THE FINE ART OF FAMILY. PHOTOGRAPHS BY MONICA RICH KOSANN.
2004. Published by MRK Fine Arts LLC, P.O. Box 478, New Canaan, CT 06840. Information: www.mrkphoto.com. Produced by Marquand Books, Seattle, Washington; $34; 64 pages; ISBN No. 0-9744202-0-4.
This self-published collection of black-and-white photos by New England-based photographer Monica Rich Kosann might seem like a grouping of high-grade Kodak moments if Kosann weren't so obviously attentive to the details of tone and composition that make images more than snapshots. Beyond that, she has a well-honed eye for capturing both the casual and most expressive posturings of children and parents as they do nothing much.
Indeed, privileged leisure may not be the theme here, but Kosann's family-friend subjects--the mostly white upper-middle classes of New Canaan, Connecticut, and thereabouts--are clearly among the most enfranchised people around. The exception is a shot of a young black boy ("Under the Bridge") that occupies the book's center spread like some line of demarcation between Wasp entitlement and urban reality. Seen in close-up from the shoulders up, the boy is positioned in the far-left corner of the frame, with a blurred cityscape backgrounding his somewhat intimidated expression. As a social statement, the photo is compassionate, but in the context of this book, it unfortunately smacks of noblesse oblige.
Out of that context, though, it is a compelling enough image, and the placement of the subject to the far side of the frame suggests a disturbing social distance from the mainstream. Kosann intends this photo to stop us and make us think, midway through all the comforting images of comfortable life. Fair enough, though perhaps it is out of place in a concept that celebrates, mainly, "The Fine Art of Family." Of course, solitary images of children abound, including a portrait of another black child, Lily, who regards us intensely and confidently amidst some lush backyard foliage.
Mainly, though, these are family portraits--of siblings clustered with their parents, their facial resemblances scanning like DNA bar codes; of kids frolicking around the swimming pool, or playing with pets on Adirondack chairs; of golden mothers with their plumply precious babies; of vital dads, crisply elegant matriarchs, and the freshest young faces. The aura of New England homogeneity is strong, as Kosann captures a world where cultural diversity exists primarily on the op-ed pages of the Times. Nonetheless, it is a real world.
BOB NATKIN, PHOTOGRAPHER.
Catalogue published by the Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior St./404, Chicago, Ill. 60610; 48 pages; phone: 1-312-787-335-; www.stephendaitergallery.com.
One of Chicago's most notable homegrown photographers, Bob Natkin (1919-1996) clearly deserved the renewed focus of last year's retrospective of his work at the Stephen Daiter Gallery. Largely self-taught, Natkin was an archetypal urban imagist of the post-World War II era, beginning as an amateur nature photographer, maturing as an Air Force gunner photographer during the war, and returning to civilian life determined to make a living taking pictures.
He did well, quickly progressing from wedding and portrait photography to gritty photojournalism, thanks to commissions that included a 1948 Mexican Tourist Bureau journey intended to promote travel to Mexico. It is hard to say how well his photos functioned on that count, because they explore the sun-baked details of Mexican life with a journalist's cool eye, rarely romanticizing their subjects. Thus, images of a child and an old woman gazing enigmatically in a dusty courtyard in Cuilapan, or of melancholy faces glimpsed in affecting close up, or of tribal Oaxacan dancers in feathered costumes, amount to sensitive reportage more so than promotional shots.
Obviously, Natkin sought to capture needle-sharp detail and documentary realism in his black-and-white images, most of them candids shot in available-light. The photos of peasant Mexicans waiting patiently at a bus station, or the put-upon worker toting crates in Mexico City, his hawk-like facial features seizing the lens in wary surprise, are works that convey, time, place, and texture with great skill and confidence. Natkin brought that skill and compassion to his Chicago Housing Authority shots of 1948-1953, detailing the human dignity that flourished against all odds in the slum housing of the inner city. Shots of a young boy standing defiantly against a ravaged staircase wall, or of a mother, undefeated, raising her two children in a crowded yet clean room, are powerful and brave photographs.
So are the photos taken at the city's Narcotics Court in the early 1950s, chronicling the shame, fear, and humanity of a young woman from her arrest through her trial and imprisonment for a drug violation. Natkin's photos tell their stories with the directness and punch of a Hemingway, and even when he covers big events, such as the Republican National Convention of 1952, he captures his subjects intimately, yet never seems to violate them. Convention delegates are discovered in moments of repose, or boredom, or in well-focused moments of dutiful celebration, and we can sense both the weariness and optimism of that post-war era.
Natkin's pop-cultural images from the '50s are more curiosities than anything else, especially his shots of such early TV stars as Kukla, Fran and Ollie, or Dave Garroway. But an image of the great boxer Ezzard Charles, seen inside the ring, his fist-weathered face an image of black strength and challenge, is a classic. And a shot of women in fur coats and high heels standing outside the Marshall Field department store is a hymn to Chicago prosperity. As this catalogue reveals, in an essay by Tim Samuelson of Chicago's cultural affairs department, Natkin led an interesting, freewheeling life, turning away from photography for 15 years to earn a living in the construction business. But when he took up the camera again, as the Chicago Bulls' official lensman, or to document the inner city once again, or to contribute to such magazines as Ebony and Sepia, he hadn't lost his touch.
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.
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