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.

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.

A New book on Steve McCurry. Steve McCurry: A Life in Pictures

Source: Steve McCurry via Feature Shoot: 40 Years of Remarkable Photos by Steve McCurry

Source: India, 1993 © Steve McCurry via Feature Shoot: 40 Years of Remarkable Photos by Steve McCurry

According to the article:

Bonnie McCurry has shared many long-distance phone calls with her brother Steve without knowing when they’d next speak. She saw him grow up in the wake of their mother’s death, and she remembers things about their childhood he was too young to understand. More than once, as he was busy documenting life on the other side of the world, she worried he’d been killed in the field. Now, Bonnie McCurry helps tell the story of one of the world’s most influential photographers in their new book Steve McCurry: A Life in Pictures, out now by Laurence King.

With words by Bonnie, 350-plus pictures by Steve, and contributions from colleagues and friends, A Life in Pictures spans four decades of work behind the camera. The detailed chapters trace Steve’s journeys around the globe to locations where he’s covered conflict, disaster, and daily life. From war in Afghanistan and Kuwait to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the attacks of 9/11 in Manhattan, McCurry has immortalized some of the most significant events of our time, and Bonnie, now the President of the McCurry Foundation, was there every step of the way, even if they were separated by thousands of miles. This book is about human history, but it’s also about the ties that bind us together.

Flash. The making of Weegee the Famous

When I think of a press photographer from the 1930s/1940s a particular image comes to mind: Huge press camera with equally massive flash; fedora; rumpled coat; possibly a cigar. This particular image was largely created by Usher Fellig – later Arthur Fellig and eventually Weegee.

According to Wikipedia:

Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur (Usher) Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), a photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography. Weegee worked in Manhattan, New York City’s Lower East Side, as a press photographer during the 1930s and 1940s, and he developed his signature style by following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activity. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death. Weegee published photographic books and also worked in cinema, initially making his own short films and later collaborating with film directors such as Jack Donohue and Stanley Kubrick.

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Weegee was certainly a fascinating, if somewhat eccentric character. He was a ruthless self-promoter (hence ‘Weegee the Famous’) who wasn’t afraid to stage a scene if it suited him. For example one of his most famous photographs, The Critic was certainly a setup.

His story is also rather sad. He seemed to badly want to transcend the type of street photography for which he was renowned, but was never able to do so. Towards the end of his life he ended up playing roles in ‘nudie cutie’ exploitation films.

It’s a fascinating story and well worth reading. Should Weegee be included in the pantheon of great photographers? Some of his photographs are certainly remarkable, but I’m not sure that I can really answer this question at the moment.

Flash. The Making of Weegee the Famous. By Christopher Bonanos.