E-Photo
Issue #109  9/6/2006
 
Books For Your End of Summer Viewing

By Matt Damsker

DAGUERREOTYPES 1995-2004. JERRY SPAGNOLI.

Published by Steidl; 2006. ISBN No. 3-86521-200-X; also ISBN 13: 978-3-86521-200-9. Steidl, Dustere Str. 4, D-37073 Gottingen, Germany. Phone: +49 551-49 6060; fax: +49 551-49 60 649; email: mail@steidl.de ; online: http://www.steidlville.com or http://www.steidl.de .

This collection of a decade's worth of daguerreotypes by Jerry Spagnoli reflects the artist's metaphysical passion for depicting light--not merely as an element of composition, but as the essence of reality. Indeed, in his introduction, Spagnoli offers an eloquent and somewhat mystical rationale for utilizing the prototypical medium of daguerreotype: "The image…is not in a steady state like other photographs. It is elusive, fugitive…it remains a potential image until it is presented under the correct optical/spatial conditions…and the light from a scene in the past strikes your eye like new." But in the end these images must speak for themselves, and so they do, powerfully and beautifully, as Spagnoli's meticulous scans for this handsome book superbly capture the metallic glint of the daguerreotype's unique silver-plate process.

At their most dramatic, as in shots of New York City sky and sun above skyscrapers, Central Park, or the East River, the azure and cobalt blues that result from intentional overexposure convey a dreamlike beauty seeping through the austere sepia of the daguerreotype. This effect, at its best in subtle yet startling slivers of blue light that activate the stolid architecture and solid geometry of the subject matter, makes a seamless connection between photography's beginnings and its postmodernist project.

This is especially true in Spagnoli's shots of desert rock formations, in which his alchemical auras take on an otherwordly grace. At the same time, his many close-up studies of the human body--hands, shoulders, faces in profile, folds of skin pressed and stretched--are textural tours de force in which the metallic charge of the medium blends with the living warmth of skin tone, hair, and human gesture. The result is a freshly invigorated way of seeing, struck like a flint-spark from photography's oldest form.

In every way, Spagnoli's "Daguerreotypes" is a triumph.

PHILIP TRAGER.

With an interview with the photographer by Stephanie Wiles, and essays by Barbara L. Michaels, Eiko Otake, Norton Owen, Clare Rogan, Andrew Szegedy-Maszak and John Wood. Published by Steidl; 2006. 311 pages; approximately 200 plates. ISBN No. 3-86521-239-5; also ISBN 13: 978-3-86521-239-9. Steidl, Dustere Str. 4, D-37073 Gottingen, Germany. Phone: +49 551-49 6060; fax: +49 551-49 60 649; email: mail@steidl.de ; online: http://www.steidlville.com or http://www.steidl.de .

This comprehensive volume of Philip Trager's peerless black-and-white photography is an overview spanning four decades. It is also a solid companion to two years of Trager exhibitions that began with a major retrospective early this year at Wesleyan University's Davison Art Center (the same show now continues through September 17 at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and will move to the Allen Memorial Art museum at Oberlin College in 2007). With an exhibition slated at Trager's long-time New York gallery, John Stevenson, November 2 to December 30, 2006 and additional museum and gallery venues being arranged throughout the U.S. and Europe, the photographer's work is achieving an apotheosis of visibility--and this hefty volume from Steidl proves that there is a lot to see.

Trager's open-air depictions of great dancers in motion may be his unique contribution to figural photography, but it is easy to argue that his architectural studies will prove his greater legacy. Apart from the formal and tonal perfection of his architectural shots, their crispness and purity (purged of all but the most marginal of peoplings) captures a sense of place few other photographers can claim. Trager's studies of the saltbox shapes and Victorian facades of the homes in his native Connecticut, for example, exude all the dignified reserve and laconic grace of the New England sensibility, and seem on a painterly par with Edward Hopper. Similarly, Trager's studies of the adobe church of Rancho de Taos, New Mexico, with desert sunlight bisecting the smooth shapes, are like abstract canvases, yet they shimmer before us with palpable heat.

Trager's great shots of New York City's heights and depths are even more Hopper-esque, as sunlight rakes the rich, man-made volume like a cosmic spotlight, amid countless inventive, often tilted, perspectives. For example, the spiraling modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum is viewed from a side that reveals an ugly wedge of neighboring apartment building, while a terrace view toward Federal Plaza crams the pure mass of an opposing skyscraper down our throats. Trager is just as inspired and unerring in his views of Italian villas, Parisian iconography or the empty streets of Birmingham, AL. By the time he turned to dancers and faces in the 1980s and 90s, Trager was more than ready to capture the architecture of the human figure--and especially the noble houses of the head and torso. And so he does, with limbs straining to escape gravity or yielding to its pull, and expressive visions of prepossessing people.

PHOTOS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD.

Edited by Peter Stepan. Published by Prestel; 2006. 200 pages; 120 plates, 30 in color. ISBN No. 3-7913-3628-2. $19.95. http://www.prestel.com .

Photographs of momentous events and eventful moments are not necessarily photos that change the world, and more than a few of the 100 or so images in this enjoyable book are merely familiar photo-journalistic icons--mementos of important turning points, such as Wall Street flooding with shocked investors on the first morning of the Great Depression in 1929, or the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Only the greatest of them are more than that: catalysts for social change or some new perception of life. It's thus arguable that John Paul Filo's justly famous 1970 image of a girl screaming in horror above the dead body of a student war protestor shot by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio, or Huynh Cong ("Nick") Ut's unforgettable 1972 mirror-image, of a screaming Vietnamese child running naked from her village after a napalm attack, are galvanic photos that helped turn the tide of public sentiment and political action.

Indeed, so many of these photos are of war or disaster that it's refreshing to note the few that seemed to provoke or promote change with no violent overtones. For example, Bert Reisfeld's charming publicity shot of a smiling, pelvis-swiveling Elvis Presley, his arms raised in triumph, seems a kingly benediction for the rock 'n' roll era. And the strangely airless, claustrophobic image of astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, announces the arrival, at last, of the future. These images, of course, lack the resonance of the most artful photojournalism: Lewis W. Hine's early photograph of child labor in the U.S.--a small girl overshadowed by the industrial monolith of a cotton mill, seen in vast, receding perspective; or Dorothea Lange's classic 1936 "Migrant Mother," truly a Madonna of the Dust Bowl era, her haggard yet strong features suggesting reserves of dignity amidst despair.

Editor Peter Stepan has arranged these endlessly fascinating photos in a conventional, chronological fashion, leading us through the 20th century, and providing each image a page of helpful annotation and historical perspective. The grainy, cinematic, frozen moments that have come to define America's tragic sensibility--the assassination of John F. Kennedy, captured as he is shot in a speeding motorcade, or the image of a jetliner about to sunder the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001--are noted as much for their impact on the visual arts as for their impact on society, and that nicely broadens the dialogue of this collection. Bookended, logically, by images of two natural disasters--the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans in 2005--this tribute to photography also reminds us how the world changes us, and how the camera, so often a harbinger of change, is the ultimate witness as well.

EYE TO EYE. PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRAHAM NASH.

Produced and edited by Garrett White. First Edition 2004; published by Steidl. 193 pages; approximately 150 plates. ISBN No. 3-88243-960-2. Orders can be placed directly with Steidl: phone: +49 551 496060; fax: +49 551 4960649; email: mail@steidl.de ; http://www.steidl.de .

It's fitting that the most affecting images in this five-decade collection by Graham Nash are of his musical compatriots--from Joni Mitchell to his bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Perhaps that's due to Nash's palpable affection for and empathy with these very private personalities who, like him, can't escape the limelight. Nash, as this beautifully produced book makes clear, has been taking photographs longer than he's been making rock 'n' roll; by 1953, at the age of 11, he was capturing fine images of zoo animals, his glamorous mother and amateur-photographer father, all in the north of England. Since then, his dual career, as pop superstar and intrepid lensman, has flourished; and one suspects Nash would be happy if his greater legacy proved to be these photographs.

Nash is certainly committed to the medium. He built one of the most important private photo collections by the late 1980s, and sold it in the 1990s to help finance Nash Editions, the first fine-art digital printmaking studio in the world. By then, he had begun to exhibit his own work, and "Eye to Eye" chronicles how widely and how well that work ranges, under the influence of great artists from Lewis Hine and Eugene Smith to Weegee and Cartier-Bresson. Nash is well traveled, of course, and so there's a great restless charm to his images, evoking Lee Friedlander in their fascination with street and shop window, odd reflections, random objects, and urban textures. When he marries his eye for gritty detail, unorthodox perspective, and the decisive moment with the human subjects he cares most about, the results can startle, marvelously. The dark hippie intensity of a youthful Neil Young is captured with an easy intimacy, as are shots of a pensive Joni Mitchell, an edgy Dennis Hopper, and a jaunty and Buddha-like David Crosby, glimpsed through the years.

It is obvious that what powers Nash's photography is what powers his singing and songwriting--an intense love of his artistic gift and the artists with whom he shares it.

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.)