E-Photo
Issue #82  12/10/2004
 
New Photography Books Reviewed

By Matt Damsker

UNDER ONE SKY. By Margo Davis. Foreword by Margaretta K. Mitchell. Published 2004 by Stanford General Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press. 94 pages; 60 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 0-8047-4266-9; clothbound. Price: $65.00. Web site: http://www.sup.org .

Straightforward and sensitive to the range of the human condition, Margo Davis's black-and-white portraits have been a mainstay of American photography for decades. A former teacher at the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshops(back when she was Margo Baumgarten), Davis' images capture their subjects unsentimentally yet with palpable affection and an emphasis on place and context.

This volume collects 40 years of her best work, with 60 superbly reproduced plates. The result is an exceptional sharpness of detail and richness of tonality to rival the originals. Indeed, it does not get any better than Davis' 2001 image of a contemplative Buddhist monk at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, his dark eyes addressing the camera and the Great Beyond all at the same time. Just as timeless is a 1970 photo of the Reverend George A. Weston in Antigua, who looks out at us from his sparely furnished surroundings with a sage serenity and from behind a white beard that gives him the look of a black Moses.

Clearly, Davis wins the trust of her subjects, which seems to impart to them a relaxed and hope-borne facing toward the camera. Where the portraiture of Arbus or Avedon often located disjuncture, alienation, or anxiety, Davis' captures a common humanity, but never a saccharine one. A Nigerian Muslim holding his baby grandchild is an image of paternal pride and love that transcends its moment, just as poor Antiguan children carrying boxes of mangoes on their heads have the mischievous look of children in any schoolyard. Likewise, a sugar-cane worker in the West Indies of 1970, or a Tahitian rower wearing a militant Islamic wrap on his head in 2001, with fierce tattooing on his breast, shoulder, and arm, signal a universal quality of male pride and the dream of some better life.

As for the many images of women--whether the youthful beauty of a Nigerian Faluni girl looking off to the side with great self-possession, or the elderly Hungarian "Aunt Justica" amid the rustic wood and corn cobs of her pig farm--they covey poise and purpose in myriad ways. And Japanese girls dressed for a tea ceremony are icons of youth connecting comfortably with ancient tradition.

Davis does not often push for a virtuoso effect--most of her images capture people at mid-range, in the context of their real lives and surroundings. But when she strives for something special, she pulls it off unaffectedly, as in her beautiful portrait of a dark California girl, Anika, seen close up with her thick curly hair seeming to wave in the wind. Davis writes that she actually took the shot from above while the girl was lying on black cloth with her hair spread to the side. The photo's controlled suggestion of night and wind is nothing less than masterful, and totally unpretentious. In fact, the image serves well as the book's cover photo, a perfect emblem of Margo Davis' sharp focus on the global variety of Truth and Beauty.

NO HAIR DAY. A COLLABORATION BY ELSA DORFMAN.

Published by www.elsa.photo.net ; 2003. ISBN No. 0-9668665-0-9. Available from http://www.elsa.photo.net , 607 Franklin St., Cambridge, MA 02139-2923; Phone: (617) 876-6416; fax: (617) 492-4925; email: elsad@theworld.com . Price: $15.00 More information: http://www.nohairday.com .

A cheerful and irreverent stare-down of cancer and its impact on the female body, "No Hair Day" is photographer Elsa Dorfman's unique collaboration with three women--Debbie Dorsey, Libby Levinson, and Carol Potoff--whose struggle with breast cancer marks them but does not define them. Shot in Cambridge, MA, on the large-format Polaroid camera, Dorfman's project results in a series of somewhat theatrical yet lighthanded images that present these three women as sexy and vividly alive despite their disease.

Bald heads, wigs, reconstructed breasts--the byproducts of chemo, radiation and trauma are the props of Dorfman's photos, along with the colorfully stylish clothing that these middle-aged women wear so well. Indeed, they wear their burden exceptionally well, and Dorfman's images capture a lot of genuine camaraderie, high humor, defiant spirit, and sheer will in her group and solo portraits. Whether eating pizza together in one shot, or posing in evening wear, or standing half-naked in sisterly solidarity, Dorsey, Levinson and Potoff exude confidence and charm.

Sure, it can be disturbing to confront a bald Debbie Dorsey standing in a hospital gown, holding three huge syringes filled with red chemotherapeutic liquid, but her cocksure expression and the tilt of her hip tells us all we need to know. She is an Athena of the Antibodies, about to do battle. Similarly, Libby Levinson stands tall, radiating joy and a positive outlook, in a black business suit that suggests she's ready for "someone else's" funeral. And Carol Potoff smiles so broadly and so warmly most of the time that Dorfman's camera often nails her with her eyes squeezed shut.

"No Hair Day" gives a lot of fresh life to the documentary power of the large-format Polaroid, which increasingly takes a back seat these days to the emergence of digital photography. Dorfman reminds us how affecting these big, robust prints can be, with their rich depth-of-field, their subtle color values and their old-time studio atmosphere. Thanks in large part to the fun of Polaroid photography, "No Hair Day" is a genuine life celebration that assiduously avoids the cloying, the mawkish, the pitying, and instead delivers character and some dark comedy. The project was even filmed by Boston filmmaker Bob Burns--whose movie stills are included in this book--and has been shown on Boston public television. It is also part of the Breast Cancer Media Project. And while, sadly, Carol Potoff succumbed to cancer two years ago--her death is noted in the book's coda--thanks to Dorfman she will remain a vivid inspiration.

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.)