Issue #187  1/4/2012
Photo Books: Rediscovering Gita's Lens; Leon Herschtritt's Berlin Wall; Saville's City At Night Echoes Masters; Kander: Yangtze--The Long River

(Just a note and an apology from the Editor. By error (mine: Alex Novak), some of these reviews were lost in our email files for an excessive amount of time after they were done. Consider it a New Year's gift to our readers, because these are some of the best newer books out there. We'll be catching up on others soon.)

By Matt Damsker


With an introduction by Gordon Stettinius. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at Gitterman Gallery, New York. Gallery information: http://www.gittermangallery.com . Candela Books, Richmond, VA. 100 pages; approximately 37 black-and-white prints; hardbound; ISBN No. 978-0-9845739-0-5. Information: http://www.candelabooks.com .

Let us hope that this exhibition and Gordon Stettinius's curatorial dedication will rescue Gita Lenz from obscurity, since these photographs--crisply reproduced in this handsome catalogue--are so clearly the work of an inspired artist with a first-rate eye for urban geometries, textures and people. Gita Lenz passed away last year, but the work she did in the early 1950s is certainly enough to position her among the photographic greats. Indeed, Edward Steichen chose some of the Lenz's work for his "Abstraction in Photography" and landmark ''The Family of Man" exhibitions at MoMA, while Aaron Siskind was both a close friend and a key influence.

As he details in his introduction, Stettinius first encountered Gita Lenz in 2002 at an exhibition of his own photos in New York. Noting her solitary, childless existence, he helped her move to an assisted living facility and became familiar with her archives. Over the past decade, and with the help of friends and interns at Virginia Commonwealth University, Stettinius has been organizing and preserving her work.

The catalogue begins with a sequence of moody urban realism shot from a second or third-floor vantage, as shadowed streets punctuated by cars, lampposts and walking figures are captured in early morning or evening, with raking sunlight and the interesting geometry of street and sidewalk suggesting a fascination with the abstract. Other shots, more down to earth, of tenement life, schoolyards and the idle moments of city life, convey the anxious vitality of Manhattan's working class in a kind of free-verse approach. Here are close-ups of children, plus casually posed or totally candid group shots, or still lifes of broken containers and wooden pallets.

Lenz moved easily from bright, close-pressed compositions to chiaroscuro effects, and her compositions have an instinctive but not sentimental flair for the dramatic. An image of a dejected-looking worker seated beneath a pull-rope--suggestive of a suicidal noose--is about as rhetorical as she gets, and even then it seems more of a strikingly coincidental visual than any sort of call for workers to throw off their chains. More impressive, perhaps--and this is where Siskind's influence is the most pronounced--are her close observations of industrial textures: scarred, ripped, paint-slashed corrugated metal, aging brickwork, shots of cement and rock--some of it biomorphically suggestive. Lenz was also drawn to the reflective tableaux of shop windows, with strangely expressive mannequins and dolls, moving deftly toward a fresh postmodern vision. Brava, Gita Lenz! Bravo, Gordon Stettinius!



2009, Editions La Collection, Paris; 48 pages, approximately 30 black-and-white plates; ISBN No. 978-2-9534522-0-4; paperbound; price: 15 euros. Information: www.fotoparisberlin.com .

Few constructs of the mid-20th century were so ready made for serious photography as was the Berlin Wall. Bisecting an already symbol-freighted city--the epicenter, after all, of World War II's political and psychological geography--the Wall brought an explicit there-ness to Berlin's topography, concretely dividing past from present just as it divided East from West, Democracy from Sovietism and, most of all, Germans from each other. The countless journalistic images that captured the Wall have sought, and often found, larger meaning in its drab details and defiant graffiti, and by now we've probably earned the right to feel that we've seen enough of it, let's move on.

Which is why Léon Herschtritt's compact volume of wintry photos from the Wall's early days in 1961 is such a refreshing reminder of how the absoluteness of that brute border actually evolved. At first, as former West-Berlin mayor Walter Momper noted in his speech at the opening of Herschtritt's exhibition of these photos in 2008, "the partition was not…as perfect as the East Berlin authorities had planned. In numerous places it was possible to peer over the wall and through the barbed wire to wave hello to relatives." And so Herschtritt camera sought those moments when East and West Berliners could still connect with each other visually, before buildings and windows were bricked up on the Eastern side to create a stark no-man's-land.

Thus, there is the wonderful panoramic image of a group of people standing on a small platform on Bernauer Strasse, looking over the wall, and, in a later shot from a superb slant angle, the sight of that same platform on its side in the deserted street, with the scarred mass of an old apartment building against the bleak sky. There's also the classic image of a couple waving, statuesquely, across the Wall from atop a parked car. But most of Herschtritt's photos are more matter-of-fact; there's no need to compose drama or impose meaning in the highly palpable context of the Wall. Bricked up "blind windows" are seen as if in a Mondrian grid of pure modernism, in flat close-up. West Berliners are photographed standing on street corners, looking at the East through binoculars, like army scouts, but their winter coats, handbags and simple shoes mark them for us as citizens longing for a glimpse of walled-off family.

Other groups face Herschtritt's camera, waving white handkerchiefs to assure their loved ones on the other side that "we are there." And the border guards and barbed wire are photographed in their peculiar vacuum, isolated and without real purpose--sentinels of cold-war absurdity in a city exhausted by conflict. Indeed, for the young generations to whom even the fall of the Wall in 1989 is already ancient history, Hirschtritt's documentation is a worthy reminder that our open, wired, networked world is still vulnerable to the heavy hand of state power, never too far removed from some Orwellian nightmare of banality.


Introduction by Arthur C. Danto. The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, New York. Clothbound;142 pages; 85 color plates. ISBN No. 978-1-58093-21906. Information: http://www.monacellipress.com , or http://www.lynnsaville.com .

This compelling and beautifully reproduced collection of New York city nightscapes places photographer Lynn Saville in heady company, and not merely that of the Weeges or Arbuses who once codified the modernist dark side of Manhattan. As Columbia University professor and The Nation's art critic Arthur C. Danto writes in his introduction, Saville is "the Atget of vanishing New York, prowling her city at the other end of the day, picking up pieces of the past in the present, just before it is swallowed by shadows."

The comparison is apt if inverted, since Atget chronicled an early-morning, near-deserted Paris, while Saville has specialized in nocturnes, pitting familiar objects against a luminous night sky, and now turns a color-saturated, ambient-lit style toward a similarly deserted New York, just as evening falls. The peaceable moodiness of these urban meditations conveys a near-religious radiance. It belies the urban, quotidian emphasis on industrial sites, elevated train trestles, a garish Nathan's hot dog joint against the undiminished azure sky. Meanwhile, the slick streets, multi-level parkland, classical archways, steel girders, raw facades, glaring lampposts and illuminated windows of the city are enriched for us, as Saville's camera frames them with an eye for fascinating detail and Renaissance perspective--the Bethesda fountain, for example, glimpsed in blue winter twilight from beneath a far arcade, or a view of the Manhattan skyline from behind New Jersey's iconic waterfront Pepsi-Cola sign.

Saville's "Night/Shift" may well bear comparison to past masters, but it also evokes the contemporary night vision of another photographic artist, Marcus Doyle, who likewise deals in ambient light, long exposures, unpeopled locales and saturated color. But where Doyle's images are often so far removed from urban iconography that they take on the aura of alien shrines, Saville's remain doggedly devoted to revisioning the familiarities of the city. And yet one photo, of the sterile corners of Wyeth Avenue, feels otherworldly, and is bisected down the middle by a lamp pole, all of it echoing a Doyle image that similarly breaks the modernist rule against symmetry in framing a foregrounded vertical element.

Indeed, Saville is part of a photographic vanguard, one that drinks deeply of the possibilities of available light, hyper-real color and evocative yet unromanticized subject matter. And just as her work may inspire comparison to photographic pioneers such as Atget, they also remind us of painterly masters such as Edward Hopper, who found a visual vocabulary that bespoke modern isolation without indulging in cheap effect or overstatement. Lynn Saville's photographs are in such a grand tradition, yes, but their real strength is that they seem to be establishing a new tradition as well.


Texts by Kofi A. Annan and Jean-Paul Tchang. Published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany. Hardbound, approx. 150 pgs., 76 four-color plates. ISBN No. 978-3-7757-2683-2. Information: http://www.hatjecantz.com . Kander is represented by Flowers Galleries; email: matt@flowersgalleries.com , and information: http://www.flowersgalleries.com/artists/118-artists/3867-nadav-kander/#/section-work/ .

Nadev Kander deservedly won the 2009 Prix Pictet for these remarkable images of China, shot over a three-year period along the Yangtze River, China's great natural divider of north and south, which flows some 4,100 miles (6.500 kilometers) from the Himalayas to the coastal estuary of Shanghai. Kander, who describes himself as a "an Israeli-born South African living in England" cites his own feelings of rootlessness as something of a correlative to the enormous change and churn of China's vast economic expansion, as its ancient lands and the long-settled shores of the Yangtze are subjected to rapid development, polluting industry and population shifts.

Indeed, in these magnificent, large-format photos from 2007 to 2009, a yellow-gray haze of industrial air pollution is the atmospheric constant, with timeless vistas of earth and water redefined by China's modernizing thrust, its monumental bridge work, dams, housing projects and urban encroachments. In this context, the human figure is literally and metaphorically dwarfed, but Kander doesn't reduce his subjects to rhetorical props. The Chinese we see in his shots--at leisure in the shadow of giant pylons, or afloat near the bleakly concrete Three Gorges Dam, or in an ark-like houseboat somewhere in Jiangsu Province--seem fully humanized in their relative smallness, as they accommodate their lives to the pace of change.

Inevitably, these are studies in contrast: a convoy of blue construction trucks provide the only color in an otherwise serene sea view at the river's mouth near Shanghai, while the greenery of fertile land in Nanjing is interrupted by the rude browns of high- and low-rise apartment buildings. Throughout Kander's China, there's a sense of the unfinished; viewed from the perspective of the eternally flowing river, the immense public works and the sprawling density of cities like Chongquing are ever in progress, morphing and metastasizing as China only expands.

Importantly, Kander chose to photograph the Yangtze in a kind of reverse, moving upstream from its mouth in uber-urban Shanghai to its source in the far mountains. As this portfolio moves toward the Yangtze's origin, in Yunnan or Qinghai Provinces, the river is a ribbon of purity, reminding us that the great nation was once an unspoiled universe.

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.

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