E-Photo
Issue #151  10/29/2008
 
Three Photo Books For Your Library: Sculpture, Paulin and Chamlee

By Matt Damsker

GEGOSSENES LICHT--CAST LIGHT, SCULPTURE

IN PHOTOGRAPHY, 1845-1860.

2008, catalogue published by Galerie Daniel Blau, Munich, Germany. Approximately 100 plates. ISBN No. 978-3-00-024045-4; information: http://www.danielblau.com ; email: contact@danielblau.com .

As Daniel Blau points out in this catalogue's helpful end note, the emergence of photography in the mid-19th century resulted in an immediate proliferation of one-of-a-kind works of art--many of them images of original artworks, especially sculpture, with its three-dimensional presence. Indeed, these images were of value as more than reference material; early acquirers sought them to hang on their walls as treasured objects, and many of the examples Blau has collected in this catalogue are truly classic renderings of classic sculpture.

For example, J. Reynolds' and Adolphe Bilordeaux's 1855 details of the Napoleonic friezes that decorate Paris's Arc de Triomphe are carefully composed and lit to convey the fine detail and elegant context of the sculpture, while Solon's photos of statues of the Virgin and of the saints found in Parisian churches isolate the objects in a way that renders them worthy of decorative display. Then there is Edouard-Denis Baldus, who brought a first-rate eye for chiaroscuro and texture to his renderings of some of the Louvre's great statuary.

The inestimable trove of sculpture found in Paris, elsewhere in France and in Italy was certainly the richest vein of artwork photography from the medium's early days. Henri le Secq's and Bisson Freres' studies of architectural details are evocative in their use of available light, perspective, and in their eye for the ornate wonder of columns, cornices, archways, and stone. In Italy, the cameras of Fratelli Alinari captured the first great images of Florentine domes, piazzas and statuary, while more naturalistic images of Rome's aesthetic treasure and urban complexity began to flow from the lenses of Giacomo Caneva (a wonderful study of a garden-wall ruin in the Villa de Medici), Pompeo Molins (street folk candidly arrayed against the ancient walls) and James Anderson (a high-vantage 1853 shot of the Vatican and St. Peter's, seen over modest homes and rooftops).

Indeed, Anderson and Robert MacPherson were adept at rendering Roman statuary in close and potent detail, but also produced expansive, painterly, large-format images of vast gallery space in the Vatican Museum and elsewhere. As for the many ancient temples and eternally popular images of the lava-preserved Vesuvius victims of Pompeii, Firmin-Eugene Le Dien and the great Gustave Le Gray are well-represented in this catalogue, as are the some of the first photographic images of Egypt's pyramids, the Sphinx, and the statue of Ramses II at Abu Simbel by Maxime Du Camp.

FRANK PAULIN: OUT OF THE LIMELIGHT.

Introduction by Max Kozloff. Silverstein Publishing, New York. 175 pages; 175 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-1-60461-922-5. Information: http://www.silversteinphotography.com .

It would be hard to imagine a better example of the "pure" American photographer than Frank Paulin. Born in Pittsburgh in 1926, he came of age in New York and Chicago, spent World War II in the U.S. Army in Europe, and came back to enroll in Chicago's Institute of Design, where his skills were further developed under the tutelage of Harry Callahan, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and eventually in New York, under Alexey Brodovitch at the New School. By the 1950s, he was exhibiting at the pioneering Limelight gallery in New York, and his doggedly unsentimental yet compassionate street photography has been with us ever since, although it took this recent exhibition to really "discover" him.

Perhaps it's just as well, from Paulin's perspective. The mark of his purity and dedication to the medium lies in the fact that he has kept to himself to the point of relative obscurity. We don't know much or hear much about him, but the venerable Max Kozloff, in his introduction to this book, makes sure we grasp what differentiates Paulin from the more iconic likes of Robert Frank, Weegee, Arbus, Winogrand or Friedlander.

"Unlike his astringent colleagues," writes Kozloff, "Frank Paulin's outlook, on the whole, was good-humored, even enthusiastic. For him, the town was a place where 'things happened,' most delightfully when least expected. There is no one general emotion evoked by his art, only curiosity. People's lives unfold for him…He is more interested in the foibles of his fellow citizens than their fears…For those of us accustomed to the bad weather and anxious expressions that came out of New York photographs at that time, Paulin offers a minority judgment--that people were by and large OK--normal human beings, in fact."

For Paulin, then, the beauty of the well-dressed lovers kissing on a Battery Park bench in 1955 is refracted by the good-natured nonchalance of the rotund, cigar-chewing old man--a beefy immigrant soul--seated next to them, a foot or so to the left. What would otherwise be an echo of countless other "kiss" photographs becomes a mixed study in having, not having, passion, and friendly dispassion, set against the big backdrop of a New York spring. Similarly, the couple glimpsed in a Times Square café window--pensive and unsure, to judge from the woman's middle-distance glance--are clearly set in their lives, and we can only imagine. The busy confluence of signage and intersecting planes all pressed against the glass, with its vague reflection of the street, out-Friedlanders Friedlander, in its own way.

Despite Kozloff's observation, there is a fair amount of anxiety evident in Paulin's shots of couples, often seen through café windows, but the point is never forced on us, and the image of a young woman in a phone booth on Halloween in Greenwich Village--she wears a mask across her eyes, but her expression is clearly one of happiness as she talks to whomever on the phone--is an antidote to Robert Frank's shots of brooding youth. Just as the shot of two poor black children holding hands in New Orleans is a reminder that youth can outshine poverty. And Paulin's image of an old couple and a young woman at different café tables is charged with self-conscious mood and an inspired compositional flair, built from an out-of-focus foreground and razor-sharp background--indeed, it's a painting as much as a photo, and on par with Hopper as much as with Avedon. So it is with many of Paulin's best photos: they are unquestionably spontaneous examples of street observation, but they are also carefully composed, with multiple layers and strong, suggestive narratives. They hold to the best tradition, yet go their own way.

REVISITING CLASSICS: NATURAL CONNECTIONS:

PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAULA CHAMLEE.

Essay by Estelle Jussim. Lodima Press, Revere, PA; hardbound; 42 black-and-white plates; ISBN No. 0-9605646-6-7 (hardcover), 0-9605646-7-5 (special edition). Information: http://www.lodimapress.com ; Paula Chamlee: 1-610-847-2005.

This was Paula Chamlee's first photography book (several others have followed from Lodima Press) and remains the cornerstone, in a way, of her artistry, which has further flourished in her images of the Texas panhandle farm where she grew up, and in her studies of San Francisco, Tuscany and elsewhere. Of them all, "Natural Connections" has the feel of a rigorous, primary journey--through the influence of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and toward an exceptional command of the large-format black-and-white landscape tradition they pioneered.

Chamlee, who began as a painter and now partners with photographer husband Michael A. Smith from their Bucks County, PA, home, emerged in 1994 with these starkly beautiful images of Canada, Utah and California canyonlands and forest, all shot on Super XX film and printed on Azo paper. The result is a rich yet even tonality full of extraordinary detail, with tremendous depth of field and careful composition that portrays these earthly vistas and microcosms as states of mind as much as of matter. That's because Chamlee doesn't seek the dramatic, looming effects of Adams so much as an overall, meditative depiction of a rugged reality that is painterly in its detail and broad in its effect on the eye.

Thus, the primordial misting of marsh areas in Yellowstone, or the shadowed gooseneck canyons of San Juan, UT, or the treed mountainsides near Aspen, CO, invite the viewer to wade into these photographs rather than be awed by them, picking out the remarkable details of rock formation and vegetation, earth and atmosphere, from a coolly detached vantage point. Indeed, for all the immense cliffs and infinitely variegated canyons she captures, Chamlee conveys an equal, if more intimate, power in her study of a grassland near Palouse, WA--a superbly sensitive image in which every wispy blade and wildflower are sharply etched in the wide, deep frame. As Estelle Jussim notes in her essay, "Reality, abstraction, power, delicacy, rhythmic chords of contrast, visual music--here is a photographer with a vast repertory." That's true, and Chamlee, who has recently turned to filmmaking, in Iceland, apparently, is an artist worth visiting and revisiting.

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.)