E-Photo
Issue #183  9/9/2011
 
Photo Books: Uelsmann's Eye; Man Ray and Lee Miller; Gottfried's Celebrations of Puerto Rican Reality; and More

By Matt Damsker

MIND'S EYE–PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY UELSMANN.

Text by Phillip Prodger and Jerry Uelsmann; introduction by A.D. Coleman. Modernbook Editions, San Francisco. Hardbound; 287 pages, more than 170 black-and-white plates. USBN No. 978-0-9801044-5-5. Information: Modernbook Editions, http://www.modernbook.com ; phone: 1-415-732-0300; http://www.uelsmann.net .

In photography's digital age--or, more precisely, our Age of Photoshop--it's easy to see why Jerry Uelsmann's seamless, dreamlike photomontages, so scrupulously assembled in his darkroom from thousands of old and new negatives, may have lost their power to astonish. After all, commercial photography (and this includes film and video work) has been morphing multiple images for what seems like forever, yielding surreal sights with the ease of mouse clicks.

In that sense, the legacy of Uelsmann's fine art photo-innovation, bred from the composite style he began to master in the 1950s and which made him one of the world's most collected photographers by the 1970s, is all around us. But as A.D. Coleman notes in his introductory essay in this handsome volume, "critical interest has not kept pace. His most famous images are so often reproduced that it seems there is little new to discover in his work…" This book tries to set that right, bringing together a trove from Uelsmann's personal archives, including some unpublished variants of well-known images and others published for the first time.

Indeed, the Pre-Visualization dogma of Ansel Adam and Edward Weston, who held that a photo should deliver the unvarnished results that the artist planned to achieve at the moment of exposure, was successfully countered by Uelsmann with his influential "Post-Visualization" manifesto, and by now there's hardly any controversy. Art photography exists along a continuum with very little in the way of rules for representing reality. Uelsmann will always deserve credit for storming the barricades, but these days he is the easygoing "eminence grise" of Gainesville, Florida, and in fact he was never really much of a self-dramatizing provocateur. Uelsmann chose not to dare damnation, like Lucas Samaras or others who have expressionistically branded their art; he simply believed in his work, and he put it out there.

The essays by Coleman, Phillip Prodger and Uelsmann himself offer a good, clear explication of Uelsmann's art and his journey from Detroit to academia and beyond, with teachers and mentors such as Robert Heinecken, Ralph Hattersley, Minor White and Beaumont Newhall. For Uelsmann's admirers, what may be newest about this book are actually the oldest: superb forays into "straight" photography produced in his younger days and especially upon his arrival as a junior professor at the University of Florida in 1960.

Much as he had done in photographing the poor whites of Rochester and Bloomington, Uelsmann brought his evolving eye to the African-American community of Gainesville, resulting in rich portraiture that reflects Uelsmann's essential humanism. These warm, empathetic views didn't jibe with the more heated Civil Rights-era rhetoricizing of their time, and so they didn't attract great notice, but now they stand tall, emphasizing character and context: a blind guitar-player strums proudly on a muddy Gainesville street, as two curious children observe in the background; a university janitor sits uneasily for Uelsmann, in front of a blackboard on which the titles of Euro-centric art textbooks have been listed.

If anything, those powerful works--carefully but not fussily composed and richly exposed, with textures worthy of Aaron Siskind and a great feel for the middle ranges of black and white film--make their argument for Uelsmann as a great realist photographer, one whose emblematic, "post-visual" successes carry less charge by comparison. The familiar Uelsmann iconography, of nudes and hands, trees and water, rocks and clouds, his elegant recombinations (of a woman's lips growing out of a dusty road, or of sandcastled beach comprising the floor of a formal drawing room) remain impressive, but the times have caught up with him. The once-startling Uelsmann-ism of water flooding out of a picture frame is as likely to remind us of a 3-D stunt (cf. "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawntreader," at your local multiplex) as of the groundbreaking dream vision it once was. No matter that Uelsmann did it first and best; pop culture washes the wonder away.

The catalog ties into an exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum; the PEM show debuted at the Harn Museum in Gainesville and is traveling to the Michener Museum in Doylestown.

MAN RAY / LEE MILLER: PARTNERS IN SURREALISM.

Essays by Phillip Prodger, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Antony Penrose. Published by Merrell Books, London/New York and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass. 160 pages, more than 100 four-color plates; hardbound, $39.95; ISBN No. 978-8589-4557-6. Information: http://www.merrellpublishers.com/?9781858945576 .

A project led by Phillip Prodger, curator of photography at Massachusett's Peabody Essex Museum, this one marks some of the spirit and substance that influences Jerry Uelsmann's surrealism (Those red lips floating in a cloudy sky! Man Ray painted that image in 1931, then photographed the painting in 1964). Unquestionably, Man Ray's Dadaist aesthetic--a free re-definition of art as personal projection, a re-naming and re-objectifying that scores alongside Marcel Duchamp's creative liberties--has had a lasting impact on the most iconoclastic painting, photography and sculpture of the 20th century.

However, this book is the first to explore Man Ray's relationship with another American artist, Lee Miller, who is often described, condescendingly, as his "muse" but who was more. The blonde, beautiful Miller was equally inspired (by Ray and others, in a circle that included Picasso, Dora Maar and Alexander Calder) and produced a great deal of first-rate photography and prescient, proto-feminist drawings as their three-year love affair (1929-1932) progressed and flamed out.

Miller, who began at 19 as a model discovered by Conde Nast himself, had bold, brooding facial features and a statuesque form that became icons of '30s haute womanhood, as she modeled for Vogue and stood nude for some of Man Ray's great works, including those striking portraits in which a lace curtain casts concentric shadows on her bare torso, as well as innovative solarized images of her noble head. As these essays make clear, Miller was an understandable obsession for Man Ray, who sought to control her long after she outgrew him.

The result paints Man Ray, in his mooning letters to Miller and via the book's scholarship, as an expectedly sexist, insecure egotist who couldn't really bear the sexual and artistic freedom he pretended to approve of and which Miller demanded. For all the drama, she provided a life's worth of great material for Man Ray, and they ended up, bitter sweetly, as friends. Indeed, he was lucky to have her as long as he did; she, meanwhile, was a force of nature, and her determination not to live in the shadow of a male artist, however much she admired him, is a tale of triumph on its own terms.

The crisp intensity of Miller's gelatin silver prints--especially such wonderfully engaged studies as her shots of birdcages in a window, of rat tails, carousel horses, and of Paris shop fronts -- proves that she had a gifted eye and first-rate technique. Other images, more obviously under the influence of Man Ray, include nude torso studies and solarized portraiture (which they pioneered together). Prodger notes that Miller "searched for absurd elements in the world around her and frequently ventured out into the street to find subject matter…there was no obvious precedent for this Surrealist twist to street photography."

Despite its descriptions of their various ways of working and the cross-pollinations of their art, the story takes its melodramatic turns, as we learn of Man Ray's lovesick defacing of photographs of Miller, their break-ups and reconciliations. Perhaps the most penetrating view of Miller and Man Ray in this period belongs to Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator at the Peabody Essex Museum, who explores the Surrealist "dialogue" between Man Ray, Lee Miller and Joseph Cornell, whose inspired objects and boxes Miller photographed, brilliantly. Hartigan raises the question of who influenced whom in this context, and concludes that Miller and Man Ray "partnered in Surrealism's desire to see things differently, by seeing one thing in another as well as in each other."

BACALAITOS & FIREWORKS.

Photos by Arlene Gottfried. With poetry by Elaine Griffith and Miguel Pinero. powerHousee Books, Brooklyn, NY. Hardcover, 128 pgs., 65 four-color plates. $39.95. ISBN No. 978-1-57687-566-7. Information: http://www.powerhousebooks.com/site/?p=1222 .

Another vivid chronicler of street life, native New Yorker Arlene Gottfried delivers something definitive with this full-color, unblinking exploration of the Puerto Rican "Nuyorican" community she knows so well. These color photos, spanning eras from the 1970s to the present, are mainly celebrations of a Puerto Rican reality that thrives and pulsates despite its deprivations and Manhattan marginalization. Gottfried shows us the blight, the cultural clichés of broken TV sets strewn on the sidewalk, fuzzy dice hanging from rearview mirrors, backyard pig roasts--it's all there, but at the same time it is accented and enriched by the palpable humanity of children, for whom it is a playground, and the countless others, old, not so old, and not so young, who pose for Gottfried in all their tough beauty and unbroken pride.

There are, inevitably, shots that wring pity and terror: a prepubescent girl posing in a bikini in a garishly red bedroom, a young amputee playing the drums, prostitutes and pimps. The poor build trash-can fires to keep warm, and Gottfried brings us close to the cold, the heat, the deep Nuyorican night that plays out in the seats and on the hoods of convertibles, in small apartments where babies writhe on plastic slip-covered couches, and in images that evoke something of Diane Arbus, as couples meet the camera's gaze with rapt, unfaked expressions that covey a world of longing and loss.

Then there's the bookended images of Johnny Citron, seen first in 1980 as a young tough with what looks like a knife tucked in his belt, bare-chested and barely out of his teens; and again in 1991, garishly tattooed, mustachioed. He looks tougher, but there's some sad wisdom in his eyes, 11 years later, and we can only wonder where he is now.

Indeed, there are countless stories, knowable and unguessable, in these straightforward photos, and Gottfried's saturated colors and unerring eye immerse us in this often troubled, often joyously unselfconscious world.

Adding to the richness of this book are poems by Lois Elaine Griffith and Miguel Pinero, who is also pictured in his element--writing, performing, getting by. He offers "A Lower East Side Poem" that encapsulates a lot of what Gottfried shows us ("I stand proud as you can see / pleased to be from Lower East / a street-fighting man / a problem of this land…").

If anything, the intimacy and wisdom of these photos lie in the book's title as well, evoking flesh (bacalaitos are the fried codfish of Puerto Rican cuisine) and spirit, since no one celebrates the Fourth of July like Nuyoricans.

BRIEFLY NOTED: "IN PLATO'S CAVE" (HPGRP Gallery, New York) documents an intriguing experiment by Donald Lokuta, who created a visual version of Plato's famous metaphor of the cave as a housing for our human condition, in which we mistake the distorted shadows on the cave wall as truth. Lokuta began this series in 1984, with photos of people at scenic overlooks and along the rocky coast of Maine, and he has created more than 50 of them by now.

In each photo, he carefully paints out the backgrounds--that is, what the people are looking at--in black acrylic paint, leaving the scenic component entirely to our imaginations and Platonically challenging us to understand. At its best, this approach offers potent spectacles of disconnection and even despair, as in a recent shot of a man with a baseball cap staring off in one direction while a woman seated on a rock apparently snaps a photo, although it seems just as possible that she is holding her head in her hands.

Similarly, "Man on the Edge" views a man looking downward--to darkness--from a high rocky outcrop. These blendings of simple documentary realism with an almost abstract expressionist vaulting of black paint have a vatic power, but the results seem inconsistent. A brace of overweight tourists standing around with their cameras and packs hold no mystery, nor does a lifeguard seated on a beach tower: we know what's out there, and the suntan lotion-applying figure in the foreground is prosaic. But Lokuta's careful craft and his long-term dedication to this project keep it interesting, and not quite like anything we've seen before.

Information: http://www.hpgrpgallery.com/archive39_1.html . Email: dlokuta@verizon.net . The publication contains 55 photographs, an introduction by Donna Gustafson and an essay by Robert Yoskowitz.

Volumes 8 and 9 of the ongoing project, RIJKSMUSEUM STUDIES IN PHOTOGRAPHY (by which Amsterdam's great museum gives young researchers the opportunity to use its collection of 19th and 20th century photography for scholarly publication) have been released. Volume 8 is "PHOTOGRAPHY MEETS FILM: CAPA, IVENS AND FERNHOUT IN CHINA, 1938," by Rixt A. Bosma, a fine exploration of the collaboration between the great documentary photographer Robert Capa, Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens and his cameraman John Fernhout, who had met in the 1930s when Ivens was filming "The Spanish Earth", about the Spanish civil war.

At the time, Ivens and Fernhout viewed the Sino-Japanese war as a second front in the clash between Communism and Fascism, and asked Capa to provide film and production stills as they filmed in China. He joined them there and wound up producing a number of photo stories on China for European and American magazines. These less well-known photos by Capa--of Asia's wounded and war-weary--are full of life and his legendary immediacy. Author Bosma does a thorough job chronicling how Iven's China film, "The 400 Million," was made, along with Capa's photo-journalism.

Volume 9, "CHRISTIAAN SNOUCK HURGRONJE: THE FIRST WESTERN

PHOTOGRAPHER IN MECCA, 1884-1885," by Durke van der Wal, studies the work of the Dutch photographer who converted to Islam in order to take the first Western photos of the forbidden holy city of Mecca. Snouck Hurgronje was deported from Mecca within a few months, but not before he produced a book, "Mekka," and albums that made him world famous.

Author van der Wal unearths the collaboration between Snouck Hurgronje and his assistant, the Meccan doctor Abd al-Ghaffar, who took many of the photos Snouck Hurgonje published in his second album. Referencing the Dutch Islamist's diary and correspondence, van der Wal weaves a fascinating tale of esoterica and exploitation, while the stunning photos of what was a mystery-shrouded Middle East are well-reproduced.

Kudos go to series editors Mattie Bloom and Hans Rooseboom, who keep their researchers well-focused on these challenging topics. For more information: http://www.rijksmuseum.nl .

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.)