Book Review: Talking Stones by Elaine Ling
“Since my very beginnings as a photographer,” writes Elaine Ling, “I have been captivated by ancient stones and the messages they send us from the ages. This book brings together my decades of obsessive travel and photography dedicated to recording remarkable stones, both natural and man-made.”
I also learn that most stones “were created to be messengers for what are now long-vanished cultures. The lone man of stone staring at a Gobi Desert horizon, the beheaded nobles bearing gifts to a Chinese empress, a Buddha’s face almost swallowed by a tree, were all conceived to preserve and disseminate tales of great journeys, battles won and lost, death or survival, ancient myths and powerful gods.”
I must admit that before reading this I had somewhat indifferently glanced through the pages of this tome, not really knowing what to make of these pics. Sure, from time to time I paused and wondered what I was shown yet it was without real curiosity that I looked at these stones. For ancient cultures aren’t really my thing.
How come then that I’ve decided to review this book? Not because of the subject matter (in fact, I had hardly paid attention to it) but because of Elaine Ling whose work I very much admire. And so, when learning that one of the central messages of these stones is “that, ultimately, nature will prevail” (an idea that I fully share), I return to the book with a changed, and now open, mind. Also, and not least, because I sympathise with Elaine Ling’s attitude: “I see myself as a very small figure in the large landscape.”
The photographs are all in black and white, “made from the now extinct Polaroid Type-55 black-and-white negatives” (Ed Burtynsky). Sometimes I know what I’m looking at, sometimes I don’t. The image captions are found at the end, many of them aren’t exactly meaningful. “Kangaroo Island, Australia 2005, Eastern Sierras, US, 1995, Dogon Village, Mali 2008.”
There are however additions to some of the captions that are very much to my liking. The one, for instance, accompanying the round rock in Costa Rica describes how Elaine Ling became aware and subsequently found this and other round rocks. The Namibian megalith she discovered when she followed a small hand-lettered sign in the Kalahari Desert “pointing to something called the Giant’s Playground“. One of my favourites is the Tibetan one with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
“Speaking of Stones” by William L. Fox introduces the book. He distinguishes five kinds of stones. The ones we find in the natural world; the rocks that people pile up, stack, and otherwise assemble; the ones we sculpt; the ones upon which we draw and write; the ones “we have never seen and wish to discover. These are the stones sought by Elaine Ling and other photographers (…) Ling presents her photographs of stones in revealing juxtapositions, carefully sequencing images in books and exhibitions, or more directly diptychs.”
“Surely what draws us to these ancient works of art and architecture so beautifully illustrated in this book is what they reveal about yearning and devotion, commitment and connection, the sacred and the stone,” Wade Davis’ writes in his interesting and informative foreword.
I’m glad this book exists. For the simple reason that I will now look at stones with a more open mind.
Talking Stones: A Photographic Sojourn
by Elaine Ling
Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin 2015
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