E-Photo
Issue #70  3/29/2004
 
New Photography Books

By Matt Damsker

SACRED LEGACY: EDWARD S. CURTIS AND THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN.

Photographs by Edward S. Curtis. Edited by Christopher Cardozo. Published by Simon & Schuster; 2000. ISBN #0-7432-0374-7. Developed and produced by Verve Editions, Burlington, VT; c/o verve@together.net . Information on the Edward S. Curtis Foundation can be found at www.curtismuseum.org ; for information on the photographs, contact the Christopher Cardozo Gallery, at http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/result_list.php/64/8/0 , or 1-888-328-7847. 192 pages. Price: US $60; CAN $88.50.

This is a monumental and definitive collection, rich with some 200 reproductions of Edward S. Curtis's peerless photography of the North American Indian. Superlatives come easily enough, but they won't do justice to the experience afforded by this book, an absolute labor of love and respect created for posterity and for an international exhibition by the leading Curtis authority and collector, Christopher Cardozo.

Cardozo has developed "Sacred Legacy" according to the organizing principles of Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) himself. The great photographer's 30-year project to depict and document the Native tribes of North America resulted in a 20-volume, handmade magnum opus, "The North American Indian," with some 4,000 pages of text and 2,200 images representing more than 80 Native nations. Cardozo follows Curtis's bibliographic path, with geographic regions presented separately and individual tribes within each region vividly described.

These classic photogravures, silver, albumen, and platinum prints, along with a few moody blue cyanotypes, are more than images, of course. Taken together, they amount to nothing less than our collective consciousness of the ravaged history of Native American life. There is no way to calculate how pervasively these photographs have confronted us, directly and indirectly, in print, in film, and on television over the years, but it is easy to see how profoundly they have influenced other photographers. The somber, uncluttered frontality of Curtis's views of Apache chiefs, Zuni women, Hopi braves, or Navaho medicine men are the formal and spiritual archetypes for such postmodern photographic triumphs as Richard Avedon's "In the American West," just as they are the less obvious soul of Diane Arbus's portraiture.

Not surprisingly, though, the ultimate power and godliness of these photos lies not so much in their mythic stature as in their details--the granite-like facial plains and deeply etched, desert-sanded lines of a Klamath woman's proud visage; the beadwork and war paint; the tight mesh of Mohave basketry and painted clay of Hopi pottery; the feathered headdress and horned ceremonial garb. These reproductions have been lovingly rendered from Cardozo's unmatched source material, so it is fair to say that this is as good as it gets on paper stock. Even the most difficult images are crisp--for example, the enshrouding sky background of "Night Scout," the deep perspective and shadow of the Cahuilla tribe's Palm Canon oasis, or the riot of textures evident in an unforgettable photo of an Assiniboin brave cradling a slain eagle to his breast.

A book this powerfully produced deserves potent wordsmithing as well, and Cardozo has not fallen short on that front. The most deeply felt essay is by Joseph D. Horse Capture, a descendent of the A'ani tribe of central Montana and now assistant curator of the department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Curtis photographed his great-great-grandfather, Horse Capture, a tribal leader and holy man, and the image--a deeply shadowed profile of dignity and resolve, with the barrel of a rifle strengthening the vertical plane from the lower left--is nothing less than a masterpiece.

"Few images have had such an impact on my life as Edward Curtis's 1908 photograph of my great-great-grandfather," writes Horse Capture. "Because my father, George Horse Capture, discovered Curtis's portrait of our ancestor, the members of our family have been fortunate to have prints of this photograph in all of our households. Horse Capture is with us in all of our homes; his presence helps choose the directions we take in life. Seeing his face not only reminds us of our relatives but also reinforces our commitment, as Indian people, to teach our people the ways of our ancestors."

In addition, there are essays by Cardozo, who provides detailed context from Curtis's written descriptions, and by the likes of independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace, whose 2000 documentary, "Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians", is already a classic of its kind. And Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn) offers a foreword that evokes the Big Picture as much as the Great Spirit of Curtis's art.

"These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past--more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility," Momaday writes. "Curtis's photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal."

NIEPCE, DAGUERRE OR TALBOT? THE QUEST OF JOSEPH HAMEL TO FIND

THE REAL INVENTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY. By Serge Plantureux; English translation by Suzy Firth. Published by Accademia dei Venti ISBN #2-84940-003-3; EAN #9782849400036. Information: www.accademiadeiventi.org , or CEROS, 4, Galerie Vivienne, 75002 Paris. Tel.: +33-153-29-92-00. 50 pages. Price: $5. Available in French or English.

History is slippery in the best of circumstances, but in looking backward to the watershed year of 1839, when photography emerged amidst the smoke and steam of the Industrial Revolution, the view is hazy at best. Who invented the medium? The great names attached to the beginnings of photography are familiar enough--mainly Louis-Jacques-Mandy Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot--but this short investigative essay by Serge Plantureux adds the story of Joseph Hamel to the historic mix. It describes how Hamel sought the truth in the course of seeking advantage for Mother Russia, and came to view the French "heliographer" Joseph Nicephore Niepce as the medium's true inventor

Indeed, this pleasing curiosity of a book was first published last year in French, but it comes to us now in an English translation. Firth's task could not have been easy, for Plantureux's verbal style seems sprawling and informal, and some further proofing would have caught several typographical errors, but the information is compelling. If nothing else, it limns a portrait of a man who may well have been the world's first industrial spy, sent to the West in the early 1800s by Russian Tsar Nicholas I to keep the Motherland abreast of the surging technological developments of France and Great Britain.

As the Tsar's man, Hamel--who was born of German colonists along the river Volga--was a distinguished presence, well-schooled in the sciences and an earnest observer of everything from new educational systems to the emergence of the telegraph and new methods of electrolysis. While his European hosts happily opened their cultures to him, he kept the Tsar up to date on various breakthroughs, so that by 1839 he was nicely positioned to play a role in bringing photography to Russia.

At this point in the narrative, Plantureux gets a little overwhelmed by the tide of historical cross-currents that place the likes of Talbot, Daguerre, and Niepce at the generative heart of the medium. While the verifiable truth seems a bit murky, it becomes clear to us that the invention of photography, like most technological breakthroughs, was more a shared achievement than a Promethean bestowal of fire by any one man. Daguerre, for example, is depicted as the great showman and entrepreneur who knew the value of contracting with Niepce, whose "heliographs" were important early steps in developing the process. Talbot, of course, was refining techniques in his own way.

Hamel, viewing Niepce as the true inventor of the medium, grew close with the Niepce family and was able to collect important early examples, which made their way to Russia. By then, the fledgling era of the photography collector was upon the art world, and Hamel's seminal gathering of images by Niepce is an achievement in itself. This 50-page book is enhanced by a dozen or so black-and-white plates, including a classic 1844 portrait of Daguerre, that are themselves worth the book's $5 price. So is the amusing epilogue, in which Hamel persuades the Tsar to let him journey to America. Tsar Nicholas shared the view of many Europeans that the Americas were rife with cannibals, and feared that his faithful Hamel would develop a taste for human flesh, if not be devoured himself. Thus, he made Hamel sign a pledge that on his visit to the U.S., "I shall not eat human meat."

TIME STANDS STILL: MUYBRIDGE AND INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY MOVEMENT.

By Phillip Prodger. Published by The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in Association with Oxford University Press. ISBN #0-19-514963-7 (cloth); 0-19-514964-5 (paper). www.oup.com . 310 pages. Price: $38 (paper).

While Talbot and Daguerre were trumpeting photography's invention in 1839, Eadweard Muybridge was barely 10 years old, a native of Kingston-on-Thames, England. In only a few decades though, Muybridge would add his name to the then short list of photography's legends via his images of horses and other animals in motion. Muybridge was not only the first photographer to successfully capture rapid action for analysis; he was also a superb composer of imagery. His legacy, which leads directly to the invention of the motion picture, contains more than the scientific studies for which he is most famous; it also includes wonderful views of sea and city inspired by his immigration to San Francisco in 1855.

The breadth of Muybridge's life and achievements is superbly documented in this catalogue, which accompanies an essential Muybridge exhibition that began at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University and continues through May 16, 2004, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As chronicled by author Phillip Prodger, assistant print, drawing and photograph curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, it was under the patronage of Stanford University's founders, Jane and Leland Stanford, that Muybridge devised a method for photographing episodic physical action using a series of cameras.

Arguably, the Stanfords rescued Muybridge from a strict focus on the landscape photography through which he might never have become rich or famous. In fact, nothing in Muybridge's resume suggested he was the man to photograph horses in motion when Leland Stanford asked him to do so in 1872. The rest, of course, is history, as Muybridge's immortal horse series proved that at a particular moment in the gait of a galloping horse all four hooves leave the ground simultaneously. Proctor cannot prove or disprove the popular notion that Stanford had bet thousands of dollars on the outcome of Muybridge's experiment, but he delves entertainingly into the whole affair.

More to the point, the catalogue and exhibition combine Muybridge's breakthroughs with the range of early attempts at photographing moving subjects. Charles Darwin, for example, commissioned instantaneous photographs, seeking to compare the complex expression of emotions in man and animal. Countless other examples explore the transience of motion, such as George Washington Wilson's stereo albumen prints of a ship's cannon firing a broadside, smoke billowing and dissipating. The visually complicated breaking of waves on beaches, clouds passing below sun or moon, or the blur of a moving crowd are also favorite subjects for more than a few early lensers.

And more famously, there are Thomas Eakins' great nude studies of men walking, running, and coming to a halt that break down the physicality of simple human locomotion in a way that complements Muybridge's breakthroughs. Etienne-Jules Marey's studies of birds in flight are even more precisely configured to graph the geometries of gravity-defying movement, while Ottomar Anchutz's 1887 study of horses jumping hurdles freezes the ineffable moment when a heavy animal form escapes the earth's force field.

Muybridge's plates from his seminal "Animal Locomotion" series remain the prize specimens, though, especially such subtle visual deconstructions as "Movement of the Hand, Lifting a Ball," in which the simple stages of a human grasp become a study in sublime mechanics. Even such grotesquerie as Muybridge's sequence of a grossly obese nude arising from the ground, or of nude men flipping and leap-frogging, seems revelatory in its blend of formal fascination and scientific rigor.

"Time Stands Still" is itself wonderfully rigorous, generous in its descriptions and examples of Muybridge's mechanical innovations, sequential techniques and his zoopraxiscope discs by which animal movement could be viewed as a motion picture. And a thoughtful essay by Tom Gunning explores the myths and realities of Muybridge's reputation as the father of the movies. Nor is the purely personal side of the great man ignored, thanks to a final footnoting essay about "The Larkyns Affair,' in which Muybridge survived the role of a jealousy-maddened husband who shot and killed his wife's lover after learning that he had fathered Muybridge's only child. Acquitted on the grounds of "justifiable homicide," Muybridge stands as a symbol of Wild West justice almost as much as he towers among photography's trailblazers.

INTO THE LIGHT: A JOURNEY THROUGH BUDDHIST ASIA. By Sharon Collins. 2003.Published by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London. ISBN #0-39305736-4. 164 pages. 74 color photographs. Information: http://www.wwnorton.com/ ; http://www.sharoncollinsphoto.com/ . US $29.95. CAN $45.

Arresting compositions, rich color tonalities, all the mystic texture of Buddhist Asia--Sharon Collins's photographs are evocative and admirable on just about any level. When one considers that she took up the camera as a full-time pursuit in 1993, after 13 years as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., this pleasing and beautifully printed book is all the more impressive.

Still, the distance between photography as entertainment and photography as pure art is measured on nearly every page of "Into the Light," which pairs its 74 crisply reproduced images with spiritual homilies from such sources as the Upanishads, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and The Buddha. Collins has an earnest, sensitive, loving eye for the varied locales, shrines, mountain passes and Buddhist people she photographed during a year-long retreat in the remote corners of Asia. But this book is more a coffee-table tome than a serious work, while Collins's images are too often tourist-like and tamely picturesque. They lack the subversive spark, or at least some penetrating sociological vision, that might transform them into classic photography.

Thus, the richly dimensional perspectives of sky, clouds, and Tibetan mountains are the stuff of high-end postcards, while the solitary Asians seen at prayer, or at work in the fields, remind us mainly of other, stronger photographs we've seen before. Collins is, understandably, at a disadvantage, given the rich history of Far East photography and such masters of deeply felt, politically charged, postmodern imagery as Shirin Neshat or Raghubir Singh. By comparison, Collins's delicate and elegant studies are not often much more than pretty.

That said, there's no denying the sheer visual pleasure of her best work. An old Vietnamese woman, seen through barbed wire and against the gunmetal liquid undulations of a river, proves memorable. The abstract waving of fabrics hung up to dry against distant hills and looming clouds is almost Mondrian-like. A little boy floating in muddy water, his head the only visible part of him, is a deceptively simple study in everyday joy. And the sight of elephants journeying through early morning mist is subtly dreamlike.

Yes, Collins at her best is collectible. Then again, collectors may be put off by this book's less than rigorous approach to presenting her work. The titles and locales of the photos do not accompany them on their respective pages but are instead listed on two pages in the back of the book. Technical notes would also make a welcome difference, but at the end of the day, Collins's technique and her potential are at least worth our trouble.

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.)