E-Photo
Issue #85  2/3/2005
 
Photography Books and Catalogues

By Matt Damsker

JAROSLAV ROSSLER: CZECH AVANT-GARDE PHOTOGRAPHER.

Edited by Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. 2004; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, England. 164 pages; 134 plates. $35.00. Library of Congress Control No. 2003113824; ISBN No. 0-262-02557-4. Web site: http://mitpress.mit.edu .

As Vladimir Birgus notes in this rigorous study of Czech photographer Jaroslav Rossler, "the most important part of his work, the part for which he is ranked among the leading figures of avant-garde photography between the two world wars, comes from a period of roughly fifteen years." Indeed, Rossler was devoted to the medium for nearly 70 years, but his most compelling and influential work--absorbing Futurism, Constructivism, and abstraction in bold yet harmonious images--was made between 1919 and 1935.

In fact, 1919's "Opus 1," which begins this generously annotated portfolio of his work, is Rossler's first great photograph, an austere, shadowy study of a jar of film chemical placed in a kind of film-noir relation to two triangular shards of paper against a dark corner. The image has depth and quiet drama, evoking mystery and formal elegance. It's a muted trumpet blast of modernism that sets the tone for Rossler's evolution.

In the 1920s, his experimental energies took wing, of course, ranging from nude self-portraiture to images combining photos and his own charcoal drawings, with their echoes of Cezanne and the expressionism of Munch and even Fritz Lang. As the 20s roared on, Rossler delivered haunting black-and-white prints, exploring the geometry of everything from vacuum tubes to splintered views of towers in Prague. All along, Rossler loved collage, and under the influence of Schwitters and others, he brought his balanced, nuanced eye to drawing various industrial and commercial images.

His photo-collages are very much his own, though, as in a 1926 collaged assembly of Parisian street signs and awnings that has the look of a true Futurist machine ("Paris, NORD – SUD"). Simpler yet no less effective, his 1932 close up of locomotive wheels has all the gravitas of iron and night, its perspective of spoke and sphere receding gracefully toward the left of the frame. At his most avant-garde, in stark photograms of matches and smoke, paper clips and shadows, he suggests Man Ray yet maintains his signature irony-free touch.

In the 1930s, Rossler produced numerous advertising photographs for products as mundane as tooth powder, soap, aspirin, as well as perfume. He delivered unique photomontages in which the various products were presented in negative image, or in relation to ghostly double exposures, or in surreal juxtapositions. They impart a strange, totemic life to these commercial objects, though it's hard to say how well Rossler's artistry helped to sell them. Now, they have the look of Duchampian relics, presaging Warhol in their cool depiction of brands and logos.

The book closes with a selection of Rossler's color work, such as a fine 1936-37 image of a beaded necklace, a ceramic ashtray, and some numbered wooden game tokens on a field of knit fabric and cotton. The formal, unfussy beauty of the piece seems utterly contemporary. Long past his avant-garde heyday, in the 1960s and 70s, Rossler pushed further, with violently abstracted colored transparencies that connect him to Lucas Samaras, perhaps, but have little to do with the taut, groundbreaking accomplishments of his early modernism.

(Editor's note: we had reviewed this book earlier, but before it had been translated into English.)

EXPOSING ASIA: TRAVEL AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. Catalogue published by Shapero Gallery, 24 Bruton St., London W1J 6QQ, United Kingdom. Phone: +44 (0)207-491-0330; Email: gallery@shapero.com .

From single albumen prints to collections of hand-colored Japanese images, rare Chinese and Himalayan vistas, botanical prints from Ceylon, world tour and single-country albums, this catalogue offers photographic riches that connect us with the medium's earliest triumphs as a means of documenting travel. Thus, the albums of Egyptian views by Pascal Sebah, or the albumen prints of Arab men and women by Felix Bonfils, contain worlds of detail and archetypes that define the mystery of the East.

Here also is Francis Frith's 20-image "Mammoth Series" of Near East photography, probably the largest photo-illustrated book ever printed (according to Gernsheim's 1988 "History of Photography"), with 15-by-19 inch prints of such ruins as the Temple of El-Karnak and the Statues of the Theban plains. Images from The Holy Land, Turkey, and the Crimea are in abundance as well, along with a selection of Samuel Bourne's classic views of India and the Himalayas, and those of Felice Beato (no fewer than 11 Taj Mahal views, golden-toned and finely defined).

Many of the hand-colored Japanese photographs are by, or attributed to, Kimbei Kusakabe, circa 1880. Though the catalogue depicts most of these in near postage-stamp size, they are magnificent examples of the subtle tonalities and elegant formal composition of Japanese portraiture. Similarly, the images and albums from China, Singapore, and various world tours capture the exoticism of Asia with vivid views and a sense of scale that puts the viewer very much in the landscapes, as close to a Time Machine as we will ever come.

OLD JAPAN. OLD & RARE PHOTOGRAPHS. CATALOGUE NO. 32.

Available from Old Japan, P.O. Box 1044, Purley, Surrey, CR8 3ZY, United Kingdom. Phone: +44 (0) 797 0891003; Email: terry.bennett@ukonline.co.uk ; Web site: www.old-japan.co.uk .

This catalogue provides a broad selection of Japanese photography available from the United Kingdom's Terry Bennett, including daguerreotypes, stereographs, lantern slides, album prints, and collotypes. The images capture Japan's feudal society in myriad ways--from historic groupings of samurai by Nadar, part of the 1862 and 1864 Japan embassies to Europe, to a comprehensive portfolio of 178 photos documenting the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95.

In between are wonderful curiosities, including hand-colored original albumen prints of geishas from the 1890s. In formal and casual poses, these young women are demurely alive to us with all the grace notes of pastel accents sensitively painted on the images of their traditional costume. Likewise, the samplings from a collection of some 1,000 original stereo photographs, including those from Yokohma photographer T. Enami in the early 1900s, are rich with color and visual interest, depicting temples, scenes from the Kyoto World Exposition, and street life.

From a purely documentarian standpoint, the images of damaged buildings, bridges, and fissures resulting from the Great Earthquake of 1891 are interesting. Several Japanese photographers in the Akai district took exceptional shots of ravaged landscapes, and they provide strong historical evidence, in sepiatone. Other images, including a panoramic vista of Kobe, with its agrarian fields in the foreground and the harbor in the misty beyond, are striking and evocative. And a hand-colored street scene from the late 1800s in Yokohama, of a carriage and its puller waiting outside a building on a nearly deserted street, is a sensationally composed image, with its long receding sight line and textural details.

Formal portraits of courtesans and group shots taken at Japanese brothels are also here, including one large hand-colored image of the Shimpuro brothel, at "Nectarine No. 9" in Yokohama, depicting the working girls arrayed cheerfully on the second floor veranda, while the male staff glares at the camera at the first-floor entrance. There are also famous and familiar photos of Emperor Hirohito seated on a horse, and a rare photo of Emperor Yoshihito, who reigned from 1912-1926. All in all, this is a catalogue that is as compelling to browse through, as its wares would be compelling to own.

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.)