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Gift Books, 1986 : Photo Books in Focus

December 21, 1986|HOWARD SINGERMAN | Singerman is museum editor for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Photography has a most peculiar relationship to what in the arts is called real life. It is tied to the world in a way painting, sculpture, even film, which can, arguably, create a convincing other world, are not. Photography must picture something outside itself; its necessary condition is always, as Roland Barthes put it, "that-has-been." How does photography gain the autonomy of the work of art? How does it separate itself from the world it represents, as well as from the ubiquity of the photograph in snapshots, magazines, billboards? A number of strategies are recorded in this season's output of photography books: from early 20th-Century soft-focus pictorialism--the attempt to give photography the evocativeness of paintings; to mid-century "straight photography" and the attempt to separate out the essence of the world itself, to capture "supreme instants"; to the recent resurgence, under postmodernism's questioning of modernist truths and essences, of staged fictions, of photographs that lie.

The most beautiful example of the first approach, a strategy bent on beauty, is the newly reissued Sudek by Sonja Bullaty (Clarkson N. Potter: $35; 192 pp., 90 gravure photographs), first published in 1978. The photographs of church interiors cut by heavy light and domestic exteriors glimpsed through misted windows that Sudek referred to as "remembrances" are accompanied by the Czech photographer's own written remembrances, small and often insightful statements on photography, and tellingly, painting and music.

Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston by Beaumont Newhall (New York Graphic Society: $50; 192 pp., 237 photographs, 102 duotones, 7 color), the catalogue for a major traveling exhibition that will appear locally at the County Museum of Art, takes as its title Weston's description of the photographer's goal. The book's now classic images span three decades, recording Weston's development as an artist, his abandonment of pictorialism and his rejection of the doctored image in favor of the clarity of "pure photography." Newhall recounts Weston's own exceptions to the demands of purity, his own dodgings and compositions, but more to reinforce some generalized sense of the artist's rugged independence than to explain his process. The essay is aggravating; everything remains on the level of the anecdotal, held there by Newhall's habit of referring to his subject as Edward. While there is much talk of the techniques of photography--which camera Edward bought when--there is little discussion of the photographs, of their workings or assumptions or iconography, and while there are a great many names mentioned, there is no context offered for the work. Still, the best of Weston's photographs in the beautifully printed book do work as the artist intended. They transcend what they are pictures of; they leave their scenes to become full and autonomous images.

In addition to a healthy representation of the usual group of photographers-become-celebrities like Weston and Ansel Adams, there is the usual overabundance of photographs of celebrities. There are new collections of Karsh and Arnold Newman, and three Cecil Beaton books. The best of the genre is Alice Springs: Portraits, introduced by Helmut Newton (Twelvetrees: $35; 96 pp., 53 gravure photographs). Newton's Australian-born wife Alice Springs takes pictures of just the sort of people one might expect--Charlotte Rampling, Princess Caroline, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent. What is unexpected is the formal complexity and detail, the depth of the black that sets off most of the faces and the richness of the grays that describe them. Against the wealth and publicness her subjects represent, Springs is surprisingly self-effacing; the brief texts that accompany the images tell the story of their making, and she seems perfectly willing to tell us of her ambivalences when she hasn't gotten what she wanted.

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