“Oh no!” I thought, as another large rectangular volume landed on my desk, “not another yachtie coffee table book”. But on opening this latest publication, ‘The Legend of the Sea: The Spectacular Marine Photography of Gilles Martin-Raget’ I realised that this was something different.
The images are of course spectacular, as you would expect from one of France’s, if not the World’s, premier photographers of all things nautical. But it is the choice the author has made, out of all the millions of possible photographs he could have used, which makes this particular book rather special.
Gilles was born in Arles, France, in 1955, and no doubt his early inspiration was the sun and sea of Provence, that which also gave us those other masters of light, the Impressionist painters.
Later, as a professional sailor, Gilles got to know the technical side of sailing, the rules of racing, and the pains and pleasures of high level competition.
In 1983, out of the running for the 25th America’s Cup, (the one the Americans didn’t win!) where he had been competing on the French entry France III, he enjoyed his first success as a professional photographer. He never looked back.
As Ken Beken says in one of his reviews, comparing the modern digital photographer to the ‘real’ ones “Gilles learnt his trade and skills from the “old school” when film cost money. He is an artist…..truly a chef amongst cooks.”
But back to “The Legend of the Sea” (published by Adlard Coles, Originally in French ‘Vu en Mer’ ) where in the introduction Martin-Raget gives us a taste of his past, and a short vision of a possible future. We realise that here is a man who lives and breathes the sea, and all that floats on it.
The book is divided into chapters, and from the start, with the evocative image of a young boy about to capsize his dinghy, I was hooked.
Of course Gilles is best known for his spectacular scenes of the America’s Cup, and here we are certainly not disappointed.
In the chapter from San Francisco in 2013, entitled “The America’s Cup – An Old Lady on Top Form!” we witness scenes more familiar to Formula 1 fans – crash helmets, full protective clothing, speeds unknown to ordinary sailors, images akin to flight, aerofoils in action, the gruelling training regime the crews go through, and the inevitable near misses and sometimes collisions.
It is almost a relief to turn the page at the end of the chapter, to find another called “The Timeless Charm of Polynesia”, with its crystal waters, sandy atolls, and idyllic travel brochure scenes.
Aside from the breath-taking racing images, there are also ones of mainstream yachting – pictures of fibreglass boats being sailed by families, kids jumping from their Dad’s boat into the sea, rubber dinghies and kayaks – all the fun things that most of us sailors have experienced. But always with that magic lens that a great photographer has. I will never see the Porquerolles islands with the same eyes again, after his stunning photograph on page 200 – it is just a boat, some islands, and the sea, but what a picture!
On a recent trip to the Natural History Museum in London to see the 50th Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, I was expecting a few hours of Photoshop trickery, digital mastery and computer effects. But my cynicism was short-lived. I was greatly impressed with the patience, sensitivity, skilful eye and mastery of light and time that these superlative photographers have.
The exact moment in the day when the shadow is just right, the perfect instant when a paw is just raised off the ground, and the patience to spend days in a damp hide for that flock of water birds to flap past, the sun behind them.
Gilles brings the same skills to this book – how he can possibly get some of his images is beyond me – that very instant of collision between two race boats, the exact moment when an AC sailor is flipped from a hull dozens of feet above the sea, the very second a wave crashes over a bow, the heart-stopping build up to a crowded buoy rounding, the adrenaline of a busy start line, the precise instant a spinnaker is ripped from the hands of the crew, and rips again in the sea.
But amongst all this action is the peace and elegance of the Classic Revival, of beautiful places, portraits of some of the great names of sailing, and some interesting technical input.
Whether it is the beauty of the pure lines of the Wally class, the majesty of the big training vessels, or the excitement of top level competition that you appreciate, you should buy this book.
If you agree with ‘The Wind in the Willows’ Water Rat, as I do, that “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” then you must definitely buy it!
See more images from 'The Legend of the Sea' below: