E-Photo
Issue #164  10/24/2009
 
Photo Books: OuterbridgeAhead of His Time; Howe Explores; Darfur Reminds Us

By Matt Damsker

PAUL OUTERBRIDGE: NEW COLOR PHOTOS

FROM MEXICO AND CALIFORNIA, 1948-1955.

Nazraeli Press, Portland, Oregon. 60 pages; 47 color plates. ISBN No. 978-1-59005-261-7. Edited with texts by Phillip Prodger, Graham Howe and William A. Ewing. Information: http://www.nazraeli.com .

After establishing himself as a leading New York studio and commercial photographer in the 1930s with stunning carbro color prints of nudes and still lifes, Paul Outerbridge wound up, through the vagaries of fortune, in Laguna Beach, CA, where he married and eventually died in 1958. But his Laguna years--during which he made frequent road trips through Mexico and California, snapping rural images and street scenes on 35mm Kodachrome slides--may well have yielded his greatest legacy.

William A. Ewing, in his preface to this excellent hardbound volume of Outerbridge's late work, seems to think so, noting that while Outerbridge's unseen and unsung Kodachromes cannot be said to have influenced subsequent color photographers, "his characteristic style and dramatic use of color clearly anticipate the work of …William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Sternfeld…What has been called 'the New Color' bears striking parallels to this precursor."

Indeed, Outerbridge shot these on the fly, with no intention of spawning an aesthetic movement or laying claim to a photographic postmodernism that Eggleston et al would so consciously affirm two decades later. In that sense, Outerbridge was no visionary so much as a master of the color process and a superb composer of imagery, who began to focus his curiosity and instinct on the subject matter at hand. The result was a trove of casually inspired masterworks that can stand beside Cartier-Bresson on one hand and Eggleston on the other, blending narrative moments with uninflected observation, all of it in the sunlit-saturated colors that would eventually win acceptance in the art world.

Where Outerbridge most anticipates the likes of Eggleston, he captures a certain Kodachrome banality--disconnected figures glimpsed at a gas station in Mazatlan, for example, with no compositional style in evidence. Still, such a photo is all eye and gut, drawn to the bright industrial architecture of the gas pumps, while the dust and foliage of Mexico make the moment palpable and resonant. More typically, Outerbridge was drawn to the traditional image--children and old folks assembled on a street corner in a telling tableau of time and social realism, or scenes of fish markets and barrio restaurants with brute commerce and the red accents of Coca-Cola signs in easy coexistence.

For the most part, Outerbridge composed with care, waiting for the image to coalesce, aiming for the picturesque and sometime delivering pretty shots that don't cut very deeply--a postcard image of tourists at a coastal lookout in Baja California, for example, captured from a perfect distance that yields a measured mix of loamy brown earth, sun-bleached rocks, slate seas and cloud-adorned skies. But turn the page, and a candid image of well-dressed guests in a sunny Mexican hotel lobby brings us a fleeting whiff of 1950 and also suggests the tonalities and psychic space between people and places of an Edward Hopper painting. Or else there is a photo so striking in its density--groups of fish-loaders, for example, on a dock, with men and objects pressed tightly together in the frame, shadows abutting rich colors, mixing close-up and long shot with uncanny visual coherence. Clearly, Outerbridge was capable of timeless, painterly portraiture; he was also, as these treasures prove, ahead of his time.

GRAHAM HOWE: SLY CONSPIRACIES--PHOTOGRAPHS 1968-2008.

Essay by Colin Westerbrook. Published in conjunction with an exhibition organized by UCR/California Museum of Photography, an institution affiliated with ARTSblock, the University of California, Riverside. 153 pages; approximately 125 color plates. ISBN No. 978-0-9823046-2-4. Information: http://grahamhowe.org ; http://www.curatorial.com ; email: info@curatorial.com .

Happily, the same Graham Howe who contributes an essay to the Paul Outerbridge book now has an impressive volume and touring exhibition of his own, spotlighting some four decades of his own varied photography. As Colin Westerbrook, director of the California Museum of Photography, Riverside, notes in his essay, Howe is "mostly recognized as a photo-curator, art writer, and the CEO of Curatorial Assistance, Inc., an arts organization he founded in the late 1980s…But beneath the mild-mannered businessman's façade, the mischievous photographer has continued to lurk."

Mischievous, as Westerbrook explains, because Howe's doesn't comfortably fit into any standard categories of photography but instead feeds off of Conceptualism (without really fitting into that either). A street photographer, a studio artiste, a surrealist--Howe is all and none of these so much as he is a restless eye with a wonderful talent for expressiveness, playfulness and for seeing photographic possibility in anything.

The chronological nature of this book and exhibition allows us to trace his development, from his moody black-and-white landscapes, hedges, odd objects, and suburban textures of England, France, Australia and Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s to his most recent explorations: color-saturated studies of objects from a Las Vegas dump, in which mattress springs, children's dolls, discarded underwear, clothes hangars, red suitcase linings and pornographic snapshots tell no tales of Sin City.

In between, Howe shows us how American freeways course through the Southwest, adding their rhythm and purpose to the desert's harsh, random sprawl; how the stone monuments and concrete blocks of Europe and elsewhere seem to contain time and history in inscrutable compressions of energy; how forest images and still lifes arranged in grids suggest something about our ways of seeking order; and how full-frame landscapes, horizon-less, can be wonderful, natural abstractions.

Or not. Howe's artful charm lies in his lack of insistence about any of his subjects. They exist for him and his camera, and so they exist for us, but there's always a sense that he is open to what they may mean or how they may affect us. By 1984, his "Color Theory" series bathes everyday objects in spectrographic plays of luminous light, a highly artificialized portfolio of studio work that is as far removed from his landscapes as can be, which may be the point. Howe seems determined not be categorized or easily identified by any one photo or any era of his artistry, and this gives him the total latitude he requires to approach the medium from any and every side.

DARFUR: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LUCIEN NEIMAYER.

Forward by Gov. Bill Richardson. University of New Mexico Press. 90 pages; approximately 70 color prints. ISBN No. 978-0-8263-4619-3; hardcover. Information: http://www.unmpress.com ; phone: +1-800-249-7737.

Easy as it is to focus on contemporary photography as an aesthetic medium struggling to integrate its 19th-century legacies and limitations with its 21st-century digital freedom, portfolios such as this remind us that photography's pure documentary power--and duty--can't be ignored. Lucien Niemayer, a Sante Fe-based photographer who has traveled widely to capture the human condition in extremis, has chronicled the holocausts of Rwanda and Sudan before. This latest volume takes us into Darfur, the largest region of Sudan, where a humanitarian crisis continues, bred from the imposition in 1983 of Muslim sharia law by the Sudanese government and the genocidal ethnic cleansing waged against Sudan's non-Muslim population.

The politics--if that is the word--of the Sudanese struggle are addressed here by Gov. Bill Richardson in his essay, while Niemayer's photographs transcend the issue with their emphasis on a besieged, yet hope-borne humanity. Squalor and suffering are at the edge of these images, certainly, and especially in Niemayer's shots of impoverished Nyala, a city of some two million where food, infrastructure, sanitation, clean water, and electricity are scarce. But Niemayer's subjects find the means to survive and smile, cradling their children amidst a towering infant-mortality rate and very little medical aid.

Moving to the New Sereif refugee camp outside of Nyala, Niemayer locates color--that is, life--in the barren, brown landscape by focusing closely on the people, many of them the Fur tribes people, who have been forced into the camp yet who cling to their tribal identities and proudly weather the indignities of the day. The women and children are expressively at the center of things here, their heads wrapped in brightly hued and immaculately white shawls, carrying on in makeshift, one-room schools and staring with a solemn strength or hopeful joy at the camera.

Neimayer brings us as close to these faces as he can with his camera, employing a frontal style that emphasizes the sheer humanity of each subject, especially the men, who confront us with stolid, stoic self-regard. Several images remind us that starvation stalks this land as much as does hope, as in the image of two withered boys in the Jach refugee camp. But there is also deliverance, or at least momentum--Muslim elders are seen welcoming the relief planes that bring food and supplies to the camps, while the efforts of the everyday are largely confined to survival, as women and children move to and from a sole well. Water is life and, in Darfur, carrying water is reason enough for happiness despite the burden. Niemayer's simple photographs clarify this reality as potently as a cool drink quenches thirst.

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.)