On My Bookshelf

I have a fair amount of photography books for two reasons.  First, I like to visit used bookstores, and second, I enjoy looking at them and learn something while doing it.  Owning monographs is the next best thing to owning original photographs, especially if the book is nicely printed.  But I think there are additional benefits to owning books of a photographer you admire, most notably the opportunity you as the viewer gets to see a particular body of work and how the pictures relate to one and other.

My intent here is to periodically feature books I own and particularly like, that you might also enjoy.  Don’t expect formal book reviews; there are others that specialize in doing that.  Rather I will present a few reasons why I like the book and think it’s a good one to have on your shelf.  Some selections you may be likely familiar with, others maybe not so much.  Please note that they will be randomly selected so the order I present them has no significance whatsoever.  So here goes!

Henry Gilpin, Photographs

Henry Gilpin was a truly great photographer and human being. I had the good fortune to meet him during the mid 1980s when I took two workshops with John Sexton in Carmel, California. Afterwards, I had the further good fortune of having career responsibilities that periodically took me out to the San Francisco and Silicon Valley for the next ten years or so. Whenever I was there I always figured out a way to get down to the Monterey Peninsula to visit with John if he was around, but always with Henry and his wonderful wife Doris. He always made time to see me, often for spur of the moment flybys. I remember making several five hour round trips from San Francisco to Monterey just to get together for short visit or dinner. It was always worth the drive!

He was absolutely world class, but didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. Probably one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met and certainly one of the best teachers I’ve had the fortune to learn from. Henry remains far less known then he should be. Most likely because he was not a big self-promoter and probably didn’t care too much about that sort of thing. What he really cared about was making wonderful photographs and teaching others how to do the same thing. One of my most prized possessions is his stupendous Highway 1. When I was getting ready to purchase that print I asked what his favorite size for it was. 11×14 – so that’s what I bought! It hangs on a wall in my workroom, right next to the entrance to my darkroom. I spend a lot of time in both rooms so I see it often.

Another prized possession is my signed copy of an exquisite little book, Henry Gilpin, Photographs. Typical of Henry; he never told me it existed. It’s a somewhat rare book, published in 1997 by the Monterey Museum of Art to commemorate the exhibition of his work. I found out about it by accident while rummaging around the Internet … sadly, a couple of years after he passed away in 2011.

It’s a small slender book containing nineteen jewel-like black and white images inside, and a real one attached onto the cover. All of his best works, including Highway 1 and Wonder Lake, just to mention two of them. To top it off it includes an eloquently written essay by John Sexton, Henry’s one time workshop student, colleague and long-time friend. I keep it in a protective plastic bag, prized possession that it is. When I look at it I admire his work and think the many fond memories I have. I can’t say enough about this wonderful book. Suffice to say, if you appreciate beautifully seen and created black and white photographs of the land you should endeavor to find a copy. It can be found occasionally at used bookstores and on eBay. Start looking … if you find one you won’t regret the effort!!

Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls

In the late Eighties I was working in the White House and got very involved in promoting US high technology competitiveness. Of particular interest and importance was the small US supercomputing industry. Through my work I happened to meet and get to know John Rollwagen, CEO of Cray Research. During that time the Science Advisor to the President, who happened to be my boss, decided he wanted to visit Cray Research and meet Seymour Cray, it’s resident genius and pioneering founder. After some difficulty I was able to arrange the trip to the small town of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to visit Cray’s research and manufacturing facility and get together with Seymour and John. It was a visit I will never forget, beginning with our lunch together at the Flame. I never saw or spoke to the “father of supercomputing” again but I will always cherish the memories of that great day! Tragically Seymour died in 1996 due to injuries suffered in a car crash.

Another takeaway from the trip was a copy of the book Cray at Chippewa Falls, by the great Lee Friedlander, given to me and signed with a nice inscription by John Rollwagen. I own it proudly and take it out from time to admire the photographs it contains and to remember that day so long ago.

So what about the book? Friedlander was commissioned by Cray Research to document the workings of the company for its 15th anniversary in business. To me Cray at Chippewa Falls is a wonderful example of a documentary project that includes environmental portraits of Cray workers, the town of Chippewa Falls where they worked and lived, and the surrounding countryside. The book contains almost 80 black and white photographs and is beautifully printed. They do a great job of capturing what it was like for those building the enormous and state of the art supercomputing machines 30 years ago in small town middle America.

One of the most fascinating things is the obvious dichotomy between the work “Crayons” did in their high tech day jobs and their lives outside the company in Chippewa Falls. By looking at these wonderful images you gain a strong sense of what it was like to build these great machines, that were so powerful for their time, yet today would be rivaled by something you can hold in the palm of your hand. At the same time you get a real sense of the beauty and vibrancy of small town life in America’s heartland during what now seems to be a much, much different time.

Cray at Chippewa Falls had only one printing run and is accordingly somewhat of a rare and pricy book, yet it is certainly available. I’m not sure how it compares with other Friedlander books, as it’s the only one I own. But one thing I’m sure of is that you couldn’t find a better guide for what to do if you wished to create your own documentary project on the area you live in and those that work and live there too. For this reason, for all the great images, and of course for those reasons that are personal to me, I am extremely grateful to own this wonderful book.

William Clift, Certain Places

I had a great Thanksgiving and I hope those who celebrate it had one as well. One of the things I am thankful for is to have a wonderful photographic library that contains Certain Places, by the great photographer William Clift.

I won’t waste any time and get right to the point. This slender and not overly large book containing only 22 black and white photographs is perhaps one of the finest I own. The subjects include the New Mexico landscape, Mont Saint Michel, public buildings, sculptures and a few other assorted images. A particularly memorable photograph is Swing, Tesuque, New Mexico, 1973. It’s a picture of swing made of woven rope blowing in the New Mexico breeze with what looks like storm clouds in the distance. The light is amazing the scene is breathtaking. In short, it is one of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. I can only imagine what it would look like in front of me!

I found an interesting interview of Clift. He states that he is not a traditionalist and uses a range of cameras including 8×10, 5×7, 4×5, medium format and 35mm. Sounds like using the right tool for the job, or perhaps he just makes great pictures with whatever camera he chooses. That wouldn’t surprise me at all! What was most interesting was his statement that he makes very few pictures.  In other words only what is meaningful to him. In a video interview he discusses the mistake of attempting to make photographs that will appeal to others. No doubt his approach to seeing and making photographs that move him contributes to a very high rate of successful images and is something we should all think about!

His philosophy and working methods shine through in this most beautiful of books and I never tire of looking at it.

Yes, only 22 photographs, but a truly remarkable book that belongs in everyone’s photography library!

Ray McSavaney, Explorations: A Photographic Journey

If you are a large format photographer steeped in the “West Coast” School, you probably know about Ray McSavaney. My guess that he is not that well known by the general photographic world and that is a true shame because the black and white images he made of the natural and urban landscape are sublime. This past week I shared his wonderful book Explorations: A Photographic Journey with my two photography classes. Why? Because I continue to tell my students that they need become more open to the photographic possibilities surrounding them. The problem is that we continuously pass by tremendous beauty and meaningful subject matter on a daily basis without thinking twice, and that’s sad.

Published in 1992, the book was selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts as “one of the 50 best books of the year”, but it is also one of the best books in my photographic library! A major retrospective of his work up until that time, Explorations includes a wide range of subjects from abandoned industrial sites in Los Angeles, to ancient Anasazi ruins, to pristine landscape scenes in Yosemite. Many would walk by the majority of these wonderful photographic opportunities without a second thought. Fortunately McSavaney did not.

McSavaney is a true master.  Each image is wonderfully seen and exquisitely printed.

Included in this absolutely printed book is a very fine forward by photographer and writer John Nichols and a number of insightful essays by McSavaney himself. Finally, there is a useful technical section describing McSavaney’s tools and methods.

The book can still be purchased new through John Sexton’s website $60. It’s a bargain and would be for twice that amount.

Simply said, this is a book that should be in every photographer’s library.

I am fortunate to own a signed copy. It’s a true treasure that I always will cherish and learn from.

George Tice, Urban Landscapes

One of my favorite photographs, Petit’s Mobil Station, Cherry Hill appears on jacket as well as page 67 of Urban Landscapes. It’s something you have seen a million times in your life … a gas station almost empty of customers at night with a few lights on and lone car parked outside. Nothing special … right? Actually it is pretty special as are many of the other photographs contained in this great monograph by George Tice. The quiet peacefulness and grandeur of the scene is really something to see, made ever more exciting by the inclusion of a majestic water tower lurking in the background, eerily visible in the darkness of the night. Every detail is clearly discernable because Tice used an 8×10 view camera to capture the scene. Not the easiest camera to make a nighttime image but he uses it to stunning effect!

All of the photographs were made in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties in his home state of New Jersey with that same camera. A large and difficult to use tool for the job, but for Tice the absolute right choice!

Other special images include White Castle, Route #1, Rahway; Strand Theater, Keyport; and Oak Tree, Holmdel. Interestingly, all three were made at night, but there are many other wonderful images to be found here as well.

I have read some comments on this book, describing the contents as mundane and bland. I disagree. For those of us growing up and coming of age during this time, urban landscapes such as those found here may have held little interest and perhaps were something to escape from. What we didn’t notice … and those who think of these images as mundane do not appreciate … is the quiet beauty, and even majesty of the everyday urban structures and artifacts captured in exquisite light by Tice.

Maybe not everyone gets it and perhaps you won’t right away. Maybe it will take a few times studying it closely. It’s an examination of what may be a rapidly bygone time and place in America. Images we have passed by in life without a second thought cannot be taken for granted here, as they are laid before us in this most beautiful book.

Morley Baer, The Wilder Shore

This is one of my favorite books and I think I know why. But more on that in just a bit.

Morley Baer was a tremendous large format photographer and an all-star member of the West Coast School. He was friends with Edward Weston and assisted him from time to time towards the end of Weston’s life. He also assisted Ansel Adams, and along with Adams and Brett Weston, he was one of the founders of the Friends of Photography. Baer was considered one of the world’s foremost architectural photographers, but what originally attracted me to his work were his wonderful images of California’s beauty.

For over fifty years he used his beloved Ansco 8X10 view camera in a most effective way to capture California’s farmlands, coastline, forests, deserts and buildings. Legend has it that as time went on his camera was barely (no pun intended) being held together! The ancient machine was not particularly sexy, and he used classic old lenses such at the famous 480mm 19” Goertz Artar to make mostly black and white contact prints that are simply stunning. Not only did he possess a purity of vision, but his images were of the highest technical quality.

So why do I enjoy this book so much? Well first of all, the black and white photographs of California’s landscape are just flat out beautiful and inspiring. And then there is a wonderful text by David Rains Wallace. But what makes this book really interesting, and yes special, is the inclusion of color prints that accompany most of the black and white photographs. And yes this color work is fantastic! Recently I discovered why. They were made with tungsten balanced Ektachrome slide film intended for indoor work! The film could be corrected for outdoor application by using a #85B filter on the lens and this enables a warmer outdoor image than standard Ektachrome. But wait, there’s more! Baer created a softer contrast by overexposing the film one stop and having the color lab develop it for less than normal development time. The result … beautifully delicate, yet powerful images that are the complete opposite of the usual over saturated and postcard looking color we are so used to seeing! The entirety of book is sublime and I never tire of looking at it.

I’ve used this book to great effect as a teaching tool with my students to compare black and white and color images of similar subject matter. Several have bought a copy because they fell in love.

I think this is an under appreciated book by a truly marvelous photographer. It can often be found for under $50. I purchased mine years ago as a remainder for $25.

Listen … just do yourself a favor … find this book and buy it!

David Plowden, The American Barn

In a recent blog entry I talked about my fascination with Buffalo’s old and unoccupied grain elevators. I felt they had a spiritual quality about them; that in a way they were monuments to the past. I went on to say that I was aware of the elevators when I was growing up, but never really witnessed or cared about them. And I never thought about seeing them during the many times I had been back to visit after I graduated from college and moved away. I suspect this isn’t an atypical situation for many of us. My hope in writing about this was that we would now think about the opportunities that exist to capture the power and beauty of the many artifacts of a different … and perhaps better time.

In the same entry I mentioned one of my favorite photographers, David Plowden.   Plowden describes himself as “an archeologist with a camera”, spending his life “one step ahead of the wrecking ball” to capture poignant images of the American landscape and historic American structures before they’re gone. Because I have also been discussing doing photographic projects or working on a theme this made me think about one my favorite Plowden books, The American Barn.

I love old barns, but like many structures that represent our proud past, they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Just as the small farm is becoming more a thing of the past, so too are these wonderful buildings. They represented a simpler time and way of life that is gone and most likely not coming back. They also represent a less homogenized version of America with their unique shapes, designs and sizes. So different than what dots much of our landscape today. Unfortunately they and the small farms they inhabit are going fast, as are a range of iconic structures across the land. Instead we have huge agribusinesses, suburban sprawl, more sub divisions, strip mall blight, ugly uninspiring architecture … you name it. It’s all about economics … or because we seem to want it … or because we don’t really care about enough about things done in really bad taste.

Thankfully Plowden has taken the time to travel across the country capturing images of these beautiful structures so that we will be able to remember and cherish them before they’re gone. Plowden is a master photographer and printer and the 130 black and white pictures contained in the large coffee table size volume are wonderful. I look at it often and when it’s open I almost feel a breath of fresh air from the crop fields blow off its pages. It inspires and makes me happier. Take a look … perhaps you will feel the same.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Nudes: The Blue Room

Manuel Alvarez Bravo lived to the ripe old age of 100 (1902-2002). He was one of Mexico’s greatest photographers and certainly one of the great Masters of the 20th Century. Not as well known to the general public as some of his contemporaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Edward Weston or Ansel Adams, he was a major force in the photographic world.

He had several phases throughout his enormously successful career, focusing on architecture and nature, urban landscape, street scenes and surrealist images. A major area of interest was the female nude, an incredibly difficult subject to do properly. In my opinion Bravo did it right.

Nudes: The Blue Room is a small book, both in size and in the number of images it contains. There are less then forty, made over a period of almost sixty years from the 1930s to the 1990s. They are beautifully seen and printed. In fact, everything about this book is beautiful, from the creamy paper stock, to the warm tonality of the mat finished photographs. Even the orange brown linen cover has a small yet exquisite print pasted on to it.

I have but a few books that only focus on the female form and I don’t pull them out that often, but there is something special about this little jewel. Quite different than Edward Weston’s classic nudes, in some ways it is one of my favorites. Despite its singular subject matter, there is much that can be learned from studying its contents and this can be readily applied to black and white craft, lighting, and composition – no matter what the subject matter is.

This is a special book and the good news is that you can find it used for as little as twenty bucks! So for the price of burgers, fries and sodas for two, you can own this gem. My suggestion is you get it, then sit down in a comfortable chair and contemplate all that it has to offer.