A while ago I wrote that I had seen a book of Donovan Wylie’s photography on Amazon for £0.01. It turned out that I was charged £0.02 for the book (I am not sure why), but I can live with this 100% increase in price, I think… maybe…. just.
I was eagerly awaiting delivery, because I could not comprehend getting anything worthwhile for this price. Surely it would have been cheaper for the vendor (an independent book store) to throw the book in the bin? Just staff administration time would mean the book was sold at an effective loss, but I feel (and assume the vendor did) that books should be retained and recirculated whenever possible. They represent collective human knowledge and experience, which might otherwise be lost. They’re the history of the human species.
Donovan Wylie is now a photographer with Magnum Photos, so a twinge of optimism followed after I hit the ‘buy’ button! It has since arrived and here is a very short commentary on Donovan Wylie’s Ireland – Singular Images.
Firstly, Donovan Wylie’s Ireland, Singular Images is a smallish paperback book at approximately 10 x 8.5 inches and 1/4″ thick. It contains just over forty prints, ranging from double page spreads to (mostly) one image per page. The print quality is relatively poor, with limited resolution and a lack of subtle tonal gradations. Purely from the point of view of one’s delight in the feeling and presentation of the photos, I would give this book about 2 out of 10. Personally, I felt that the poor print quality really detracts from one’s ability to connect with the images and, by extension, the subject matter. Although my copy is a bit faded around the cover and the pages are a little yellow around their margins, I am confident that I am having the same visual experience as it’s very first owner would have had. The bottom line is that this book was made on a very tight budget and it shows. The publisher was André Deutsch Ltd, London with an original price of £9.99 in 1994.
The below three images give a a sense of the print quality, which as I say, seems to lack mid-tones resulting in rather a ‘soot and whitewash’ look. Both the second and third images would surely have had quite a smooth and rich greyscale as silver gelatin prints, none of which has been preserved in book form.
With print quality out of they way, what other impressions did Ireland, Singular Images leave me with?
Even after adding adjusting for adverse effect the print quality has on one’s viewing experience, I am not hugely impressed. The book contains quite a few images that didn’t grab me in any way, even after I’d jostled my mind around in the hope that they would. Wylie states in the prologue that the photographs in the book were made while wandering Ireland seeking out images of the ordinary. However, I do not personally feel that the result has been terribly successful, which seems a very strange thing to say about a photographer who was a 23 year old Magnum Photos Nominee at the time the book was published. That said, Donovan Wylie was considerably younger when these photographs were taken and that makes a difference. It is not 100% clear from the book’s introduction, but he was somewhere north of 16.
There is a sense of detachment about the photographs, which is harmonious with the photographer’s wandering experience and title (they really are ‘Singular Images’). Inanimate objects and candid street scenes are interspersed with landscapes and urban images. None feel terribly intimate (which is not a criticism, but does contrast with his own comments on how he found intimacy with many of his subjects), but I did not discover what stood in it’s place. The body of work is limited in its ability to inform (these are not documentary images) due to a lack of common theme or direction, yet they do not feel accomplished as stand-alone photographs in the way Bruce Gilden’s work does. I would suggest that Vivian Maier’s street photographs are vastly much more communicative and give a stronger sense of era and human experience. By way of context, I do not hold Maier’s work in quite the same esteem as some people do. Her story is fascinating and give her images another dimension, however. This is something I wrote about in Why the Fuss About Vivian Maier? and Finding Vivian Maier: What Can Photographers Learn?
There are glimpses of Wylie’s photographs reaching a deeper level of connection, as exemplified by the images above, but again, I found myself trying to fight through the almost impenetrably bad print quality to ‘feel’ the images. The lack of related material also hampered my efforts.
Without doubt, these photographs represent a very early stage in Donovan Wylie’s photographic career. His images do bounce around a little in terms of style, even within this short book. There are flashes of what we now associate with Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama, Bruce Gilden and perhaps some Fay Godwin and Ian Berry making appearances; however, all in much attenuated form.
If I were to be a harsh, but honest critic, I would say that Donovan Wylie’s wandering ended in failure. The book does not communicate in relation to any particular (political, or other) theme. It does not serve up compelling imagery regardless of what, why or where. Sadly, it does not, from amidst the mish-mash of imagery, help us to touch the beating heart of the human condition either. Instead, I found myself looking over the book several times and feeling that it really is an assemblage of (mostly very average) ‘singular images’ with a handful that allude to something much greater, but never quite take you there. He was a young lad, granted, but this does not bring anything extra to the images themselves, only one’s appreciation of the relative sophistication and boldness of a very young photographer. This was also shot on film and so young photographers had a lot more to master than those emerging in the digital era today.
In looking at Donovan Wylie’s later work (you can see his profile and several projects on his Magnum photographer profile page), it is clear he since went off in a very different direction. One can find glimpses of some of his early work in his later typological studies of British Army watch towers in Northern Ireland and his series on the Maze Prison, but only the barest vestiges. You can read more of my thoughts on the typological approach to photography on <—-this link, but I am a little puzzled by the leap from traditional developing reportage photographer to Düsseldorf disciple. However, photography is best when it remains a little bit mysterious and there isn’t a need to make sense of any of it. To borrow from Donald Trump’s phrase book, Donovan Wylie is in Magnum and I am not…. so I have nothing more to say! Good Night!
P.S. It’s not always a good thing if you love every photography book you buy. In this case, the book has left me a little puzzled and so I will surely be coming back to it. For £0.02 (plus a modest P&P), it has already proven immensely good value.