Issue #141  3/10/2008
Drapkin Collection Spawns New Book

By Matt Damsker



2007, The Drapkin Collection, Clearwater, FL; hardbound; 280 pages; 244 photographs. ISBN No. 978-0-9796194-0-3.

This self-published exploration of the highly regarded photographic collection of Dr. Robert Drapkin, M.D., chronicles some of the highlights of Drapkin's 30-year passion for vintage and modern photography, which has resulted in a still-growing trove of more than 5,000 images.

Amidst thoughtful essays by a number of experts in the specific realms of collecting that Drapkin favors, it is Drapkin himself who sheds the most light on what motivates someone to make specific choices in amassing an important collection, when he writes: "Today, if I choose to purchase a photograph I always consider three things: condition, visual impact, and historical significance. The six albumen prints in my collection Execution of the Lincoln Conspirators by Alexander Gardner … is illustrative of these criteria. The six images when placed across a museum wall are massive and demand your attention…The images are in perfect condition and capture an important event in the history of our country." No question, the Gardner photos are important artifacts--prime examples of early American photography at its documentarian zenith--and, like all the other images in this hefty tome, they are reproduced beautifully on rich stock.

Drapkin's collection spans the medium's history with sterling examples, beginning with daguerreotypes and salt and albumen prints from the 1840s to the 1860s, including many striking anonymous portraits and first-rate, if not iconic, examples from the lenses of Southworth & Hawes, Matthew Brady (the classic portrait of General Ulysses H. Grant, seated), William Henry Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, August Salzmann, Roger Fenton and the like. There is even some soft-core French eroticism to round things out.

Drapkin's selection of Western scenes from the 1860-70s includes Carleton Watkins' powerful Yosemite vistas and a shot of Old Faithful in full spurt, and there are scientific photographs that include Eadweard Muybridge's seminal locomotion studies and Harold Edgerton's remarkable impact photos of bullets passing through light bulbs and footballs being kicked. And the hand-colored images from Meiji Japan are exquisite, as are the hand-colored platinum prints of Native American braves and squaws.

Indeed, the Drapkin collection touches on virtually every style and stylist of the medium's formative eras (including panoramic photography), and as a result this sprawling book would have benefited from a better organized approach. For example, the reader/viewer may be a bit confused when a chapter devoted to Margaret Bourke-White seems to bleed into a section of photographs by Lewis Hine, who--though an arguably superior artist--doesn't receive any commentary. In the section of scientific photographs, five horrifyingly graphic studies of the ravages of the disease syphiloderma by Dr. George Henry Fox are simply four photos too much. And it's hard to say why a chapter on "Vernacular Photographs" is followed, two chapters later, by one on "Pop Photographica and Vernacular Expression." But, given that Drapkin's collecting passion has led to a true embarrassment of riches, it's not hard to forgive the excesses on display here.

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.)