E-Photo
Issue #101  2/5/2006
 
New Photography Books

By Matt Damsker

LOOKING AT ATGET.

Published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 125 pages; with essays by Peter Barberie, Beth A. Price, and Ken Sutherland. ISBN Nos. 0-87633-189-4 (cloth); 0-87633-190-8 (paper); 0-300-11137-1 (Yale cloth). The Publishing Department, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19130 USA. http://www.philamuseum.org .

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art became home to the Julian Levy Collection of more than 2,000 photographic treasures in 2001, there was no doubt that the centerpiece of Levy's great holdings was a trove of 361 works by Eugene Atget. These images reflect a key art-historical moment of the 1930s, in which Levy--photography's most prescient collector--and Berenice Abbott partnered in preserving and promoting the contents of Atget's studio, staking their futures on the eventual recognition, not only of Atget, but also of the photographic medium as a worthy art form.

We all know how that played out, and this book and its accompanying exhibition beautifully document the Abbott-Levy project, which brought Atget's vision to a world that was still waking up to photography's possibilities. Abbott, who would find her own fame as a photographic visionary, printed many of these shots herself, rendering superb fidelity from the master's negatives, while Levy found an audience of Atget collectors that has never ceased to grow. In the end, of course, such careerist details matter less than the sheer richness and curiosity of Atget's eye as he documented a Paris of high and low aspiration. His images fused the noble statuary of Versailles and Paris with the trees, leaves, and transient nature of the living world, and captured the rough details of streets, shop windows, prostitutes in their doorways, as well as the domestic textures of salons and other interiors.

As Peter Barberie notes in his essay, "Atget's photography was remarkable for the scope and depth of its subject matter, but his career was similar to those of dozens of other photographers who worked in Paris during his lifetime…Yet Atget took his work most seriously. His photographs manifest a daunting ambition to record countless things." Indeed, Atget's influence on the modernism of Abbott and so many other photographers, whose strategy was to initiate an aesthetic conversation through an abundance of sheer visual information, is profound. It is revelatory to see, in these remarkable photos, how the details of time, place, and texture can combine for so much in a single frame.

LUKE SWANK: MODERNIST PHOTOGRAPHER.

By Howard Bossen. Published 2005 by University of Pittsburgh Press, accompanying the exhibition of the same name at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, through February 6, 2006. 248 pages; 141 plates; 64 illustrations; ISBN No. 0-8229-4253-4; clothbound, $65. University of Pittsburgh Press, Eureka Bldg., Fifth Floor, 3400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15260 USA; phone: 1-412-383-2493; fax: 1-412-383-2466; email mes5@pitt.edu .

Another artist championed by New York's Julian Levy Gallery, Luke Swank died fairly young in 1944 and has been all but forgotten since his shining moment among modernism's photographic pioneers of the 1930s. But thanks to Howard Bossen, a journalism professor and adjunct curator at Michigan State University, the Swank Rediscovery is in full swing, with a long-overdue exhibition (guest curated by Bossen) at the Carnegie Museum of Art--and this fine accompanying book. If anything, Bossen proves that Swank is much more than a curiosity, and arguably the equal of his modernist peers--from Abbott to Walker Evans--in his own way.

These images speak strongly for themselves, echoing Atget's fascination with urban life and the monochromatic richness of stone, steel, and natural light, yet the largely self-taught Swank (born in Johnstown, PA) set himself apart with a lyrical flair for dramatic shadow and highlighting, resulting in shots that are wonderfully artful without seeming self-consciously arty. His brilliant images of workers toiling in an iron foundry, pouring molten metal while molten sunlight pours in from the high windows, are extraordinary, iconic, yet free of any workers-of-the-world rhetoric. Swank saw powerful form and complex geometry in his industrial images, and that was more than enough to validate the work. In contrast, his shots of clowns and tenting, crowds and vendors at a circus are high-keyed and affectionate, as are his portraits of migrant children, or of a little white boy giving a brotherly hug to two black friends in 1934. And the portraits of nudes or the still lifes of baskets become fascinating studies of shadow, line, and visual rhythm that are easily among the finest of their day.

Of course, as Bossen chronicles, Swank's untimely end meant that his famous, longer-lived contemporaries not only produced more work but refined their styles in a way that Swank was just beginning to do, while the market for their art only grew in the post-war era. Unfortunately, Swank's widow, Edith, held his prints off the market for decades after his death. But this book and exhibition will go a long way toward rectifying posterity's slighting of Swank. In a relatively brief time, he created a body of work that spans the seminal age of modernism, brilliantly capturing urban flavor, vivid iconography, and the human form. Indeed, his figures in the landscape are typically dwarfed by their surroundings, but their personalities resonate magically, often from a considerable distance. It is high time that we bridge the distance between Luke Swank and his rightful place in photography's canon.

FACES: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PHILIP TRAGER.

Steidl Publishers, co-published with the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, and the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University. 124 pages; 48 tritone plates. ISBN No. 3-86521-131-3. Steidl, Dustere Strasse 4, D-37073 Gottingen, Germany. Phone: +49 551 49 6060; fax: +49 551 49 60 649; email: mail@steidl.com ; website: http://www.steidl.de .

PhilipTrager's famed photographs of dancers and architecture form the basis for this study, for these "Faces" are not merely portraits but images of dancers cropped from the shoulders up. The result is a striking study in artifice and sheer personality, as the dancers--many of them among the top performers in modern terpsichory--prove wonderfully expressive, their visages heightened by greasepaint as they emote in thrall to whatever music is moving them.

If anything, Trager is staking out the architecture of the human head and upper body, housing their soulful and muscular reserves of theatrical power. Thus, an image of Mark Morris, head uplifted, eyes closed in rapture, with his arm posed across his bare chest, becomes something Olympian yet wholly human at the same time. And a wild-haired Mark Dendy, a bug-eyed Rachel Rosenthal, a mugging, Chaplinesque John Kelley, or a sternly twinned Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst become emblems of aesthetic ferment, foible, and fun. Great Asian performers such as Koma Otake--captured here in a tumble of leaves, as if the victim of some natural disaster--or Ko Murobishi, powerfully bald and otherworldy, like a Buddhist monk in prayer, appear as archetypes, while a spectral Pam Quinn seems David Bowie-esque.

These black-and-white images range from the sharply focused to blurred motion studies that convey great emotion within Trager's limiting frame, and the reproductions, on glossy stock, are first-rate and generously sized at 10.5 x 13.25 inches (26.5 x 33.5 cm). Few coffee table books are as compelling in their simplicity as this one, if only because it invites countless return perusals, for there are as many moods contained in these images as there are clouds in the sky, it seems. Trager enhances all of this with interspersed poetry and quotations--well-chosen words from the likes of Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, C.K. Williams, and Rainer Maria Rilke ("Disguised since childhood/ haphazardly assembled/from voices and fears and little pleasures,/we come of age as masks./Our true face never speaks.").

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.

He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)