E-Photo
Issue #104  4/18/2006
 
Photography Book Reviews

By Matt Damsker

IN CHARACTER: ACTORS ACTING. DIRECTED AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY

HOWARD SCHATZ. FOREWORD BY ROGER EBERT.

264 pages; 125 color and black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 0-8212-2907-9; 2006, Bulfinch Press, Time Warner Book Group, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; $50 (U.S.), $67 (Can.). http://www.bulfinchpress.com .

The consummate, confidant pro, Howard Schatz takes the coffee-table tome to a new level with this latest concept in celebrity portraiture--not purpled celebrity, a la Britney-Paris-Lindsey, but the well-earned fame of working actors, veteran faces we've seen countless times. Schatz asks each to play a series of emotions ("You are a father watching your baby daughter take her first step," for example, or, "You are a district attorney whose star witness has just perjured himself") and captures the result in often extreme, cinematic, always affectionate close-up. It amounts to 260 pages of mugging, perhaps, but these are master muggers, and just a glimpse of Scott Glen's weathered face affecting the gaze of "the dark-horse challenger in an international chess final," or Edie Falco wrapping her everywoman features around a version of "a little girl telling your mother that your twin brother said a dirty word," is to be wonderfully amused and entertained.

And these are great faces, to a one, from Falco to Don Cheadle and Richard Dreyfuss to Amanda Plummer and Melissa Leo, to Martin Landau, James Earl Jones, Ellen Burstyn, Hal Holbrook, Natasha Richardson, Rosie Perez, Alan Cumming, and too many others to name--indeed, this book dreams the list called Laundry, dense with participation and gamuts run, with "acts" arranged to depict Comedy, Anger, Suspicion, Flirtation, Tragedy, and so forth. The execution is immaculate, but the whole project will strike some eyes as elaborate shtick, a frothy novelty lacking the gravitas of such previous Schatz volumes as "Pool Light," with it underwater imagery, or the flower portraiture of "Botanica." Still, Schatz and his players deliver human vitality and performative intelligence on a grand scale, and that counts for a lot. Roger Ebert's foreword gushes a bit, but also makes good points about the intimacies achieved here, and the nature of the actor's craft: "There is something curiously intimate about what actors do on these pages. As a reader, I began to feel like the mirror in their dressing room. I wasn't looking at them. They were looking at themselves."

IMPRESSIONIST CAMERA: PICTORIAL PHOTOGRAPHY IN EUROPE, 1888-1918.

Published on the occasion of the exhibit of the same name at the Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO, continuing through May 14. Merrell Publishers Ltd., 81 Southwark St., London SE1 0HX; 49 West 24th St., 8th Fl., New York, NY 10010. ISBN No. 1-85894-331-0 (hardcover); 0-89178-088-2 (softcover); 344 pages. $49.95 softcover; http://www.merrellpublishers.com .

If there's an irony to photography's pictorial (or, Aesthetic) movement, it's in the notion that making photography look like painting and drawing brings it closer to fine art legitimacy, when, ultimately, it reduces it to mimicry. Still, the three decades of Pictorialism chronicled in this display and accompanying catalogue resulted in countless beautiful images, and more 140 of them are displayed here. Organized by the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, France, this is the first comprehensive exhibit of Europe's pictorialist treasures--from Austria and Britain to France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Russia, and beyond, with 15 scholarly essays included in this book to chart the origins and influence of the movement, along with illuminating studies of technique.

Pictorialism, as Saint Louis Art Director Brent R. Benjamin notes in his Foreword, was one of the first truly international artistic movements, spreading quickly from Europe to America and Asia. From the great and simple nocturnal reverie of Pierre Dubreuil's "Ferris Wheel in the Tuileries Gardens"--with its street-light globes the sole bright notes in a study of shape and shadow--to the autochrome soft-focus of John C. Warburg's "The Japanese Parasol" (autochrome was the first industrial process for color photography, invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1903), this is photography at its most self-consciously evocative, and it conveys a haunting, haunted sense of wonder on the part of these pioneering artists.

Indeed, if one didn't know that many of these images were the result of hand-worked, gum bichromate exposures on fine papers, it would be hard to call them photographs, especially when confronted with something like Georg Einbeck's 1897 print of a mother breast-feeding a baby, with its etched texture and, especially, the classical features of the mother; it's as if Rembrandt were behind the camera. And the outdoor studies of Theodor and Oskar Hofmeister, of boats on a Dutch canal, are masterworks of subtle coloration and tonality coupled with superb composition. If anything, Pictorialism's greatest works are its least phantasmagoric. Constant Puyo's images of spectral women in misty landscapes are lovely, dark, and deep, but the heightened naturalism of other photos--such as Adriaan Boer's "Winter Landscape," with snow lining the thin trees like brushstrokes of white paint--makes a stronger impression. In these images, and despite all the artifice of Pictorial inspiration, it's the real world that shines through--and, as later generations of photographers would show us, that's more than enough.

WITNESS: 52 YEARS OF POINTING LENSES AT LIFE.

Photos by Jurgen Schadeberg. 2004; 141pages; 120 plates. ISBN No. 1-86919-067X.

VOICES FROM THE LAND.

Photos by Jurgen Schadeberg. 2005. 165 pages; 155 plates. ISBN No. 1-86919-105-6.

Both volumes published by Protea Book House, PO Box 35100, Menlo Park, 0102, Pretoria, South Africa. Email: protea@intekcom.co.za .

These are the two most recent volumes of works by the peripatetic Jurgen Schadeberg, who, though born in Berlin in 1931, established his reputation after the Second World War and well outside of Germany, immigrating to South Africa in 1950. There, he led the photo staff of the country's leading magazine of the 50s and 60s, "Drum", and developed a reputation as a South African Eisentstadt; more importantly, he helped affirm the black experience under apartheid, with everything from street photography to images of Nelson Mandela and other heroes of the African National Congress. With "Drum" banned in the mid-60s, Schadeberg freelanced all over Europe and America, and taught at the New School in New York and even briefly in Hamburg. By 1984 he returned to South Africa, a major figure among photojournalists.

Of the two volumes, "Witness" best represents the pop-cultural Schadeberg whose camera embraces worlds of humanity and personality on an almost Shakespearean level--there's hardly a photo here that lacks for expressive depth, from a 1952 shot of a young Mandela in his law office to a 1994 image of a wizened Mandela revisiting his prison cell on Robben Island. In both cases, the rueful wisdom of the South African leader is iconically captured. In between these watershed images, of course, are just about everything else--gamblers and jazz musicians in Johannesburg and Sophiatown, the old and young faces of London in the 60s and 70s, the gritty life of Glasgow, Tyrol villagers, even the Berlin Wall. The theatrical lighting and full-frame detail of Schadeberg's "Drum" portraiture certainly evokes Eisenstadt's great Life magazine images, but Schadeberg seems most fully engaged on the fly--grabbing the richly textured, often random, visual information of markets and snowbanks, or celebrities like Nureyev and Jagger in casual moments. In every case, his lens finds people being themselves, and they interest us.

"Voices from the Land" is altogether different, a much more solemn documentation of struggle--in this case, it's the hardscrabble reality of South Africa's rural farm laborers, who toil in a difficult, sun-baked environment without ownership. Indeed, the book's running commentary details the conflicts that make these workers' lives so tough; their allegations of abuse and attack by farmers are legion, while many of them face eviction from their own ancestral lands. Schadeberg brings his camera to bear on the worn, weary faces of these survivors, many of them living in shacks yet soldiering on with great dignity.

There are white faces as well, among them farmers who acknowledge the tensions and symbolize the troubled inequality of this earthbound culture. Schadeberg's camera doesn't judge, of course, but it sees clearly and affirms powerfully for us that apartheid still exists.

BILLBOARDS, NEW YORK.

Photographs by Wouter Deruytter. Essay by Vicky Goldberg. 48 pages; 30 plates. ISBN No. 90-9019763-X. Published by the Chelsea Art Museum, Home of the Miotte Foundation, 556 West 22nd St., New York, NY 10011. http://www.chelseaartmuseum.org .

Belgian photographer Wouter Deruytter makes Manhattan his home, and this is his homage to the unique surreality of the City's street life, as New Yorkers make their ant-like way beneath the giant billboards that silently scream Fashion! Sex! Buy!

Deruytter's camera captures the taken-for-granted immenseness of these commercial Olympians--the models and celebrities who would seem to dominate and disparage the averageness of everyone else--but the unforced irony of these images is that so little attention is paid to the giants by the Lilliputian masses. It makes for a nice assertion of real life, lived really, as a couple kisses, or old folks scurry, beneath the hot gaze of a Calvin Klein underwear model, or Jennifer Lopez for Louis Vuitton, or, for that matter, an enormous beauty shot of an Asprey wristwatch, filling the frame like some metaphor of mortality while the tiny pedestrians below it strut and fret their hour on life's stage.

These black-and-white photographs are mostly noonday compositions, resulting in a heightened chiaroscuro that lends an all-purpose duality to things, or, as Vicky Goldberg's acerbic essay notes, "a drama of continuous contrasts: big and small, important and insignificant, light and dark, in focus and out, young and old, slim and fat, sleek and dumpy, chic and workaday, throbbing with passion or sunk in daily preoccupations, richly pampered vs. poor and tattered…"

Often, they remind us how unshockable we can be in the face of such market-driven eroticism as the Calvin Klein ads that feature barely clothed models with their mouths and hands all over each other--all in a day's walk to work. This little book (which accompanied last year's exhibition of the same name at the Chelsea Art Museum) will stand the test of time as Deruytter's affectionate and sharply observant hymn to the contrasts of his adopted city.

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.)