Issue #189  2/28/2012
Photo Books: Kalisher's The Alienated Photographer; Three Books of Miller's Vintage Americana Imagery; Felice Beato; and Dealer Hertzmann's Catalog

(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. We're still catching up and will catch up on others soon. These are still very important photo publications.)

By Matt Damsker



Introduction by Luc Sante. Published for the exhibition of the same name at The Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH), Houston, Texas. Two Penny Press, New York. Hardbound, 69 pgs., 59 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-0-578-07134-3. Information: http://www.simpsonkalisher.com ; email: twopennypress@nyc.rr.com . Signed copies of the book will also be available at the Keith de Lellis booth at AIPAD and from the New York City gallery.

This is only the venerable photojournalist Simpson Kalisher's third book--after 1961's "Railroad Men" and 1976's "Propaganda and other Photographs"--and along with the recent MFAH exhibition, it should solidify his reputation as one of the indispensible street photographers. As Luc Sante puts it in his introduction, Kalisher is "our Virgil through this rapidly receding time, giving the impression in every frame of remembering a stricter but richer past while also perceiving the outline and maybe even the details of the anarchic future."

Poetic praise, perhaps, but it rings true. These 59 gems from the 1950s and '60s--most of them shot in New York City--suggest that Kalisher never took a dull photo, and never seemed to be forcing things. Kalisher so easily sees the past in the present--whether in the bowler hats and cigars of his male subjects, or the site of a lone, crumbling brownstone detached from its history--that there's a visionary surge to even his simplest shots. The young, scantily dressed couple happily strolling through their little corner of '60s Brooklyn, or the blurred faces glimpsed in a moving subway window, or a woman leading two children across a busy street are suddenly, vividly alive to us, suggesting small but somehow compelling narratives.

When Kalisher composes with more care and complexity, the results are stunning yet just as unpretentious. Lee Friedlander seems prefigured by Kalisher's on-the-run image of a gas station attendant framed by the dark interior of the photographer's car, or of souvenir photos in a shop window.

More often, though, Kalisher is frontal and specific: a white dog leashed to a fire hydrant looks soulfully our way; two well-dressed men confer on a sidewalk, and something seems to hang in the balance; a hugely finned Cadillac sits in front of the Eastern Airlines building, a grand American flag waving from the façade. More obliquely, perhaps, a trio of workers plants a large sapling under a highway overpass, and they remind us of the iconic image of soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima. Kalisher locates unintentional drama in the everyday, and the result is startling art.



Three photography books by Richard C. Miller. 2009, Bombshelter Press, Hermosa Beach, CA, in association with the Miller Family Trust A. Editorial, design, text and color printed by Reece Vogel and Michael Andrews. Information: http://www.richardcmiller.com .

Born in 1912 in Hanford, CA, Richard C. Miller embodies the intersection of photographic art and commerce as few photographers have ever done. The freewheeling, color-drenched, modernist spirit of 20th-century California--and its seductive spawn, Hollywood--flows through his images, which range from classic publicity and commercial stills of the 1940s and '50s to superb black-and-white documentary work.

More to the point, the reclusive, often overlooked Miller (he lives with his daughter in New York's Hudson Valley these days) has been an American treasure for generations, but only recently has he gotten his due, thanks to a flurry of deserved publicity upon the J. Paul Getty Museum's acquisition of some of his great Carbro prints. In addition, these three beautifully rendered photography books collect the essential Miller for us, and reveal a photographer whose sheer delight in the process and in his subjects is evident in every rigorously composed and masterfully printed frame.

Miller photographed the likes of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe (who posed for him when she was an undiscovered Norma Jeane Dougherty), but Miller's brushes with mythic celebrity--he photographed many film studio legends as a freelancer--are not really the story of his life or art. He is more of a photographer's photographer, one of the first to appreciate the genius of Edward Weston, for example, and subsequently a close friend of Brett Weston, the subject of a Miller portfolio (as is Norma Jeane, in a trove of beautifully playful color shots).

Indeed, Miller's cover photos for the likes of the "Saturday Evening Post" and other glossy magazines of the mid-20th century are unheralded parts of our collective consciousness, and they give Norman Rockwell's more celebrated All-American illustrations a run for their money. Some of Miller's best magazine work, including an iconic image of his apple-cheeked daughter in prayer at the Thanksgiving table, is collected in "Frozen Moments," which chronicles Miller's mastery of the Carbro process, an obsolete but thoroughly gorgeous color technique which utilizes pigments, as opposed to dyes, in producing a triple-negative print. The lifelike primary colors are radiantly rich, not gaudy, while Miller's attention to light and compositional clarity make these images seem to pop from the page. And while much of his output is formally posed if not stagey, there are a few Carbro prints here--such as a golden shot of the cloisters at San Juan Capistrano, from 1940--that attest to Miller's great documentarian eye. Collector's alert: a breathtaking 1946 image of Norma Jeane in a bridal gown became a famous cover of "Personal Romances" magazine.

As a pioneer in Kodachrome, Miller did a lot of color fashion photography in the 1940s, and "Women in Hats" collects a fascinating sub-stratum of lush, cheerful close-ups of models in millinery, some of them absurdly dated (a woman in a fake-fruited hat peering out from the window of a canary yellow DeSoto), others timelessly chic, still others wonderful curiosities (there's Norma Jeane again, in a plaid shirt, smilingly baiting a fishhook while wearing a red cap festooned with fly-fishing lures). A proto-camp celebration of a more innocent America, "Women in Hats" is a likely source of meticulous period detail for the current TV series "Mad Men," about ad men in mid-century New York, although there's not a hint of irony in Miller's loving gaze.

"Freeway," however, is a different (though still without a touch of irony) story, as Miller broke from his color studio work to chronicle the construction of L.A.'s Hollywood Freeway, with its new world of multi-level interchanges and vast swaths of highway cutting through what had been a slower matrix of city streets and urban/suburban development. Between 1948 and 1953, Miller shot more than a hundred black-and-white negatives of the freeway with his 4 x 5 Graflex view camera, and he did so purely for himself. "The freeway was the greatest idea to me," he writes now. "I felt I had to photograph the process…I thought, 'My God, this is how people must have felt when they first saw the cathedrals in Europe.'

Miller's delight in the process may seem quaint to us now that those freeways have come to symbolize all the choking excess of the American Dream, but to his generation of speed-smitten Los Angeles drivers, the freeway was The Future. Miller took care to capture strong, pure images of transformation, of curving concrete forms rising in rhythmic confluence in the flawless California sunlight (one shot neatly captures L.A.'s architecturally distinctive City Hall in the distance). The result is a portfolio of modernist images that certainly rivals the more skeptical chroniclings of Brett Weston and other, more noted photographers of American change. But Miller was hardly brooding. Like all of his work, Miller's "Freeway" is an unselfconscious labor of love, of belief in subject married to sheer technical command.



This book is a superb catalogue marking a recent exhibition of Beato photographs at the University of New Hampshire's Museum of Art, in Durham, which ended in December 2011. Drawn entirely from the collection of New York's Tom Burnett (who worked with guest curator Eleanor Hight, of the university), some 35 albumen silver prints, many of them beautifully and subtly hand-colored by Beato, are on display here. They focus on Beato's Japanese period, which flowered in 1867-68 with many now-classic views of temples, domestic architecture, samurai, geisha, and landscapes, all infused with a striking formality and sense of scale. Beato (1932-1909) never failed to include the human figure in his naturalistic images, which convey the complex integration of Japanese structures in their rustic settings. Meanwhile, his hand-colored portraits captured such expressive detail that the men, women, peasants and warriors seem truly alive to us, like characters of epic cinema.

Fittingly, East Asia photographic scholar Terry Bennett's introduction weighs in on Burnett's vintage Japanese collection, which consists of about 5,000 original prints. Bennett notes that the Italian/British Beato's "most productive and creative period occurred during his 1863-84 sojourn in Japan…But we should really only focus on the first fifteen years of his stay," since he sold his studio and negatives to Baron Raimund von Stillfried in 1877. Bennett further separates Beato's Japanese work into four stages: Pre-Fire (his Yokohama studio and negatives were destroyed by an 1866 conflagration), Reconstruction, Unstructured, and Post-Studio periods. In her detailed essay, curator Hight chronicles Beato's life and the breadth of his time in the Land of the Rising Sun, concluding that in his photographs of Japan, "we witness Beato at the height of his powers." The catalogue is priced at $18.75 (order by phone: 1-603-862-3712). Further information: http://www.unh.edu/moa/recent.html .


Also available, from Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc. Vintage Photographs, is "Photographs We Like," a discriminatingly personal selection (by Hertzmann and partner Susan Herzig) of mostly modernist images from some of the medium's greatest names, along with some lesser known artists. There's the crisp black-and-white surrealism of Clarence John Laughlin's 1935 "Pineapple As Rocket," the delicately silhouetted self-portraiture of Anne Brigman's 1910 "The Breeze, " and more than a dozen other marvelous visions, such as Harry Callahan's late-1950s shot of swimmers at Chicago's Oak Street beach, glimpsed from afar through blurry foliage that all but engulfs the frame.

And there are still lifes by Ilse Bing and Brassai; numinous dune grasses (like fine horsehair) captured by William Dassonville in 1925; an heroic 1939 Edward Weston shot of the faux-Roman statuary constructed for MGM Studio's epic production of "Ben-Hur;" Ansel Adams' snow-shagged cedar tree; a Berenice Abbott storefront image; Dorothea Lange's and Lewis Hine's Dickensian portraits of an overcrowded Sunday mass in Ireland and the workers at a Georgia cotton mill. And so it goes, enchantingly.

Arnold Genthe's 1910 portrait of Julia Marlow as Ophelia in "Hamlet" is the very face of haunted stardom, pre-Garbo, pre-Sunset Boulevard. And for sheer historical richness, few photos can top the rarified sight of Walt Whitman at his home on Mickle Street in Camden, NJ, attributed to Thomas Eakins on the basis of an Eakins painting of Whitman in the same pose.

For more information: Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc., P.O. Box 40447 San Francisco, California 94140; phone: 1-415-626-2677; email: pmhi@hertzmann.net , or online at http://www.hertzmann.net .

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.

(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.)