E-Photo
Issue #129  6/16/2007
 
New Books: E.O. Hoppé, Art Shay, and History of The Woodburytype

By Matt Damsker

E.O. HOPPÉ'S AMERIKA: MODERNIST PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE 1920S.

With an essay by Philip Prodger. June, 2007, W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York (http://www.wwnorton.com ); 175 pages, approximately 130 black-and-white plates; $49.95 hardcover; ISBN No. 978-0-393-06544-2. Catalogue accompanies recent exhibition of the same name held at Silverstein Photography, 535 W. 24th St., New York, NY 10011; phone: + 212 627 3930; fax: + 212 691 5509; website: http://www.silversteinphotography.com .

Although German-born Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972) may have been the world's most famous photographer when he arrived in America in 1919, his fame grew out of a London studio in which he photographed the celebrities of the day. Once in New York to set up a satellite studio, his intoxication with images of street life, skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Station led to a commission to photograph the U.S. from coast to coast--a monumental survey that would anticipate the Farm Service Administration projects of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.

Silverstein Photography's recent exhibit, the first such Hoppé survey in 80 years, offered a look at rare and previously unknown vintage photos from Hoppé's American ramble of the 1920s. This catalogue, with its evocative essay by Philip Prodger, notes how Hoppé transitioned from Pictorialism to Modernism, often paralleling if not inspiring the better known work of not only the FSA photographers but also of Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Steiglitz and Steichen. Indeed, Hoppé captured the towering symmetries of electrical pylons in Los Angeles years before Edward Weston would, while his image of New York's first great skyscraper, the Woolworth Building--sharply focused on the building's mid-section, with the squat cityscape of smaller structures in the foreground--is a superb play of modernist photographic grammar.

Other examples of Hoppé's instinctive modernism include his views of crisscrossing girders and bridgework in industrial locales, the smokestacks of Detroit's auto factories, shadowed elevated railway structures and the like. Much of this is documented in moody chiaroscuro that retains something of the link to Pictorialism and, often enough, romanticizes its subject matter. And yet, Hoppé's eye for the soaring forms and brute energies of the New World was unflinching. This catalogue affirms him, finally, as one of modernism's pioneers.

ART SHAY: CHICAGO ACCENT.

With a foreward by David Mamet. March, 2007, Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior, Suite 404, Chicago, Illinois 60610; 75 pages, approximately 70 black-and-white plates; trade edition of 1,000 copies; limited edition of 200 in slipcase with an original gelatin silver photograph. Catalogue accompanies recent exhibition of the same name at Daiter Gallery; for information, phone + 312 787 3350, or email paul@stephendaitergallery.com .

While E.O. Hoppé and his contemporaries were laying groundwork for photographic modernism, Art Shay was growing up in the Bronx, New York, and by the 1940s he was serving as an air force navigator in World War II. By the war's end, he was publishing his war photographs and soon became Life magazine's San Francisco bureau chief. But his move to Chicago in 1948 inspired him to pursue photojournalism exclusively, resulting in a long, successful, celebrated--and ongoing--career.

This exhibition and catalogue from Chicago's Daiter Gallery documents Shay's wonderful post-war collaboration with Chicago author Nelson Algren ("The Man with the Golden Arm"), a passionate champion of Chicago's underclass. As Shay's frequent photographic subject and inspiration, Algren led Shay's lens to the hidden corners of the Windy City, where it captured the grit and pathos of urban life. This picaresque project stands now as a classic liberal-humanist effort, prodding the viewer toward empathy with the poor, the fallen, the falling-down-drunk and the nighthawks of a tough, toddling town.

In many of these images, we can recognize the chiaroscuro contrast of Hoppé's urban studies, but where Hoppé stuck to the geometry of urban and industrial architecture, Shay's interest lies in people, and some of these images are among the unsentimental best of their kind. This catalogue also includes a number of fine portraits from the 1950s and '60s--of Marlon Brando in a tender moment with his family's dog in Illinois; a prayerful, t-shirted Jimmy Hoffa at home; John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail with native American; a young Muhammed Ali in a Kentucky locker room; Diana Ross and the Supremes in a tense backstage moment; and even Timothy Leary and R. Crumb, avatars of the psychedelic '60s.

A HISTORY OF THE WOODBURYTYPE

By Barret Oliver. June, 2007; 193 pages, $50 hardcover; ISBN 13 No. 1-887694-28-5. Carl Mautz Publishing, 329 Bridge Way, Nevada City, CA 95959. Phone: +1- 530-478-1610; fax: +1-530–478-0466; email: cmautz@carlmautz.com ; website: http://www.carlmautz.com .

The potential for quality AND quantity afforded by Walter Woodbury's photographic process made it the breakthrough that sparked the medium's modern era–--an era of mass production and superb reproduction of photo plates in books, newspapers, journals and a broad range of commercial publications. As we learn in this fine and thorough study of Woodbury's innovation, the Woodburytype "set a qualitative standard for the reproduction and replication of photographic images and engravings by which all other processes would inevitably be compared and found wanting. It was not until the 1980s, with the advent of drum scanning and digital image processing, that the Woodburytype process was equaled or matched."

Barret Oliver's extensively researched argument for this rests, ultimately, on the visual evidence, and, indeed, the book's many first-rate examples of Woodburytypes reveal tonal masterworks that make the strongest case of all. Such examples of the process as a cabinet card of the Duke of York, from 1890, or Victor Hugo on his funeral bier, or a book-plate image of river workers on the Thames (a remarkable shot, by John Thomson, of sharply delineated men and materials on a boat in the foreground, with a mist-shrouded London as a backdrop) testify to the Woodburytype's superiority.

The fact that the process was limited to imagery not much larger than 10-by-8 inches--and could not adequately convey large areas of white--ultimately spelled its doom as a mass-production technique, relegating it to something of an historical footnote. Thus, Oliver's study is the first major Woodbury exploration in more than a century, and he takes pains to document and describe this first photomechanical printing process. He begins with an intriguing life of Manchester, England-born Walter Woodbury (1834-1885), a gifted inventor but apparently a poor businessman who lost his patent rights and most of his money over the years.

Woodbury had real vision, though, and he grasped before many of his contemporaries that photography's future would depended increasingly on its potential as a mass medium. By 1865, he gave birth to the Woodburytype, a copper-mold technique that, by the 1870s, resulted in as many as 50,000 prints a day being churned out by the Woodbury Permanent Printing Company in Ealing. Woodburytypes flourished in books and printed material of every type--rich, crisp images with no grain and velvety mid-range tonalities, ideal for portraiture and detailed textures. Barret Oliver's scholarly contribution sheds welcome light on Woodbury's achievement and its crucial impact on the growth of photography.

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.)