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photo-eye Book Reviews: The Idea of North

The Idea of North, Photographs by Birthe Piontek.
Published by Photolucida, 2010.
The Idea of North
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Birthe Piontek The Idea of North
Photographs by Birthe Piontek
Photolucida, 2010. Hardbound. 64 pp., 40 color illustrations, 8-1/2x10-1/2".

Birthe Piontek uses the inhabitants of Dawson City, Yukon Territory to set the stage for her book The Idea of North. The title describes the work clearly. Few clues are given as to who is in the pictures. A series of images take us through her idea of the north. The book is a result of her participation in Photolucida's Critical Mass review.

It is the details of the place that fascinate me. A big picture of the place is never shown, since it would take out the inherent mystery of her pictures. It is clear that those who live there do not have an easy life. It is clearly rough and wild. The people there live a life I can only grasp at.

Of the many portraits that are in the series, only a handful stare back at the viewer. This seems to be a bit of a departure from typical contemporary portraiture, where the subject stares down the viewer. The only direct image in this vein appears to be of the youngest person presented to us. A young girl sits in a greenhouse pondering us more than we can ponder her. This is one of the standout images for me in the book. The direct engagement she has with the viewer is what is missing from the other images.

The Idea of North, by Birthe Piontek. Published by Photolucida, 2010.
 Further investigation of other series on Piontek's website show that this technique fits within her working method. Taking issue with this makes me feel like I am questioning one of her core techniques. I wish she forced confrontation more on the viewer. In general her portraits are strong. The idea of the individual comes through clearly. I am left wondering, what is it that they are looking at?

The Idea of North, by Birthe Piontek. Published by Photolucida, 2010.
 The book is well printed. Its size allows small details to be seen in the images. It is clear Piontek cares about the whole face but specifically the eyes. These are the elements that come to the fore in each portrait.

Piontek's pictures set that stage for me to fill the gaps in. The pictures are approachable. It is in the simplicity that the complex is found. What is it really that we are being shown? While Piontek wants me to see the individual, I am found thinking of the place. I am reminded often of Walker Evans when going back to this work. Everything in her images is clearly arranged in the right place. Piontek does not tell me everything and I have room to wonder.

The Idea of North, by Birthe Piontek. Published by Photolucida, 2010.
 That room to wonder is what makes this book worthwhile and gives me reason to go back again and study the lines on the faces and wonder what it is that girl on page 15 is thinking about or what the large dog on the cover sees in the woods.—Tom Leininger

See Birthe Piontek's work on the Photographer's Showcase here.

Tom Leininger is a photographer and educator based in Denton, Texas. He received his MFA in photography from the University of North Texas. Prior to that he was a newspaper photographer in Indiana. His work can be found at