Book Review: Mynas by Robert Zhao

By Leonard Goh (freelance writer/Singapore)

Mynas is possibly one of the darkest photo book (literally) you will ever see on the shelf

The ingenuity of visual artist and photographer Robert Zhao can be seen in his latest book, Mynas. Robert’s works have long threaded the line between what is real and what is not. Even his studio/company/institute’s name, The Institute of Critical Zoologists, is a name fitting for his artistic and imaginative photographic works that revolves mainly around the natural world.

At first glance, Mynas is not aesthetically appealing. The cover is very dark, save for a few white spots. But look closer and you’ll realize that the white spots are actually the name of the book, and a small monograph of a myna. And, if you inspect closer, you will see that there are leaves printed in very dark tones. By now, you will have the realization that the cover is actually a photograph, and one that begs to be appreciated, but only if you look at it long enough.

The layout for Mynas, done by Robert, feels like an orchestrated effort to create creative dissonance for the readers. Some pages are intentionally left blank, leaving readers to scrutinize the page to see if something is amiss. The next page may be blank as well, and then you will flip to a double page spread, with the main subject, a myna, or two, within the page surrounded by darkness.

The book’s pages are also of slightly different sizes. If you were to flip through it very quickly, it feels as though some pages are book marks, or spacing to segment the different sections of the book.

If you’re not familiar with Robert’s works, and is looking forward to an in depth introduction, you won’t find one in the book. Interestingly, the introduction text is on the second last page of the book, and gives a brief glimpse into the project. I can only imagine exasperated new readers trying to make sense of Mynas, only to be further confused when they finish flipping through it. But this is the nature of Robert’s works, where vagueness is often an accompanying theme.

Robert told us that Mynas took approximately 4 months to complete, including shooting time, editing and layout. But the interesting thing about the shoot is that Robert was on a cherry picker along Orchard Road, Singapore, outside Mandarin Gallery to shoot the mynas. So to be fair, the photographs in the books are real, but infused with a large dose of Robert’s personal style and visual vision.

The paper used for Mynas are very high quality, similar to the ones that you may find in certain Japanese photo books. The matte texture works very well in this book, complementing the dark nature of the monograph. According to Robert, the paper used is naturalis, an uncoated paper that offers consistency in color representation. This is important, considering how the blacks in the book need to be uniform to truly bring out the subjects, the mynas.

Mynas can be bought from between S$50 to $65, depending on which country you are shipping to.

Published in 2016 by The Institute of Critical Zoologists
Edition of 400
32 images, 104 pages. Soft Cover with Wrap around.
23cm x 30cm x 0.9cm (Thick)
ISBN: 978-981-09-8310-9

Leonard Goh

Leonard is an advocate of photography in Singapore and also an educator in this field. He has served as senior writer for the now-defunct CNET Asia, before moving on to working for various camera companies in the business development and marketing capacities. He is also a co-founder of Platform, a not-for-profit photography initiative in Singapore which also published Twentyfifteen, a collection of 20 books to commemorate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee (SG50).

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