E-Photo
Issue #161  5/16/2009
 
Photo Book Reviews: Social History of Photography, and 19th-Century Antwerp in Pictures, Plus Three Other Gems

By Matt Damsker

SEIZING THE LIGHT: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY.

Second Edition. By Robert Hirsch. 2009, McGraw-Hill, New York. 480 pages; numerous black-and-white and color plates; softback. ISBN No. 978-0-07-337921-0. Information: http://www.mhhe.com .

Few textbooks are as casually readable as this one, and perhaps that is as much due to the lively subject matter--photography's place in the social world--as to scholar Robert Hirsch's cogent writing, meticulous research and thorough understanding of the medium. This second edition of his definitive work addresses new topics, such as the photo booth and the effect of the Internet on photography, but "Seizing the Light" is effectively timeless, stretching back to the underpinnings of the camera (da Vinci's description of the camera obscura, for example) and moving through the birth of modernity, as depicted in the urban visions of 19th-century photographic pioneers, to the "arrival" of photography at the hands of Fox Talbot, Hill and Adamson, Le Gray, Negre and others via the calotype, and through to the aesthetically fragmented present day.

Countless well-chosen photos illustrate the text and help bring it to life, but it is Hirsch's sensitive understanding of photography's epochs that make this an invaluable book that will steer no student wrong, and can help codify the warp and weft of the medium for more knowledgeable collectors and enthusiasts. His assessment, for example, of pictorialism's place in history ("Once photography was established as an interpretive medium, its own photographic art theory was free to emerge. The pictorial movement was a big stride…") brings fresh clarity and wisdom to the subject, just as his descriptions of modern innovations such as cubism, futurism and collage delineate their roles in a new complexity that began to attach to photographic images in the 20th century.

Hirsch is, expectedly, at his strongest in constructing a narrative of photography as social document, the mid-point of this history, identified as "an American urge" to use photographs as "weapons for social change," as in the street portraits of Jacob Riis, the class-conscious images of Lewis Hine, and so on. From there, the era of fragmentation swallows photography, and Hirsch captures it all, from advertising and fashion work to the avant-gardism of the 1970s and beyond. His final chapter, "Thinking About Photography," connects the intangibles of conceptual art to photography's ongoing impulse to create concrete images and artifacts almost against the grain of a post-postmodern emphasis on transient, infinitely mutable digital content. Hirsch calls the present moment "the postphotographic age…a conceptual shift from a medium that records reality to one that transforms it."

PHOTOGRAPHY AND REALISM IN THE 19TH CENTURY--ANTWERP:

THE OLDEST PHOTOGRAPHS 1847-1880.

Herman Van Goethem. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title, at the Ronny Van de Velde Gallery, Antwerp. ISBN No. 90-5325-2266 (English version). 420 pages; approximately 180 color plates; hardback.

Photography as a preserver of the past is never more evident than in vintage images of places like Antwerp, a formerly medieval city whose long-gone Spanish ramparts, old quays and canals are largely the subject of these photos, mostly albumen prints, all shot in the early decades of the medium. Many of these are the work of Brussels-based Edmond Fierlants, a pupil of Hippolyte Bayard. Fierlants' architectural studies of Antwerp's landmarks, the facades of of its churches, houses grand and humble, its curving streets and alleys are properly credited by author Van Goethem, who notes that the photographer's instinctive mastery led him to avoid peopling his shots, preferring images of pure, uncluttered architectural form, careful exposed and angled to convey depth, texture and detail.

The catalogue's centerpiece is Fierlants' breathtaking 1860 panorama of the port of Antwerp, spanning four fold-out pages and richly observant in the late afternoon sunlight, with tall cathedral spires, neatly planted trees, and row upon row of warehouses and residences spread out before us. Indeed, this study of Fierlants' masterwork would itself be enough to justify this book and exhibition (which took place early in this decade at Ronny Van de Velde's gallery), but Van Goetham gives us much more, including less well-known artists such as Dubois de Nehaut, Hugo Pieron and Louis Schweig.

Pieron's emphasis on the canals and watercraft of Antwerp sets him apart, as does his attraction to rough-and-tumble, crowded locations that suggest busy life and commerce in a way that Fierlants' stately images do not. If anything, the atmospherics of these images are powerful in their monochromatic way, as the photographers strive to convey a sense of place and time--specific time of day, that is--in a way that courts photography's essential realism as opposed to its pictorial potential. Thus, we are left with a sense of this primly picturesque old city as it must have felt in its everydayness, its people and spaces gathered before us as they truly were--and are no more.

IN BRIEF:

Chicago's Stephen Daiter Gallery offers a wonderful look at ANDRE KERTESZ: THE LOST YEARS -- NEW YORK, with a selection of vintage photographs shot after 1937, when the Hungarian master and his wife immigrated to Manhattan and to a low-profile period of disillusionment with the New World; this was before his "rediscovery" in the 1960s, thanks largely to John Szarkowski. As collected in this compact catalogue, these shots, displayed by Daiter at the recent AIPAD New York show, are the classically introspective images--of everything from rooftops to mannequins to shadowy warehouses and snow-caked park benches--that drew Kertesz's unerring eye for the modernist drama of urban geometries and the soul's gray weather. Information: info@stephendaitergallery.com , or by phone at 1-312-787-3350.

LUCIEN CLERGUE: THE INTIMATE PICASSO is a genuinely charming memoir-cum-photo album by the French photographer. Clergue was a friend and protégé of the 20th century's most protean artist during Picasso's later, and still very robust, years. This elegantly hardbound catalogue recounts the recent exhibition at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood, California, and its more than two dozen candid images of the master and his milieu are uniformly vivid, overflowing with joie de vivre and affection. We witness Picasso at home, relaxed and formidable in Arles, Mougins, swimming in Cannes, honored by matadors at the bullring, surrounded by friends, family, musicians, courtiers. The old titan devoured his moments, it is clear, and Clergue offers up a wonderful study in elderly grace and infinite charisma. The places and poses are widely varied, yet there is that one, center-of-gravity constant: Picasso Himself, cigarette insouciantly in hand, those pitchblende eyes relentlessly appraising. Information: info@louissternfinearts.com , http://www.louissternfinearts.com , or by phone at 1-310-276-0147.

Finally, there is a catalogue by a young photographer, Max Snow, with the disarmingly picaresque title, IT'S FUN TO DO BAD THINGS. New Yorker Snow is in his early 20s and fearless enough to tramp the back country of Kentucky, Tennessee and the ganglands of Los Angeles, making portraits along the way of Ku Klux Klansmen in full hooded garb and regalia, posing with their firearms, brandishing their flaming swastikas. He captures them in their squalid homes and in the wild, as it were; and their pointy-headed pride and prejudice comes at you through the familiar enrobings. The catalogue's other series is of LA gang members, photographed bare-chested, tattoos screaming, against pure white backdrops. Snow's full-frontal, in-your-face style is redolent of Avedon, while his color work evokes Eggleston, but there is an eye for telling detail and an uncondescending desire to document that somehow wins the trust of these troubling subjects. Information: Moeller Snow Gallery, at http://www.moellersnow.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.)