I'm not a hoarder! I'm a curator of a collection of books about photography!
We were visiting via iMessage and she was sending me pictures of – dramatic pause – photography books. What a way to get triggered! In the end she brought back the following books for my reading pleasure.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Agee’s writing is what is so truly important about this book; it has a rhythm to it: at times languid and circling in eddies like a meandering southern river, other times austere like the weather beaten pine boards that make up the sharecroppers’ houses. There is poetry here: a descriptive sonority that takes you to a dusty Alabama road or to a ramshackle church. Evans’ photographs provide a muted counterpoint to the images conjured up by Agee’s eloquence.
This is a book that needs to read again and again to refine ones understanding. Superficially you could read it and say “Yes, yes, sharecropping in the ’30s.” but underneath you get a sense of the pride and dignity of these indentured servants and the closed society of the African-Americans who, for all intents and purposes, are still tied to the landowner.
Frustrating, poetic, soaring but never descending into the trite it is a book well worth reading.
(Interesting fact: Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s book “Have You Seen Their Faces” predates this book and covers similar territory and was Agee’s inspiration to write this book. End obligatory MBW plug)
Photographers on Photography
The book is a selection of quotes taken from, as Carroll calls them, “visionary photographers” offset with examples of their work and a short essay by Carroll. In some places there is an interview with the photographer where the themes are expanded upon. It’s always a matter of opinion who the “visionaries” are and in the case of a survey book such as this one it’s a case of the usual suspects: Lange, Adams, Winogrand etc. Joy of joys though, a broad selection of others that may not be so commonplace are included as well: Moryama, Shiga, Soth and many others. It’s this diversity of insight and perspective that makes this book a delight.
Let’s be clear about this right now. This book is not a prescriptive book on technique in any way, shape or form. Don’t even bother if you’re looking for a book that shares with you the greats’ “secret sauce”. What it is, however, is a book that shares the greats’ philosophical “secret sauce”.
This book forces you to think about what you personally are trying to accomplish as an artist as you read the artists’ words, look at the images and study Carroll’s essays.
This book has one star reviews on Amazon (“The Idiocy of the Commons”) from people looking for “How-To-Do-It” and not wanting to actually put in the hard work to develop their vision and craft.
The book that started this latest round of purchasing of books: the catalog for the McCullin Retrospective exhibition at the Tate Britain.
It’s a fetish of mine, buying catalogs of photography exhibitions whenever I can. The commentary is (usually) insightful and the production quality is always extremely high. Sumptuously and I do mean sumptuously printed, this one raises the standard to a new level. It is almost as good as seeing the actual photograph hanging on the wall.
McCullin says he’s not an artist and resents the label “war photographer.” He indicates that he doesn’t want the suffering of the people and situations he photographed conflated with art nor for them to be supplanted by labels. He goes on to say that he was there to bear witness; be it war, famine, insurrection or social issues.
McCullin, protestations to the contrary, displays an artist’s sensitivity and depth in being able to capture the raw, painful reality of the situation. He is more than technician with quick reflexes and a phenomenal amount of raw courage; he has that innate ability to combine that most elusive of events: composition, emotion and raw drama. You can see it in the first image he ever sold, “The Lords of the Manor”. His visual language is that of an artist first, recorder of events second.
There is a darkness that begins to creep in to his prints as he is drawn deeper and deeper into the pain of mankind as he covers more and more violence. Gone are the well dressed young squires showing off for the camera to be replaced by gaunt images of famine victims and shell shocked soldiers.
It has been said by some that this darkness is reflective of the PTSD and the resulting nightmares he suffers from. There may be something in this as I, too, tend to print darker than most, preferring contrasty prints with deep shadows. Although I do not suffer from PTSD as such, I do suffer from depression and anxiety and I do find, dare I say, a comforting familiarity in his visual language – not that I would for an instant compare my talent to McCullin’s.
Retired, McCullin has turned to photographing landscapes to find some sort of solace. Equally haunting, the images of his beloved Somerset show that McCullin is truly an artist and his sensitivities provide an explanation of why he was so impacted by the horrors he witnessed.
If you can see “McCullin”, do so. If you can’t get the catalog. It may be available from the Tate online store.
Lives of – The Great Photographers
Many people know or know of images like HCB’s “Behind the Gare St. Lazaire”, Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” or Fenton’s images of the Crimean War. Just as interesting and often forgotten or unknown (often by casual observers or people embarking on pursuing photography as a career or hobby) are the equally fascinating stories of the photographers themselves. Hacking is an astute observer and in this book has produced a collection of sketches of photographers that have provided images that, without society being aware of it, are now part of our visual language have been subsumed into our culture.
I have one of her other books “Photography – The Whole Story”. It is written in the same style as this one: clear, and crisp and delightful to read. The writing in both books steer far from the load of arty bollocks and dry critical theory that so often crops up.
Unlike so many surveys, bio(and auto)biographies and memoirs that are either hagiographies, short on detail, way to long on detail and those that provide no new insights Hacking is able to produces sketches of the photographer that drills down to what she thinks they are really all about. As she says in the introduction: “A person is so much more that dates and places...”
Her observations are not always in keeping with the received wisdom in arty circles. In the chapter on Ansell Adams, she discards the comment by the self appointed gate keeper of American photography John Szardowksi that Adams did is great work in his twenties and only repeated himself after that. She backs this up by referencing photography historian Anne Hammond offering an insightful counter. She does this elsewhere in the book as well, but unlike, say, Sontag, she provides well referenced counter-arguments.
Her choice of photographers to include is as interesting as the selection found in “Photographers on Photography”. Hacking indicates in her forward that all are pioneers in one way or another and their impact can not be understated. There is some overlap, some usual suspects that PonP didn’t include as well as some that are not so well known and some that only hardcore students of photography would know. I’m looking forward to going down the internet rabbit hole to study and learn from their work.
4 new books, 4 new perspectives. Oh, and the title of this post? Well. here's the Bookstore Sketch