The biography at the back of Paradise Road (Edizioni Charta, NZ$75) merely states that Brian Sweeney “works in business”. While truthful, it is an understatement. Sweeney is a very successful businessman who divides his time between New York and Raumati, has strong and historical links to the New Zealand arts community, and is an avid photographer.
Paradise Road is an extension and concentration of his 2003 self-published book, Geography: 100 Pictures. With that book I got the feeling it was an excuse for Sweeney to do something, anything, with his photos. It wasn’t as tightly edited or sequenced as it could have been, and many of the photos had odd colour casts which didn’t sit right with me.
Paradise Road, on the other hand, consists of sixty or so carefully chosen, though seemingly random, images sequenced quite deliberately. Everything about it seems more purposeful and accomplished than his earlier book.
Some of Sweeney’s earlier work reminded me of, amongst others, the work Gavin Hipkins was doing around the same time, but I suspect that was more coincidental than a deliberate decision on Sweeney’s (or Hipkins’s) part. Many of the images in Geography look like good tourist snaps, but lacked the real deliberation of a seasoned photographer.
While everything about Paradise Road is a leap above Geography, photographically there’s still not a lot that suggests an original voice—though that isn’t the point. In his brief essay Stuart McKenzie states that Sweeney’s images could be seen as “meditations on the history of art and photography”. Amongst his photos here are some Hiroshi Sugimoto—in as much as any sea-sky horizon automatically brings to mind Sugimoto. Less obvious are a couple of Harry Callahan-esque studies. Other names do spring to mind but Sweeney is no copyist, and while he may not have an original or apparent photographic signature, what pulls these photos together is a love of the image.
As with Geography a good number of images are taken from the air, ranging from the straightforward (Delaware River) to the abstract (above New York State). These aren’t your traditional topographical aerial studies but views of things from planes available to anyone with an inquisitive eye (and a camera).
Often books of this type will have one image per page, consistent sizing and placement. Paradise Road mixes this up, changing scale, having up to 3 images per page, and lots of breathing space. While the image pairings are quite obvious, the image selection makes this a strength—my favourite being two images from Maritime Hotel, New York.
My take on photography is strongly rooted in my own photographic education and practice. Consequently, it continually intrigues me the angles at which writers such as Stuart McKenzie approach writing about photographs. Occasionally I think the approach is misguided; more often though, it’s an interesting tangent which criss-crosses the photos in a way that opens them up for the reader/viewer.
McKenzie’s text is definitely of the latter, pointing out the obvious (though only once he has pointed it out), and discussing Sweeney’s images from a broadly spiritual perspective. He says, “the idea that nature is at once commonplace reality and uncommon sustenance … is at the heart of Sweeney’s vision.” This idea of dualities resonates throughout Paradise Road, from the title itself (Paradise vs. Road), to many of the images (the sacred and the profane). McKenzie goes on to examine spiritual perceptions of nature from religious and non-religious viewpoints, drawing connections with Sweeney’s photos and particularly his love of clouds/sky and water.
My main criticism is that the text elements feel crammed into the design, particularly after all the space given the photos. The other grumble is more esoteric, but some of the photos felt like they could have been (much) bigger to really pull you into their presence.
Paradise Road is a beautifully balanced collection of images. It isn’t necessarily a book that’s going to astound you but does demonstrate the power and glory possible with photographing for photography’s sake. Sometimes a good solid ‘traditional’ photo can be a lot more rewarding than an image (striving to be) on the cutting edge. Spend some time on Paradise Road and its beauty and simplicity seeps through.