Monday, 16 July 2018

Plains panorama

Perhaps the sub-head to this book should have said Towns, villages and hamlets of the North American Great Plains because the majority of the forty-one photos were taken in Canada, where photographer Singer was born. There are, though, fifteen taken in the US in  North and South Dakota, Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas. Of those in Canada most are from Saskatchewan.

Grant Arnold's back of the book essay reveals how Singer took these perspective-less photos. Having found an interesting Main Street he took an exposure every three to five feet in parallel to a few buildings on one side of the street and then uses Photoshop to seamlessly join them into one long strip. The photos were made into display prints up to ten feet long and Singer was at first doubtful about seeing them in book form but I think they work because of its extreme landscape shape (fifteen inches).

Singer captures some fascinating structures which are made more interesting because of the straight-on presentation and also helped because there are eleven fold-out pages forty-four inches wide. Most of the buildings seem to be wood frame with the occasional brick building from the thirties, either a bank or maybe a small department store. The flatness of the landscape is emphasized by the sky filling in the gaps between all the structures. The ten last photos were taken in winter with the Main Streets floating on an almost white sky and highway below. Oddly there isn't a satellite dish to be seen anywhere throughout the book,  maybe Singer deliberately chose premises without them .

The lack of perspective and the use of software to create these photos suggest they are more intriguing as a technical exercise rather than art photos of the Plains in the tradition of Wright Morris or David Plowden. They certainly offer a unique and different look to this huge part of America and Canada.

The book comes in an attractive  sturdy, open either end slipcase, if you are buying it pre-used check with the seller that it's included.

Incidentally I spent an enjoyable few hours finding these same buildings on Google's Street View and in many cases nothing seems to have changed since Singer photographed them in the early years of this century. Street View allowed me to see the other side of the street and pick up a few quirky visual treats like the large colorful sign for the Palace movie theater in Spur, Texas which is only a thin profile in the book's photo and Springwater, Saskatchewan is near invisible with, according to the net, only thirteen buildings and a population of fifteen.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

A remarkable look back

A superb reprint of a classic 1976 book with 274 FSA photos. Two things made the original unique -- firstly, the photos were selected by the photographers as their best work for the agency and secondly, it reproduced the photos as their original size in the Library of Congress files (mostly 11 inches wide) making it the only book to have such large photos of FSA  work, this new book has the same 274 images but they are a bit smaller (9.25 inches, so it's the second largest book).

Hank O'Neal came across FSA files in the early seventies and was surprised that there was really only one published photobook (
In this proud land, 1974). Convinced that the work needed a wider audience he selected eleven photographers who had contributed ninety-nine percent of the files: Arthur Rothstein; Theo Jung; Ben Shahn; Walker Evans; Dorothea Lange; Carl Mydans; Russell Lee; Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon; John Collier. Contacting them after so many years was initially difficult but nine were still alive and were happy to help with the project, Shahn and Lange had died so Shahn's wife Bernarda and Lange's husband Paul Taylor selected their photos.

O'Neal chose forty to sixty of each photographers work and they picked what they considered worthy of including in the book. When it was published in 1976 this was the first time in years that most of the photos had been seen, now, of course, so many of them have appeared in dozens of FSA photobooks. Arthur Rothstein's Cimarron County dust storm is here, Bud Field and Mogantown by Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott chose Woodstock in the snow, Dorothea Lange didn't select her famous 'Migrant mother' but two other shots of Florence Thompson with her children sheltering in a tent.

This edition has a slightly changed format. Both books present the 274 photos historically from 1935 to 1943 but the original had essays about the photographers dropped in at various places throughout the pages, this book has the eleven essays after the photo section, I think this a much better solution. The only extra in the book is O'Neal's essay about how the original publication was received and interest in it over the years until Steidl decided on this wonderful re-issue.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Beck and all

The look of London Transport, whether it's trains, buses, architecture or art has inspired some wonderful books. Claire Dobbin considers the art of the train map combining the best of Leboff and Demuth's No need to ask! Early maps of London's underground railway, 1999 and Ken Garland's excellent Mr Beck's Underground map, 1994 (both of these were published by Capital Transport).
What I found interesting about this book is that the author features several decorative maps. These include the underground lines but as a secondery importance to the real purpose of the map which was to reveal what was happening on the ground above the railway, all kinds of buildings, monuments and parks. The master of this sort of map was MacDonald Gill and the book has seven of his poster maps including several enlargements over a spread to show the wonderful graphics and lettering. The book moves on to Harry Beck and his inspired solution to do away with geography and just use straight lines with a mark for each station. London Transport's Underground map today is basically what Beck designed in 1933. Lots of slight variations to the basic map are illustrated, including a short-lived 2009 version that left out the River Thames.

If you look at each map to the late forties you'll come across stations that disappear, in central London there are eight: Wood Lane; Brompton Road; Down Street; British Museum; Dover Street; York Way; Post Office; Mark Lane. Some were demolished but others remain, one at least with everything as it was when it closed. The Underground maps of today include some surface lines that have connecting stations and in 1947 Fred Elston made a brave attempt to include bus routes which, of course, do require some geographic sign posting making the map far too complex, it's illustrated on page eighty-four.
The last chapter in the book: Beck and beyond, looks at the way the London Underground map has inspired maps for rail services around the world and the way the map has been used by creative folk including Tim Fishlock who managed to create an alphabet by using sections of the map (it makes a lovely looking poster).