Friday, 30 December 2016

A heavyweight look

I've looked through both books twice and certain states more than that and the overall impression is slightly underwhelming. There are seven hundred photos in these pages based on states rather than regions. An editorial staple in the NG was the state story looking at geography, agriculture, industry, history and culture but remove the text and just use photos and it becomes apparent that there isn't much visual difference between, say, Alabama and Georgia or Kansas and Oklahoma, far better I would have thought to base the editorial theme round the Nation's regions. The state route means that, for example, California gets twenty-seven photos, New York twenty-three, Texas seventeen, Delaware eleven and Vermont twelve. It seems a rather artificial way to reveal the American landscape based on the politics of a state line.

The photos date from the 1880s to 2015 though they are mostly from the last few decades with a good showing of images taken during the NG's golden age during the postwar years to the early seventies. You'll get to recognize the magazine's stock shot: placing two or three people in the foreground looking in awe at the landscape with their backs to the camera. Another photo that appears a lot is the aerial shot and some of these are quite stunning, especially the 2015 one by George Steinmetz of Manhattan looking north from the financial district and Jim Richardson's 2008 view of Chicago at night revealing a golden glow stretching to the horizon.

The huge page size gives many photos the 'wow' factor, on spreads they are twenty-one and half inches wide by fourteen and half inches deep and maybe a quarter of both books are pictures a spread wide. Other photos fill a page or float in the middle to allow room for captions. Each state starts on a spread and the next page has a short essay followed by pages of photos. The back of book two has seven pages devoted to biographies of NG photographers, a nice touch because as I turned the pages and noticed the same name popping up I wondered who they were. There is also a seven page Index.

I've given these two books four stars though I would reduce that to three and a half if I could because of their weight. Book one is twelve pounds and two is eleven pounds which to my mind is just excessive (the Amazon weight of twenty-six includes the slip case and outer cardboard box). The German photo book publisher Steidl issues several box sets each year which weigh more than this Taschen set but they are a minimum of three books, sometimes four or five. I expect many buyers of The United States of America will be somewhat annoyed at having to manage the weight of these two titles, it really should have been three.

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