Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The man with his own style

The bottom book is an inexpensive Phaidon title with lots of photos. ISBN 071484151X

Siskind's work, more or less, falls into two parts: the Photo League and representational photography up to 1954 and the abstract expressionistic photos from around 1950 onwards. The book and essays give prominence to the latter which I think is reasonable because Siskind had this field to himself, there are pages of wonderful photos revealing close-ups of graphic shapes and textures captured in the urban landscape and also similar abstract images of plants and trees from the natural world.

Giles Mora devotes a lot of space in his essays explaining how Siskin's abstract photo style evolved and how it tied in with abstract expressionist painters in mid-century New York. There is a chapter devoted to Franz Kline (one of Siskind's friends) with some photos that, at a glance, look remarkably like Kline paintings.

I was slightly disappointed that forty-four photos from Siskind's Photo League years are not given the same prominence as his abstract work. Several of them are too small on the page leaving plenty of empty space. Other than that this is a fine photobook revealing extraordinary images taken by a rather forgotten photographer.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A Frenchman and his road trips

 When he was twenty-one, in 1986, Emmanuel Georges visited the US for the first time to see the American Dream close-up, twelve photos from this trip illustrate his front of the book essay, three further trips, starting in 2011 produced the sixty-five plates that make up his book. Like so many European photographers before him Georges was fascinated by the visual material culture that makes up American commonplace in cities and along the highway.

As he says in his essay "My style leans towards narrative and frontal photography" and there are several excellent shots straight onto the front of empty buildings with their peeling paint and flaking signage. The street corner with building at angles is another of his favorite shots and there is the obligatory abandoned highway gas station that no commonplace photobook can do without.

I thought Georges photos carry on the best traditions of a European's road trip across of the Nation though as he designed the book (it has the pictures on the right-hand page facing a blank one) he probably included the seven smaller photos, for a change of pace but as they are not really connected to the landscape or building shots I thought they could easily have been be left out

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Two takes on Queens

Two heavyweight landscape photographers, Frank Gohlke and Joel Sternfeld, focus their lenses on Queens, the largest borough in New York and probably its most ethnically diverse. The cultural mix was one of the reasons for taking these photos back in 2003 (though there is no reference in the book as to why they were commissioned). What makes the book intriguing is that Gohlke's thirty-six photos are in mono and Sternfeld's thirty-seven in color.

The photographers approached Queens in different ways, Gohlke concentrates on residential areas, parks, expressways and the landscape, Sternfeld covers the retail units that serve the immigrant communities so his photos are full of eye-catching commercial signage and foreign language typography. Nearly all the photos are a record of domestic and commercial east coast architecture, especially Gohlke's contribution. An interesting minor feature of the book is that all the locations are precisely captioned and it's possible, using Street View, to still find a few buildings that are still the same as when they were photographed in 2003.

Pasted inside the back cover is an envelope with a thirty-six page booklet with an essay: What is remembered by Suketu Mehta, a bit too esoteric in my view and only very loosely connected to the fascinating pictures throughout the book.

The titles large landscape size has all the photos on the right-hand page, printed on a matt gloss with a 175 screen (in other words the usual excellent Steidl production). For the residents of Queens here's a book of photos of your borough by two of America's great photographers, the rest of us can just enjoy looking at them.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Trump this

A long time coming but certainly worth the wait. Reprinting the only two issues of the 1957 Trump, the background notes to what was in them and an interesting essay by Dennis Kitchen on the collaboration between Kurtzman and Hefner that made the magazine possible make this book a fascinating read.

On page eleven there's a 1957 letter reproduced from Hefner to Kurtzman where Hefner mentions some Jack Davis cartoons and how he would like future artwork to be a bit more sophisticated and not so action comic like and it seems that Hefner, according to an interview with Bill Schelly in 2007, possibly thought this about the first two issues of Trump..."I did not see it coming together in a way that looked as if it would be successful." Did he think this because Kurtzman was basically a comic book editor rather than an upmarket humor magazine editor? Maybe Hefner's thoughts were colored by a memo from Playboy's Art Director Arthur Paul who it seems was none too impressed with the look of the first issue. I think he has a point because both issues are rather uneven regarding the content and layout, in particular too many visually strong articles start on a right-hand page rather than opening powerfully on a spread and there is a lot of comic art and cartoons.

I prefer the second issue to the first, more four-color pages (twenty) than the first (seventeen) and some great material including stunning color frames from Jack Davis based on the movie Giant, Sports Illustrated satire with a cover featuring the first head-on photo of a bullet, food photographs and four excellent spoof ads for the Container Corporation of America, Camel cigarettes, Canadian Club and Lipton tea. As a sort of bonus there are several pages devoted to the unpublished material for issue three though some of this ended up in Kurtzman's next magazine Humbug.
It's a lovely book though I have a couple of criticisms, the reproductions of Trump are just a bit smaller than the real thing (by about quarter of an inch) and it would have helped if the pages had a very thin grey line round them defining the Trump page on the larger book's page.

This is a celebration of Harvey Kurtzman's best work and if Hefner had deeper pockets it might have succeeded, least until the National Lampoon came along in the early seventies.