Issue #110  9/14/2006
New Photo Book Reviews

By Matt Damsker



2005, Edition Galerie Vevais, An der Dornbuschmule 7, D-16269 Vevais, Germany. Available in a number of signed, limited editions with numbered prints, also hardback, softcover; ISBN No. 3-936165-44-0 (softcover), 3-936165-36-X (hardcover). http://www.galerievevais.de ; http://www.high-tech-literature.com .

The passionate lyricism of Walt Whitman is not easily matched with erotic photography--Whitman is too sprawling, too encompassing in his poetry, a poetry that celebrates the organic force of humanity and transcends mere sexuality or sentiment. In this beautifully produced volume, Paul Cava makes a noble attempt to celebrate with Whitman, illustrating some of the bard's most sensual passages from "Leaves of Grass" with photo-collages that bring a rough-hewn, tactile force to the project. At their most potent, Cava's split-image conflations--half-male and half-female nudes--evoke the pan-sexuality of Whitman's great, barbaric yawp ("There is something in staying close to men and women/and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them,/that pleases the soul well…"), while Cava's antiqued and pigmented prints suggest the earthy sweat and must of Whitman's 19th century.

Such portraits as "Denise (Map-Red)" don't quite fulfill the concept, due to an overlayed gridwork more in tune with Sol LeWitt than with Whitman, but on their own terms, Cava's posed nudes are exquisitely captured expressions of idealized form. Where Cava is somewhat diffuse--as in "Sexual Nature #11," with its juxtapositions of a female nude, diagrams of ova, and an archaic drawing of a Ferris wheel against a blurry shot of skulls in a catacomb--he is nonetheless intriguing and drenched in a sepia-toned mysteriousness that rewards our attention. His symbolism is also consistent: the Ferris wheel recurs in the hand-colored pictorialism of "Venus/Ember/Ferris/Christ," overlaying a Renaissance appropriation of Jesus on the cross, while an autoerotic "Venus" stands raptly, profanely, at the far left of the work.

At his tenderest, Cava depicts couples in the throes of lovemaking, with a gentle allusiveness that works well in such soft-focus, blurred images as "Bobby and Jackie (Letter)," which double-exposes a vague handwritten love note upon the image of the sprawled couple. Again, the connection to Whitman's wise embrace of all things human may be simplistic, but the right humid grace notes are struck ("A woman waits for me," writes Walt, "she contains all, nothing is lacking,/Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking."). Ultimately, this volume is a unique showcase for Cava and a rich reminder of how powerfully free--and ultimately modern--Whitman's poetry is, lending itself to daring visual expression and challenging our best living artists to strive for something equally timeless.



2006, University of California Press, 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94704-1012; 152 pages, 97 duotones; ISBN No. 0-520-24654-3; clothbound, $34.95. Information: phone: (510) 642-4247, fax: (510) 643-7127; http://www.ucpress.edu .

We may think that the imagery of down-and-out white America begins and end with the classic Depression-era photography of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and the other WPA photographers who put faces to the poverty and dustbowl grit of the 1930s. But the hardscrabble life of West Virginia's coal-mining culture is very much with us--especially in somewhat recent news of fatal mining disasters--and Ken Light's photography documents this Appalachian corner of America in powerful, large-format, black-and-white detail, reminding us that times remain as tough for these people as they were for their Depression-era forebears.

Light and his wife, Melanie, traveled extensively through this isolated terrain, taking pictures and capturing the oral histories of residents (Coal Hollow is actually a fictional composite of the communities visited by the Lights). The theme that runs through these accounts--of coal-company greed and the vulnerability of the poor--is familiar, but Light's photographs bring a vivid immediacy to what is at stake here. And what is at stake are lives, lives blinkered by chronic unemployment amid the rough enclosure of mountain hollows, but defiantly alive. Images of forty- and fifty-year-olds, who look considerably older, aged by the mines, are balanced by photos of those like Brother James, a ruddy bear of a man who, at 61, presides over his tent revival with all the spirit and vigor of youth. Many of Light's photos are mainly textural studies more so than social documentarian statements--the lines and furrows in the up-close faces, like trails in and out of West Virginia's hills, or the rustic beauty of a floral crucifix placed on a tree stump by a wire fence, in memory of "Grandpa," or the unpaved, pebbled, rutted roads on which children lead horses, or the sight of a tiny, paint-peeling church huddled against a densely foliated hill.

Amidst trash heaped next to a falling-apart screen door, with a wooden plank serving as a front steps, a couple fills the threshold, hugging their plump infant in a moment of sheer happiness. Another couple sits on a bare mattress in a bare bedroom lit by a bare light bulb, sharing a look of desolation in the near darkness. And a different sort of darkness pervades the white garb of Ku Klux Klan members gathered for a meeting. These photos don't strain to tell their stories so much as suggest the broad hope, despair, degeneracy, and decency that spans these generations--a microcosm, after all, of an America that often fails itself, yet carries on.

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.)