BRETT WESTON: FIFTEEN PHOTOGRAPHS OF JAPAN
BRETT WESTON: EUROPE
Numbers 7 and 8, respectively, of a 19-volume series, "The Portfolios of Brett Weston." Lodima Press, Revere, Pennsylvania. Limited editions: 250 hardbound, 1000 softbound; black-and-white plates, all from the collection of Scott F. Nichols and the Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Information and full details about the books can be found at http://www.lodimapress.com .
These latest in the extensive Lodima Press series of Brett Weston's work are, like the first half-dozen books, superb reproductions of the original portfolios, fully sized and delivered on rich Salto stock. They chronicle Weston's output between 1970 and 1973, when his sojourns through Europe and Japan resulted not in ethnographic studies, so much as near-abstractions. These images suggest their locales rather fleetingly as they explore, instead, some visual essence worthy of crowding Weston's frame. And that frame is often a square frame, the most challenging shape with which to direct the eye, something Weston succeeds in doing through his rigorous, painterly composition.
As Roger Aiken notes in his afterword to the Japan portfolio, it was Beaumont Newhall, the pioneer of American photographic history, who recalled that Weston once spent several days in London before photographing anything but some rust on London Bridge. Adds Aiken: "[Newhall observed that] Weston's photographs could be made anywhere because he tended to work with the same subjects. But, in fact, most of Weston's portfolios…witness his response to the visual flavor of particular places."
Thus, the Japan photos close in, masterfully, on such subjects as a swirl of inky calligraphy on a plank of wood; the beams, posts and white walls of Japanese architecture pressed, grid-like, against the picture plane; or the biomorphic flatness of fish displayed at market. More picturesquely, Weston will offer vistas of boats in Japan's harbors, lead us into a dark forest of bamboo, or dazzle us with a calligraphic display of ice on a rock wall. But the emphasis remains on the geometric patterns and almost palpable textures of weathered stone that almost dare the viewer to discern order in the confluence of the natural and the man-made.
Similarly, in the European portfolio, Weston evokes nothing less than Cezanne in his image of a rural Spanish village, its sooty, scarred roofs and walls filling the square frame in chockablock fashion, with no hint of earth or sky. Likewise, a study of gondolas in Venice emphasizes the graceful curving lines of the vessels, pressed together in port, with the merest reflection of twilight on the waters. As for Weston's European vistas, they isolate natural shapes--bare trees, reeds, benighted hills--often doubled in a watery mirror that assumes the bottom half of the frame. Starkest of all is a close up of a torn poster, glimpsed somewhere in Holland, a man's face barely discernable in the expressionistic rips of black and gray. But for sheer, high-contrast beauty, nothing matches the image, shot from a high vantage, of a Swiss farm, its roofing whitened by snow, with all else rendered night-black.
These portfolios offer further proof that Brett Weston had little difficulty in moving out from under the stylistic shadow of his more famous father. In the process, he advanced photographic modernism to a later, more cerebral stage.
CHICAGO: LOOP / CHICAGO: LAKE. PHOTOS
BY MICHAEL A. SMITH AND PAULA CHAMLEE.
Lodima Press, Revere, Pennsylvania. Hardbound, approximately 100 pages, with approximately 100 color and black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-1-888899-63-8. Information: http://www.lodimapress.com .
What might have been not much more than a gimmick--twinning Michael A. Smith's images of the Chicago Loop with his wife, Paula Chamlee's photos and collages inspired by Chicago's lakefront--turns out to be one of those rare collaborations that exceeds the sum of the parts. Each portfolio is inverted in relation to the other, so that "Loop" and "Lake" are bound together, yet remain individual volumes with their own covers. This sort of thing has been done before, but the potent dichotomy of Chicago's unique setting validates the approach, and both photographers acquit themselves extremely well in delivering on a challenging project.
Chamlee and Smith, who reside in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, are accomplished photo-documentarians of diverse locales, and Chicago's big-shouldered scale brings out the best in them. In taking on the man-made canyons of the Loop, Smith is treading ground rendered indelibly by the likes of Callahan, Abbott and other modernists who translated the sheer architectural information of the metropolis into coherent rhythms and moods. Smith's portfolio therefore rigorously avoids cliché or outright emulation by looking at Chicago's plethora of landmarks and towers from a consistent, panoramic perch, mid-height, avoiding overtly dramatic up or down views. Instead, he favors broad distillations of plane and perspective, as shadow plays across the honeycomb of windows and the infinite variety of glass, steel, concrete, and brick.
To anyone not familiar with Chicago, the results may seem anonymous, but Smith tends to locate architectural icons--the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower, actually), or the Tribune building, for example--in subtle relation to his massing of multiple structures. It can be a lot of fun to try and orient oneself from photo to photo.
Among the most evocative of Smith's images are the train yards and trestles, with their slashing horizontal rhythms, that remind us, inevitably, but not heavy-handedly, of Chicago's industrial heyday, of Upton Sinclair's stockyard expose, "The Jungle", and of Carl Sandburg's rhapsodic paean to the big town.
Paula Chamlee's "Lake" rhapsodizes more modestly and charmingly about Chicago. She offers some finely observed color and black-and-white images of the lakefront, with its piers and beaches, its borderings of urban lawn and sandy surf, its vegetation, and the residents and tourists who so easily enjoy their proximity to a calm yet oceanic Lake Michigan.
Chamlee's camera is drawn to the odd details--a dog's footprint in the sand, a littering of red berries and green leaves on the taupe beach--and she also includes her own winsome pencil sketches and collages built from found objects and wispy plant materials. Chamlee's mixed media thus affords some artful, small-scale relief from the monolithic empiricism of Smith's skyscraper views. Taken together, their Chicagos amount to a macro/micro study that connects us to the city on fresh terms, without lapsing into sentimentality.
Three more volumes (5, 6 and 7) have arrived from the ongoing series of Rijskmuseum Studies in Photography, a sequence of first-rate hardbound monographs made possible by the Manfred and Hanna Heiting Fund of the Amsterdam-based museum (for information on these books, etc., visit http://www.rijskmuseum.nl ). With its collection of some 140,000 photographs from the 19th to the 21st centuries, the Rijskmuseum is an important research laboratory, as it were, for studies of the medium, and these three latest volumes are a testament to its scholarly diversity.
Volume 5, "New Ways of Scientific Visualization: A.-L. Donnadieu's La photography des objets immerges" is Christina Natlacen's exploration of scientific photography through the lens of the French academician Adolphe-Louis Donnadieu (1840-1911), who published a book of photographs of anatomical preparations of animals submerged in water. Donnadieu and his "immersion" method of photography has largely been forgotten, but his careful stagings of such creatures as vipers, anteaters, cuttlefish and rabbits, their internal organs splayed and submerged, are uniquely fascinating--and powerful--gelatin silver prints. Natlacen's through study of Donnadieu's work places it in the larger context of scientific photography.
Then there is Volume 6, Tamara Berghmans' "The Making of a Photobook: Sanne Sannes' Maquette for Diary of an Erotomaniac," which re-introduces us to the obsessional, but never pornographic, eroticism of the Dutch photographer Sanne Sannes, who died in an auto accident in 1967. Sannes was only 30 at the time, and his work was ascendant--lustful, lurid, grainy, often playful and always expressive images of female nudes that captured the liberated spirit of the mid-1960s in one of Europe's most liberated societies. His unpublished "Diary" was on the verge of finding an American publisher when he was killed, and in this volume Tamara Berghmans reconstructs how Sannes' was shaping the book and looks at the international context of nude photography in the 1960s.
Finally, there is Volume 7, Petra Steinhardt's richly historical "Going into Detail: Photography and its use at the Drawing and Design Schools of Amsterdam 1880-1910." This book studies the photographs consulted by the students of Amsterdam's schools of art and design, with in-depth looks at the schools' syllabuses and library catalogues. The scholarly result helps determine how architectural photographers such as Alinari, Baldus, Mieusement, Chauffourier and others worked and how they influenced the education of younger generations of Dutch artists and designers.
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.
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