Books of landscape photography are tricky things. How do you present what is very often flawlessly beautiful, but somehow clichéd subject matter in such a way that it makes you look at it with fresh eyes, makes you want to turn the pages, makes you so compelled to engage with the work that it forces you to reassess your opinion of the genre ?
One solution is, it seems, is not to draw your attention to the landscape itself, but to the story behind the landscape.
In Clear of People, Michal Iwanowski answers this question in a breathtakingly beautiful way. Once again, as with several books from recent months, the addition of a personal connection proves key to the solution.
During the second world war, Iwanowski’s grandfather and his brother were captured and held as prisoners of war in a work camp in Russia. After a daring escape, they set out to navigate the dangerous, and potentially suicidal 2,200 km journey, on foot back to their homeland of Poland. In memory of, and in tribute to his grandfather, Iwanowski decided to recreate the journey himself. The book Clear of People is the resulting document assembled from the images captured along the way.
Once you are made aware of this key fact, the way in which you look at these images changes completely. To know that the artist chose to personally conduct this gruelling pilgrimage the same way. To both experience and appreciate this amazing feat of endurance in memory of his grandfather, turns a collection of pictures of the countryside into a spiritual, and life affirming experience.
The images are indeed stunning, Photographed during the winter months, there is a serene calmness that probably felt completely alien to the original journeymen. Many of the images are photographed in long shot, recreating the feel of an observer, someone hiding, ensuring that the landscape is safe to traverse. Others of houses, shacks, gun placements. Some places no doubt offering solace and temporary safety, others an altogether less palatable alternative. One of my favourite images is of a road crossing, for once, in close up. The cracked tarmac and the white lines leading directly to a field and woodland beyond. the threat of exposure and detection, followed by the promise of cover and protection.
The original improvised maps, along with notes, archival images and commentary are included in a beautifully annotated section bounded by different coloured stock paper. The poignancy of the project becoming ever more apparent.
The book design and printing is stunning. A soft cover with a landscape image fixed and wrapping almost obi like around it. Opening to a Swiss bound book. the binding for once allowing the book to be opened fully to appreciate these wonderful pictures. With just one image per page, the layout and editing flows beautifully, taking us with the artist as the journey progresses. In some ways not dissimilar to Ron Jude’s Lick Creek Line, however in Jude’s project we are the hunter. In Iwanowski’s we are the prey.
In this sea of books that present themselves to us these days, Clear of People stands out as a both a beautiful example of the art of landscape photography, and a fitting salute to the endurance of the human spirit.
Iwanowski summarises in his own notes. “I have no interest in judging history, nor am I interested in glorifying my relatives. But just what happens to all those people who one day wake up to a war ? Who mourns the lost ones ? Our landscape is crowded with ghosts on their way home, East, West, North, South. There is no room in history books to fit all those people.”
This may be so, but as he has proven, there is always room for another history book, and there are always people who will listen.
This review first appeared on photobookstore.co.uk