By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Speaking of Linnaean toilers, one of the best art books of the season is Peter Sís’ illuminated biography of Charles Darwin, Tree of Life(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 44 pages, $18). Many know Sís, the Czech author and illustrator, from his drawings in publications like The Atlantic Monthlyand The New York Times Book Review and the poster for the movie Amadeus. For these, as well as his previous books about knowledge seekers like Galileo (Starry Messenger), Sís was awarded a MacArthur fellowship only weeks before The Tree of Lifeappeared. Noting that the great naturalist himself never learned to draw, Sís spent four years telling Darwin’s story, from infancy to scientific celebrity, through rich and luminous crosshatched and pen-pricked drawings that deftly convey an incredible amount of information as well as the magic of pure discovery. This is one of those picture books that make for great casual glancing or could easily take days to read. Even the end pages are pictographic quilts further exploring the significance of Darwin’s life. And don’t forget the gatefold toward the end, which lays out the exact propositions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, with morphological series of whales and finches looking on at the edges.
In this one-company town, recommending a movie-history compendium feels like suggesting that you re-read the employee handbook in your spare time. But if there’s a recent, solid single volume that covers the bases, it would be Cinema Today(Phaidon, 512 pages, $70). Well-organized and nicely written, Cinema Today spans the years from 1970 to the present — what editor Edward Buscombe calls the “Third Age,” when the breakdown of the studio system and the coming of the blockbuster shaped the contours of today’s film industry. After an introductory chapter and some time on genres, Buscombe turns to sexual and racial politics in film for a bit and then spends the rest of the book abroad, with a chapter for each region of world cinema and enough detail to mention the 46 movies directed by and often starring Prince Sihanouk, the twice-reigning monarch of Cambodia. The breadth is a welcome departure from many similar anthologies. Cinema Today is the best kind of movie book: the kind that sparks a desire to experience film in full.
For the cinema specialist, one to look for is the new valentine to the work of Werner Herzog (Jovis, 127 pages, $35). Compiled by Swiss photographer Beat Presser, who worked for many years with Herzog and his muse/foil Klaus Kinski, the book is a collection of photos, notes and comments by colleagues like Volker Schlöndorff. The section on Herzog’s opera productions is sadly too short; only a few photos of Herzog putting together Doktor Faustin 1985 and a mention of his celebrated Lohengrinproduction at the Bayreuth Festival the next year hint at the passion behind his equally celebrated film Fitzcarraldo. But for anyone with Herzog fever, the book will satisfy. A hefty section on Invincible, a recent Herzog film involving the incredible and true story of Hitler’s Jewish clairvoyant, is of special interest.
Laura Wilson’s Avedon at Work in the American West(University of Texas Press, Austin, 132 pages, $40) chronicles another master at work. Wilson, a photographer herself, accompanied Richard Avedon during his years in the West in the late ’70s and early ’80s, helping arrange the portraits and taking her own shots of the project unfolding. Some of the final 123 giant prints, among the best photographic portraiture ever produced, are featured in the book, along with Wilson’s snapshots and a good amount of text, including notes from Avedon, that together give valuable background on the subjects and the places, much of which was purposely absent from the originals, whose blank white background was meant to erase the narrative prejudice of the Western landscape. Seeing Avedon learning the two-step with one of his oil-field workers in a Texas trailer belies the controversy in some circles that Avedon’s subjects fell victim to the modern problem of beautiful exploitation. Movingly, the book also reproduces some letters from the mothers of two drifters, who contacted Avedon after their sons died.
Also expertly treading the borderline of potential exploitation in the desert is photographer Timothy Hursley’s new collection, Brothels of Nevada: Candid Views of America’s Legal Sex Industry (Princeton Architectural Press, 191 pages, $25). Hursley’s interest is architecture, and since the 1980s he’s taken pictures of almost every legal den of sin in Nevada. From the famous Mustang Ranch to tiny outposts like Bobbie’s Buckeye Bar near Tonopah, Hursley’s photos make a stunning series without resorting to prurience. His pictures, in fact, are almost entirely people-less; the empty exteriors and rooms suggest what they’re meant for. One view of the Chicken Ranch, as a horizontal sliver of light in a big field of black, re-creates the way the brothel might appear on the nighttime horizon to an approaching visitor, looking to choose between an all-night, two-hour, one-hour, half-hour or 15-minute sex stop. Another photograph, at the defunct Janie’s Ranch, shows a carpet-walled interior with a collapsing ceiling and a hole — heart-shaped — that lets in bright sunlight through the floor. Among all the brothels, Hursley’s naturally lit bedrooms, decorated with pictures, knickknacks and other personal items, remind us that these places also function as homes for their working-girl residents.