Books: Giving Good Weight
Eye to Eye, by Frans Lanting (Taschen, $40). Dutch photographer Lanting takes an aggressively novel approach to wildlife portraiture: He puts it right in your face. Looking through this jarring new collection, you'll find yourself staring into the wide eyes and outstretched jaws of more than 70 of the world's animal species. By photographing them at startlingly close range, Lanting renders his subjects immensely palpable, almost surreal. A scaly, spike-headed marine iguana appears monstrous, while a mostly submerged hippo is so vivid you can practically feel the hot blast of breath from its flared nostrils.
Cuba, by Eddy Kohli (Rizzoli, $60). Cuba, off-limits to most American travelers since 1963, is so subtly different from our other Caribbean neighbors that it constitutes a kind of parallel universe. This lush new book of color pictures makes it clear that once the barriers to travel are gone, visitors will encounter a bold and interesting visual palette. Kohli, a German photographer best known for his fashion work, downplays political imagery in favor of exploring Cuba's striking physical and cultural attributes — as in his shot of a headdress-adorned nightclub dancer on the Havana waterfront and his study of the glorious geometry of a dried tobacco leaf.
Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape, photographs by David T. Hanson, preface by Wendell Berry (Aperture, $40). In this remarkable debut volume, Hanson uses the seductive imagery of aerial photography in an unaccustomed way — to document a horrifying range of eco-disasters and industrial-waste botches. Peering down on open piles of toxic residue from a now-defunct asbestos mine, you're briefly mesmerized by the abstractness of the image before remembering it's a poisoned beauty. Beyond such sleight-of-hand, Hanson understands that there's a certain unnerving fascination to such blatant evidence of environmental devastation and callousness, and he offers examples stretching from strip mines in Montana to landfills leaking contaminants into the Everglades. Like Wisconsin Death Trip and Clearcut before it, Waste Land is an epic, revelatory bummer.
Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature, by Harry W. Greene, with photographs by Michael and Patricia Fogden (University of California Press, $45). Berkeley herpetologist Greene's splendid tome is really two books in one: a gorgeous extravaganza of color photographs illuminating the natural history of the slithering world, and a brilliant text that draws provocative theories of evolutionary biology from a lifetime of close observation. Snakes is a veritable Who's Who of snake society, packed with thrilling passages about the astounding nature of serpents and their sometimes gruesome proclivities. (The nefarious Inland Taipan cobra's idea of fun is overkill: Its fangs pack enough venom to kill 200,000 mice.) Sinister action photos, such as an image of a hog-nosed pitviper in midstrike, may not make this an ideal gift for ophidiophobes. But anyone else with a penchant for exciting science is likely to love it.
Distant Waters: The Greatest Fly-Fishing Worldwide, photographs by R. Valentine Atkinson, foreword by Nick Lyons (Random House, $35). The never-ending boom in fly-fishing books may have made anglers wary of squeezing yet another volume onto their shelves, but this decadent work will surely have fisherfolk swooning. Alongside Atkinson's alluring photographs of the world's most deluxe fishing locales are supple essays by literary line-casters such as Tom McGuane, Russell Chatham, and Verlyn Klinkenborg — and for the fly-tying fanatic who wants to do more than just swoon, each section includes a fact-filled primer on travel logistics and equipment.
Pilgrim, photographs by Richard Gere, foreword by the Dalai Lama (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, $75). The first surprise in this book is how quickly you forget that the photographer is a movie star. Gere, a longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism, has been traveling with his camera to the Himalayan Plateau for several decades, and his black-and-white studies of the Tibetan community in exile, the Dalai Lama, and the convergence of daily life and religious traditions are the affecting work of a passionate amateur. A few pictures seem arty, but most of Gere's shots have a directness that cleanly conveys the soulfulness of his subjects.
Bay Area Wild, photographs by Galen Rowell and Michael Sewell, text by Galen Rowell, foreward by David Brower (Sierra Club Books, $38). As is fitting for the sentimental home and unofficial headquarters of the American environmental movement, the San Francisco Bay Area has more parkland and open space than just about any other megalopolis in the world. Berkeley native Rowell has circled the globe many times in his career, but this portrait of the landscape and wildlife in his backyard rivals even his most exotic work in its insight and sensuousness. Lurking within these radiant images — nearly half of which were provided by Marin-based lensman Sewell — is a host of provocative ideas about the conflicts and tensions between unspoiled terrain and a burgeoning cityscape.
Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, photographs and afterword by David Breashears, text by Broughton Coburn, introduction by Tim Cahill (National Geographic Society, $35). In early May 1996, filmmaker David Breashears was on Mount Everest, preparing to bring back the first IMAX camera footage from the top of the world. Waylayed by the tragic storm that killed eight climbers (and became the subject of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air), Breashears and his team heroically assisted with rescue operations before completing their own ascent. While Coburn's text is a disappointingly dry and earnest recounting of a now-familiar tale, Breashears's photographs, in classic National Geographic fashion, offer an impressive documentary portrait of this inhuman place and of the mortal sport that draws adventurers to its slopes.
Landmarks in the Landscapes: Historic Architecture in the National Parks of the West, by Harvey H. Kaiser (Chronicle Books, $60). Ninety-four years after its completion during the bully administration of Teddy Roosevelt, Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn still projects an exuberant and vigorously romantic aura of rustic primitivism. It also has a great view of the park's signature geyser. Such is the idea behind Kaiser's photographic study of architecture set in the midst of the western landscape — that these buildings were designed as much to bring nature inside as to house and shelter. Accompanying Kaiser's uncluttered images is his sturdy history of wilderness architecture — from the Anasazi ruins in Mesa Verde to a postmodern steel-and-stone visitor center in Rocky Mountain National Park — that at its best "merges with its setting."
Photograph by Clay Ellis