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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Eric Newby

Alas, today is British obituary day at T.O.P.: Eric Newby has passed away. Though known primarily as a travel writer, he made wonderful pictures as well. His 1989 classic, What the Traveller Saw, has been reissued in a smaller paperback edition.

Posted by: OREN GRAD

Follow-Up by Mike J.: Ach, this is one of those that hurts. I found What the Traveller Saw in a used bookshop in Washington in the early '90s and felt, at the time, that I had made a great discovery, as though the book weren't a published work of art and manufacture but a wild resource I had discovered singlehandedly. I claimed it for myself like Aguirre planting a flag in a South American mountaintop. For a time, whenever somebody asked me the inevitable question "what kind of photographer are you?", I would answer by saying "I want to be Eric Newby." Which would have served indefinitely, if anyone in the art world—even the art-photography world—had ever heard of Eric Newby.

The life of a travel writer is interesting in that it implies a prioritizing: travel first, writing second. (It might not actually be that way, of course.) With Newby, there was a distinct added clause: third, snappin' pics. But don't be fooled. Despite his "humble Pentax" and 50mm lens, he was a talented and committed photographer with a clean, honest way of looking at things (he tells a funny and slyly competitive story in What the Traveller Saw of getting a particular shot while a famous Kodachrome-and-Leica-weilding Magnum pro he was travelling with blew his exposure settings and missed the shot altogether). Not flashy, but organic in a way that a lot of photographers will never match. His work is plain in a good way.

I think the thing I like best about What the Traveller Saw is that it both proposes and answers—well, answers one way, anyway—the question "what do you do with photography?" Newby answered with aplomb, humor, modesty, and, always, surpassing good grace. I never knew the guy, so I can't say "he will be missed." I just know his books, which I'll continue to treasure and enjoy.

What the Traveller Saw is sure to go out of print again before too long. Take my advice and nab a copy while you can. If it doesn't grab you right away, put it on the shelf. One day you'll make its charming acquaintance and be glad you did.


Blogger dyathink said...

Now that guy had a life!!!!! I really enjoyed the linked article in the Telegraph, thanks!

10:20 AM  
Blogger Nick Meertens said...

I had never heard of Eric Newby and I don't even belong to the art world (nor the art-photography world for that matter). The article in the Telegraph did however wet my appetite and with Mike's track record of spot on book recommendations added to the equation I ordered a copy of 'What the traveller saw' at Amazon just now. It's a shame that his death had to be the reason I learned about his life, but so be it. Thanks for posting this Oren and Mike.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Roy said...

Similar to Nick above, although I had actually heard of Eric Newby from his UK newspaper column, I had no idea he was a keen photographer.

Also aware of Mike's record on book recommendations I sought out a copy on Bookfinder; it arrived within 48 hours of ordering, and I now know that Newby was not only a keen photographer but also an extremely good one (despite his typical self-deprecating remarks about his knowledge and skill in that area).

Thanks go to Oren and Mike for a very enjoyable addition to the library. The original 1989 edition is also beautifully printed in duotone. In fact all aspects of the book production were carried out in the UK - not often you see that these days.

3:04 PM  

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