By Roger Donaldson and Hamish Keith
Random House, $49.95 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

IN HIS foreword Hamish Keith says: “We live in a cloud of pragmatic photographic images. The practical uses of the medium tend to limit our view of its possibilities – if our experience of painting was mediated by signwriting, we might see it as predominantly only for the making of visual messages. Clear way the noisy swarm of our daily encounters with photographs and photography becomes art again.”

This neatly defines what ‘art’ photographers are up against. It is a battle, but it helps define and differentiate the best ‘art’ photography from the maelstrom. If the work holds its own amongst the mass of images we see it is a good image. Extending his argument somewhat, I think that the ubiquity of photographic images in our lives leads many people to think that photography is an easy art form. Indeed, taking a photograph is very easy. Taking a photograph which stands up as ‘art’, as something more than a snapshot, isn’t easy.

Because of the ease of the activity, it seems to me that too many people now think that they are photographers, rather than merely people who take photos. This had led to a large number of books being published, mainly overseas, of photos by people (usually celebrities of one type or another) better known for activities other than photography. Some are good. A few are great. Some, simply, are not. Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think famous hobbyist painters get published to the same degree as famous hobbyist photographers. Admittedly, there was a book of watercolours by Prince Charles published a few years ago – quite good apparently.

And so here we have a book of photographs by Roger Donaldson, Australian born, US-based, Kiwi-claimed film director. Having escaped Australia, and a geology career, in his late teens, he came to New Zealand to further his passion in photography, before turning his hand to directing, starting with Sleeping Dogs.

And despite where you may think my argument is taking us, All Dogs Shot is actually a pretty good book. Donaldson definitely has a good eye for imagery, for knowing what is worth photographing and knowing how to make the image work. There are a couple of shots here I wouldn’t mind on my wall, but overall I feel I’ve seen a lot of these before (and I’ve even photographed one or two of them myself). Regardless of the technical quality of the shots, many are just photographic clichés. It is clear Donaldson is still playing with the possibilities, taking his lead, as he says, from Bill Brandt, and toying with everything from landscape to still life to street photography. This isn’t tourist brochure photography; it is the work a man exploring with his camera, quite possibly (to badly paraphrase Garry Winogrand) someone photographing just to see what things look like photographed.

Verging on 200 photos dating back to 1950s Australia, we get to travel the world with Donaldson, and despite the circles he moves in there is a welcome absence of celebrity. His first twenty years worth of negatives and prints were lost in a fire some years ago so most of the images here are from the last two decades. The reproductions are generally pretty good but there are some strange quirks of design.

The book is split into ten chapters, though there’s no explanation, and no coherent reason. They are kind of arranged by style or location, but there’s a lot of crossover making the separation irrelevant. The layout is far too obvious, and easy, for my liking – pick any two page spread and there is instant, obvious connection between the images, a connection which often carries over to the next spread. I almost get the impression that Donaldson (and maybe Keith) choose their favourite works and sequenced them as quickly as possible. For me there are too many images here. A more judicious edit, and more time spent sequencing them would lift this book for me. In many ways I’m reminded of Rick Alexander’s 2007 book, largely I think because of the predominance of black and white landscape. The difference is that Alexander’s book calls out to me, whereas, nice as it is, I don’t think I’ll revisit All Dogs Shot very much at all.

There are a couple of other things that annoy me about this book too. There are thumbnails and captions of varying lengths at the back of the book. It’s frustrating having to flick back and forth constantly. If the captions are important enough to have to be there, then make it easy for the reader, please. And Donaldson’s introduction finishes with the oxymoronic statement: “These photographs have been taken with a variety of cameras, from high end professional equipment to throw-away point and shoot. Some were shot on film, others captured digitally. The equipment is irrelevant. It’s what’s in front of the camera that’s important.” Leading me to ask if the equipment is irrelevant, why give a hint of what you used? Pernickety, I know.

In saying all this, being quite negative, and feeling that we’re only really seeing this book because of who the author is rather than because of the quality of the work, I am willing to say that this is strong photography which will appeal to many people. It is very accessible photography; photography for photography’s sake even. Pick it up, have a look, if you like it great, if not, no worries, but for $50 you could do a lot worse.