McPhee and company in two new books; Alaska: Images of the Country, photographs by Galen Rowell, text by John McPhee (from ''Coming Into the Country''). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 160 pp. $ 37.50. The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee, photographs by Bill Curtsinger. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, Inc. 149 pp., plus photographs. $25.
John McPhee, arguably the nimblest journalist in America, writes about all manner of animal, vegetable, and mineral.His curiosity has sent him prospecting in such eclectic quarries as the worlds of basketball, geology, gourmet cooking, plutonium particles, and birch-bark canoes. He has written perhaps the best book on tennis, and is guilty of having devoted an entire volume to the subject of oranges.
McPhee has a novelist's knack for verbal portraiture, which, among other things, makes accompanying photographs as superfluous to this ''literature of fact'' as they would be to a piece of good fiction. Nevertheless photographers Galen Rowell and Bill Curtsinger are exhibiting their pictures side by side with the journalist's prose in a reissue of two McPhee classics: ''Coming Into The Country,'' his best-seller on Alaska, and ''The Pine Barrens,'' which looks at an improbable wilderness in south-central New Jersey.
Rowell, an exceptional outdoor photographer, confesses in the preface of ''Alaska: Images of the Country'' that he originally intended the book as a ''solo project'' but couldn't ''imagine outdoing McPhee.'' So Rowell has sprinkled a collection of his pictures with excerpts from the best-seller. Even in its abridged form, McPhee's text masterfully captures the myths and realities of Alaska's unreconstructed rebels who fled the ''lower 48.'' As for Rowell's work, with the exception of a handful of postcard sourdoughs, the images largely neglect the human landscape in preference to majestic mountains and arctic rainbows. In this paean to ''the last wilderness'' somehow even Anchorage's suburban sprawl and seedy Fourth Avenue take on a Kodachrome sheen. For the taste of this reviewer and former Alaskan, the photos have too much gloss and too little grit.
The pairing of McPhee and Curtsinger in ''The Pine Barrens'' is less strident. Curtsinger, a first-rate National Geographic photographer who grew up near the New Jersey ''pines,'' has appended to McPhee's text a portfolio of 64 black and white images of cranberry bogs, blueberry pickers, water lilies, and rusting farm equipment. His photographs of a fog-shrouded truck, the fire tower at Apple Pie Hill, pine trees in bloom, and Ada Simons blueberrying hold their own with McPhee's words. The lion's share of the pictures, however, fall short of the high standard Curtsinger has shown himself capable of in the field of marine photography.
Some of my best friends are photographers, so pardon me, but McPhee's prose incites my print chauvinism. In the end I must concur with the curmudgeon in McPhee who assures ''a single word is worth at least a thousand pictures.''