A little while ago, I asked Richard Renaldi and Seth Boyd of Charles Lane Press what it was that made some photobooks more precious than others. “Good pictures.” Boyd replied, “Just good pictures. That sounds ludicrously simplistic, but that’s all I want when I look at a book: to see amazing images.” To which Renaldi added “I also think that restraint can make a book very good as well. If someone uses restraint when editing and sequencing, I think that makes a better book.” It’s very worthwhile to keep these very important points in mind when looking at photobooks. I had to think of them while looking at Nelli Palomäki’s Breathing the Same Air.
I suppose there are photobooks, and there are photobooks. Restraint seems like something you definitely want in a good photobook (just take any poorly edited book - no need to name names here - and you’ll easily see what I mean). But “good pictures” can be less obvious, because you can make a great photobook with pictures that by themselves might not be that great, at least in purely photographic terms.
Palomäki’s portraits easily qualify as good pictures. These photographs of children and mostly young adults possess a very clear and well-defined sensibility that references contemporary portraiture, without failing to stand on its own. The portraits of adults occasionally have a bit too much life style creep into them, but I have been admiring the photographs of children for a while now. They avoid the trap of sentimentality, while focusing on the children’s vulnerability and openness to a world they don’t fully comprehend, yet. This combination becomes particularly interesting in the portraits of young Russian cadets.
Breathing the Same Air was produced at the occasion of two exhibitions (both still ongoing at the time of this writing), so one could think of the book as a catalog. It employs chapters, which makes it a bit more rigid than it could have been, but that’s probably just me nitpicking. That aside, the book is an incredibly attractive package, designed attractively (using restraint) and bringing full focus on Palomäki’s portraits, many of which I have found myself coming back to frequently.
Good portraits are so hard to do, and here are so many of them. One can only hope that the book will help Nelli Palomäki become a more familiar name in the world of contemporary photography. Recommended.
Breathing the Same Air; photographs by Nelli Palomäki; essays by Estelle Af Malmborg, Timothy Persons; 128 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2013