The Europeans

I’m a huge fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson. So it’s somewhat surprising that until recently I had only one, very small, very thin and not very thorough book on or by him.

So when I was compiling my Christmas Amazon wishlist (the best way for my family to buy me gifts that I actually want) I included a couple of books about him. This is the first. It’s called “Europeans” and in his introduction, Jean Clair states:

In 1955 a collection of photographs called Les Européens was published. It was conceived and designed by Tériade, with a jacket by Jen Miró. Henri Cartier-Bresson had worked on it for five years, a short period if one considers that the celebrated photographs in Images à la Sauvette (1952, published in English as The Decisive Moment) were selected from work spanning twenty years. The book offered a closely woven portrait of Europe after the war: accumulated ruins and the marks of hunger and woe on people’s faces still appearing very clearly.

After that it was all downhill for the introduction as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know who Mr. Clair was so I looked him up. He’s described as follows:

Jean Clair is the pen name of Gérard Régnier (born 20 October 1940 in Paris, France). Clair is an essayist, a polemicist, an art historian, an art conservator, and a member of the Académie française since May, 2008. He was, for many years, the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris. Among the milestones of his long and productive career is a comprehensive catalog of the works of Balthus. He was also the director of the Venice Biennale in 1995.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by what followed in the introduction: lots of big, arcane words and tortured sentences. The following is fairly typical:

Now, as a wizard of speed, he needed a certain lightness of touch, something airy, mercurial. Hermes, god of commerce and thieves, could well be the god of photographers. With quicksilver as the escutcheon of his equipment, this disciple of hermetic knowledge, borrowing the the powers of the god with winged hat and shoes, sets out to purloin the the fulgurating moment at the crossroads of appearances and to conserve something of Mercury’s spark.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t relate well to this kind of “criticspeak”. When I was in university many years ago I had to read a book by Messrs. René Wellek and Austin Warren. I can’t remember the title (I’ve probably blotted it out) but it was something to do with principles of literary criticism. Their best know work seems to be Theory of Literature, but that title doesn’t ring any bells. Anyway I read that book from cover to cover and after I finished it I found that I couldn’t remember a single thing. Still, I remember thinking that the book must have been important or why would they have made us read it. So I read it again with the same result. Maybe now I’m older I should read it again. Who knows – third time lucky.

But on to the pictures. They are of course remarkable, for the most part. We’re so used to seeing Cartier-Bresson’s masterpieces that it’s easy to forget that not all of his pictures fall into that class. Of the 200 or so pictures I only really liked about 43.

Unfortunately, it’s not immediately obvious how the photographs are organized. There’s no table of contents and at first I thought that the pictures were randomly organized. However, after a bit of study I realized that they are in fact organized by country, but that the order of the countries is not alphabetical. Rather it goes as follows (with the number of photographs for each country in parentheses): France (36); Portugal (7); Spain (18); Italy (20); Switzerland (5); Yugoslavia (5); Greece (6); Turkey (5); Romania (4); Hungary (3); Austria (3); Germany (16); Belgium (1); Netherlands (3); Poland (6); USSR (17); Sweden (3); Denmark (1); UK (13); Ireland (10).

Still despite the minor criticisms I really enjoyed the book.

Now on to the second book: Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Modern Century , but first I have to figure out how to read it comfortably. It’s longer, bigger and heavier that the above book.

On Street Photography and the Poetic Image

I’ve had this book by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on my wishlist for a number of years. It’s called On Street Photography and the Poetic Image and it’s part of the Aperture Photography Workshop Series. Since nobody seemed inclined to buy it for me I decided to buy it (along with two other volumes in the same series) for myself.

I very much like the simple approach: Each page consists of an image and some text (usually no more than a couple of paragraphs) commenting on the photography, sometimes the specific photographs and sometimes broader photographic concepts.
The images are not limited to those of the two authors (Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Web). Photos by other renowned photographers (e.g. Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka Charles Harbutt, Eugene Richards, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Bruce Davidson and others) are used to illustrate matters that the authors considered to be important.

It was attractive to look at, easy to read, and yet challenging to the intellect.

I really liked it.

Dan Winters – Road to Seeing

Last month I posted a YouTube video of an interview with Dan Winters (See: Interesting Interview with Dan Winters). I didn’t really know his work and It interested me enough that I decided to get one of his books, specifically “Road to Seeing”. I usually order hardcover versions of photobooks, but this time I was impatient and I ordered the Kindle version. The fact that the hardcover version was over six times more expensive may also have had something to do with it! I don’t recommend that you do this unless you have the flashier color versions (or are willing to read it on your computer) as many of the images are in color and you lose a great deal by viewing them in black and white.

In his introduction he states: “My purpose in writing this book is rooted in a desire to share, on a human level, some of the moments in my life that have significance to me as a photographer, and a man” so it is at least in part autobiographical.
The book features many beautiful images. But in addition each chapter tells the story behind the image and how it was created. His focus, however, is not on technical matters. Rather he concentrates on such areas as what he was thinking in the run up to the photograph; how he collaborates with his subjects etc.

In addition to Winter’s own pictures the book contains many photographs from such photographic luminaries as : Alfred Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Eddie Adams, Gregory Heisler, William Wegman, Nadar, Henry Fox-Talbot, Eugène Atget, William Klein, Saul Leiter, Walker Evans, Henri-Cartier Bresson and many others.

He’s best know for his portraits of celebrities, done in his studio often using sets he has built himself (in an earlier existance he built models for a living and so has expertise in this area.) His work has been featured in National Geographic, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine and many other newspapers and magazines. This work takes up much of the book.

However, he also produced a lot of personal (i.e. Non-commercial) work and this is where I have a bit of a difficulty. He almost seems to be apologetic of his commercial work almost as if he considers it a bit inferior to his personal work. Personally, I’m not wild about the personal work. Don’t get me wrong – It’s good, but I’ve seen better examples in the various genres that he’s tackled.

Even though it’s quite a long book (almost 700 pages) it’s quite easy to read and I got through it in no time. I very much enjoyed it and I’m glad I bought it. You can get a copy for yourself here.

Old Paris and Changing New York

I came across this book in my local library and liked it so much that I got a copy for myself. It’s “Old Paris and Changing New York. Photographs by Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbott” by Kevin Moore.

I’m a long time fan of Atget and to a lesser extent of Abbott and found the content of the book to be particularly interesting. There’s a, too me, ideal mix of text and photographs. An 81 page essay by Moore including a number of photographs followed by 52 full page plates: photographs by both Atget and Abbott.

Photobooks are often large and heavy. I understand the need to present the photographs as well as possible. I have a number of such photobooks. The problem is that I find them too heavy and cumbersome to comfortably read so I rarely look at them. This book is not too large and not too heavy, but still presents its materials effectively.

Atget to the left. Picture taken by Abbott. 1927. Abbott to the right. Self Portrait. 1928.

Taken with a Sony A7IV and Samyang 45mm f1.8