E-Photo
Issue #132  8/1/2007
 
Photo Book Reviews: Mona Kuhn, Karel Kuklik, and Images of Maori

By Matt Damsker

EVIDENCE

Photographs by Mona Kuhn. Essay by Gordon Baldwin. 2007, Steidl; 96 pages, 54 color plates; hardbound. ISBN 13 No. 978-3-86521-372-3. Steidl, Dustere Str. 4, D-37073, Gottingen, Germany; phone: +49 551-49 60 60; fax: +49 551-49 60 649; email: mail@stedil.de ; websites: http://www.steidlville.com / http://www.steidl.de .

The evidence here is of a great deal of pensive narcissism, as Mona Kuhn has collected a bevy of beautiful young nudists at a summer retreat. With soft-focused backgrounds and images captured through glass to reflect a pastoral, sunlit setting (along with several chiaroscuro night shots), it's a utopian vision of contemplative physical perfection. Kuhn's golden subjects are invariably seen gazing aslant, rarely at the camera, either off in the distance or downward, suggesting a variety of intelligent inner lives.

These are marvelously well-crafted photos, alive to the contours of radiant flesh and the subtle play of light, rendering Kuhn's models as sculptural objects as much as anything else. And yet, as present as these bodies seem before our eyes, they seem rather distant from each other, and so the whole project has the feel of undergraduate alienation at its most decorative. Apart from one image of an elderly bearded man whose scrawny frame suggests the price of longevity, it is hard to register more than superficial admiration for Kuhn's gifted specimens: whatever angst or doubt they may be experiencing seems trivialized by their evident good fortune and breeding.

Kuhn is most successful in her purely formal studies, such as one of an angular nude washing her feet in an outdoor fountain. The graceful classicism of this pose is pure and life-affirming, with no psychological overtones to distract us from the simple richness of the image. Indeed, the more Kuhn focuses on form and detail--the tattooed upper arm of one subject with his back to the camera, or the curving languor with which another holds a glass of ice water--the greater sense we get of both people and place, and of the transient moments that blossom for the camera. These tend to outclass the noble self-reflection of the majority of these images. For the most part, it's all Lights, Camera, Vanity!

LANDSCAPES OF RETURNS

Photographs by Karel Kuklik. 2004, self-published, hardbound, Prague. 108 pages; approximately 80 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 80-86079-09–0.

Karel Kuklik's intense affinity for his native Czech landscapes--in all their primal beauty, grassy and scarred, rocky and wind-torn--makes for powerfully felt images of broad vistas and organic detail. Prague-born and based, Kuklik, now 70, has forged a career as one of his country's leading photographers, though he began as a car mechanic in the Soviet era. By now, he focuses on the timelessly hard land of such nature preserves as Sumava, Cesky kras and those of the Trebon area--indeed, these are the "landscapes of returns" which he documents and re-documents (he works in black-and-white, mostly in a 20-by-25 cm format and contact prints).

As Anna Farova notes in one essay on Kuklik, "A landscape of returns is something between humble admiration for the miracle of remaining paradises and one's own projection into a Czech context."

That these rugged, wintry lands are paradisiacal to Kuklik imparts real power to his images--sharply focused and carefully composed to capture misty depths of perspective and background while bringing us close to the bark, leaf, twig, pockmarked granite, grain fields and primeval marsh of these European interiors. Kuklik's eye for pure detail and his masterful tonalities--as rich and subtle as anything by Ansel Adams or Minor White--are marvels of seeing and savoring the natural feast before him. Indeed, as much as he exhibits an enormous love of the land in these works, there is no sentimentalizing or idealizing these views; the hints of majestic sunlight are carefully controlled, as Kuklik affirms how much more truly illuminated (from within the land's soul and his own) are his subjects.

OUT OF TIME: MAORI & THE PHOTOGRAPHER

1860-1940, THE NGAWINI COOPER TRUST COLLECTION.

By Michael Graham-Stewart and John Gow. 2006, John Leech Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand; hardbound; 140 pages, approximately 70 plates. ISBN No. 978-0-473-11540-1. John Leech Gallery, P.O. Box 5441 Wellesley St., Auckland 1141, New Zealand; phone: +64 9 303 9395; fax: +64 9 303 9397; email: info@johnleechgallery.co.nz .

This selection of photography spans nearly a century of New Zealand history, during which images of Maori tribespeople became popular fodder for colonial photographers and the world's rising tide of photography consumers. As John Gow and Michael Graham-Stewart make clear, this period of European colonization coincided with a diminishing Maori population and the steady loss of ancestral Maori land. All the while, New Zealand's Tourist Department profited from sales of photo postcards and other souvenirs that depicted the Maori with no reference to the social disintegration they were experiencing.

Importantly, the authors have delivered many compelling images that document the Maori plight--clearly indicating the poor, cramped conditions--along with the many more familiar posed studio photographs of Maori nobles and tribespeople in their exotic, kiwi-feathered wraps, patterned garb and painted faces. There's no question that New Zealand's studio photographers--John Crombie, Fairs & Steel, and others--did an effective job of capturing the dignified bearing and suggesting the folkways of their Maori subjects, but it was itinerant photographers such as Daniel Mundy, Alfred Burton and the like who found a truer Maori reality in the villages and on the watersides of the country.

And so we are able to enjoy these glimpses of Maori children happily at play, washing clothes, or mugging for the camera, while their elders struggle to maintain the tribal traditions even as they are assimilated into British colonial institutions. This carefully assembled and annotated book brings the Maori experience to life for us in an important way. As the authors note, "The subjects were rarely in a position to exert control as to how they were portrayed and the result was a perception evolved and nurtured by the photographers. Nevertheless Maori confounded those who said the race was doomed..."

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.)