To be real.
Contemporary German Photography (Taschen Verlag, $24.99), edited by Markus Rasp, an anthology of work from a score of young talents not yet recognized on this side of the Atlantic, indicates that the appeal of Goldin's subjective, self-centered sensibility is global. The photographs here - mostly in color, and mostly focused on aspects of everyday life in Germany - are undoubtedly a sign of the robustness of the current German photography scene, but they also wear their alienation on their collective sleeve. Besides Goldin, the dominant influences on these well-schooled photographers seem to be Americans Lewis Baltz and Jack Pierson and, closer to home, Michael Schmidt and Wolfgang Tillmans (perhaps we should call it Der Slacker style). There's plenty of blurred banality, barren landscapes, and disaffected youth on view, all portrayed with skill, and precious little romanticism or idealism. One wonders if Robert Frank's iconoclastic enterprise of the '50s, which vividly combined alienation and idealism, has finally become attenuated by the academy.
The attempt to reauthenticate photographic experience is being played out not only along the axis of personal experience but also across history. Here the photograph appears as a trustworthy and potentially instrumental document, and individual pictures and their makers seem capable of superseding their cultural and historical biases. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (Random House, $100) is one such fascinating but flawed model of how photographs can be resuscitated from their past purposes and re-formed as convincing documentary evidence. The book is the project of Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photojournalist best known for her coverage of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Combining her interest in collaborative, multiauthored photojournalism projects with an urge to explain the recent genocide against the Kurds, Kurdistan is a hybrid visual history that relies on a newly assembled archive of pictures that date from the late nineteenth century to the present. The bulk of the older photographs are portraits, while the more recent images are mostly newsworthy scenes of the tribulations suffered by the Kurds at the hands of the Turks and Iraqis since the Gulf War, shot in color by Meiselas and other Western photojournalists, and supplemented by news clippings, journal entries, excerpts from recent interviews, plus a series of brief commentaries by anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen.
There is no disputing the value of the images Meiselas has found; many are by Kurdish photographers unknown in the West, while others represent the labors of long-forgotten Western ethnographers, journalists and travelers who saw the Kurds as exotic subjects. Nor is there any disputing the value of the book itself: it opens our eyes to a far-off people in need of political support and, at 390 pages and $100, it's no mere issue of National Geographic. But the heft and cost of Kurdistan seem at odds with its political - and presumably popular - intentions. Fortunately, those eager to sample it without paying a weighty price can avail themselves of the project's website (www.akakurdistan.com), which is a virtual bargain.
Is it necessary to say that not all archives are created equal? Ever since Michael Lesy published Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), in which the scholar/archivist enlisted the corpus of a small-town photographer to illuminate the economic and psychological depression of turn of the century America, he has been looking for another potent trove of dusty images with which to make history. Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (The New Press, $40), his latest foray, combines photographs sold by the Detroit Publishing Company at the turn of the century with text about the state of American life between 1900 and 1910. Part of what makes the photographs of interest is that many were taken by William Henry Jackson, a veteran survey photographer of the American West and a partner in the Detroit company's commercial enterprise; now the images are owned by the federal government and in the public domain.
As a group portrait of America past, Dreamland falls short of convincing. The pictures are arranged by subject, not by chronology, even though timelines appear in their midst. Lesy's categories are often problematic: "Natives in Costume" is followed by "Real Men: Cowboys and Miners." (If the author means to be sarcastic here, he needs to clue us in.) And his text, which might profitably explain how these evocative images of Main Streets, bridges, and engineering wonders represent an edenic vision of the United States, instead gets bogged down in the details of the commerce of which Jackson was a part and in Jackson's relationship with railroad magnate and patron Jay Gould. How any of this constitutes a dreamland is left to the reader to fill in, as is a more pertinent point: what values and preconceptions are revealed by these images? And what can they tell us about the mass marketing of photographic images at the dawn of the age of photomechanical reproduction?
An archive of a more familiar sort takes center stage in Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (Art institute of Chicago and Bulfinch/Little, Brown, $60), edited by Colin Westerbeck. Published on the occasion of his one-man show at the Chicago Art Institute - itself occasioned by Penn's donation of his archive to the museum - the book reproduces not only the expected golden hits from Vogue but also several of the original contact sheets and tearsheets. Essays by arty fashion writers (Martin Harrison) and fashionable art writers (Rosamond Bernier) add to the sense that Penn, for all his unalloyed seriousness about his mission, has been a photographer of diverse parts. But what makes his archive so potentially interesting is the way it throws together the commercial assignments involving fashion and celebrity portraiture with "personal work" of plump nudes and vanitas still lifes. More than one observer has noted, for example, that his advertising images of cosmetic bottles closely resemble his arrangements of steel blocks and skulls done in the name of art; a big question here is the usefulness of dividing photographs according to their functions. Unfortunately, the book does not dwell on the larger issue of how Penn's work authenticates Fashion by representing it as Art and, much more radically, vice versa.
One way of comprehending Penn's photography, and perhaps fashion photography in general, is to see it as a kind of faux documentary, a complexly coded but easily readable system in which enough of the real is portrayed to create the illusion of authenticity. The analogue in literature would be the "nonfiction novel." This blurring of fiction and nonfiction modes is the salient characteristic of Bruce Weber's Branded Youth and Other Stories (Bulfinch/Little, Brown, $75), which ably demonstrates that immediacy and mediation are not incompatible opposites.
With a complex, cinematic structure (courtesy of graphic designer Sam Shahid) and Hollywood family values, Branded Youth tries hard to be not just a pretty exhibition catalogue. Published in conjunction with a recent Weber show at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the book includes the requisite celebrity portraits (Matt Dillon, Brad Pitt, Marky Mark, et al.), but its artistic fantasies lie in sections devoted to documentary-style photo essays on non-celebrities in Vietnam, South Africa, and Montana, as well as fashion-style views of Iowa wrestlers, Colorado Boy Scouts, and Montana teenagers. The pictures are spiced with celebrations of male bonding written by the likes of Charles Bukowski and Alien Ginsberg, as well as Weber's own subsalacious hand-printed narrative of "Theo, Lionel, Larry and John" ("It was that time in their lives when their pants had started to fall below their hips . . .").
All of which goes to make an intriguing book which seems purposely to evade declaring its meaning by eliding fabrication and fact. The confessional tone of the writing is seldom matched by Weber's pictures, which owe too much to his work in fashion and advertising to seem sincere. Yet there is an undeniable zest in his portrayals of Scouts at a jamboree as if they were the Aryan youth of Hitler's dreams, or Midwestern teen wrestlers as Olympians of the '30s. Weber dedicates Branded Youth to Lisette Model, his photography teacher, but Leni Riefenstahl would seem a more persuasive influence.
Compared to such a sensibility, the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher looks positively old-fashioned, embedded as it is in the notion of the photograph as an objective frame best applied, a la Atget, to twilight cultures. Mineheads (MIT, $75), a collection of black-and-white photographs of erector-set-like, aboveground coal-mining structures, is the latest in a series of identically designed collections of the Bechers' work (Water Towers, Blast Furnaces) that together constitute a catalogue of the increasingly vestigial industrial age. Their transparent, restrained style has influenced the work of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (all incidentally German artists excluded from Contemporary German Photography), but it has yet to be fully appreciated. Those searching for the real thing might want to reconsider what Walker Evans called photography's "documentary style," which the Bechers exemplify - not quite history in any naively absolute sense, yet decidedly distant from the received solipsism of the family of Nan.
Andy Grundberg is a critic who lives in San Francisco.
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|Title Annotation:||six books on photography|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1998|
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