New Straits Times, 5 March 1994: "Photos say it all for Borneo's living beauty."

Borneo Alive: Exploring Borneo's Rainforest.
Photography by Max Lawrence, text by Dr. Paul Chai. Insight Topics, Singapore, 1993. 166 pages.

review by Otto Steinmayer

Large format, living colour Borneo! Gigantic, scrumptious pictures of trees, flowers and other wild-life (except the human kind) in my favourite island. Wonderful! Except—how do I review a book of photographs? Even if I could convince the paper to reproduce a plate or two for a contoh, coarse newsprint and murky halftone would mock the photographer’s art. So, talk about the words? The text stands modestly by the pictures like a quiet museum guide, and that says nearly all.

    The purpose of a review is to let you know, Reader, if you want to buy the book. I know that you, like myself, do not have the money to buy everything you’re interested in. But I’m tempted helplessly to throw up my hands.

    If you want a true review of Borneo Alive, you must do it yourself. Go to your local bookstore—one that really is a bookstore—and have a look. You might be able to do this while your companion is shopping elsewhere. There’ll be a copy for inspection on the top of the pile. But sometimes the management, afraid of customers’ nasty fingers soiling their virgin pages, swathe goodies like Borneo Alive in plastic wrap. The best bookdealer I ever knew (God rest his soul) used to say that books displayed in this manner “came in a caul,” and didn’t hesitate to strip off the plastic without a by-your-leave to the salescrew. I advise you, Reader, to do the same; and if the floorwalker objects, call him to his face a person unworthy of trafficking in Knowledge and Beauty. In the case of no commodity more than books is it necessary to avoid buying “a pig in a poke.” Take a hint from the housewives at the fish-market: turn things over and prod before taking out the cash.

    But to return to the matter in hand.

    Borneo Alive is a semi-official production. As Datuk Amar James Wong, Sarawak’s Minister for Environment and Tourism, (and a man who should know about trees) explains in his foreword, awareness of the rainforest is increasing. Sarawak, he says, is setting up numerous national parks and nature reserves, and promoting eco-tourism through them, surely a magnificent addition to the state’s economy.

    The wealth of beautiful pictures from such areas stands as a devastating Exhibit A against the critics who charge that Sarawak’s rainforest is being “wantonly” destroyed. It is abundantly clear that Sarawak’s green heritage is being managed in the manner agreed by authority to be the correct one. We need not panic or regret. Resistance is useless. Only romanticism blind to reality insists that the unbroken primeval forest remain untouched in these modern times. Progress and development demand sacrifices. Yet though necessity urges exploitation of timber for revenue by logging, the state government has taken steps that certain designated areas will remain for fortunate visitors as a small but choice specimen of Borneo’s once great natural glory.

    The author of Borneo Alive’s text, Dr. Paul Chai, is a botanist who has spent 20 years in Sarawak’s Forestry Department. He comments briefly and clearly about the separate aspects of Sarawak’s ecology illustrated.
Max Lawrence, the photographer and star of the book, is a New Zealander whose photographs have been featured in National Geographic, the magazine that sets the standard for this kind of work—so you may understand that Borneo Alive is of Geographic quality, technically as well as artistically. The press-work is excellent; the colours are well registered and faithfully rendered.

    Lawrence photographs in a style of eloquent simplicity. To photograph nature, he kept his technique as natural as possible: no flash, only two lenses. Lawrence photographs mostly from ground level, and his images follow one after the other as if he or we saw them on a walk through the forest, first remarking an open flower, a brightly coloured insect, the pattern that thorny rotans make as they grow in a clump, then lifting our head to see a flight of bats from a nearby cave.

    Borneo Alive is arranged in eight sections that cover the principal ecological zones of Sarawak. The pictures constitute a trip, on foot, through Sarawak from the mangrove thickets of the seashore to the limestone and dipterocarp forests of the uplands. Mangrove swamps, by the way, are very beautiful.

    There are not many opportunities for landscape in Borneo. Conditions in the forest keep the radius of visibility down to a few meters. Even if you get to the top of a hill trees will still shut out the view. Lawrence appropriately concentrates on the beautiful detail, including, when he can, wide and—without denying the word is a cliché, but here true—spectacular scenes taken from government helicopter. Upon or by the edge of water, a stream or the sea, the vista opens up a little—out of the jungle one can breathe. This sequence of open and closed spaces that Lawrence conveys is very true to the experience of being in the forest.

    How Lawrence got the monkeys, pigs, snakes, and birds to sit still for their close-ups I don’t know, but he must have established a rapport with his subjects, for their portraits show them very much at ease.

    By all means get and enjoy a copy of Borneo Alive. Of course it can sit on your coffee-table for the entertainment of an idle moment; it’s sufficient to impress a visitor with your taste. But if you are a photographer, you’ll appreciate the art; if a teacher of biology or lover of plants and animals, you’ll find the pictures very useful—you can learn a lot from such clear photographs; or, if you’re a Borneo enthusiast stuck in the city, you’ll turn the pages and be refreshed with the memory of trees and forest air.