E-Photo
Issue #88  5/3/2005
 
New Books and Catalogues

By Matt Damsker

ANONYMOUS: ENIGMATIC IMAGES FROM UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHERS.

Collected by Robert Flynn Johnson; foreword by William Boyd. Published by Thames & Hudson Inc., 500 Fifth Ave., New York; 2004; $45 U.S., $68 Canada. 208 pages; 220 photographs. ISBN No. 0-500-549209. Information: http://www.thamesandhudson.com .

It is almost a given that a great collection of anonymous, or "found," photography will haunt us in a way that photos with a full-fledged provenance often fail to do. Ripped from factual or historical context, anonymous photos epitomize the mystery of real moments, suggesting far more than they can every fully explain, leaving us with a poignant sense of reality's ephemeral nature. And this collection, by Robert Flynn Johnson--curator of the Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco--is certainly a great one, not only beautifully presented but superbly organized as well, giving thematic order to images that might otherwise swirl randomly through photographic history.

As a collector and scholar, of course, Johnson's eye is keenly attuned to the qualities that make for a fine photograph--tonal, compositional, formal, and temperamental. Many of the more than 200 images here are as remarkable as any number of classic photographs. Again and again they prove that photography remains the most democratic art form, endowing even the humblest snapshooter with the potential to capture a moment--even accidentally--that will live forever and may move us with the power of a great artwork.

Thus, Johnson's sectional approach, beginning with "Land, Sea and Sky," collects some wonderful ephemera, from the serenely picturesque--a rowboat glimpsed from afar, across a lake at sunset, beautifully and subtly occupying the center of the frame--to startling images of the moon behind clouds, or geese in their chevron flight against the moon; of lightning electrifying the night; of lava sparking from a volcano's crater; and, most powerfully, a panoramic image of a 19th-century crowd on a hill, witnessing the smoke and flame of a city on fire (Is this Chicago? San Francisco?). The sheer scale of this print is overwhelming; it is a masterpiece of documentary photography.

More intimate, of course, is everything else in this book. The section on "Beginnings" captures childhood in a plethora of ways, all compelling. A baby cradled against a mirror, twinned in the reflecting glass, with the image of the photographer and, presumably, the mother visible in the mirror, becomes something almost worthy of Velazquez's "Las Meninas," that painterly Bible of multiple visual referencing. Less ambitious but no less expressive are strange period images of children costumed as bride and groom, or smoking cigarettes, or of two white girls cradling blackfaced baby dolls. And the shot of Nazi storm troopers holding the hands of their two young children, identically dressed in miniature storm trooper outfits, is a dark wonder.

Just as fascinating: "Maturity," shots of men and women that reflect a range of adult choices and tensions. A formally dressed woman in a platinum wig stares at us, arms folded across the back of a chair, an odd floral wallpaper behind her--paging Cindy Sherman! And who are these women clustered so collegially together, wearing city clothes from the 1930s, their faces half-hidden by surgical masks? And what of this photo of a woman replacing the inner tube of a bicycle tire, a neatly crafted study in physical angularity and circular geometry?

In "Eros," Johnson brings us anonymous erotic photography, from the comically titillating--two women baring their buttocks for us, and holding their garter belts high over their heads--to formal nude portraits and fetishistic studies of female genitalia. These images tend to reek of amateurism, but the sexually charged nature of the work assures some interest. And one shot, of a nude man and woman tangled in bed, while the shadows cast above the bed by Venetian blinds provide a noir-ish atmosphere, is a formal and tonal delight, despite the posed melodrama of the whole thing.

Johnson closes out his overview with "Endings and Infamy," which collects a number of morbid images, from the formal baby-in-coffin portraits that were all the rage in the Victorian era to documentary photos of executions. One shot of a decapitation, presumably in a public square in Japan, is stunning. The head has just hit the ground, plopping chin-first with all the indelicacy of gravitational fact, while blood spurts ferociously from the headless torso and the Samurai executioner follows through with ritual dignity, his sword bloodstained. Whoever took this photo had a feel for the decisive moment to match the most darkly voyeuristic impulse--just as whoever took the wonderful, life-affirming photo of 19th-century pedestrians rushing across a Parisian street in the rain, their umbrellas tilting forward, their feet blurred in motion, was channeling the best of Lartigue or Cartier-Bresson. Enigmatic they may be, but in the end these images are all about the visual certainty and personal stamp that only the camera can bring to history. "This was here," these photos seem to say, "and so was I."

JOCK STURGES: TWENTY-FIVE YEARS.

Edited with preface by Paul Cava. 25 plates, available as 8-by-10-inch gelatin silver prints, signed and numbered in editions of 25. Published by Paul Cava Fine Art, 35 Union Ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004. ISBN No. 0-9707966-1-7. Phone: 1-610-664-3348; email: pcava@paulcava.com ; Web site: http://www.paulcava.com .

Jock Sturges' beautiful nudes--young girls captured as they move from childhood toward maidenhood and beyond--may stand as metaphors for innocence and experience, though at best they are paragons of black-and-white artistry, their bodies at rest in a play of natural light. The work suggests a rhetoric of nymphets in Eden, along with a certain Maxfield Parrish utopianism, but Sturges is a realist, looking for the power of character and personhood within his stunningly lean and healthy subjects.

The 25 plates in this catalogue are fine reproductions of the gelatin silver prints offered by Paul Cava Fine Art, and each photo casts an individual glow. Sturges' subjects are part of his and his wife Maia's extended family and friends, photographed in settings of rustic privilege in Northern California, France, or Italy--often at the beach, in or on the water. The aura of a private world and languid summer days pervades, with nudity a casual extension of all that. Thus, the 1989 image of Marine, long-limbed and at ease with her adolescent perfection, is a study as much in unassuming intelligence as in beauty.

The older, wiser Minna, however, posed protectively above her sleeping dog in Point Reyes, CA, is an image of stunning beauty ready for the world, her flawless face and nubile body utterly self-possessed. Other images, such as a barely pubescent Misty Dawn hanging tough, her arms upraised to grab a line of rope, her head turned slightly, epitomize, in Sturges' own accompanying text, "a newly arisen self-knowledge and wariness in the world."

Indeed, the theme of awakening--to sexuality, the predatory world, mortality--is implicit yet unforced in these photos. Bettina, seen with her eyes closed and arms slightly outstretched, receptive to sensation in a field of sunlight, is a pure image of trust and vulnerability, while Cecile, seen in profile, her arms protectively crossed on her torso, is contemplative and demure. And the image of a 17-year-old Fanny, a dark, intense-eyed goddess grown into the curves of a woman, is remarkable--she poses stretched out on her right side, eyeing us tentatively, richly complicated in her gaze, while her little sisters laze in the background, as if to suggest the childhood world Fanny has left behind.

Sturges acknowledges that he prefers to crop his photos to avoid such narrative density, relying on the sitters' force of personality and little else, but in a few of his shots the implicit stories are wonderful. An image of the Dutch sisters Lotte and Nikki on the beach with their beautiful mother, Vera, is a generational archetype, as the younger sister cleaves to the still-strong mother while the older sister stands tall and looks away, independently. At the center, Vera gazes at the camera with all the worldly-wise power and rue of mature womanhood.

If anything, Sturges' photos--utterly contemporary as they are--may seem like relics of a less sensitive time, a time before the Internet age, when the disturbing realities of child pornography and celebrity pedophilia seemed less pervasive. In fact, Sturges was bought up on charges--then cleared of them--that he violated U.S. pornography laws in the early 1990s. By now, it is hard to look at Sturges' shots of pubescent girls and not wonder about their propriety--but, as has been said, good taste and propriety are the enemies of art. Sturges is certainly an artist, and Beauty, nothing less, is his Truth.

ADAM CLARK VROMAN: PLATINUM PRINTS 1895-1904.

Co-published by the Michael Dawson Gallery, 535 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90004; phone: 1-323-469-2186; fax: 1-323-469-9553; http://www.michaeldawsongallery.com ; and the Andrew Smith Gallery, Inc., 203 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501; phone: 1-505-984-1234; fax: 1-505-983-2428; http://www.andrewsmithgallery.com . 80 pages; 47 plates. ISBN No. 087093-284-5.

The first publication of full-color reproductions made from Adam Clark Vroman's original presentation prints, this catalogue affords a rich and generous overview of Vroman's life, work, and travels. As much a bookman as a photographer, Vroman assembled classic albums of his work, which surveyed the American southwest, its splendid panoramas of desert, butte, and sky, along with its native population.

In his essay, Andrew Smith notes that Vroman was one of America's first photographic modernists, straddling the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating straight-on, unaffected images in the platinum-print process. Printing on the then-new black, gray and white platinum papers decades before other modernists, Vroman anticipated Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. No, he didn't have their eye for form or for nature's drama, but he pointed the way well enough, and made excellent use of the platinum process to coax richer tones and effects than before.

This is clearly evident in the matching illustrations of the same photo, "An Arizona Sky and Twin Buttes," one a gold-tone silver collodion print, the other a platinum print. Remarkably, the platinum version reveals a variegation of cloud tonalities that imparts tremendous depth, presence, and majesty to the photo, transforming an average silver collodion image into something stunningly new. This is evident throughout the catalogue, as images--especially those cloud formations--billow into the frame and shimmer with detail. Vroman liked to capture the solitary glory of mesas and buttes from either a middle distance or in long, low horizon shots that allow the perspective of those muscular clouds to span overhead almost dizzyingly.

In close-ups of sandstone cliffs, caves, and Navajo dwellings, Vroman shoots his subjects in a way that emphasizes their lunar, almost alien, aridity, especially in shots of the Petrified Forest and Arizona's Canon de Chelly. An 1899 image of the Petrified Forest's astonishing "Eagle Rock," a formation that towers like a Greek winged Mercury, sculpted from millennia of wind and sun, suggests the temple ruins of some interstellar god. And the images of well-dressed hikers arrayed around the great boulders and steep trails of Acoma illustrates how small and affected man can seem against such cosmic objects.

That may not have been Vroman's intention, of course. He was a geographic as well as photographic pioneer, and his images carry straightforward documentary weight. The frontality of his portraits of Navajo elders, chieftains, families, and even his self-portraits are meant to freeze some vanishing humanity, and so they stand as precursors to, or even inspirations for, Richard Avedon's great American West portraiture. But Vroman was an unselfconscious modernist--not entirely without irony, but never seeking to impose artistic vision on his subject matter, which spoke most powerfully for itself. Importantly, this catalogue contains an extensive bibliography, a detailed checklist of the plates, fine biographical essays by Smith and Jennifer A. Watts, and generous selections from Vroman's travel diaries of 1895 and 1897, in which he chronicles the places, people, and peculiarities of his journeys toward a new frontier.

INDIA AFTER THE MUTINY: TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY FROM INDIA AND SRI LANKA

1857-1900.

Published by Shapero Gallery, 32 Saint George St., London, W1S 2EA; phone: +44 101 20 7493 0876; fax: +4 101 20 7229 7860; http://www.shapero.com ; email inquiries: Roland Belgrave at roland@shapero.com . 96 pages.

The sheer volume of 19th-century photography out of India never fails to overwhelm, and so this third photographic catalogue from London's Shapero Gallery narrows the main field of vision to two important names: Dr. John Murray, who photographed as an employee of the East India Company; and Raja Lala Deen Dayal, an Indian photographer. Also included is a small section of mixed albums, a few single prints by well-known names such as Henry Dixon and Bourne and Shepherd, plus an important set of 129 albumen prints by Felice Beato.

With so much to offer, the small, 6-by-8-inch catalogue must display many of its treasures in postage-stamp scale, so myriad details are hard to detect. What matters most, though, is that the images are among the rarest examples of early Indian photography, especially Murray's large-format albumen prints and waxed paper negatives. Murray had few peers in capturing the architectural details of Mughal architecture and other mythic sites, from Akbar's tomb in Sikandra to the Taj Mahal. These prints and negatives are varied in subject matter and condition, which allows for pricing from several hundred to several thousand pounds, while the captions and information alongside each work are fully descriptive.

As for the work of Dayal, it represents pioneering native Indian photography at its best (and after Dr. Murray had returned to Britain). Dayal had tremendous access to royal subjects, to Hindu and Buddhist temples, and he captured them with real flair and fresh vision. Dayal's landscapes and interiors radiate creativity and love of country, capturing details and perspectives that are endlessly interesting--such as the filigreed "Scale of Justice" motif of a window casing within the Khass Mahal, as the light pours in from the window on the other side of the interior.

These brilliant examples, along with the other known and unknown photographer works contained in the catalogue, provide a rich trove for any collector to conjure with. As for the set of albumen prints by Felice Beato, they represent one of the great war documentations of India's most troubled century. Beato was an Italian-born photographer who captured the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny, a failed rebellion against British rule in 1857-58. Begun by Indian troops (or sepoys) in the service of the British East India Company, the mutiny spread across the subcontinent before British troops put a bloody stop to a sequence of massacres, and is increasingly described in India as its First War of Independence.

Beato broke ground with this series, pioneering the depiction of corpses on a battlefield, and vividly capturing the desolation of a brief war that flared amidst India's great architecture and pastoral splendor. This collection of Beato's masterworks includes six panoramas, one three-part, and five two-part images. It is hard to say how much Beato's documentary efforts may have contributed to Britain's reassessment of its role in India's destiny, but these photos--along with Murray's and Dayal's--certainly played a major role in defining and redefining the Jewel in the Crown.

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.)