Tuesday, June 09, 2009

WITH THE DAWN BY NIHAL FERNANDO & HERBERT KEUNEMAN. A Review by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, Sunday Observer, 2nd April 2006

With the dawn :
A poem in black and white

Nihal Fernando & Herbert Keuneman
Published by Studio Times Ltd., December 2005.
Available in Standard (soft cover) and Deluxe editions, at Studio Times, 16/1 Skelton Road, Colombo 5 and leading bookstores.

by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

"In a world of soul less technology, this is an achievement for which one can say "thank you," said one visitor to the 1973 Studio Times exhibition of wild life photography held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery.

The remark applies just as well to the book With the dawn, which traces its origins to that event. Perhaps even more so to the book, which comes into print at a time when the digital revolution is transforming what people understand by the word photography.

Measuring just 18cm x 19cm and about one inch thick, this new publication containing 200 black and white photographs from the 'analog era' is a typical Studio Times product - unostentatious and yet packed with punch. It has a very spare text by Herbert Keuneman, which never intrudes, but works in a way that seems to hold the pictures together like an invisible frame.

It is this perfect partnership between words and pictures that makes with the dawn an unusual work. It comes across like a poem, Although Anu Weerasuriya insists there is no attempt here to educate or edify the reader, and that "it's just a beautiful book," with the dawn in fact portrays everything her father Nihal Fernando fought for as a nature lover, patriot and environmental activist.

The pictures are Skill fully compiled in a sequence that tells the story of Sri Lanka's precious wild life, with all its drama and pathos.

It illustrates how, while "the forest is a place of beauty, quietude and uneasy peace, there runs beneath its life a constant counterpoint of conflict and violence." A day in the jungle in the company of these two intrepid authors takes the reader close up to the battles for survival within it, the magnificence of nature, the sadness of death and man-made tragedy.

"The leopard, as savage a killer as any, kills without malice." When the warrior buffalo issues a challenge to its rival, the entire animal kingdom is disturbed. "Always the burden of the generations of young, to be trained to follow in their elders 'footsteps...." But all is not gloom and doom, there are moments of humour too that have not escaped the camera's eye.

There are many examples of this photographer's special gift for freezing the feeling moment - the lightning strike of the eagle, the spring of the leopard, the monkey in mid air leaping from one bough to another.

While some of the prints seem a little grainy, the reader's attention is held at these points by the story element in the text. But this is hardly a fault to find, given the totality of rewarding experience the book has to offer.

In a post-script, Neville Weereratne takes a line from the Handbook of the Ceylon Traveller to describe Nihal Fernando as one who has "travelled the length and breath of this country, seen, heard, experienced and above all, understood the land, its people and their life," adding that this is what defines him to be "the amiable colossus that he is."

No doubt he found the perfect kindred spirit for this venture in Herbert Keuneman, former journalist, teacher and Anglican priest, for whom, we are told, "lifelong residence led to a passionate love for the island." With wild life books having become something of a fashion nowadays, it is this passionate motivation lying behind with the dawn that makes it stand out as the 'genuine article' among a proliferation of coffee-table books.

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