Thursday, December 27, 2007

An Inside Job

The Polaroids

by André Kertész
W. W. Norton, November 2007
128 pages/hardcover/80 photographs/$35.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

The beautiful, bittersweet images in The Polaroids illustrate never-before-seen expressions of the amazing André Kertész (1894-1985). Mirroring his life and work, this little book is strong and sensitive, gripping and groundbreaking. Moreover, the unparalleled instant medium of Polaroid proves a fitting key to further understanding Kertész’s artistic intellect throughout his seventy-three year career.

After mastering photography in his native Hungary and reaching celebrity status in Paris, Kertész came to New York in 1936 with great anticipation. Instead, he endured more frustration than applause. He was plagued by illness; difficulty learning English; humiliation at what he felt was a “hack job” as a House and Garden magazine staffer; and devastation over the death of his wife and business manager, Elizabeth, in 1977.

By the end of the 1970s, Kertész fell into isolated despair. During this period, Graham Nash gave Kertész a Polaroid SX-70 as a gift, hoping to ignite a spark in his friend. It worked. As he conquered the technology he could not stop. Kertész was newly motivated; his success controlling and manipulating wild and bouncing reflections amid strange colors and irregular developing results unique to Polaroid film invigorated his sagging spirit.

Many Polaroids depict a small glass bust Kertész found in a bookstore, an evocative figurine that struck an aching chord for Elizabeth. Shooting alone in his Manhattan apartment using window light for his studies, he aligned the sculpture and other personal objects with the skyline beyond the sill, compulsively working day after day. He took bold and direct-in-the-lens portraits of special visitors and staged exquisite still life scenes: three apples on a small round tray with one perched atop a water glass is composition perfection; the delicate bust atop a pedestal in intense black-and-blue tones set against the once invincible Twin Towers is scaling precision.

The Polaroids is about the rebirth of Kertész via a largely unpublished record of his final years of brilliance. The book prompts interest in revivifying Kertész’s methods and leads to rediscovering his earlier trendsetting photographs with fresh appreciation. The Polaroids is also an essential element for anyone interested in learning about process, particularly the process of healing oneself through a burning desire to create.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Can You Feel The Love?

Puppies Behind Bars: Training Puppies to Change Lives

by Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg
Glitterati Inc., October 2007
144 pages/hardcover/168 photographs/$50.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

Puppies Behind Bars: Training Puppies to Change Lives is a seamless collaboration between photographers Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg who document prison inmates training dogs to help those in need. The project hatched when Makos met an extraordinary Labrador, a recent graduate of the Puppies Behind Bars program, riding as if human on a flight to Houston. That was unusual enough to stimulate Makos’ eye and out came the camera instead of a much needed pillow.

What he captured was a golden dog loose in the first class cabin, but it was Chauncy’s intelligent smile radiating in his frames that convinced Makos to chase a bigger picture story. After some queries on board, Makos emailed his shots from the flight to organization founder Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who was thrilled by his enthusiasm. He then contacted Solberg to join him in shooting the dogs, the prisons where they are trained and the fortunate people and organizations around the country who are helped by these special animals.

Makos and Solberg are cohesively diverse as great duos should be and when they team up, their visuals strike an agreeable balance. One of the strongest appeals in Puppies Behind Bars is the rare lack of individual photo credits. Half-way through the book it matters less which one took the picture, but it’s fun trying to guess. Makos excels at extreme graphical close-ups with frames full of dog hair that are crispy and physical. Softly lit sleeping puppies and touching portraits of loyalty between dog and inmate exhibit Solberg’s strong ability to depict natural desire and harmony.

As we hang a new calendar while vowing to adjust a lethargic habit here and a fizzled strategy there, Puppies Behind Bars is an inspirational book for image makers on the hunt for stories that make a difference.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Becoming a Fanatik

E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s

by Phillip Prodger
Photographs by E. O. Hoppé
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., August 27, 2007
176 pages/hardcover/78 photographs/$49.95

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

The industrial photographs of modernist photographer E. O. Hoppé had unfortunately slipped under my radar until our erudite editor of ASPP's The Picture Professional, Niki Barrie, sent E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s into my welcoming hands.

On further research, it was a bit comforting to find I was not alone in missing out on Hoppé significant contributions in the recording of our nation. It seems his images were not remembered as well as the works of other photographers in this modernist genre that I learned he clearly influenced: Stieglitz, Weston and Evans.

Sadly, for years, Hoppé’s images were abandoned to locked archives in England and Germany. Now, some eighty years later, Hoppé’s work, referred to by historians as the missing link between the Edwardian and the Modern eras of history and photography, is celebrated in this long overdue tribute.

When he arrived in America in 1919 from London (he was born in Germany of French and Austrian heritage), Hoppé was just about the most famous photographer in the world. He had also recently turned 40 and well knew that commercial photography—mostly long portrait sessions for the aristocracy—would bring him opportunities in the new world.

Once landed, there was a big country calling him. Soon enough, he seized the day to leave his studios to wander about the country. It’s tempting to jump past the introduction to linger upon Hoppé’s individual images (called Plates in this volume), but note: it is imperative to return to the opening text to fully appreciate Hoppé.

There is so much to discover about this forgotten and fascinating modernist pioneer photographer. Renowned art and photography historian Phillip Prodger worked meticulously to pen a compelling introduction for Amerika, giving frank and entertaining details about Hoppé’s background, methods and motivations.

Since his fame was as a portraitist, the book’s image section begins with character studies—not of his highbrow clients—but rather of the immigrants and skid-row tramps of Manhattan. Once his journeying had started, Hoppé became interested in the industrial structures of the city.

Featured next are odd-angled views of the Brooklyn Bridge and street scenes emphasizing steel and hardware. The images in Amerika continue by page revealing a new portfolio as the photographs lead us into Hoppé’s exploration of the country to Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, Detroit, Los Angeles, and beyond.

In one spread, a railway station in Boston shot in 1926 is teamed with New York’s Grand Central Station captured in 1921. The grabbing points are large grid patterns, light-pouring windows and steam streaks. These locations give the impression of being more modern than historical, possibly because travel in this country has changed in the present century. Side-by-side, these two photographs fling to the eye hints of past and future ghosts.

At the forefront of another image, an expanded American flag atop the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami begs to be the focal point. But even Old Glory is secondary to several crows hanging out on the roof’s guardrail and a repeating peak pattern of the architecture. This picture has been ideally framed. Hoppé’s talent in that regard is exemplified throughout the book.

Portraits creep back into the mix as the book continues. These are of common men from Utah, Texas and Tennessee. He presents Native Americans as sad, not proud. Unlike his previous stylized sitting portraits, these candid frames signify an emerging industrial nation through the faces of the people attempting to build what had never been built before.

Hoppé shows America’s quirky flipsides, too, and Amerika is evidence that he didn’t shoot what he was told would be “interesting.” An image of Universal City with vintage cars, cowboys on horseback, and film crew milling around on a quaint western town set looks...well, quaint. Next is a shot of the same Hollywood studio’s backlot, where carcasses of vintage cars are junk piled and scraps of lumber from saloon facades have been thrown into heaps.

Hoppé’s phenomenal effort and inner passion to document the unknown country results in this newly discovered preservation of the 1920s. Amerika features waterfronts and Army fields, mailboxes and immigrant stores, oil fields and electrical pylons, and Indians and National Parks. It also delivers the grandeur of Hoppé. His fans (now I’m one), can thank those who knew the importance of rummaging around in these particular forgotten boxes.

Monday, December 10, 2007

We're Not All Surfers & Celebs

The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns of California

by Joan Tapper
Photographs by Nik Wheeler
Thames & Hudson, September 24, 2007
208 pages, hardcover/323 color illustrations/$40.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

With The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns of California, photographer Nik Wheeler and travel writer Joan Tapper have created a hefty new coffee-table book that engagingly transports readers to the small town jewels of a mammoth state. Flipping through the image-heavy pages of this volume, it is easy to imagine yourself enjoying a lazy afternoon strolling around any of the many charming communities scattered throughout California.

California is part of the Most Beautiful Villages and Towns series by Thames & Hudson, with earlier titles focusing mostly on European destinations. The concept is to explore lesser-known hamlets and the assorted townsfolk who frame the personalities of small-town settings. The villages and towns selected for inclusion typically have populations less than 40,000.

The book is organized by six main sections on Northern California’s Coasts, Mountains and Valleys, and Central and Southern California’s Coasts, Mountains and Valleys. Additionally, there are three separate pictorial spreads exploring the history and heritage of the state’s most iconic themes: the wine country, ghost towns and missions.

As a native of the Golden State, I was thrilled to see the town where I was born and raised, Mendocino, presented so attractively in California. I have visited nearly every location covered in this book, and the quality of photography and writing inspired me to return to many, but this time with deeper appreciation for the historical importance these communities have played in forming Californian’s heritage.

Wheeler and Tapper found a way to shed a new importance to ho-hum stops such as Eureka, Truckee, Bishop, and Ferndale. Throughout California, the authors do a fair job of attempting to equalize the stature of those lesser-known places with the state’s more fashionable weekender stops such as Sausalito, Montecito, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Also exposed are Nevada City, Julian, Jamestown and Ballard. In fact, one could take any number of treasure-hunt-like trips using this book as a guide.

The images by Santa Barbara-based photographer Nik Wheeler have been added liberally and make the book as abundant as the state itself. His images form a cohesive and fresh approach to the most obscure parts of the state. Wheeler photographed new images on assignment specifically for California, often returning to a location in order to extend coverage or document festivals. His shots are a smart blend of oceanscapes, antiquated streets, wilderness environments, abandoned and restored hallmarks, ranches, markets and well-timed candid snaps of locals at various yearly events.

With her friendly, chatty style, celebrated travel writer Joan Tapper mixes timelines, travel tips, happenings, secret spots to visit and visual high points in her narrative running through California. Tapper obviously spent time hanging out long enough at each stop in order to ask the right “outsider” questions to the right “insider” residents. There is enough historical information to get a general flavor for each place.

The book also touches on local architecture and natives, making California that more intriguing to read. In a back section are personal recommendations for places to stay and dine, a map of the state pinpointing places covered in the book and a list of selected reading about California topics and specific towns.

If you want to experience an earthy, down home dimension of the state, California delivers that feeling page after page. Bypassing the usual glitz and glamour, this book instead celebrates the more solid and serious side of California by bringing to light the beauty of its little places with big hearts.