By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Photographic love is a promiscuous business. A great painting will catch you and hold you, demanding a certain exclusivity. Whatever the size of your appetite walking into a museum, you aren’t likely to really absorb more than a handful of great paintings at a time, if that. But great photographs stimulate more often than they satiate, perhaps because the eye recognizes, in a photograph, one piece of a larger picture: one face in a crowd, one moment in a day, one shot on a roll. Instinctively driven to make sense of what it’s looking at, to grasp as much of the larger picture as possible, the mind stays hungry. The consumption of photographs being virtually effortless, it quickly escalates to compulsion, which is one reason a book of photos can be so much more satisfying than an exhibition. If one photograph is good, more is usually better. A whole stack of them drawn together in one neatly bound package you can hold on your lap, make a cup of tea and get lost in is just about ideal.
The pleasure of this compulsive consumption reaches an almost dizzying pitch in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s two-volume survey The Photobook: A History, the second volume of which came out this month. Think of the satisfaction to be found in a big, heavy, beautifully printed book of photos. Now imagine a big, heavy, beautifully printed book filled with tantalizing fragments from hundreds of other such books — many more than you’re likely to ever get your hands on — and then multiply the total effect of all this satisfaction by two, for a total of 656 broad, glossy pages. It’s enough to make any photo lover’s head spin — and to suck up entire hours of a potentially productive workday, as I can say from experience.
A book about books would seem, at a glance, a dry sort of enterprise. Indeed, with roughly 450 individual entries, each involving a handful of reproductions (usually the cover of the given book and one or two layouts) and a few paragraphs of explanatory text, arranged in a series of thematic chapters, it would be easy to mistake either volume for one of those expensive, tedious indexes designed primarily for the shelves of dealers, hardcore collectors and reference librarians. What distinguishes the project from that lot is first and foremost the infectious passion of its creators. “For many years,” Parr begins his preface to the first volume, “I’ve been obsessed with the photo book. This two-volume publication is a manifestation of that obsession.”
It is a history generated, in other words, by the enthusiasm of the collector, who in this case also happens to be a photographer, and geared toward exciting a similar enthusiasm in the hearts of not only academics but anyone who happens to be listening. The selection, though thorough, is appealingly idiosyncratic, the design respectfully unobtrusive, and the writing (which is mostly Badger’s) exemplary: clear, personable and — a rarity in art publishing today — actually a pleasure to read. Three to four intelligent paragraphs on 450 different subjects is no small feat, particularly combined with two dozen substantive chapter overviews, but Badger (also a photographer, though better known as a curator and critic) pulls it off without the least sign of strain, striking a consistently easy balance between description, historical context and artistic evaluation. As a result, the book feels less like a history lesson than a pleasant afternoon in a very friendly used-book store.
That said, it is a history, and as such both ambitious and sound. (The only comparable study — The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrew Roth and released in 2001 — was, as the title implies, considerably narrower in scope.) The selection spans the entire life of the medium, from William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published in installments from 1844 to 1846, to volumes on 9/11 and the Iraq war, and makes a convincing case for the book, rather than the gallery or museum, as “photography’s ‘natural’ home.” In the 19th century, “photography was basically book related,” Badger points out in his introduction. “The proper place of photography was deemed to be the library or the archive, though populated with original prints rather than printed reproductions.”
In the early 20th century, the pursuit of artistic legitimacy compelled photographers to loosen these prints from their pages and present them as objects in their own right, fit for the walls of the exhibition hall. The book remained, however, an essential venue and continued to evolve in sophistication, particularly in Europe, where the impact of World War I created a space for revolutionary aesthetics in all media and where Alfred Stieglitz’ comparatively reactionary obsession with the virtues of the fine-art print didn’t hold the sway it did in the U.S. Indeed, judging from the sample represented here, this era may have been a high watermark: the European and the Soviet books of the 1920s and ’30s are astonishingly innovative — far more radical, at least in formal terms, than most of what’s been released in the West in the past few decades.
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