The Great Showman

This is another of my Christmas presents: The Great Nadar. The Man Behind the Camera. By Adam Begley.

Possibly the greatest photographer of his age Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (brand name Nadar) was a friend of numerous celebrities many of whom he photographed including: Alexandre Dumas , Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Honoré Daumier, Jules Verne, Sarah Bernhardt and scores of others. His portraits are superb – definitely on the same level as other famous portrait photographers e.g. Julia Margaret Cameron; Richard Avedon; Yousuf Karsch; Arnold Newman etc. He was the first to photograph from the air (i.e. from a balloon) and the first to photograph underground (e.g. in the catacombs of Paris).

But Nadar was much more than that. Before he turned to photography he had lived a bohemian life and had become a famous illustrator. He’d also written novels and plays. Later he turned to aeronautics becoming a strong advocate of heavier than air flight and, curiously a renowned baloonist. He flew in one of the largest balloons of the time: and almost died (along with his wife who was also a passenger) when “Le Géant (Giant)” eventually crashed (See: Flight of the Giant).

It’s a great read and is filled with numerous wonderful examples of Nadar’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ansel Adams in Color

One of this year’s Christmas presents.

Ansel Adams is, of course, best known for his stunning black and white landscapes. But he also shot some color that is the subject of this volume. After a foreword and editor’s note comes an interesting and informative: Introduction: Quest for Color by James L. Enyeart. The bulk of the book is taken up by the Portfolio, consisting of 57 color plates. It concludes with a selection of writings on color photography by Adams himself.

Unfortunately I wasn’t too impressed by the portfolio. The photographs didn’t make me want to look at them more than once.

I think part of the problem is that Adams did not really relate too (or even like very much) color photography.

The introductory essay has him saying:

Color photography is a beguiling siren for the dilettante, but a scourge for the professional and serious photographer. So much is done superficially, so many millions of images are seen, that it is difficult, even for the serious worker, to realize how important are constant observations and visualization, in terms of rigorous practice and experiment.

Another quotation indicates that it bothered him that he didn’t have the control he was used to with black and white photography:

Moved by the scene, I tried to visualize a color photograph. The problem was formidable and I am sorry to say, unmanageable…

I am frustrated by both exposure-scale limitations and rigid film-color response. As “reality” is out of the question, I can indulge myself with explorations of the “unreal” color which may or may not have intriguing aesthetic effects. I would not want “post-card” realism, but I would enjoy “enhancements” of the colors which I fear is not possible with conventional material today…The scope of control with the electronic image has not been explored, but I feel confident astonishing developments await us in this area. (written in 1983).

It’s interesting that in the quotation above he predicts the effects that what we would call digital photography would have especially on color photography.

Towards the end of his life there were signs that he was coming to terms with color (from the introductory essay):

He finally resolved in his own mind that color photography could offer potential aesthetic experiences, it could be seen as a means of simulating reality, rather than recording it.

He came to believe that great aesthetic works, those that exceeded the documentary nature of reality, were possible in color, but that they were due either to the special color sensitivity of unique individuals like Cosindas, Porter and others, or to the careful selection and “seeing” of subjects. He placed himself in the latter category and fought to find a way for other photographers and the audience to unlock the nature of a color aesthetic that could control subject matter, rather than being controlled by it.

However, the quotation below shows that in March, 1984 (Just a month before he died) he was still having problems.

I fear I have become a problem! I don’t like photographic color. I don’t like the print of the Aspens. It is not my dish of tea! Wilder did a wonderful job of exhumation. But the whole idea is of increasing concern to me. While I did an awful lot of color when I was professionalizing, I never got anything that aesthetically pleased me. I know a lot about the mechanics – especially exposure and the application of the Zone System. The visual tests I had a Polaroid show that I have an excellent color perception over the full spectrum. I wish I liked it! Hence, while I have much that is going for color I find it increasingly negative for me. My field is B&W and I should stick to it! From a letter to Mary and Jim Alinder, March 9, 1984.

I suspect that these problems led an inability to fully engage with color photography and resulted in somewhat uninteresting photographs – at least on his terms. If I had taken these pictures I would have been more than pleased.

Vivian Maier. A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife

In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard of Vivian Maier this is what Wikipedia has to say about her:

Vivian Dorothy Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer. Maier worked for about forty years as a nanny, mostly in Chicago’s North Shore, pursuing photography during her spare time. She took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime, primarily of the people and architecture of Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, although she also traveled and photographed worldwide.

During her lifetime, Maier’s photographs were unknown and unpublished; many of her negatives were never printed. A Chicago collector, John Maloof, acquired some of Maier’s photos in 2007, while two other Chicago-based collectors, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow, also found some of Maier’s prints and negatives in her boxes and suitcases around the same time. Maier’s photographs were first published on the Internet in July 2008, by Slattery, but the work received little response. In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on the image-sharing website Flickr, and the results went viral, with thousands of people expressing interest. Maier’s work subsequently attracted critical acclaim, and since then, Maier’s photographs have been exhibited around the world.

Her life and work have been the subject of books and documentary films, including the film Finding Vivian Maier (2013), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.

This excellent book (Vivian Maier. A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife by Pamela Bannos) does a terrific job of describing Vivian Maier’s life and work while at the same time covering the more recent events after her death and her increasing fame.

American Witness. The Art and Life of Robert Frank

In earlier posts I’ve noted my difficulties with Robert Frank.

Initially I had some problems with “The Americans“. It seemed to me that it deliberately painted a negative picture of the USA in the 1950s.
Then, after further study I decided that I was wrong and have since become a fan.

So, I thought, the problem must be with Frank, himself. It seemed to me that he was one of these self-absorbed, very “artsy” types who thought being unpleasant was something that they should be allowed because they were special. He was, after all, a part of the beat generation, most of whom displayed these characteristics.

I couldn’t see what was so special about Frank. He’s certainly a first rate photographer, and “The Americans” is possibly the best photobook ever made. But, after that it seemed to me that he didn’t achieve much else. He made movies. I watched one of them and didn’t much care for it. And he eventually returned to still photography but without achieving his earlier fame.

So why is he always placed high on a pedestal, almost god-like. What makes him so much better than other famous photographers e.g. Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Walker Evans etc? I still don’t have an answer to that question.

Then I came across this documentary: Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (2005), which made Frank more human. At times he could be a bit “curmudgeonly”, but he wasn’t the self-obsessed artist that I thought he would be.

So I think I’ve finally come to terms with Robert Frank: a great photographer who produced one of the greatest photographic works of our time. Does he deserve to be up on the pedestal? I’m not convinced that he does. But he didn’t put himself on the pedestal. His acolytes did so I can hardly blame him can I?

To me Frank is definitely high up in the pantheon of great photographers, but he’s not the only one up there and there may be some who are higher.

I’ve read the book twice and can heartily recommend it.

A few Christmas Presents

I got a few photography related books as Christmas presents. They
Andreas Feininger: Photographer by Andreas Feininger (1986-10-03)
Feininger, Andreas.

Arnold Newman
by Philip Brookman, Arnold Newman

A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen. by David Hockney, Martin Gayford

Retro Cameras: The Collector’s Guide to Vintage Film Photography
by John Wade

The Great Nadar: The Man Behind the Camera
by Adam Begley

Absence/Presence: Richard Pousette-Dart as Photographer. by Charles Duncan, Richard Pousette-Dart

Ansel Adams in Color
by Andrea G. Stillman, John P. Schaefer

More on each of them individually as I get around to reading them.