Sunday, March 6, 2011

Looking at Photographs

“Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else.”
Mark Twain

I love looking at photographs and have been fascinated by all kinds of images since I can remember.  Holding a print in your hand or seeing one in a quiet gallery may be the best viewing experiences but it’s not always possible to do those things. Over the years I’ve collected a number of photography books to feed my hunger for images. While books may not be the ideal way to view a photo they are certainly optimal for leisurely perusing, reviewing, understanding, learning, examining in detail lots of images. In a book  you may not get the privilege of seeing the vintage Robert Frank print right in front of your eyes but you don’t have to travel 250 miles or more, burn gallons of expensive fossil fuels, pay bridge and tunnel tolls, (don’t forget parking fees!) then wait on long lines to pay your museum admission just to get elbowed by the hundreds of other gallery gawkers like yourself who are jostling for just the right viewing angle in front of Parade-Hoboken, New Jersey and Trolley-New Orleans.  If you go to the exhibition you should also buy the companion book. Going to the exhibit and buying the companion publication is the best of both worlds. Take the memories and  photos home and browse at your leisure. Sometimes you should even read the essays in the exhibition book, obtuse as they often are…but that’s another blog post.

I found a wonderful book from the Phaidon Press the other day. First published in 1997, it’s simply called “The Photo Book.” I can assure you there will never be a single gallery show that encompasses all the images in this remarkable publication. With 500 images from as many photographers, a little over 500 pages and weighing in at over five pounds this is a serious photographic tome. It spans the history of the medium from the earliest daguerreotypes through the mid 1990’s. There are many dramatic, iconic images like Eddie Adams’ Street Execution of a Vietcong Prisoner and Ansel Adams’ Moonrise-Hernandez, New Mexico. There are also many others, less well known but equally compelling. The range of images of all kinds from all eras and genres is astounding, from straight photojournalism to conceptual art, to fashion, portraits, landscapes and others. There is precious little written about each photo (which is just fine with me) but included is just enough good data about each photographer and the date of the photo.

What I found most interesting is the fact that the photos are arranged, not chronologically or by themes the editors have invented, but in alphabetical order by the photographer’s last name. This makes for some strange, wonderful and thought provoking page spreads. We see Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell from 1956 opposite Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Industrial Facade #23 from 1980.  Makes one think about the nature of a “façade.”  Brothers Cornell Capa and Robert Capa share a page spread. Cornell’s image is Bolshoi Ballet School, Moscow. Three graceful dancers in flowing costumes practice at the barre. The Robert Capa image is Death of a Loyalist Soldier from the Spanish civil war, arguably one of the most recognizable war photographs of the 20th Century. There is a tragic grace in this soldier’s sudden death as he stretches, falling to the ground on the Cordoba Front. 

Graphical themes often flow wonderfully. We find Fredrick Evans A Sea of Steps flowing into an obscure Walker Evans photo of the back porch of an Alabama clapboard farm house. There is humor as well.  Let’s not forget Weegee’s The Critic opposite a William Wegman Weimaraner wearing swim fins and fake eye balls. There is something for nearly everyone here and well worth the price of admission. No crowds or elbows to the ribs, no tunnel tolls, no parking charges. You can enjoy a nice glass of Chianti while you study photographic history in your favorite easy chair.

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