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Robin Benson

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Jasper, Texas: The Community Photographs of Alonzo Jordan
Jasper, Texas: The Community Photographs of Alonzo Jordan
von Alan B. Govenar
  Gebundene Ausgabe

3.0 von 5 Sternen Community strength, 6. März 2011
Author Alan Govenar has developed a concept which he calls Community Photographer using images of the everyday black environment to reveal shared values and beliefs in their community. Alonzo Jordan was a barber who drifted into photography and became the town's recorder of the positive lifestyles of the black population. The 133 plates of Jasper by Jordan celebrate Govenar's idea.

The photos in the book show parades, weddings, funerals, graduations, civic groups and family gatherings. Like any small-town photographer he was being paid to show those being photographed in a positive way and the delivered prints would take pride of place in their homes as a permanent record. It's worth saying, as Govenar does in his interesting introduction, that Jordan didn't record every bit of black life Jasper. The town was segregated and none of that comes across in his photos, he wasn't paid to record the downside of life.

Though I thought Jordan's photos make the idea of the Community Photographer come alive I wonder why so many of them are presented untrimmed. Turn the pages and you'll see areas of sky or foreground, ceilings and floors of interiors that would probably have been cropped in the final prints for the customer. For example page 134 has an interior shot of a reception for some nurses and friends, they occupy less than quarter of the photo. The walls, floor and ceiling would have been cropped to leave the group as the focal point of the photo and permanent reminder of the event.

These photos were originally in an exhibition and Alan Govenar, in the show's catalog says: 'The virtuosity of these images is secondary to their content', which might well explain why the photos have been presented here as original working prints, blemishes and all. The book's excellent production (a good matt art with 175 screen printing) makes the technical blandness of many photos seem rather incongruous.

Alonzo Jordan's photos certainly give a positive view of black life in Jasper but I thought they were limited in their coverage when compared to these two books by black photographers: 'Separate but equal' (ISBN 158648236X) with 130 photos by Henry Anderson of life in Greenville, Mississippi and 'Behold the people' (ISBN 0876111363) 109 photos of black Dallas that appeared in the Star Post newspaper taken by the staff photographer R C Hickman. I think the photos in both books are technically better and are much more revealing of the shared values and beliefs that Govenar's Community Photographer strives for.

Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story
Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story
von Paul Shaw
  Gebundene Ausgabe
Preis: EUR 34,95

5.0 von 5 Sternen Rugged types battle it out in the NYC transit ring*. Your commentator Paul Shaw describes the action, 2. März 2011
Non-creative folk might be perplexed to understand how a typeface could generate 132 fascinating pages but here they and it's a riveting read. The chapter titled `Bringing order out of chaos' sets the scene with a brief description of the rather slapdash style of signage on the huge New York subway system over the decades. The next chapter looks at signage in Boston, England and Italy, mostly from the sixties onwards (so Harry Beck's map and Edward Johnston's typeface for the London Underground aren't included). The various transit systems had, by now, settled on a sans face loosely based on Standard Medium and in New York this eventually evolved into Helvetica over the years.

I always thought it odd that designers didn't take standard Medium plus Bold or other sans (the Franklins, News Gothic, Venus et cetera) and just use them without modification. Letter and line spacing seems as important as the typeface in signage. The examples shown in the book have all been made into new faces. Maybe designers feel they must leave their individuality on these projects.

It wasn't until the mid-sixties that the transit people decided to get to grips with a unified type, graphics and signage system. Designer Massimo Vignelli and Unimark suggested ideas but amazingly, because of money problems, not too much came of the recommendations. It seems clear though that whatever outsiders suggested would have problems because of the way signs were produced. The Transit Authority had their own internal unit for making signs and the type stencils for some of these were actually cut by hand. Design manuals specifying all sorts of character and spacing refinements evaporated in reality.

Shaw devotes a chapter to the development of Helvetica and its ascendancy over all others (look at those horizontal terminals). The last three chapters reveal how it took nineteen years for the type get established as the sign typeface. Maybe all the work over the years to get it right sort of fades a bit with the expanding use of electronic information signs that use several types of letter generation.

The book was designed by the author (and Abby Goldstein) and it follows a rather unusual format. The text is in paragraph blocks, two to a page, with each ending with a footnote number. These are on the same page and set in five columns. The seventy-six footnotes are really the strength of the book because they carry a huge amount of detailed information. Throw into the mix 286 images and their captions and you get quite busy looking pages. Fortunately it all hangs together beautifully (though I would have put .25 fine rules between the footnote columns) and looks a handsome looking book. The back pages have a timeline, up to 2010, of the subway, a bibliography but oddly no index, I would have thought this was essential in this type of title.

I think Shaw is to be congratulated in writing a fascinating book about a specialist subject and making it come alive though it will probably be a bit too technical for a wider readership. Incidentally he has used a bit of personal whimsy on the book's front and back cover with the word Subway, (see one of my uploads).

* Helvetica by a knock out.

The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist
The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist
von Theodore E., Jr. Stebbins
  Gebundene Ausgabe

5.0 von 5 Sternen Sheeler works, 26. Februar 2011
I had always thought of Charles Sheeler as a painter of industrial landscapes rather than a photographer until I looked through this book. Now I think he was creative in both mediums. As the title suggests this is about his photography and though there are examples of his paintings, mostly to illustrate the three essays, they are in black and white. Sheeler was experimenting with photography and painting before 1920. The book has photo sections devoted to his Doylestown house (near Philadelphia) African sculpture and a few clothed and nude studies of his wife Katharine.

Sheeler visited Europe in 1929 and an important part of this trip was to photograph Chartres Cathedral, he called it "one of the outstanding experiences of a life-time" The book includes thirteen beautiful shots of the Cathedral and they look remarkably like his photos of the Ford Motor Rouge River blast furnaces and other exterior bits of the industrial plant which he took in 1927.

After 1929 Sheeler concentrated on his paintings. The photos in the book for this period: 1929 to 1939, include house interiors and several for his Power series. One of these, the wheels of a Hudson steam loco was the basis of his famous super realist 1939 painting 'Rolling Power'.

The images in the book are taken from Lane Collection, of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, who own the Sheeler photographic estate and the book was originally published in conjunction with exhibitions in 2003/4. The 190 photos are printed as tritones with a 250 screen and they look a treat on the page. The design of the book is first class as is the text, especially the essay by photo historian Gilles Mora. Oddly there is no index.

I thought this was an excellent monograph about Charles Sheeler's photography. A side of his creativity that is not so well known as his industrial landscape paintings.

Fred Herzog: Photographs
Fred Herzog: Photographs
von Felix Hoffmann
  Gebundene Ausgabe

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Matured Canadian commonplace, 24. Februar 2011
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Fred Herzog: Photographs (Gebundene Ausgabe)
What a wonderful selection of photos. The majority of the ninety-two images are of Vancouver in the sixties though the last photo in the book was taken in 1984. It's the colour in these photos that fascinated me. Herzog used Kodachrome slide film and the colours have a warmth and maturity that definitely adds to their beauty, especially the incredibly vibrant reds. The only other photo book I've seen with this richness of colour is 'Bound for glory. America in color: 1939-43' (ISBN 0810943484) with work from the well known FSA/OWI photographers.

Herzog was experimenting with colour long before it became accepted, in the mid-seventies, as a serious photographic form (interestingly the book's first pages have five lovely black and whites). The Vancouver colour work are all street scenes showing everyday life with traffic, shoppers, sides of buildings, and lots of signs. He says that the work of Walker Evans influenced him especially 'American photographs' and of course Robert Frank. There are many shots that are saturated with signage typography and Vancouver did a nice line in gigantic upright neon signs spelling out the name of cinemas, a sort of electronic Day-Glo.

Besides the photos there is an illustrated essay in the front of the book and a conversation Stephen Waddell with Herzog in the back pages, these are in German and English. This is a five star book regarding the contents (and printed with a 200 screen) but I was disappointed that it wasn't a landscape size photo book. Putting these great photos into a book a bit bigger than eight by seven inches seems a mistake. The landscape shots obviously go over the gutter and other landscape photos on a single pages really should have been bigger. Herzog's photos are crammed with detail and it really needs a bigger format to appreciate his work. A much larger book would solved this.

Despite the size problem I thought this a wonderful book of amazing color photos. Herzog definitely needs a second volume.

The Ruins of Detroit
The Ruins of Detroit
von Yves Marchand
  Gebundene Ausgabe
Preis: EUR 88,00

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Descent into ruin captured, 20. Februar 2011
Rezension bezieht sich auf: The Ruins of Detroit (Gebundene Ausgabe)
It must be galling for an art book publisher, spending a lot of time and money on a title, only to find that a very similar book is published at the same time. This happened in 2010 with two excellent photo books covering in detail the ruins of Detroit.

I bought Andrew Moore's: (ISBN 9788862081184) first and thought it rather impressive with seventy photos in a landscape format but Marchand and Meffre's book is a much more ambitious and comprehensive look at this fallen city with 186 large photos. As one would expect with photographers looking at the same subject there is some duplication. Intriguingly, right down to a wall clock in the Cass Technical High school, which both books show because it looks like a real life Dali melting clock face.

The photos in The Ruins of Detroit follow a sort of format starting with interiors and exteriors of factories then: interiors of commercial buildings; theaters and cinemas; schools; apartments; churches; police stations; hotels and more schools. The decay is just so overwhelming because this isn't just a few abandoned factories, which could happen anywhere but whole communities occupying hundreds of acres. The thing that intrigued me with Moore's book and this one is that so many of the photos show interiors: classrooms; dentists; libraries or a police office with everything still intact, though admittedly now strewn everywhere. It's as if the everyone just left in a hurry leaving everything behind.

One really strong point about these photos is that they haven't concentrated on lots of close-ups of abandoned detail. I reviewed The Blue Room with photos by Eugene Richards of empty houses on the Great Plains. Far too many close-ups of clothes and personal belongings completely diluted the sense of ruin that these tumble down houses possessed. Marchand and Meffre have stood back from this detail and allowed the overall ruin and decay to capture your eyes. Their photos do it so well too, with beautiful compositions, framing and colour.

This has to be considered the perfect photo book. Large format (check out the Product Details) with a photo a page and mostly all the same size though there are six pages of houses that have four on each. Nicely for a quality art photo book there are detailed captions under each photo instead of the nonsense of putting them all on some back page. Another thoughtful touch are the occasional pages with some text to explain the subsequent pictures. The printing uses a 175 screen for the photos on semi-gloss matt art paper.

Photo books of ruins, whether in cities or in the landscape, seems to be an expanding genre but the two books about Detroit, especially this one, have probably exhausted the visual potential. I doubt anyone can improve on Marchand and Meffre's remarkable efforts in these pages.

Clive Head
Clive Head
von Michael Paraskos
  Gebundene Ausgabe
Preis: EUR 63,15

4.0 von 5 Sternen Heading off the Photorealists, 17. Februar 2011
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Clive Head (Gebundene Ausgabe)
An interesting monograph about one of Britain's best realist painters. The book does, though seem to be about two art styles: Photorealism and photo-rendering realists. Clive Head, through the essays of Michael Paraskos, says he is not a Photorealist but for my money, I think it's a term he's going to have to live with. For me the style is essentially American, evolving originally around the late sixties. Head, like the first and second-generation Photorealist artists use photos to create their own interpretation of reality (mostly of the commonplace environment). They use them to get a correct fix on the huge amount of detail required for this painting style.

Throughout the three chapters, there is a reference to Photo- rendering realists and explained in a footnote quoting from a 2005 Damian Hirst New York exhibition: "Take a photograph, and copy it meticulously, until your painting and the photograph are indistinguishable". This is not Photorealism at all but copying a photo, hardly even an art form and certainly nothing like Head's complex paintings though his work would be impossible without photos for reference.

The essays by Michael Paraskos fill ninety-eight pages and I thought they could have done with some editing because they take ten more pages than Head's paintings. The first (rather exotically called Metastoicheiosis) takes a lot of text to reveal that the paintings are not precisely like real life but a creative montage of reality. Pages ninety-one and two show thirteen transparencies that were used to create the `Coffee at the Cottage Delight'. Looking at the painting (Plate ninety-five) it's easy to see how Head picks and mixes the visual information in these photos to make his wonderful picture. Just like any Photorealist would do. The other two essays reveal a lot of art theory and how it relates to the paintings. Missing, I thought, was any detailed description of how Head actually works: what sort paints, brushes; canvas; how is the initial drawing created using the photos et cetera. There is a fascinating photo on page six showing Head drawing up a canvas for `Leaving the Underground' and it clearly shows what a superb draughtsman he is. The essays could certainly have done with some editing to reduce paragraphs to a more readable format. I read one at ninety-nine lines and another at 142.

The ninety-seven paintings in the book are arranged in date order, from 1988 to 2010. Nearly all are exterior cityscapes, street scenes or interiors of coffee shops. One characteristic of so many of the works are lines that start at the bottom of a painting and zoom into the detail. It could be a balustrade, wall, railings, road markings, a windowsill or frame but they all take the eye on a journey of discovery through shapes and colour in the rest of painting. Head's style has certainly changed over the years. Page twenty-eight has a painting from 1991: The Riviera that is very reminiscent of Robert Cottingham's rather flat graphic style. The last works in the book are a mixture of close-up street scenes cleverly using interiors and exteriors at the same time, allowing for reflections in windows to add to the dazzle of detail.

I thought the book's production worthy but bland with some editorial sloppiness: the three essays ending with short columns on the page, for example. What I found most annoying was that several plates were not as big as the pages would allow. `Brooklyn Heights' (pages 136/137) has far too much empty page space and it could easily have been much bigger. Head paints a large canvas with plenty of detail and it seems nonsense not to have them as big as possible within the book's grid. Because of this, I've given the title four stars.

The book's back pages have a listing of exhibitions and a short bibliography but it seems that there is nothing that has as many examples of Head's work as this title. Incidentally, he had fourteen paintings in Louis Meisel's 2002 book `Photorealism at the Millennium' where Meisel stated that Head `...deserved to be recognized as an artist with a sincere dedication to the Photorealist style'. In 2011 I still think that's true.

The Photographs of Homer Page: The Guggenheim Year: New York, 1949-50 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
The Photographs of Homer Page: The Guggenheim Year: New York, 1949-50 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
von Keith F. Davis
  Gebundene Ausgabe
Preis: EUR 46,28

5.0 von 5 Sternen Homer Page. Who?, 12. Februar 2011
Page could be considered the photographer who slipped through the public gaze but look at the bibliography at the back of this book and there are plenty of examples of Page's work from the forties to mid-sixties in a variety of magazines and books. As well as helping Steichen organise the Family of Man show he had nine photos included, the same as Dorothea Lange. Only Wayne Miller, with twelve and Henri Cartier-Bresson, with ten, had more.

Perhaps the reason for Page's low profile, as Keith Davis explains in his excellent essay, is that Page had two photographic careers. The first, revealed in the seventy-two plates in the book, was his personal, creative look at New York thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship and after 1950, he concentrated on commercial assignments.

Davis also mentions that Page is a link between two eras of American photography: the FSA and Photo League of the thirties and forties and from the fifties the expressionistic young street photographers centered in New York. Certainly some of the book's photos give me that impression. There are several that would blend right into a selection from Don Donaghy, Louis Faurer, Helen Levitt or Lisette Model.

Though the book's sub-title is New York 1949-1950, only four are from 1950. Not that it matters because none of them is really date related but they all capture in a wonderful, vibrant way street life back then. Flick through the pages and be amazed at the ebb and flow of pedestrians that Page managed to capture. So many of his shots just grab you and pull you into the frame.

Great photos deserve a great book and this one cannot be faulted. Three hundred screen tritones beautifully printed by Meridian of Rhode Island from separations that only Thomas Palmer knows how to do properly. Meridian and Palmer's name keep popping up on the best American photo books year after year.

The photography of Homer Page, with this lovely book, has finally arrived.

Personal Best
Personal Best
von Elliott Erwitt

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2.0 von 5 Sternen Five star pictures in a one star frame, 9. Februar 2011
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Personal Best (Taschenbuch)
How unfortunate that these world-class photos are presented in totally the wrong editorial format and more so because the solution would have been simple: a landscape shaped book.

The 448 pages are printed on a reasonable matt art paper and this makes it a quite chunky book so that it cannot be opened without the pages curving into the gutter. The problems start with so many photos a spread wide with any centrally framed detail merging into the spine and basically destroying the photo. Another problem is that most of the photos bleed off the page, which eliminates page numbers. To get round this, every so often, a photo has generous margins allowing for some numbers. The back of the book has nine pages of thumbnails and page numbers for every page even though throughout the bleed pages there are no numbers.

As to the photos, there are many classics here that are frequently shown whenever Erwitt is mentioned in print. The wonderful one of a mother looking lovingly at her baby on a bed (1953) that was in the Family of Man exhibition, the landscape shot of the a car racing a steam train in Wyoming 1954, two New York dogs, one huge and the other tiny and their owner's legs from 1974. There are several fun shots like the art class with the painters in the nude and the model fully clothed. There is another editorial problem here because as far as I can see the 343 photos are shown in no order. Surely, a book like this would do them in date order or themes: dogs (one of Erwitt's favorites) countries and cities; humor; children; New York; portraits etcetera.

The publishers have several Erwitt books in print and it looks like they all have the same editorial problems I've mentioned. This is so unfortunate because his work is part of the history of photography over several decades and their creativity would really have come across if more thought had been given to their presentation.

Reframing America: Alexander Alland, Otto Hagel & Hansel Mieth, John Gutmann, Lisette Model, Marion Palfi, Robert Frank
Reframing America: Alexander Alland, Otto Hagel & Hansel Mieth, John Gutmann, Lisette Model, Marion Palfi, Robert Frank
von Andrei Codrescu

5.0 von 5 Sternen They made a contribution, 2. Februar 2011
I thought this was a fascinating little book (it's only ninety-six pages) about seven European émigré photographers: Alexander Alland; Robert Frank; John Gutmann; Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth; Lisette Model; Marion Palfi. No doubt others could have been included, Andreas Feininger is one that comes to mind but I think the seven were probably chosen because they represented a European tradition of liberal creativity which is shown in the sixty-five photos.

All the images are, what loosely might be called, reportage of events in American life from the thirties to the late fifties. Hagel and Mieth (who I hadn't heard of before) have sixteen varied photos ranging from a wonderful New York 1938 street scene crammed full of detail, the German-American bund taken in 1938 to four charming farm ones that appeared in a 1950 Life photo essay called the Simple Life. Marion Palfi (another unknown to me) has nine that cross the boundary between straight news and art photography. Not easily, done it would seem but her work captures the visual imagination. Robert Frank, the most well known of the seven only gets five photos and the reproduction of one of his contact sheets, which I thought was rather an odd choice. One of the five is that brilliant Hollywood premiere shot from 1956 where the glamourous starlet is out of focus and the anonymous background crowd is in precise detail.

The paperback is nicely produced with a photo a page printed with a 175 screen, all captioned though these are printed in either black or a light brown (which is a bit unreadable). The front pages have two short essays by Andrei Codrescu and Terence Pitts. I thought the book was useful as an introduction, apart from Frank and Gutmann, to some interesting lesser-known photographers.

Louis Faurer
Louis Faurer
von Anne Wilkes Tucker
  Gebundene Ausgabe

5.0 von 5 Sternen The loneliness of crowds, 31. Januar 2011
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Louis Faurer (Gebundene Ausgabe)
I find it odd that since the publication of this perfect photo book in 2002 there has not been another on Faurer's photography. Maybe this will be his publishing legacy. By all accounts his work seems to remain on the visual fringe of American photographers during that very creative period from the mid-thirties to the early sixties.

The bulk of the photos are Faurer's remarkable night shots of the streets of New York, especially Broadway and the Times Square area and as another reviewer has commented virtually everyone in these photos is looking elsewhere and apart despite being surrounded by of plenty people. Page eighty shows a woman having a flower pinned to her coat lapel but she is not looking at this but away from the person doing it, on the opposite page a women is adjusting her husband's hair while he looks away from her. Faurer seems to seek out individuals in a sea of crowds. The forty-nine page illustrated essay by Anne Tucker explores this theme.

After these photos in the book there are twenty-six taken between 1948 and 1983. They include three fashion shots in colour, experimental work in black and white and colour, four in NYC in the seventies (but I thought without the vigour of Faurer's earlier city work) and three taken in Paris. Missing are examples of his fashion work, perhaps two or three pages with large thumbnails of magazine spreads would have done. Interestingly there are three pages at the back of the book with a listing of all of Faurer's magazine work. Oddly there is a colour photo (page 163) of a family in Times Square, from 1950, that is printed the wrong way round.

The book's production is perfect. The one to a page photos are printed as 200 screen duotones on a good matt art, and thankfully the captions are printed on the same page as the photos. Overall I thought this was a beautiful looking monograph of Louis Faurer's photography.

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