E-Photo
Issue #91  7/17/2005
 
Just in Time For Summer Reading: New Photography Books and Catalogues

By Matt Damsker

AURORA ARGENTINA: GEORGES POULET--CYANOTYPES,

1890-1894, SANTA FE TO TUCUMAN.

Published by Galerie Daniel Blau, Odeonsplatz 12, 80539, Munich, Germany. 259 pages; 102 plates. ISBN No. 3-00-015442-6. Information: Phone: +49 (0) 89-29 74 74; Fax: +49 (0) 89-29 58 48; email: contact@danielblau.com .

Georges Poulet's cyanotypes of the construction of the Santa Fe railroad network in Argentina are evocative curiosities in the photography world. After all, Poulet was not so much a photographer as a French engineer, a builder of roads and bridges, whose commission to set up the Santa Fe Railway Company led to six years of pioneering work, from 1889 to 1895. In that time, he documented the railroad's progress with a rigorous series of cyanotypes, charting a new frontier in the Southern hemisphere, from Santa Fe to San Cristobal, Rosario, and finally Tucuman.

More commonly known as blueprint, cyanotype ranks as the third photo process to be discovered, after the daguerreotype and the talbotype. Invented in 1842 by Sir John Frederick Herschel, the cyanotype is the result of iron salts that leave behind a characteristic blue deposit when rinsed away by water after exposure to light. The relative ease, low cost and practicality of this running-water technique accounted, in part, for its popularity among artists, architects and engineers. Poulet took advantage of this, making contact prints from collodion-glass negatives as he moved along with the construction of the railroad. With its informative essays and full annotation, this book is a fine appreciation of Poulet's achievement.

Poulet's blue chronicle admirably sets its scenes, from the Argentinean ports where railroad supplies arrive to the interior of the rugged country. His images capture crisp details of the railroad trestles and ironwork that begin the industrial transformation, and many of his shots view the railway construction from a distance, over swampy, scrubby expanses. These photos of an undeveloped terrain in the throes of modern change are vital documents, memorializing not only the engineering spectacle but also the humanity behind it, as teams of workers are caught in the act of hauling, hammering, and subduing the rough clay of Argentina.

Railroad tracks, of course, are ideal subjects for photography, affording a receding perspective from the bottom of the frame to a vanishing point on the horizon, and Poulet's instincts in suggesting the infinity of distance were superb. One shot, titled "Canada Vigre" is a masterpiece of such perspective, as the tracks lead our eye to a tiny glimmer of light notched in the dead center of the frame, with a cloudless sky smoothly contrasting the modules of earth, scrub, water, trees and iron that occupy the bottom half of the image.

This was a favorite technique of Poulet, and he worked wonderful variations on it, with groups of workers along the tracks or glimpsed in their makeshift camps by the trackside. The monochromatic blue lends a dreamlike aura to each scene, no matter how mundane some of them are, and the effect is of a landscape that exists only in memory--a primal garden on the verge of irrevocable change. Poulet was certainly sensitive to the upheaval that his engineering project was causing, and his images of Argentina's natives and its natural wonders--giant, serpent-like cacti, or the grassy pampas--reveal a genuine love and comprehension of this wild world.

EDWARD WESTON: A PHOTOGRAPHER'S LOVE OF LIFE.

Published by the Dayton Art Institute for the exhibition of the same name. Organized and with an essay by Dayton Art Institute Director and CEO Alexander Lee Nyerges. 341 pages; 100 plates. ISBN No. 0-937809-27-6 (hard cover); 0-937809-28-4 (soft cover).

From Dayton, Ohio, through stops in Oregon, Nebraska, and currently at The George Eastman House/International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY (where it remains through September 4), this first-rate exhibition of Edward Weston's work celebrates the great photographer at his most accessible. Mounted by the Dayton Art Institute, to which many Westons have been donated by the photographer's great-nephew, Jack Longstreth, the show strives to portray a Weston who reveled in life and the world, as opposed to the more commonly held notion that he was some tortured soul, the stereotypical brooding aesthete.

Dayton Art Institute Director and CEO Alexander Lee Nyerges goes to great lengths to counter that notion in his exhaustive catalogue essay, citing the efforts of Weston's second wife, Charis Wilson, with whom he seemed to find great happiness in California, to set the record straight. Most convincing, perhaps, is John Szarkowski's assertion that Weston's later work illustrates "a new spirit of ease and freedom" rather than a focus on death and decay. Says Szarkowski: "A sense of the rich and open-ended asymmetry of the world enters the works, softening their love of order."

At the end of the day, of course, all this may not matter, for we are left with self-validating art that virtually sets the agenda for fine-art photography. As I have written here before (in a review of Edward Weston: Life Work. Photographs from the Collection of Judith G. Hochberg and Michael P.Mattis, which accompanies another touring Weston show that continues through the start of 2007), Weston was the most seriously devoted practitioner of his century, spurring himself on, decade upon decade, from the small-time beginnings of the his first studio near Los Angeles to world-class stature. Indeed, the mark of Weston's modernism--his austere emphasis on form and tonal perfection over anything rhetorical--established the highest artistic standard for succeeding generations.

Whether he was happy, life affirming, or not, Weston's modernist sensibility was infinitely curious. As much as he focused on ennobling portraits of people and places, including supreme photographs of such icons as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and D.H. Lawrence, his fascination was with the form of the visual world, and he loved to experiment. For example, his 1925 photo of a toilet bowl is a study in curvature and functional perfection, with no trace of irony, that takes its place with his most evocative shots of Oaxacan pottery--jars and jugs clustered together like plump citizens--or his famous 1927 spire of three radishes.

On the whole, the Weston images in the Dayton show are not as iconic as many of the Westons from Hochberg's and Mattis's collection, but they are certainly wonderful. A 1938 shot of 20-Mule Canyon in Death Valley is Weston at his abstract height, as is an image of a garden pepper that seems to anthropomorphically rival Rodin's "The Kiss." And his famed photo of a nude Charis, "Nude on Sand, Oceano," from 1936, is one of his greatest achievements, while the fists of pure rock that he captures in his 1937 photo of the Mojave Desert seem to define Weston's eye for the connections between human and non-human form.

Other images here, such as the tattered façade of a New Orleans plantation house from 1941, or the totemic sides of barns photographed in Ohio and Pennsylvania, are refreshing and startling examples of a less celebrated side of Weston. If anything, the portfolio of 10 color plates that are also included reveal a Weston who, late in life and hampered by Parkinson's disease, had found yet another world to explore. Indeed, Weston's purist association with black-and-white photography may be where his greatness lies, but these color shots are the equal, in their way, of his familiar classics.

Approached by the Eastman Kodak Company to shoot a color series for a promotion of its Ektachrome and Kodachrome transparency films, Weston agreed unhesitatingly, Nyerges tells us. "In color… I had to learn new ways of seeing," Weston said, but it is apparent from these shots that he had little difficulty in applying his aesthetic gift to a color palette.

Inevitably, the natural landscapes of these color photos are warmed and enriched in a way that Weston's austere black-and-white photography eschewed, yet the images are anything but postcard-like. The windblown hill of Point Lobos is a subtle study in Kodachrome tonality, with a patch of blue sky hardly perceptible in the upper right corner. And a color reprise of 20-Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley conveys silver-gold earth tones of otherworldly power. Even the more picturesque shots of cypress trees and nautilus shells are controlled exposures that favor detail and visual richness over any notion of Technicolor dazzle. These remarkable photos give us a Weston who certainly engaged the world on his own artistic terms. Whatever his emotional color, his legacy is beyond debate.

ICONS OF PHOTOGRAPHY: THE 20TH CENTURY.

Edited by Peter Stepan. Paperback; published by Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London, New York; 2005 (hardback version originally published in 1999); ISBN No. 3-7913-3336-4. 200 pages; approximately 100 plates. Prestel Publishing, 900 Broadway, Suite 603, New York, NY 10003; Phone: +1-212-995-2720; fax: +1-212-995-2733. www.prestel.com .

Peter Stepan's lovingly collected volume of iconic modern photography is something of an icon itself, familiar to photo-book browsers and collectors since its hardback debut some six years ago. Reissued now in paperback, it remains an indispensable tome--much more than a coffee-table book, yet in many ways the ultimate coffee-table book, with its crisp reproductions on lustrous paper stock, and its helpful thumbnail biographies and scholarly explications of each photograph.

Stepan's approach is to chronologically present an iconic photo for very nearly each year of the 20th century, and the result is wonderful, stocked with images that define art photography even as they document their days. From Eugene Atget's immortal image of "The Organ Grinder and the Singing Girl," which captures Paris in all its grit and fin-de-siecle innocence, to Martin Parr's garish postmodern glimpse of an English matron in a vulgar dress, her head obscured by a Union Jack at some hopelessly mundane lawn party, these photos are hard to argue with, though any effort at summing up a century of great work invites argument.

For the record, then, the only omission that sticks in my craw is the absence of anything by Ragubir Singh, whose intensely hued landscapes and decisive-moment street shots of his native India are nothing if not iconic in their modernist distance from classical Indian photography. Otherwise, Stepan misses none of the century's masters, over-familiar as some of these choices may seem. Steiglitz's 1907 "Steerage," documenting the class division on an ocean liner, is certainly a breakthrough piece of visual reportage, while Steichen's 1904 portrait of a gloomy Richard Strauss, or Lewis Hine's 1909 line-up of newsboys returning Sunday papers, announce the new century in their own ways.

Soon, we are confronted with such masterworks of fine-art photography as Andre Kertesz's 1928 study of a fork on the edge of a plate, or the surreal eroticism of Walter Peterhans' object arrangement, "Portrait of the Beloved." Ellen Auerbach's scintillating 1930 image of actress Klare Eckstein applying lipstick to herself in a mirror seems to push us through the looking glass, literally, to the era of casual glamor and the stirrings of modern romanticism. These would be codified by Brassai's immortal 1932 shot of lovers in a Paris café, and by Robert Doisneau's 1950 uber-iconic "Kiss in front of the Hotel de Ville, Paris", while the Goya-esqe shock and pity of war is deathlessly documented by Robert Capa's 1936 "Death of a Loyalist Soldier".

These, and others, may be the stars of this collection, but not surprisingly it is often the photos with less flourish that strike us more powerfully. Paul Strand's 1953 portrait of a family in Luzzara, Italy, is absolutely worthy of Rembrandt in its emotional, textural, and tonal range, its six figures--all fathers and sons, with the gray matriarch appraising us proudly from a deeply shadowed doorway--in various states of contemplation and self-consciousness. And then there is Walker Evans' 1936 image of another family, the Depression-era Alabamans whose grime and tatters don't diminish their hardscrabble dignity.

Edward Weston is superbly represented by the extraordinary play of dark and light that define his 1936 sand dunes, "Oceano", while Arnold Newman's 1942 portrait of painter Max Ernst, his head haloed by a swirl of cigarette smoke, while objects and artworks surround him, is painterly in the best sense. And Irving Penn's stunning 1957 portrait of Picasso--his face and head half-hidden by hat and cloak, with that glittering, soul-deep left eye fixing us from the center of the frame--is pure personality as only photography can render it. So is Alberto Korda's shot of Che Guevara--the Cuban revolutionary photographed from slightly below, an image of regal self-possession and perhaps the most widely reproduced, if not the most iconic, photograph in this book. And Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still #78," from 1978, holds its ground very well as a postmodern suggestion of the anxiety of influence that defines pop artistry.

Indeed, such artifacts are more than iconic photographs--they stand as the very emblems of their fleeting eras, as potently, if not as formally, as the greatest history paintings. By resonating so deeply and enduringly, they remind us that the most democratic of our art forms is also the most liberating. Stepan notes in his essay, for example, "Photography has made the names of many women famous--more than any other branch of art." This book certainly does justice to them.

ROGER FENTON: A FAMILY COLLECTION.

Sun Pictures Catalogue 14. 108 pages; ISBN No. 1-892535-16-5. Published by Hans P. Kraus, Jr., Inc., 25 E. 77th St., New York, NY 10021; phone: +1-212-794-2064; fax: +1-212-744-2770; email: info@sunpictures.com .

This catalogue offers a worthy complement to the current touring retrospective "All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton 1852-1860," and its definitive catalogue (see the book review of that catalogue in the 4/13/2005 issue of the newsletter at (http://www.iphotocentral.com/news/article_view.php/93/87/463 ). As that treasure trove of photos details so well, Fenton's significance as a pioneer of photography is all the more remarkable given that he produced such a great body of work in only 10 years, from 1852 to 1863, before he sold his equipment and negatives and returned to the practice of law.

What Fenton achieved in decade was enough for most photographers' lifetimes, of course, as he mastered the most advanced techniques of his day, mainly in Paris, and went on to become not only the most widely exhibited photographer of the mid-1800s, but also a founder of the Royal Photographic Society. Fortunately, and despite his eschewing of photography, he retained some of his original prints for his family. The collection of 100 published in this catalogue represent a special bequeathal to a great-great-grandson of Fenton's brother in the 1960s.

This is an excellent and concise introduction to Fenton, beginning with his classic Russia images, such as the domes of the Kremlin, unforgettably composed in a slant perspective from right foreground to the middle of the frame, with wonderful architectural and urban details of Moscow throughout. Indeed, Fenton achieved strong yet unforced effects with his early work, capturing everything from cottages to monasteries and churches from across bodies of water or against wintry Russian skies. The sense of place is strong, affording early proof of the medium's potential for conveying atmosphere and the texture of reality as well as personal vision.

Fenton's family portraits--of his father, and other family members--are expressive but comparatively prosaic, given their Victorian provenance. But while they enliven this catalogue in their way, nothing compares to the pioneering photography Fenton produced during the Crimean war, including the images of Balaclava and the moonscape battlefield shots that so clearly inspired his eye. By the time of his later work--images of the abbeys, cathedrals, and the idyllic natural landscape of Britain's countryside--Fenton's mastery was evident, though the passion and fire of his eastern sojourn were clearly behind him.

These salt and albumen prints are well reproduced here, and each image is well annotated. The text is by Larry J. Schaf, with an introduction by Roger Taylor, who notes that, a trained artist, Fenton "recognised the way in which light playing across the surface of a subject revealed a deeper, more essential truth, than mere illumination. He also understood the underlying rules of composition and made exposures that harnessed the expressive powers of the collodion process to the full." Perhaps more than anything, the concentrated nature of Fenton's photographic career brought out the best in everything he attempted.

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.)