The Beauty of Presentation – Review of “Outside II” by David Magee

I do not own a pair of white linen gloves. Although, sometimes, I wish I did.

We all know that feeling. Anticipation and joy, tinged with just a little bit of fear. We find ourselves holding something beautiful and it’s thrilling, compelling and precious. We worry that our own awkwardness, or something as simple as the oils in our skin, will introduce a stain.

“Outside II” by David Magee
Published by Concentric Editions, 2021
review by W. Scott Olsen

When something physical is profoundly elegant, it sits in an unusual psychological space. Touching it is an act of respect.

David Magee’s new book, Outside II, is a beautiful book. And before I get to the photography, the entire reason this book exists, I need to call attention to the elements of book arts here. This is, perhaps, the most elegantly designed photo book I have held in my hands. Simply picking it up and opening to the beginning, the feel of this book is different.

From the texture of the cover stock, the embossed lettering, the script of his name in gold foil, to the variety of paper sizes and weights and colors inside, this is the kind of book that when you hand it to somebody else, if you have that much courage, and the first thing they say before getting to the initial image is “Oh my.”

Of course, it’s easy to be garish, to be over the top, to be out of control with book design.  None of that is present here. The red of the endpapers is tinged with blue, to compliment the cover. The font choices, sizes and colors, throughout the book, are all parts of the presentation of the images and their stories – both in terms of location and composition as well as intent and idea. 

You open the book and realize you’re in the presence of something rare. The opening pages – title, dedication, epigraph, table of contents, are a slightly different size than the pages that hold the images.  A few black and white images appear, and gray tones fill the opposite pages.  An introductory essay, a conversation between David and art historian/critic Dr. Jean Wainwright, appears on yet another, smaller paper size. The reason is immediately clear. The conversation is important, but it’s also prefatory. This is a book of images. The design elements direct our attention. 

Think of it this way. A musical composer does not think just in terms of piano and forte.  There is mezzo-forte, pianissimo, fortississimo, and the rest. Those are the markings of the force of the content. Translate those distinctions to book arts, and you have Outside II.

Outside II follows David’s earlier book, simply titled Outside. It is a collection of landscape images from around the world. Japan and China in 2015. Sri Lanka in 2017 and 2018. The Atlantic coast of Ireland in 2018 and 2019. Long Island in 2019. Ireland again in 2019 and 2020.  The East Sussex Coast of England in 2020. The opening conversation with Wainwright follows this organization, in the form of  questions and answers.

“There is something extraordinary about the quality of the light in your images of Japan was there something uniquely different about the light there?”  she asks.

“Light is incredibly important in my image making,” Magee replies. “In this series, the snow and the clarity of the skies combined, hugely influence how the light worked. The snow acted as a canvas in the background like an illuminated backdrop… This was the first time I found myself working in snow and instantly relished the challenges and opportunities that presented.”

“So,” she says later on, “tell me what does the sea mean to you?”

“For as long as I can remember,” he says, “I have felt most at peace outside – by the sea. In Ireland, everywhere is in relatively close proximity to the sea. My earliest memories are of being by the sea. It is alive, it has a voice in a beating heart. It is a literal force of Nature. Every time I’m close to the sea, I feel a calming sense of serenity and security. Especially the Atlantic Coast of Ireland. This ancient and spectacular coastline is where my heart lives.”

Clearly, though, an insightful conversation and talented book design don’t mean a thing if the real subject – the photography – isn’t worth the attention.  And just as clearly, Magee’s work is worth the care.

“My work,” he writes, “Outside is based upon an intimate relationship with Nature. It’s not about documenting a specific time or place – it’s about the experience, the inspiration and the intimacy.” Magee says this book was not supposed to happen. The first volume was intended as a standalone project. However, Covid and the state of the world sent him looking through his archives and rediscovering unpublished work.

Magee’s images have a formal feel. They are composed studies. Mostly in color, the images nonetheless have the timeless feel of black and white. They are muted instead of noisy.

Each section begins with a bit of text. For example, beginning his chapter on the United States, he writes, “Sometimes discovering a new location, landscape or country is a little like making a new friend. Sometimes you hit it off straight away. Sometimes it takes more time to nurture and develop. For me with Long Island, it was a very comfortable first meeting.”

But the images are where the imagination lingers. The photographs often contain some hard element, like a rock or cliff, in precise focus, set in a field of softness and space, like an ocean. The images feel like both ultra-fast and long exposure. Horizons are often perfectly straight. For me, these images appear as moments of eternity – both the very-present of the right-now as well as the timelessness of eons. Every image has the gravitas of the best landscape work. Here, they say, is something both unchanging and mutable.  It’s not a contradiction. 

My favorite chapters are the first chapter from Ireland and then the concluding chapter with images from the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs on the English Channel. There is something about scale in these pictures, scale of time as well as size, that speaks to issues of permanence as well as mortality and hope. However, in truth, every chapter is compelling.

Outside II is a remarkable book. As a physical object, it is beautiful and sophisticated.  As a collection of images, it rewards every view.

A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.

FRAMES Magazine
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation.
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