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!

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.

Robert Frank, The Americans

Like Helen of Troy, the “face that launched a thousand ships”, Robert Frank, through his seminal work, The Americans, influenced countless street and documentary photographers and the trajectory of photography itself!

There have been at least four editions this incredible book that have been published since 1958. Each one is slightly different. My copy is published by Scalo and leaves the captions that go with each photograph to the very end of the book.

What matters is that Frank may have taken the ultimate photographic road trip across America just before everything changed forever with the Sixties. And perhaps Frank’s unvarnished view of America and American life may have been as significant as rock and roll, the counter culture and the rest of the fall out from the Viet Nam War in changing the way we looked at ourselves.

During his year and half year project Frank exposed 767 rolls of film, making 27,000 pictures. Ultimately he edited them down to 83 images. And what images they are!

83 perfectly sequenced black and white photographs tell the story, and an incredible and shocking story it must have been for a society used to seeing nothing but a sugar coated view of reality. It certainly was not welcomed by the mainstream photography and art world. Nothing would be the same again, but we are surely better off for his brilliant vision.

I have been lucky enough to see several Frank exhibits including one showing all 83 photographs, along with his proof sheets! I was also fortunate to be able to attend a lecture he gave in support of one of the exhibits.

In short, your photographic library must include a copy of this book. Buy any one the editions, new or used; it doesn’t matter. Just get one!

Sandy Sorlien, Fifty Houses: Images From the American Road

This is nifty little book that I like for many reasons. Not the least being that I am drawn to a premise behind it — that from an architectural standpoint, America has become a pretty uninteresting, homogenized and characterless looking place.

I’ve noticed in many of my travels that as our great country becomes more and more suburbanized, much of it looks pretty much the same. It really doesn’t matter where you are. Rockville Pike in suburban Maryland outside Washington, DC looks the same as stretches of Rt. 611 past Doylestown in Bucks County PA. Same as it looks in many other places you might be driving through. Truth is I live in a semi custom track house development right at the edge of town. I couldn’t find a house I could afford in the Borough that had a basement big enough for a darkroom! It’s a compromise and thankfully there are a lot of beautiful trees, but I wish I could live in house that’s more architecturally distinctive.

Perhaps all of this is symptomatic of where American culture is headed in general. But I am standing firm. I’m listening to my vinyl — using tube electronics of course — and making silver gelatin prints from my black and white film negatives. So there!

Ok, let me catch my breath and get back to this book. Sorlien spent eight years traveling over 90,000 miles across America to make wonderful “house portraits” in all 50 states. Fascinating houses of all types, sizes and shapes, each with stories to go along with them. She eventually made over 1,000 portraits and chose one for each state. What’s interesting is that she used a 35mm camera with a 28mm or 35mm perspective control lens and black and white infrared film. That’s right black and white infrared film!  Not what I would have selected, but you can’t argue with the outcome! The results are different and somewhat unique. Somehow it all works in the context of what is being done. The houses seem a little otherworldly and perhaps that is as it should be given how unlike they are from what is taking over. The compositions are simple, yet beautiful. Different, but with the accompanying texts … somehow right.

In short, I like it and I think you might too!

Eliot Porter’s Southwest

Eliot Porter was primarily known for his color photography and I admit to owning one of his fine color monographs (American Places) – one of the only color photography books I have! In fact, Porter is one of the few color photographers I really like. So it was very interesting to me to explore his early black and white work, created mostly before he became a renowned color photographer of birds and the natural landscape.

Porter originally was recognized for his black and white work exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz at the famous “An American Place” in 1938. A year later Beaumont Newhall used his black and white images in the first exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art’s photography gallery. Nevertheless Porter turned to color and that is really what established his ultimate fame – and rightly so – he was good at it! However, this wonderful large format book contains over 90 beautiful black and white images of the Southwestern United States landscape, and the old buildings and other interesting artifacts he found there. There are only two pictures containing people, but one is a striking portrait of the painter Georgia O’Keefe.

It takes you back to a far different and simpler – and some would argue – a better time … and when I look at it I daydream just a little.

The photographs are aesthetically and technically exquisite and there is a wonderful introduction written by Porter about his life as a young man and how he switched careers to become a photographer. You can find this beauty for a song. Get it and maybe daydream a little.

John Loengard, Pictures Under Discussion

Growing up, one of my greatest thrills was when the weekly Life Magazine would arrive in the mail. Eventually Life became a monthly and finally went out of circulation with the new millennium, a casualty of the Internet I suppose. Most of the Twentieth Century’s great documentary photographers were published on its pages. John Loengard was one of them and perhaps the most influential. He joined Life in the early Sixties, became one of its greatest photographers and eventually its Picture Editor. Pictures Under Discussion is his first book, published in 1987 and it’s terrific!!!

The book contains about 80 Black and White photographs; some very famous and iconic, but half were never published before; they are the ones the photographer used for lectures he gave while teaching at New York’s New School. The focus is on people, objects and some landscapes. Of course the pictures are wonderful, but the real bonus is that Loengard provides his very revealing thoughts about the making of each picture, what his inspiration was, along with aesthetic and technical considerations.

Studying this book – viewing the photographs and reading Loengard’s commentary concerning each one is like taking a workshop with a legend!! Something truly to be treasured and learned from!

This master class is readily available both in hard and softcover editions. So there is no excuse not to run out and get a copy for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!