Photobook Review: "We Make the Path by Walking" by Paul Gaffney

Paul Gaffney
We Make the Path by Walking
Self-published, 2013
78 pages, 40 color illustrations, 6 1/4" by 8 1/4"

Also reviewed on: photo-eye, BJP, Emaho Magazine
Additional links: The New Yorker

Irish photographer Paul Gaffney presents 40 color landscapes in his self-published We Make the Path by Walking. The images were made during walks through over 3,500 kilometers in rural Spain, Portugal and France.

Gaffney writes in his statement on the work that the images suggest the subtle changes one undergoes during long-distance walking and evoke the experience of being immersed in nature. He told The New Yorker’s Genevieve Fussell, "I hoped to hint at an internal progress, of things being dug up and dealt with, of moving on as well as moving through."

The gray-covered book comes enclosed in a colorful slipcase that features one of the books strongest images (it's the lead image of this post, above). Inside, Gaffney has opted for a traditional design. The layout is largely images on the right page of the spread, sometimes higher or lower on the page in relation to center, with occasional larger images spilling across the gutter from the right to the left, and a handful of spreads with only a left page image to vary the layout's rhythm. The images are contained completely by the book – no bleeds – and the relatively small size of the book (6 ¼" by 8 ¼") gives the images a small, gem-like presence that avoids feeling precious. The small size of the images prevents us the ability to enter into and explore the photographs, keeping us on the surface of the book, but the size works both for emphasizing Gaffney's theme of introspection and for its relation to the size of a travel journal.

The quiet presence of the book – the gray plain cover, large amounts of white space on the pages, small images and scale, traditional layout – echoes the particular muteness of the images themselves, creating a successful link between book form and photographs. The 40 images span seasons and countries, but link into a seamless singular world through this quality of muteness. It is meditation echoed in the landscape. The construction of the images themselves is narrow, possibly a little too much so. They're almost all eye-level or looking down, only one or two look up, and they are all shot at a middle distance; there are no details, no broad overviews pulled far back.

Gaffney deftly keeps the consistent mood and similar construction of the images alive through the book's sequencing, however, changing color and density of information between images to keep the rhythm going. The sequencing through the book as a whole flows easily, except in one or two sequences where the formal links between two successive images is so strong and obvious that it dominates the images themselves individually.

The human presence in the landscape – a plastic tarp in a tree, a burned field that leaves just the dry, yellow grass around tire tracks – also keeps the book from stagnating by suggesting a second presence we never see. The photographs occasionally echo the idea of meditative walking in the landscape through another type of meditation, the methodical arrangement of objects. There are two teepee-like structures and an arrangement of straw on the path that recall site-specific sculptures or land art. Gaffney's images are too pregnant with possibility, too melancholy, too mysterious to be at risk of being formed into just a book of pretty landscapes, but these different types of human interventions in the landscape provide extra insurance.

The book begins with an obvious entry path into the walk. Gaffney then quickly breaks the easy path forward: in the second image we confront a boulder, in the third an impassable river, in the fourth a fork in the road (above). This works splendidly, interrupting the possibility of an easy, uneventful walk through the book that would provide little resistance or intrigue.

The images are sometimes grouped loosely - by something such as weather conditions or fog - but those groupings are broken up and referred back to enough to prevent the structural blandness of a singular identifiable conceit, such as going through the four seasons one after another might have been. The 40 images feels right, although there are a few images that repeat each other too closely. There's no need to make a smaller edit, but perhaps room for swapping out a handful images.

On the book's themes, I feel Gaffney is selling himself short - in the best possible way. In interviews he's kept the conversation to the quoted lines above on meditation and reviews of the book have walked in line with that idea. While that theme is worked into the book's design and sequence as well as through the formal qualities of the photographs themselves as we've already discussed, I feel that there's a whole second part to this book that hasn't been talked about, a powerful environmental statement. The natural world in the book thins over the sequence, the intrusions of human society grow in presence, and the book eventually deposits us in a carved up and consumed landscape, with piles of organized dirt and a few spared trees left in circular islands.

The narrative line leads us directly to increased destruction and ends with – literally – a crossroads. The message seems clear: nature is increasingly consumed and we've arrived at the point where choosing how to respond will determine all. The quietness of the book, its primary theme of meditative walking, its construction of the woods as a space of spiritual rejuvenation and its cool, restrained images make the violence of this consumption more powerful, more so than the direct photographing of environmental catastrophe by photographers like Edward Burtynsky and George Osodi.

This second narrative enriches the book by making the book and its title function on two levels, the micro, but also the macro. We make the path by walking personally and as a society. Gaffney has made his argument; he leaves us at the crossroads to decide our own way forward.