by my love of nature. Because that’s my fundamental motive. As duChemin writes “Why else should we be moved to raise our cameras to our eye over and over again if not because we care, because we love?”.
In my opinion, The Soul of the Camera is mandatory reading for any photographer looking to become a better artist. And aside from studying the work of masters (a practice duChemin strongly encourages in place of technical how-tos), The Soul of the Camera is definitely the most influential book on photography that I have read.
The Boy Behind the Curtain
I am a big fan of Winton’s. He writes exquisitely about Australian landscapes, people and culture. The Boy Behind the Curtain is the untidy story of how Winton came to be the person and the writer that he is today.
The book is constructed as a series of essays, each a piece of Winton’s life. He describes his growing up in the ‘burbs of Western Australia. A religious, middle-class family. A policeman’s son.
As well as making brilliant novels, Winton is well-known for his environmentalism, his career punctuated with many campaigns, including the fight to save Ningaloo Reef (which he writes about in this book).
By his own account, however, he never intended to become an activist. Things just went that way. It’s clear, nonetheless, that Winton grew up a boy with plenty of curiosity, wonder and determination – traits that, in the face of a looming crisis (environmental, social, or otherwise), make a person act. The people, places and lands that he knew and loved – and that feature so strongly in his writings - were threatened, and something had to be done. He jokes of being somewhat a pseudo-celebrity drawcard; but hey, whatever gets the job done.
This book is about much more than environmentalism, though. Winton digs into the politics, class, religion and culture. All the things that influence how our every days are spent, which are in turns binding and breaking of human connection and kindness. There’s even a story about the time Winton lived in a haunted castle in Ireland – yes, really.
While Winton’s previous memoir Island Home is equally excellent (please do read that one too), The Boy Behind the Curatin is a much more personal and open account of the stories that shaped him as a person – and how he came to create those novels we Australians love so much.
Understory: A life with trees
“I have always been a tree-woman…”
It’s not often that nature books really change the way I think about something. For the most part, I am already the converted to which they preach. Understory, wonderfully, changed this, in one of the most refreshing and touching books I read all year.
This is a memoir of sorts, but really it’s a story about one woman’s devotion to trees; to what (and who) they are. As I was reading this book, I found myself trying to identify every kind of gum tree I saw. I began to make comments about cedar furniture. Strangely, I began to see trees as individual beings too. And I’ve suddenly become far more interested in the totally enthralling world of plant cognition, and the ethical challenges that come with that – but I digress.
Simpson probably has the strongest connection to trees that I have come across. And I have met a lot of botanists in my time. She is clearly committed to them, like they are members of her extended family. The trees of her property Olvar Wood, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, are the real characters of this book. The chapters are arranged as species that exist within the canopy, the middlestorey, and the understorey.
This memoir traces a revealing time of Simpson’s life, from commuting hours to Brisbane each day to meet to the demands of her government job and PhD studies (sounds familiar!), to throwing it all in for a simple (or so it seemed at first) writer’s life among the trees – and having that come crashing down. It’s about doing what you want, and what you do when you can’t do that anymore.
I admit that I haven’t actually read any of Simpson’s novels, but many of them make appearances in Understorey. I like the behind-the-scenes info I now have to some of her novels which, yes, are definitely on my to-read list. I mean, she even refers to some as eco-warrior stories – how could I resist?!
Understorey is a superbly written account of the life of a modern woman who’s doing what she wants insofar as she is able – amongst trees, and all that they have to offer.
Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
Edward O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson is one of conservation’s most prominent voices in modern times. He is extensively published, both in scientific journals and popular science books, on topics of entomology (insects are his thing), ecology and evolution. He has always been a little controversial in his ideas, such as the biophilia hypothesis (that humans are biologically wired to seek connection with nature), sociobiology (that human social behaviour is a product of natural selection) and the evolutionary forces behind eusociality (where some animals sacrifice their own reproduction so that they can help raise others’ babies). Now in his late 80s, Wilson is increasingly explicit and unapologetic in his views about how we ought to treat nature if we want a bright future for this world.
The premise of Half Earth is that 50% of the world’s landmasses should be set aside for conservation. This is necessary for the survival of all species, including humans. Wilson’s message is clear:
The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. The ongoing mass extinction of species, and with it the extinction of genes and ecosystems, ranks with pandemics, world war, and climate change as among the deadliest threats that humanity has imposed on itself. To those who feel content to let the Anthropocene evolve toward whatever destiny it mindlessly drifts, I say please take time to reconsider. To those who are steering the growth of reserves worldwide, let me make an earnest request: don’t stop, just aim a lot higher.
Conservation is still a relatively young scientific discipline. Even so, among conservationists there is now a movement termed ‘new conservation’ which keeps humans front and centre. Think community-based conservation, as opposed to exclusionary national parks. The ins and outs of new conservation warrant a thoughtful discussion in their own right, which I won’t discuss here, but it’s clear in Half Earth that Wilson has some serious concerns about its potential to undermine conservation outcomes.
If we really want the planet to have a future, extreme though that may seem, Wilson argues we need to take a much more radical approach. Half Earth proposes that humans must be excluded from some areas. If not, the earth will not cope with the demands we place on it, which will ultimately be to our own demise.
Evidently, Wilson’s arguments are contentious. He flies in the face of some of the world’s most respected conservation scientists. Nonetheless, I believe firmly that we need to keep on open mind and, for this reason, I think Half Earth is an important read for anyone who seeks to better understand the discourse that is currently playing out about how we should manage planet earth.
The Elements of Style (illustrated)
Strunk, White and Kalman
Ok, I know it’s super nerdy of me to include a book about writing in a list of my top books of the year, but this edition of the classic The Elements of Style was such a pleasure to read and look at. Arguably the best (and most direct) book on writing of all time, The Elements of Style is a kind of magic to anyone who does a lot of writing, especially of the academic or professional kind.
The Elements of Style was first published in the 50s, with many editions since, but it began making its mark on English students decades prior as a custom textbook for a university course run by professor William Strunk Jr. I love that this book has maintained much of its old-world charm in its use of language, despite being clearly modernised to be relevant to writers today.
This book is a very straightforward and explicit account of what makes writing good. There are clear rules we must all follow (e.g. Do not join independent clauses with a comma), and there are procedures we must take to make our writing more cohesive (Choose a suitable design and hold to it). We must use definite, specific, concrete language and omit needless words. Rules where you need rules.
In its final chapter, however, the book abandons rules and embraces style – that mystical, magical quality of shockingly beautiful prose. Because there is no one recipe for that kind of thing. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Indeed, all we are doing is trying to guide some other force that creates the magic. Writers will often find themselves steering by the stars that are disturbingly in motion.
Most importantly, they say, write for yourself. The rest will follow. Avoid language trends, especially of the advertising variety (the language of mutilation).
The illustrations in this edition are beautiful and instructive. It’s why I bought this copy. Each is a depiction of some phrase used in the text. They are clever, funny and a pleasure to look at.
So, if you’re an old time Strunk and White fan or, like me, just like reading about writing and having good art alongside it, then please do read this book.