Atget by John Szarkowski

Finally managed to get my hands on Atget by John Szarkowski.

Eugène Atget is my favorite photographer, arguably because I came across this book many years ago either on the internet, or in a library or somewhere I could not take away a copy of my own. It had a profound influence on me, as indeed did Atget on such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott (who I believe took the picture above), Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and others.

Photobookjournal.com describes it as follows:

I have a broad collection of photographic books that have had an image or two of Atget’s photographs and I really wanted to have a dedicated resource to read and study to further understand Atget’s way of looking at his environment. There are a number of alternative hardcover book options for Atgets photographs but to have access a paring of Atget’s photographs with the insights of Szarkowski and the beautifully printing and binding by MOMA in Italy was just too hard to resist.

The images are all well displayed in the book with a Atget photograph on the right and on the opposite spread the commentary about the photograph by Szarkowski.

So I have now traveled throught this book many times. At first I had hoped for a little more analysis of the structure of the photograph from Szarkowski and then I realized that he was helping to frame the context of the photograph as much as describing the photographs attributes.

The book sequences Atget photographs chronologically taking you on a historical journey through the development of Atget’s body of work. You come to understand that even Bernice Abbott, who became the champion of Atget’s photographs, did not get that close to the photographer himself.

So in conclusion this a book that I can really recommend.

Me too.

On the Balcony – Reading Walker Evans

I was sitting on the balcony last night reading American Photographs by Walker Evans, one of my top 5 photographic heroes. I came across a photograph captioned: “View over Ossining”. Briarcliff Manor, the village where I live is part of the town of Ossining. A quick Google search and I discovered that Evans lived and worked in Ossining between June and October 1928, and intermittently over the next several years. How about that?

An article on “Walker Evans in Ossining” states:

Walker considered the photographs he took in Ossining to be among his best. This is demonstrated by their inclusion in shows and publications for the next fifty years—including the five in American Photographs.”

Throughout his early times in Ossining he worked with a vest-pocket camera and his father’s Kodak Tourist. He and Hanns would hike all over town, photographing whatever they came upon. They often walked down by Sing Sing prison, although the prison was notably absent from his subject matter. Also absent were any photographs of the spectacular views of the Hudson River from the Ossining shoreline. He had very specific ideas about what was and was not worthy. Walker felt some things were just not proper subjects for photography. He spelled it out in one letter:

  • “Valid photography, like humor, seems to be too serious a matter to talk about seriously. If, in a note it can’t be defined weightily, what it is not can be stated with the utmost finality. It is not the image of Secretary Dulles descending from a plane. It is not cute cats, nor touchdowns, nor nudes; motherhood; arrangements of manufacturers’ products. Under no circumstances is it anything ever anywhere near a beach. In short it is not a lie, a cliche, somebody else’s idea. It is prime vision combined with quality of feeling, no less”.

To be sure, he mostly adhered to this code throughout his career, though exceptions to those forbidden subjects (every single one except for sports) were found among the 10,000 images in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Walker Evans archive (WE archive). In his Ossining photographs there are none of the expected images of the stark prison gun turrets, the dramatic vistas of the Hudson River, or the imposing mansions of the rich and famous overlooking the river from atop the sand bluffs or buried deep in the Ossining woods near his sister’s house, like the Frankensteinian castle of the Abercromby’s (of Abercromby and Fitch, merchants in New York). Instead, he depicted a few ordinary people in midstep.

In a letter to Skolle in April of 1933, he said,

I have done some more things around Ossining, which grows better and better as a subject for camera

The article also discusses Evans’s friendship with fellow Ossining residents Aaron Copeland and John Cheever.

On Photographs by David Campany

The summary on Amazon.com reads:

An exploration of photography in 120 photographs.

In On Photographs, curator and writer David Campany presents an exploration of photography in 120 photographs. Proceeding not by chronology or genre or photographer, Campany’s eclectic selection unfolds according to its own logic. We see work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Yves Louise Lawler, Andreas Gursky, and Rineke Dijkstra. There is fashion photography by William Klein, one of Vivian Maier’s contact sheets, and a carefully staged scene by Gregory Crewdson, as well as images culled from magazines and advertisements.

Each ofthe 120 photographs is accompanied by Campany’s lucid and incisive commentary, considering the history of that image and its creator, interpreting its content and meaning, and connecting and contextualizing it with visual culture. Image by image, we absorb and appreciate Campany’s complex yet playful take on photography and its history.

The title, On Photographs, alludes to Susan Sontag’s influential and groundbreaking On Photography. As an undergraduate, Campany met Sontag and questioned her assessment of photography without including specific photographs. Sontag suggested that someday Campany could write his own book on the subject, titled On Photographs. Now he has.

It’s a useful book with lots on information on the photographs and the photographers, many of whom I’d previously never heard of. It’s not a book I would try to read from beginning to end. Rather it’s something to pick up and browse through when you have a few minutes to spare.

Two photography books

I’ve just finished reading two books related to Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was a major figure in the latter part of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th century. He originally built his reputation as a photographer and was instrumental in getting photography accepted as an art. He opened galleries (Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession also called ‘291’ after its address; The Intimate Gallery also known as “The Room”; and An American Place) where he displayed not only what he considered to be the best photography of the time, but also American artists (e.g John Marin, Stieglitz’s wife, Georgia O’Keeffe). He also presented works from European artists who were later to because world renowned (e.g Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Constantin Brâncuși). He was initially a supporter of and mentor to such photography luminaries as Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. Stieglitz’s large ego and narcissistic personality could not allow anyone else to be a “leader” and he eventually broke with Steichen (because he saw him as becoming too commercial) and Strand (who felt that art should support social change).

The first of the two books: Alfred Steiglitz. Taking pictures. Making Painters by Phyllis Rose takes as its focus Stieglitz himself. It’s a relatively short, easy read giving all of the essentials of Stieglitz’s life and work. It also has a large number of photographs illustrating both his work, and the work of others in his circle.

The second book: Foursome. Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke is about a third longer and much more complex in subject matter, dealing with the complex and often bewildering relationships between Stieglitz and his wife (Georgia O’Keeffe) and Strand and his wife (Rebecca Salsbury Strand).

Both are well worth reading.

RIP Robert Frank

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Robert Frank (See: Robert Frank, revolutionary American photographer, dies aged 94). For some time I didn’t really “get” his photographs. However, after reading the book “American Witness. The Art and Life of Robert Frank” I’ve since warmed to his work even if I still can’t quite understand why he’s so high in the pantheon of great photographers – particularly since his reputation is based almost entirely on one work: “The Americans”.

No-one can doubt his significance, however.

As the obituary states:

The Swiss-born photographer’s seminal book The Americans, which had an introduction from Jack Kerouac, beat generation author of On the Road, helped to change the direction of photography with its 83 pictures rejecting many conventions of the art form up to that point.

The Swiss-born photographer’s seminal book The Americans, which had an introduction from Jack Kerouac, beat generation author of On the Road, helped to change the direction of photography with its 83 pictures rejecting many conventions of the art form up to that point.

Shot on a Leica 35mm camera, the black-and-white images are considered Frank’s masterwork and focused on figures from the overlooked margins of American life – from teenage couples and factory workers to bikers. Dubbed the “Manet of the new photography” by the New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm, Frank was considered the father of “the snapshot aesthetic”, which captures a spontaneous moment taken on the fly.

I love the quote in the final paragraph of the obituary:

“The kind of photography I did is gone. It’s old,” Frank told the Guardian in 2004. “There’s no point in it any more for me, and I get no satisfaction from trying to do it. There are too many pictures now. It’s overwhelming.”