Reissued by errata editions, 2011
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
Tragedy can befall books just as it does people.
In 1956 a fire destroyed source material, negatives, prints, layouts and virtually everything that had gone into making Alexey Brodovitch’s first book of photography Ballet. With a perverse tenacity a second fire consumed the few remaining copies of the book in Brodovitch’s possession some years later.
What was lost to the flames was a completely individual work that stood well outside of the photographic tradition of the times. Or, as expressed by Christopher Phillips, Brodovitch’s photographs, “spat in the face of technique and pointed out a new way in which photographers could work.”
Ballet was shot between 1935 and 1937. The first two years of the famous Farm Security Administration’s documentary photography project. The FSA employed the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to create what are now some of the most well known images in the history of photography.
But while Evans, Lange, and their colleagues were outside in the bright sun with professional equipment and the clear purpose of documenting the lives of the American dispossessed, Brodovitch was working in the gloomy backstage lighting of theatre halls with newly invented 35-mm film and a Contax camera. He had no lights other than stage lighting and he had slow film. He could barely hope to get a clear image. But, as it turns out, Brodovitch could do more with these shadows and luminous ghosts than most could do with their razor sharp imagery.
Alexey Brodovitch is best known as a masterful innovator and luminary of publication design. For 25 years he was the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, a position he used to rethink the relationship of image to text within the setting of the two-page spread. It could be argued that it was Brodovitch that gave us the magazine as we recognize it today. In 1933 he founded the legendary Design Laboratory, a nexus that, over the years, brought together such notables as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Lisette Model and, of course, Richard Avedon.
If one is familiar with Avedon’s work, Ballet provides the missing link between his hallmark portraits and his blurred, street work done in Italy during the 1940s, at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in other environments where he abandoned his studio technique. Avedon’s work makes sense as someone working in a “Brodovitch” style. But when Brodovitch make his photos he was attempting something entirely new. As Edwin Denby states in his introduction to Ballet.
When you first glance at them Alexey Brodovitch’s photographs look strangely unconventional. Brodovitch, who knows as well as any of us the standardized Fifth Avenue kind of flawless prints, offers us as his own some that are blurred, distorted, too black and spectral, or too light and faded looking, and he has even intensified these qualities in the darkroom. [… ] What he took, what he watched for, it seems, were the unemphatic moments, the ones the audience does not applaud but establish the spell of the evening.
The Errata re-publication of Ballet is a very welcome book. It reproduces the pages of the original, yet it cannot really be considered a facsimile edition. In fact, the layout is somewhat awkward as the standardized size of Errata’s books is at odds with the dimensions of Ballet. One wonders what Brodovitch himself would have made of the new housing for his work. It is a minor complaint, however, as the text of the original has been re-set and included at the back. Also included are some of the only surviving contact sheets of Brodovitch’s 35mm negatives. The Errata eddition clearly communicates the genius of Brodovitch’s design and image manipulation.
It is worth noting that Errata editions were “… inspired by the frustration of not being able to access the content of many of the important photobooks the medium has produced. We find it distressing that these bookworks are no longer available to students or new generations of photographers.” Errata are dedicated to bringing out those volumes that will never be reissued in their original form.
Ballet was first published in 1945 by J. J. Augustin of New York. There were 104 photographs produced in the gravure style. The edition was 500. Additional information on the history of this influential book, including the quotes mentioned in this review, can be found in the Phaidon publication Alexey Brodovitch by Kerry William Purcell.
Disclosure: A copy of this book was purchased online.