I’m jealous. And inspired. In his new photography book, Two Hundred Days, Mark Benham has fulfilled a dream of mine; to compile a stunning visual tour through Portugal which captures its essence and touches the soul.
Mark’s two hundred days of photography were spread over 12 visits to different regions and cover a variety of places between Ponte da Barca in the north and Mértola in the Algarve as well as one of the Azorean islands, São Miguel. He obviously enjoyed better weather on the island than I did!
For me, the beauty of the book lies partly in its range. This is not simply a collection of tourist board style images, although the landscape shots would do Turismo de Portugal proud. Mark’s images portray the country’s natural beauty and varied lifestyles of Portuguese people.
People and personality
Among the shots that made me smile is a group of three men at a bus stop, each wearing a very different expression. Indeed, the range of emotions within this small book is vast, from the carefree joy of a gypsy girl running with a horse to a melancholic widow in black.
The horse rider in his gold-braided jacket waiting to enter the arena at the horse fair in Golegã contrasts with the images of scruffy men sleeping on benches. They are joined by market traders, kids in the street and on the beach, farmers, fisherfolk and people simply going about their business in urban and rural settings.
Every country is diverse and in this book, Mark has managed to display many of Portugal’s different land and seascapes and the changes that take place within them. Alentejan plains scorched by the summer sun wear a cloak of colour in spring when the fields are dominated by wildflowers.
He takes us to fertile valleys of farmland and striped vineyards, the jungly slopes of Azorean islands, milky lagoons and on to the ocean. Rugged misty coastlines and crashing waves contrast with expanses of flat golden sand, with and without sunbathers, beach tents and surfers.
From wizened market traders to blood-spattered butchers, bunches of bulbous garlic to freshly roasted chestnuts or racks of sundried fish, the importance of food is evident. You can almost smell the steamy, smoky atmosphere of some of the cooking shots, one of which has already won a prestigious award.
Mark also takes us behind the scenes and into the countryside to discover the hard work that goes into getting food to the table. Through him, we meet the women who carry bundles of grass on their heads and grape pickers at harvest time. We watch tractor drivers in action and labourers taking a well earned break. Fishing is portrayed in many forms and at different times of day.
Life and movement
This is not a book full of static scenes. There’s life and action in many of the images, whether that be birds in flight, fishing rods straining as a catch is reeled in, a woman cooling herself in a fountain, muscled young men diving into waves or kids playing football in the street.
Although there are a couple of images of some of Portugal’s finest Gothic treasures such as Batalha Monastery, more space is given over to modest and abandoned buildings. Weathered doors, rooms that have been taken over by weeds, crumbling plaster and flaking paintwork are treated to skilled lighting and composition to produce evocative pictures of former glory and simple lives.
At 17 cm square, the book is smaller than I expected it to be but in some ways, that’s a good thing. Unlike unwieldy coffee table books, this is easy to pick up and leaf through. The quality of paper and prints is good and I know I’ll enjoy this book for a long time to come.
I found myself nodding in recognition, smiling and even chuckling at some of the scenes. Whilst there are a couple of images that aren’t quite as worthy as the others, I can see why they’ve been chosen. The vast majority of pictures provoke feelings of envy, wanderlust, empathy, hunger and fondness in me.
While some themes are grouped, e.g. the market traders, there’s a real mixture of subjects throughout, which maintains the element of surprise as you turn the page. I also like the juxtaposition of certain images, especially the pairing of a woman standing on a mountaintop, arms outstretched, with a smiling scarecrow mirroring her pose on the opposite page.
Order your copy of Two Hundred Days. A Portrait of Portugal by Mark Benham from the Blurb website.
Find out more about Mark, his photography, design and other art work on his website: www.markbenham.co.uk
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Two Hundred Days and payment for reviewing it. This in no way influenced my opinion of the book.