Issue #157  2/12/2009
Photography in Virginia; British Calotypes and Many Other Photo Books and Catalogues

By Matt Damsker


By Jeffrey Ruggles. 2008, Virginia Historical Society. 240 pages; hardbound; ISBN No. 978-0-945015-30-7. Information: Virginia Historical Society, 428 North Boulevard, P.O. Box 7311, Richmond, VA 23221-0311; Phone: +803 358-4901; online: http://www.vahistorical.org .

This scholarly compendium is a handsomely bound, designed and superbly printed (on glossy stock) exploration of the important early American photography produced in the state of Virginia from the 1840s to the 1960s. Author Jeffrey Ruggles, who is the curator of prints and photography for the Virginia Historical Society, notes that most of these images have not been published before, and he has assembled from Virginia's archives a mix of professional and amateur work shot within the state's borders, paying special attention to African-Americans, women, and to the Confederate soldiers of the Civil War.

The result is proof positive (and negative) that photography flourished in Virginia, beginning soon after Daguerre's process was announced in Paris, when a daguerreotypist in Richmond, VA, began advertising his services. Daguerreotype portraits of Virginians as well as Virginian landmarks (White Sulphur Springs, for example, which is now a West Virginia locale, home of the Greenbrier resort, though West Virginia hadn't been pried from Virginia's territory when this image was taken in the 1840s) soon abounded, and Ruggles arrays many of the best here.

He also chronicles the commercial success of Jesse Harrison Whitehurst, the leading Virginian daguerrean, who eventually opened four galleries in the state (and four outside of it), though he "is remembered more as an entrepreneur than as a photographer." One of the key historical photos of this volume is a salt print of (presumably) Whitehurst and more than a dozen of his photographers, significant because no other portrait of Whitehurst is know to exist.

Ruggles pays significant attention to the era of Civil War photography, noting that the war's effect on Southern states such as Virginia kept photography in reduced circumstances and holding to the older methods, while in the North new formats became standardized and photography boomed. Nonetheless, Virginia's photographic heritage was well served, with ambrotypes, cartes de visite, tintypes, albumen and salt prints proliferating, and several awe-inspiring large-format images by the great Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, whose shot of Chesterfield Bridge in North Anna and of the Petersburg Mill powerfully depict the labors of Civil War troops on the move.

After the war, with Virginia's economy in tatters, the state's photographic profile was marked by itinerant community photography and a focus on domestic subject matter, but with the emergence of more practical, dry-plate photography in the 1880s, Virginian photography took off in fresh directions. Among the most notable photographers of this burgeoning era were Michael Miley and his son, Henry, of Lexington. They were the first Virginians to experiment with color photography, utilizing a tri-color process, and Ruggles includes several excellent examples of the Mileys' best work. A three-layer carbon print of red and white flowers in a vase is a particularly successful early color specimen, as is a close-up image of a bowl of peaches, with subtle gradations of orange and yellow and a fine, unsaturated color realism. These and countless other examples of noteworthy Virginian photography--especially a rich trove of 20th-century images--make this book a must for anyone interested in vintage Americana.


By Robert Hershkowitz. 2008, 50 color plates; ISBN No. 978-0-9560594-0-6. Robert Hershkowitz Ltd, Cockhaise, Monteswood Lane, Lindfield, Sussex RH16 2QP, England; Phone: +44 (0) 1444 482240; email: prhfoto@btconnect.com .

This catalogue of vintage British paper-negative photography represents Robert Hershkowitz's keen passion for the classic images of photography's early days, including an 1842 William Henry Fox Talbot "Bust of Patroclus," and important salt prints by the likes of Roger Fenton, Linnaeus Tripe, and brothers Alfred, Thomas and Edward Backhouse, among others. To a one, these prints exude remarkable immediacy (helped along by the catalogues' high-quality reproductions), while the wonderful variety of subject matter ranges from important views of architectural facades (Nicolas Henneman's Westminster Abbey, for example, and numerous archways by William Pumphrey, Alfred Capel Cure, Thomas Keith and George Robert Fitt) to landscapes, seascapes and such antiquities as Claudius Galen Wheelhouse's view of the interior of the Parthenon.

Inasmuch as these early artists tended to focus on the macro, seeking broad, emblematic views of their powerful natural and architectural subjects, such photographers as Hugh Owen sought rich detail in his images of tree roots and wells in rustic country settings, while Edward Backhouse's misty, snow-laden image of a cast iron bridge is crammed with nautical detail and urban atmosphere. And Alfred Backhouse captures timeless nuance in his 1855 albumen print, a sweeping view of a street in Genoa, Italy, in which the play of light on the tall house fronts, with their innumerable shuttered windows, has a near-cinematic power and rhythm.

Hershkowitz is as much attuned to the aesthetic breakthroughs of these early masterworks as to their value as collectibles, and in his introduction to the catalogue he persuasively locates the poetry of Roger Fenton's great 1852 salt print, "Cottage Overlooking the Dnieper, Kiev," a view of a ramshackle cottage in a parched Russian landscape. He writes: "This unpretentious little photograph, in which the world is represented as two interlocking 'yin-yang' halves, one suggesting emptiness and the other the fullness of being, was a twofold revelation to me: one, that a photograph could be a spiritual statement--Fenton revealing visual structures in the natural, material world that are mirrored in the fundamental human mind--and two, that photographers, in general, could see more than they could say; a meaningful critical vocabulary, for the most part, came into existence only years after the fact of their photographs."


ALEC SOTH'S latest publication, "LAST DAYS OF W.", debuted at the Weinstein Gallery's booth at Paris Photo late last year, and it is a subtly sardonic look at America at the tail end of the Bush administration. These 44 color photographs are of spiritually barren places, spaces and stymied citizens whose lives seem utterly shadowed by recession and the Bush Doctrine despite the dearth of shadow or shading in these ironically bright images. Soth works mainly through indirection, as in a shot of a soldier whose forlorn peanut butter sandwiches seem to be spread with jelly the color of blood, or an image of birds picturesquely floating above a trash field, or the desolate streets of Paris, TX. Printed on folded, tabloid-sized newsprint, "Last Days of W." is a grimly comic reminder of where we've been and how far we have to go. Information: Weinstein Gallery, 908 West 46th St, Minneapolis, MN, phone: 1-612-822-1722; email: weingall@aol.com ; website: http://www.weinstein-gallery.com .

"JU/'HOANSI" is a sampling of photographs by DAVID BRUCE, whose project has been to document what remains of the culture of the indigenous Ju/'hoan people of Namibia. Sponsored by Sotheby's, this small book powerfully represents Bruce's sensitive black-and-white studies of Ju/'hoan elders and youth, as they pose with dignity and pride, showing off their crafts and the fruits of their hunting in the unforgiving veldt. Information: dave@davebrucephotography.com .

"PHOTO 2, CATALOGUE NO.65" from Simon Finch Rare Books offers details and pricing of more than 100 important photography books, depicted alphabetically, from Slim Aarons' "A Wonderful Time" of 1974 and Berenice Abbott's "Changing New York" of 1939 to Yashioka Yasuhiro's "Jyuai [Third Venus]" from 1971. In between, many seminal first edition and/or signed copies of seminal works such as Robert Mapplethorpe's "Black Males", Le Corbusier's "Des Cannons, Des Munitions? Merci/Des Logis…S.V.P", Peter Hujar's "Portraits in Life and Death" and Nan Goldin's "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" are displayed here. Information: http://www.simonfinch.com , email: rarebooks@simonfinch.com .

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.)