First, an admission, I am a fan of Doug Chinnery! There, I’ve said it, and so this review of his book “Abstract Mindedness” is not going to be fair and balanced. Quite frankly if I didn’t like the book, or his style of photography then a) I wouldn’t have bought the book and b) I wouldn’t be writing this review and posting it on my website.
I have been on three different sorts of workshops led by Doug, the first being a Light and Land workshop on Long Exposure Photography in Weston super Mare. That was at the start of my beginning to take photography seriously, and when Doug probably still considered himself a landscape photographer. The Doug I met then was one of the kindest, most patient, men I have ever met. I great teacher who had the ability to make quite technical subjects appear understandable, if not easy. I can still remember sitting in a café in Cleverly, overlooking the pier, with Doug explaining about how he does abstract pictures on his iPhone, and which apps he used. That brief demonstration opened my eyes to a completely different form of photography, I had thought that abstract art was solely the province of the painter or sculptor, not the photographer. Possibly because of that workshop both long exposure and abstract are two of my favourite forms of photography.
Just over a year ago Doug, as he has very eloquently reported within his Blog (http://www.dougchinnery.com/onwards-and-upwards/) and also in Social Media , had a mental breakdown. I had been on the second of my workshops with him and Charlotte Gilliatt possibly only a few days before and, on reflection, he was certainly a lot quieter and withdrawn into himself than on the previous occasion but still he was a kindly, friendly and giving of himself as before. This just goes to prove that often we, as mere outsiders, have absolutely no idea what is going on within someone’s head.
Throughout the intervening year Doug has been very open on what he was going through with the hope that such communication made get help others going through similar. He was also interested in, as he says in his introduction to the book, seeing how his mental state might affect his art during his recovery. So, he set out on the quest to publish a book based upon the abstract photographs he did during the year and, in a move typical of Doug, to give 100% of the profits to the Young Minds mental health charity.
The resulting book I now have in my hands, it contains not just Doug’s photographs but also poetry that he has written during the year. As he mentions in the introduction it is these verses that give a “better barometer” of his mental health during the year than do the pictures. And it is these that certainly give some context to the pictures and what he was going through at the time.
After quite some social media expectation as the publication date got closer and closer we have finally got our hands on the finished article, published by Kozu Booksand in a range of different limited editions ranging from the 400 copy Standard Edition (retailing at £38) through to a one off Special at £1400 which included a one to one workshop with Doug and a host of other treats. I went for the 100 copy Special Signed Edition #1 that came with a limited edition numbered and signed print by Doug; this edition cost £95 but to put this into context a signed one of Doug’s prints can cost £350 so what I have received is a total and utter bargain; and with profits going to such a good cause!
On unpacking this precious object, I find an elegant bright red slipcase containing a similarly covered book, inside is a personal message from Doug (he must have had writer’s cramp after writing 100 of these messages); a personal touch that is fully in keeping with the whole message of the book. The pages are blindingly white, which means that Doug’s colourful abstractions stand out to their fullest extent. Greg at Kozu Books has done a magnificent job on the whole piece, as have the printers.
Settling down in our conservatory on a wet Saturday morning with a cup of coffee to hand I start to go through the book, expecting an hour or so’s thorough enjoyment. Only to find myself, by the end of the book, with tears in my eyes.
The pictures are magnificent, oozing with technique that mere mortals such as myself can only dream of, and certainly the book would have been worth the price for these alone. However, the pictures alone will not tell the story that Doug wants to tell; the majority are bright and colourful, seemingly full of joy and delight. Very few of them appear full of depression, doubt and anxiety, although the very process of multiple exposure means that things are overlaid and hidden thus providing us with yet another metaphor. Some feel very entangled, almost as if the artist was struggling through an impenetrable wall of thorns or branches; whilst others give off a sense of life and light. One, on page 64, a glorious set of orange, red, green and blue right-angled parallelograms feels to me to be very warm and cosy, perhaps because it reminds me of a duvet cover we used to have (sorry Doug!). However, my favourite picture of them all is one that may be the darkest one of all, this double page spread on pages 50/51 reminds me of a storm in the mountains just before sunset (or sunrise).
But when accompanied by the introduction, the verses and the timeline that delineates Doug’s year of recovery the pictures move from being mere beautiful images and the whole package becomes a journey into a person’s very soul.
Part of me would love to know what an English professor would make of Doug’s poems; I’m certainly no expert but I find that these are some of the most poignant and affective poems that I have read for a long time. Immediately I am thinking of some of the poems within Spike Milligan’s book of serious verse “The Mirror Running.” Both have the same visceral, raw emotion, showing us an insight into the world of depression and anxiety. The poem from December 2018 about a death (possibly his mother’s, to whom the book is dedicated) and the author’s inability to feel in the same way as the others attending, absolutely pulls at my heart strings.
This, however, is a book with hope. The last two poems, “To Hope to Find a Quieted Mind” and “My Guernica” show that the storm is hopefully starting to subside and that there is light at the end of this year long dark tunnel.
To conclude, I want to say thank you to Doug for being so open about what he has gone through and for publishing such a magnificent and inspirational book. This is something that I will treasure and return to time and time again both to look at the pictures (and probably try and work out how the hell he did that!) and to read the poems.
Well, I did say that I was a fan!