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
A similar explosion occurred in Japan in the wake of World War II, as the trauma of nuclear devastation and socioeconomic upheaval came to penetrate a culture with a historic predisposition to the graphic arts, whose instinct for the potential of the page made for an especially powerful expression of the medium. These three chapters alone — “The Modernist Photobook,” “The Photobook as Propaganda” and “The Postwar Japanese Photobook” — are well worth the cost of the first volume, particularly for American readers, whose exposure to these books will likely have been limited. (Both Parr and Badger are British.)
What’s most striking about the survey, beyond the aesthetic innovations, is the reminder it offers of how many other stories the history of photography tells, particularly when released, as it is here, from an exclusively fine-art context. Many are already familiar: colonialism, war, manifest destiny, industrialization, psychiatry, biology, modernism, communism, fascism and the rise of popular culture — major historical shifts that were not only documented in photographs but fundamentally altered by the fact of their having been photographed. Beneath these, however, are hundreds of smaller tales, each presenting a unique and sometimes very peculiar view of the world.
The exquisite Facile (1935) is a glimpse into an artistically fertile ménage à trois, with poems by Paul Éluard and nude photographs of Éluard’s wife, Nusch, taken by Man Ray. Nobuyoshi Araki’s Shokuji (The Banquet) (1993) is a tribute to the artist’s late wife, told through photographs of the food they ate together in the last months of her life. Hans Killian’s Facies Dolorosa: Das Schmerzensreiche Antlitz (Facies Dolorosa: The Face of Pain) (1934), a series of portraits of seriously ill patients created by a doctor as a diagnostic tool, is a haunting journey into the essence of illness and human frailty. And in each of the many great photographic-journey books — John Thomson and Adolphe Smith’s Street Life in London (1877-78), Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890), Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Weegee’s Naked City (1945), Cartier-Bresson’s Europeans (1955), William Klein’s Life Is Good and Good for You in New York (1956), Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959), Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971), Richard Avedon’s In the American West (1985) — there are as many stories as there are faces.
Up to this point, the importance of the photo book has been largely uncharted, falling into the crack between two traditionally predominant veins of thought on the subject: aesthetic (photography as art) and contextual (photography as mass medium). One scholar quoted by Badger refers to it as “a secret history embedded in the well-known chronologies of photographic history.” It isn’t likely to remain so for long, however, after a survey of this magnitude, eloquence and precision.
Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography, another book recently released by Phaidon, attempts a different sort of history, assembling 121 established and emerging artists, selected by “78 of the world’s top critics, curators and fellow artists,” who are deemed to have “made a significant contribution to photography (in its widest sense) in the last five years.”
It is the sort of book that probably needs to be published every once in a while, if for no other reason than to pad bright young artists’ résumés, and to maintain the illusion, for the rest of us, of the international art market as a thing one can still get one’s head around and pretend to be on top of. Think of it as a face book for the art-fair age. (Phaidon put out similar volumes on painting and drawing in 2002 and 2005.) There will be artists you know, most likely, and know to be deserving; artists you don’t know but who seem promising enough (take note); artists you know and don’t like; and artists who don’t much strike you one way or the other. In none of these cases, however, is the effect particularly satisfying. With nothing to go on but a handful of images, none of which could be said to benefit from the book’s flat, blocky design (a design governed, inexplicably, by the decidedly unphotographic motif of the periodic table), and a few paragraphs of text that are, in most cases, much in need of an editor, it’s hard to know what to make of any of these artists. At best, one leaves the book hoping to come across other books — monographs, say — capable of presenting them in a fuller light.
THE PHOTOBOOK: A History, Volumes 1 and 2 | By MARTIN PARR and GERRY BADGER | Phaidon Press | 320 pages each | $75 each hardcover
VITAMIN Ph: New Perspectives in Photography | Introduction by T.J. DEMOS | Phaidon Press | 352 pages | $70 hardcover