E-Photo
Issue #175  10/24/2010
 
Photo Book Reviews: French Calotypes, Warhol Am a Camera, Objects of Desire

By Matt Damsker

ABOUT SIXTY FRENCH CALOTYPES.

Catalogue produced by Robert Hershkowitz Ltd., Masterworks of European Photography, Cockhaise, Monteswood Lane, Lindfield, Sussex RH16 2QP, England, UK. Approximately 75 pages, 68 color plates. ISBN No. 978-0-9560594-0-6. Phone: +44 (0) 1444 482240; email: prhfoto@hotmail.com .

This important catalogue from Robert Hershkowitz Ltd. begins with an illuminating historical reference from Hershkowitz, who describes how, within little more than a decade, William Henry Fox Talbot's negative/positive paper technique, the calotype, had largely supplanted the daguerreotype as the major means of serious photography in France. Led by Gustave Le Gray, who proclaimed that "the future of photography is on paper," French photographers played a major role in improving the calotype (one, Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, even claimed credit before the French Academy for developing the whole process, to Talbot's angry dismay).

With Le Gray at the forefront, mentoring dozens of photographers, notably Henri Le Secq and Charles Negre, the paper negative process took wing (though by 1856 the faster, grainless, wet collodion on glass negative, with its continuous tonality, had been adapted by the major French lensmen). This catalogue offers a substantial assemblage of powerful imagery from that richly creatively period, with architectural and landscape views predominating and affirming how photography made its crucial impact on artistic expression.

For example, as Hershkowitz notes, it Is hard to imagine any painter before 1840 depicting, as Paul Mares did in 1856, the featureless mud-brick walls of an Algerian compound, or focus a study of domestic architecture around a drain pipe, as G. Roman did in 1851. More stately are such superb salt prints as the "View of Perigueux" (1851) by Le Gray and Auguste Mestral, matched with Negre's "View of Arles" (1852), two similar yet micro/macro across-the-river views. The former is a close observation of, as Hershkowitz says, "the detail in every shadow area," the latter a "minimalist, tripartite treatment" that fixes the dark span of the town broadly between the larger bands of earth of sky.

Indeed, the photography of this aesthetic moment is ennobled by the easily captured, full-daylight detail afforded by the calotype, especially in views of the ruins of the Roman Forum by Comte Frédéric Flachéron or Eugene Piot, and in Piot's studies of the Acropolis or Auguste Salzmann's close reading of a weathered wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. Le Secq, Negre, and Charles Marville also focus, hauntingly, on the figural sculpture of the cathedrals at Chartres and elsewhere, with shadowed exposures that add depth and spiritual tone.

Images of trees and mountain views by Negre, Le Gray, Marville and a ravishing long shot of a waterfall with Alps in the background by Vicomte Joseph Vigier are vigorous in conveying wind and natural force. And more homely photos--of beggars at the Bourges Cathedral (Emile Pécarrère, 1851), or an anonymous shot of a man mounting a donkey, or Henri-Victor Regnault's beautifully textured, candid image of three boys sitting around a farm basket--bring us directly into the daily life of the 19th century.

Other treasures abound in this catalogue, including an 1853 semi-nude studio study of a woman, in Egyptian garb, by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, fully rounding out Hershkowitz's discerning collection.

Many of the images will be on display in Hershkowitz's booth at the upcoming Paris Photo in November.

ANDY WARHOL'S STREET DIARY: PHOTOGRAPHS 1981-86.

Introduction by Jonas Mekas. Published by Deborah Bell Photographs, New York, in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the gallery, through Nov. 13, 2010; 25 black-and-white prints, reproduced from gelatin silver prints measuring 8 x 10 inches from 35mm negatives. Information: Deborah Bell Photographs, 511 W. 25th St., room 703, New York, NY 10001. Phone: 1-212-691-3883; email: deborahbell@rcn.com ; http://www.deborahbellphotographs.com .

Andy Warhol's legacy as the dominant influence in Pop art--and the oracular figure of pop culture--lends weight to just about any fresh assemblage of his work. This modest showing at Deborah Bell's New York gallery of some two dozen Warhol snappings represents a tiny sampling of the master's street photography. According to filmmaker and Warhol collaborator Jonas Mekos in his catalogue introduction, these were probably taken with a Minox 35 EL or any number of small, point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, and printed by Warhol assistants.

The results are impressive in that they neatly reflect what Mekos calls Warhol's "natural state of gazing. Andy was an open eye. He was a looker." Thus, this "street diary" conveys what it must have been like to stroll Manhattan with Andy in the still-fertile Warholian moments of the 1980s. Well-observed and subtly exposed images of shop windows and street-vendor displays suggest Warhol's fetish for the commercial object--cheap jewelry, shoes, cut-rate garment racks--and the urban iconography of lurid posters and shopping signs. Warhol's gaze somehow caresses these images of mass production, be they a glaring row of silk ties or a sunlit array of pitchers, silverware, a barrel of wooden spoons at a flea market, their textures effortlessly and somehow lovingly conveyed to us.

Formally, Warhol's street shots revel in the same sort of shop-window reflectivity and randomness that Lee Friedlander had already codified, while the bleak low-angle images of sidewalks or of such detritus as discarded metal banding remind us of William Eggleston. Yet the Warhol of the roaring '80s was hardly competing with these or any art photographers. He was just taking it all in, and his eye for repetitive patterns, such as those of an umbrella, a concentric cane chair, some striped fabric, or the criss-crossings of a security gate, remind us how he embraced replication and the unexalted process of making things.

Indeed Warhol once told an interviewer who asked him why he made the art that he made: "Because it gives me something to do." It may have seemed a typically Warholian, empty response at the time, but it was actually more sincere, and more sincerely childlike, than glib. Warhol knew that the challenge of post-industrial, postmodern life was to fill our yawning, automated moments with enough wonder and purpose to justify going on from day to day. By the 1980s, and with the Internet a mere twinkle in technology's eye, it was already clear to him that the world had become all media and all market, and these photographs, in their simplicity, reintroduce us to the inanimate particulars we can only trivialize through the global lens. The same Warhol who--with Jonas Mekas, it should be noted--gave us "Empire," a static, eight-hour film of the Empire State Building just being the Empire State Building (and, we now realize, one of the great works in the history of cinema) was, at heart, always and only one thing: a camera.

THAT UNSTABLE OBJECT OF DESIRE: IMAGES OF

THE FEMALE BREAST BY MASTERS OF PHOTOGRAPHY.

Edited by Alfonso Pluchinotta. 2009, Fratelli Alinari, Florence, Italy; 160 pages, approximately 100 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-88-95849-07-2. Information: http://www.alinari.it ; email: info@alinari.it .

The babble of voices that provide the commentary for this collection add layers of obviousness to the subject of the female breast as an object of the (mostly) male gaze. Yes, the mystery, the eroticism, the vulnerability, the literal and symbolic heft of the breast--it is all pored over in quite a few thousand words that are hardly worthy of the pictures themselves, which deliver us to a world of female sexuality ranging properly from anthropological studies to surrealism and any number of singular images that say, ultimately, all that needs saying.

In several shots, there's the ultimate intimacy and innocence of breastfeeding, but then again there is the erotic tension of Jan Saudek's 1986 "Motherhood," which showcases a large lactating breast looming out of painterly shadows, offering milk as a sexual essence. In the book's "Seduction" section, breasts peek at us, some obscured by clothing or playfully depicted in advertising, as captured by artists as various as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Robert Mapplethorpe and Ilse Bing. Then there's "The Imaginary," with images by the likes of Jerry Uelsmann, Elliot Erwitt and Brett Weston, some of them locating breast-like forms in natural formations (cacti, tree stumps and dunes). And of course there's the surrealism of Marcel Marien and others for whom the breast is ultimately a dream object.

The symbolism of countless shots is, inevitably, heavy-handed, but the images remain powerful--a scorpion poised on a bed near a sleeping woman's ample, healthy breast is a fearful totem of breast cancer in Anonimo's 1985 posing of Lisa Lyon. And the breast as commodity is pungently represented in more than a few classic images, from the famous shot of Jayne Mansfield displaying her cleavage near an affronted Sophia Loren to Robert Doisneau's superb 1952 "Audition au Concert Mayol," in which a prospective dancer's bare chest is coolly appraised by a portly producer seated at his desk.

Indeed, there's hardly a photographer of any note who hasn't focused on the breast, from paparazzi godfather Ron Galella to Bert Stern (Marilyn Monroe covering her chest with huge roses) to Bill Brandt's ethereal nudes. The book notes, appropriately, that there are but a handful of female photographers whose breast images, for whatever reason, have made the cut in this collection, yet those who have, such as Cherie Hiser, with her depiction of four nudes in a sea of mannequins, or Diane Arbus, with her indelible image of a forlorn waitress, or Connie Imboden, who brings an elegant, minimal poeticism to the subject, provide some of the most expressive and least voyeuristic works here. That's no surprise, of course, but it nicely balances a somewhat overwrought portfolio.

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.)