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BOOKSHELF / ART & PHOTOGRAPHY

Pure Movement in Still Moments

September 24, 1998|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We've all seen photos of dancers caught in midleap. But there's only one photographer who captures the dazzling freedom of trained bodies tumbling, darting or falling through space to form stylized silhouettes.

"Airborne: The New Dance Photography of Lois Greenfield" (Chronicle Books, $22.95, 112 pages) offers a generous sampler of these black-and-white images, best known from advertisements for a brand of expensive watches. Brief essays by the director and curator of the Musee de l'Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland, explain how Greenfield fits into the history of photography, and the photographer adds brief commentaries about her work with the dancers.

She characterizes one stunning shot--in which statuesque Ashley Roland seems to support her floating body on one arm and three other ISO Company members have hurled themselves into seated, kneeling and prone positions in the air--as "a chaotic situation which miraculously coheres at one particular split second."

Although Greenfield, a former photojournalist, has documented performances, her specialized shots happen in the clean, white space of her studio, where she can ask dancers to repeat their exhausting movements over and over until they register the spirit of a particular dance, the essence of a company's style or simply the chance combinations of bodies unleashing controlled energy.

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Lonely Planet, pioneering publisher of guides for the have-backpack-will-travel set, has remade the usually vacuous "gift" book genre to survey an exotic subject with intelligent curiosity, bright design and colorful photographs that get right in the thick of things.

"Chasing Rickshaws" ($34.95, 192 pages) takes a look at the taxicabs of the developing world, powered these days by guys on bicycles. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler and photographer Richard L'Anson hung out in 12 cities, from Agra, India, to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, chatting with rickshaw riders, owners, makers and repairers, and even taking the disconcertingly wobbly vehicles for test runs.

Each city has a different style. In Calcutta, 100,000 rickshaw pullers--skinny, transplanted peasants living in cramped dormitories--move 2 million passengers a day on old-fashioned wooden-spoke wheels. Manila, where transportation is dominated by the gas-powered jeepney, still has about 2,000 sidecars (two-seaters attached to bicycles).

While the ranks of Hanoi's cyclos, Penang's trishaws in Malaysia and Hong Kong's rickshaws have been thinned out by government refusals to issue new licenses, competition from motorcycles and aging riders, Agra rickshaw pullers do a booming business as school buses (10 or 12 little kids can squeeze in), and several cities have seen their rickshaws become prime tourist attractions.

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A book about a famous architect without a single plan or elevation--or any important new information or interpretation--better have something enticing up its sleeve. "Frank Lloyd Wright" (Courage Books, $19.98, 176 pages) has a couple hundred inviting color photographs by Englishman Simon Clay and a lively, anecdotal text. Mario Costantino, who teaches at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in England, outlines the great man's career in terms of his long (1867-1959) and turbulent life.

You learn how Wright's mom bought her 9-year-old son German educational toys: colored paper strips, two-dimensional grids, wooden spheres, blocks and pyramids that the architect later cited as key influences in his modular plans and geometric shapes.

Reading about Wright's Prairie Houses--his first distinctive style, with free-flowing interior spaces and custom-made furniture--you may find yourself paging past more famous examples to check out the dwelling he designed in 1903 for Edwin H. and Martha Borthwick Cheney in Oak Park, Ill. The architect left his wife six years later for Martha, who never returned to her exquisite, yellow-and-red living-dining room and died in a 1914 fire at Taliesin, Wright's rural Wisconsin retreat.

Costantino's summary of decades of Wright's work across the U.S. necessarily gives short shrift to his projects in Southern California, where he developed a new way of building with ornamental concrete blocks. Read Alice T. Friedman's "Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History" (Abrams, $39.95, 240 pages) for a more nuanced view of Wright's work for Aline Barnsdall, the temperamental heiress who wanted to build a theater and wound up with the garden-embracing Hollywood complex known as Hollyhock House.

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Tongue piercings? Tattoos? A hopeless love affair with turquoise eye shadow? Hey, you're in good company.

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