Having just finished reading Colin Thubron’s In Siberia I’m wondering whether there is an equivalent of travel writing in photography. A travel writer will usually not be willing (or able) to spend the time it might take to become familiar with a place. Instead, s/he will create the essence of the writing out of fleeting, chance moments and encounters - this is what makes travel writing such a hard thing to do, because even though we all can (and probably) will experience any number of special moments when we travel, it takes a master writer to distill more out of them than just a collection of such moments.
Maybe Andrew Phelps’ Not Niigata can be taken as photographic travel writing. With images shot over the course of a mere three weeks, on a commission by the
European Eyes on Japan festival, Not Niigata collects the photographer’s moments in Niigata, which he calls “the story of not understanding Niigata.” That is, of course, one of the important things about travel writing: To make connections with what is known well, without pretending to necessarily understand that which is being encountered.
Taking Not Niigata as photographic travel writing might thus be a good approach, easing the burden imposed on the photographer. After all, of course the photography in Not Niigata is not a faithful portrayal of Niigata (assuming for the moment that such a portrayal was even possible): How could someone do that in only three weeks?
Needless to say, the difference between travel writing and travel photography is that a writer can write at any time, be it at a particular place or, later, at her or his desk. A photographer does not have that freedom. Sure, there is the edit to be made, but new images cannot be added in the same way that a writer can add a new sentence (unless one goes back to take new photographs). So as a photographer, what you have is what you have to work with. Photographers usually solve this problem by taking lots of photographs (sheer numbers btw don’t necessarily translate into more good images). And this is where Not Niigata runs into a bit of trouble.
There are many beautiful images in the book, but there are also some duds. It’s a bit of a mixed picture. I think Not Niigata could have used a slightly different edit. Of course, I don’t know the images that did not make it into the book, and of course asking for a different edit is easy for me to write.
This all taken together makes Not Niigata a book that showcases the strengths of a photographer, and the dangers inherent in going to a place for three weeks to take photographs. For me, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, though - which makes Not Niigata a book that deserves to get wider attention.
Not Niigata, photographs by Andrew Phelps, 72 pages, Kehrer Verlag