By Matt Damsker
AMERICAN COLOR 2. PHOTOGRAPHY BY CONSTANTINE MANOS.
Quantuck Lane Press, distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., New York. 144 pages; 131 color prints. ISBN No. 978-1-59372-038-4. Hardcover; $70 US; $87.50 CAN. Essay by Alison Nordstrom, curator of photographs, George Eastman House. Information: http://www.quantucklanepress.com
This superb collection is as much a sequel, in its way, to Robert Frank's "The Americans," as it is to Constantine Manos's original 1995 "American Color." Indeed, Manos's justly celebrated previous book brought his saturated colors and dense, chiaroscuro compositional style to bear on America at the height of its self-assured, post-Berlin Wall dominance. Fifteen years later, though, Manos's camera locates a culture that may be just as colorful but seems far more atomized, cut off from its previous certainties and easy optimism--an echo of Frank's classic downbeat journey to the heart of the American seam.
Or, as Alison Nordstrom's introductory essay describes it: "Many of the earlier images [in American Color] are wryly amusing. They document some of the more camp and vulgar aspects of pop culture with a vision that verges on caricature. This latest, most mature work, however, is more intense, uncluttered and austere, and its mood strikingly different. Despite their often festive settings, these are photographs that express loneliness and solitude in a formal artistic language that transcends the particulars of time and place."
Manos, who lives in Provincetown, Mass., is a member of Magnum Photos, and his distinguished career has progressed from masterly black-and-white portfolios (of Greece, for example) to a style of color street photography that often mixes flat, monochromatic primary color fields with dramatic shafts of shadow and architecture. These build up and complicate the image to a point of near abstraction, yet Manos is just as rigorous in maintaining the strong figurative emphasis which makes his quotidian characters so vividly expressive. Thus, for example, a woman in a bright yellow top may be bisected by a black shadow, isolating her form amidst the shadows of other passersby, all against a cerulean blue wall. It's a layered, post-modern vision that speaks of photographic artfulness and documentary realism in the same breath.
While some of these images are, inevitably, more electrifying than others--boardwalk carnivals and beach antics are charged with vulgar, vicarious intensity--they aren't fraught with social criticism. The many shots of pedestrians passing each other like proverbial trains in the night reflect a simple urban reality, and if they seem marked by alienation and disconnection, these are only matters of fact. Manos's subjects may have limited horizons, but they are getting by, and the glamorous advertisements that mock them from the walls as they pass are part of the scenery, not weights on their souls.
If, as Nordstrom asserts, "the subject of this book of photographs is its photographs," then Manos might be less interested in the people who activate his tableaux than in capturing these powerful minglings of gorgeous color and wan existence, but that's not how the photographs read. Despite the deep, impersonal fields of sky, water, wall, and the various backdrops that enfold everything, what distinguishes these images is the recognizably human forms that enact their everyday dramas in front of us. More so than the fabulous contexts in which he finds them, they are the American color that Manos immortalizes.
IN SEARCH OF THE PICTURESQUE: THE ENGLISH PHOTOGRAPHS
OF JWG GUTCH 1856/59.
By Ian Charles Sumner. Westcliffe Books, and imprint of Redcliffe Press, Bristol, UK. ISBN No. 978-1-906593-27-8. 192 pages; approximately 135 black-and-whites plates. Softcover; £14.95. Information: http://www.redcliffepress.co.uk
Johns Wheeley Gough Gutch (1808-1862), we learn from this first publication of some 100 Gutch images, was born in Bristol, in England's southwest, and trained as a surgeon there. After quitting medicine in 1840 to follow a wider range of scientific interests, he began experimenting with photography only two years after William Henry Fox Talbot's early pioneering of the medium.
The result, as Ian Sumner details in this carefully drawn chronicle of Gutch's life and work, with many fine reproductions of his output, was an excellent portfolio of views taken around England, Wales and Scotland. Gutch was partially paralyzed, but that didn't stop him from navigating muddy rural roads by horse and carriage, lugging his bulk wet-plate camera that doubled as his darkroom. Indeed, he used a special camera that allowed him to manipulate and develop the negative while still in the camera, explains Richard Meara in the book's introductory essay.
Meara notes that Gutch's contribution to photography lay largely in his pushing beyond the Victorian conventions of the picturesque--with its emphasis on castle ruins and the mythic past--in an effort to "make the dry bones live," as Gutch himself stated in an 1864 publication. Bringing the bones to life meant providing more of a social context in many of the shots; there are street urchins and townsfolk, workers and dwellers on display, affording human scale and palpable life to some wonderful images of limestone quarries, warehouses, rocky streams, the great churches of the West Country, the harbors, piers and misty hills of Lynmouth and the Lake District, and so on.
Of course, there was no avoiding the Gothic splendor of the picturesque at its most typical, and so Gutch's cumbersome camera puts us in proper Wordsworthian awe of the ruins of such locales as Furness Abbey (as well as of Wordsworth's own gravesite). But Gutch was equally drawn to the humanity he encountered in his travels, and so there are dour portraits of local merchants and their families that exude the flavor of their days, along with the grimy, grumpy faces of miners (children, so many of them) and the proud visages of fishermen with their nets. Sumner's study of Gutch's days and ways is a valuable discovery of an important contributor to photography's evolution. Gutch's fine sense of contrast and his ample, inclusive compositions yielded images that spring crisply from these pages, all vintage works of a high order.
THE ART OF CARING: A LOOK AT LIFE THROUGH
Essay by Cynthia Goodman. Catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art, further scheduled for the Cincinnati Museum Center (July 9 – Sept.19, 2010); Art Museum/Ft. Lauderdale (May 1 – Sept.1, 2011); and the Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi (Oct. 22, 2011 – Jan. 1, 2012). Ruder Finn Press, New York, in association with the New Orleans Museum of Art; 286 pages, 211 black-and-white and color plates; hardbound, US$46; ISBN 13 No. 978-1-932646-50-4. Information: http://www.noma.org/specialty.html
Despite its sprawl--gathering more than 200 photographs to illustrate a brace of big humanist themes-- this ambitious exhibition is more than a hodge-podge. Well-focused and moving, it avoids mawkishness in its effort to stare squarely at life, love, disaster, and death by confronting us with a wealth of familiar, unfamiliar and iconic images. Thus, it comfortably connects the classic--W. Eugene Smith's country doctor series, for example--with the more immediate photo-journalism of, say, Gideon Mendel's 1993 shots of a mission hospital in Zimbabwe, where hunger and disease are fought just as timelessly.
Organized for the New Orleans Museum of art by guest curator Cynthia Goodman, the display is broken into seven thematic components: Children & Family, Love, Wellness, Caregiving & Healing, Aging, Disaster, and Remembering. As Goodman notes in her detailed catalogue essay, "Each stage of life is depicted by simple everyday situations experienced in moments of joy and gratification as well as by poignant events of passage." Indeed, this emphasis on the everyday is the exhibition's triumph, since we are never far from personal, microcosmic representations, an approach which wisely excludes abstraction or over-the-top exercises in art photography.
Instead, a ten-photo introductory portfolio by Annie Leibovitz sets the tone, moving from such celebrity portraiture as the widely published shot of Bruce Willis and a pregnant Demi Moore to an aging William Burroughs and, ultimately, an uncharacteristically journalistic, harrowing Leibovitz image of a Rwandan bathroom wall streaked with the bloody handprints of massacred Tutsi schoolchildren and villagers. Finally, there is the simple biographical photo of the living room of Leibovitz's parents' home in Silver Springs, Md., with her father seated mournfully beside a hospital bed.
Likewise, David Hockney's 1982 photo-collage of his elderly mother seated in the churchyard of Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, or Arthur Tress's "Last Portrait of My Father," in which a seemingly unconscious old man is seated in a snowy New York City park, remind us that star photographers can do superb work outside of their pop-cultural element whenever they focus on the universal within the personal. If anything, the iconic images here--for example, the kissing couple of Eisenstadt's "V-J Day," or Diane Arbus's young Brooklyn family--are the expected punctuations we gloss over in an eagerness to be surprised by what we haven't seen before: Peter Granser's lively Sun City series of serene retirees; Jessica Todd Harper's anxious "Self Portrait" with her fiancé and future in-laws; or Sheng Qi's strangely evocative "Memories (Me)," a red-drenched close-up of a left hand missing its little finger and cradling an old black-and-white photo of a young boy.
One has to wonder, though, how necessary it was for curator Goodman to force this diversity of photography into a thematic septet, since the impression we're left with is that there's really only one big theme here besides Life, and that's Time. The glory of youth and beauty, the profound realities of aging, the ravages of disease and disaster, the serenity of acceptance, and the boundlessness of memory are all of a piece with one another, and indivisible. To some, the structure of this exhibition may seem a helpful way of bringing a larger coherence to so many complementing images, but it also segments them and may blunt the impact of such a potent sensory overload, something best experienced as a total immersion. That said, Goodman has curated a must-see panoply of important works of art.
BRIEFLY NOTED: The advent of CD-ROM and DVD has been a boon for photography, allowing digital reproduction and close, convenient, computer-based study of images in high resolution. One excellent example of this has come to our attention in the form of a CD, "Charles Négre: Photographe 1820-1880," a compilation of 70 images by the pioneering French artist and photographer. Produced by Francoise Paviot and Joseph Négre, a descendent of the artist, the disc includes a concise biography of Négre, and reminds us that Beaumont Newhall's landmark1937 New York photography exhibition put Négre on the map as a great "primitive" of French photography.
Since then, Négre's stunning photos and heliogravures--of Chartres and Notre Dame, the statuary of Paris, the south of France and its countryside--have become familiar touchstones of the medium's early days, prized by collectors and valued more and more for their sensitive, straightforward depiction of light and form. This disc divides Négre's output into appropriate categories--studies and portraits, genre scenes, Chartres/Vincennes, etc.--and allows the viewer to zoom in for a detailed look. It's a space-saving addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in photography's history and France's unique contribution to it. For information on obtaining the disc, contact Galerie Francoise Paviot, 57 rue Sainte-Anne, 75002, Paris. Phone: +33 (0) 1 42 60 10 01; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.
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