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And at the same time, when something happens, you have to be extremely swift. Like an animal and a prey — vroom! You grasp it and people don’t notice that you have taken it. Very often in a different situation, you can take one picture. You cannot take two. Take a picture and look like a fool, look like a tourist. But if you take two, three pictures, you got trouble. It’s good training to know how far you can go. When the fruit is ripe, you have to pluck it. Quick! With no indulgence over yourself, but daring. I enjoy very much seeing a good photographer working. There’s an elegance, just like in a bullfight.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Living and Looking
from a recently discovered 1971 interview by Sheila Turner-Seed

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet Cover

 

 

Ballet
Alexey Brodovitch
Reissued by errata editions, 2011
$39.95

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.

 

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Alexey Brodovitch Ballet

Disclosure: A copy of this book was purchased online.

Charles Jones

 

Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones
The Outsider Genius Saved from Obscurity by Chance Discovery
Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson
Preface by Alice Waters
Thames and Hudson, 1998
$40.00

Reviewed by Alan Sirulnikoff

 
 

Charles Jones is so much an “outsider” that it is safe to say that virtually no one was aware of his passionate photographic pursuit until a chance discovery by Sean Sexton (a photographic historian and collector) who found a trunk of Jones’ prints at an English market in 1981. Through Sexton’s luck, we now have this eloquent record.

The images in the book are detailed with a warm hue — reproduced from the original gold-toned gelatin silver prints. None of the original glass-plate negatives are known to have survived. In fact, his grandchildren reported that near the end of his life, Jones used his glass-plate negatives in the garden to protect young plants.

Charles Jones, the son of a master butcher, was born in England in 1866. He trained as a gardener and took various positions on private estates in England. It is thought that a number of the prints featured in the book were probably made between 1895-1905.

Though not much is known about Jones or his formal photographic training (if any), he clearly had a ‘good eye’ and a thorough understanding of the technical side of photography. Sadly, there are no notes, diaries or writings to reveal his inner thoughts or what inspired him to produce such a superb portfolio of the plant world. This beautifully produced book, put together by Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson, is one that I gladly return to frequently.

Interestingly, Jones chose to pose most of his subjects against a variety of neutral backgrounds rather than within nature. Vegetables and fruits are lovingly displayed with great attention given to lighting and composition. For this very private man, these creations were a display of passion through the medium of photography.

Was Jones influenced by other photographers of the day? One of his contemporaries was Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt’s hugely popular book Urformen der Kunst was published in 1928. However, where Blossfeldt believed that “the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure” Jones’ relationship appears to have been more intimate and personal.

Though I knew of Blossfeldt’s work, my own “chance discovery” of Charles Jones occurred in the renowned Portland bookstore, Powells, 14 years after the book was first published. Upon entering the art books section, “Plant Kingdoms” was one of the first books to catch my eye. I quickly became immersed in the images, the story, and the coincidence of finding this book at the same time as I was working on my own Still Life series.

Recently I attended an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery by the contemporary photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. Naturally I was drawn to the still life images that were on display. An accompanying gallery description noted:

He observes the objects with deliberate slowness, treating figs, eggplants and lemons as he would people in his portraits, allowing them to gradually “reveal” themselves to him – a mere inanimate thing – a “nature morte” – becomes a “still life.

This description could equally apply to Charles Jones.

Jones’ images are often poetic; sensitive; and very finely composed. “Bean Runner” (pp. 26, 27) are two of many examples that exhibit a life beyond their simple title. Looking at Sugar Pea (p. 33), I can almost feel the leathery texture of the pods and the smooth pearl-like peas.

A memorable image will transport me or evoke lateral thinking. “Celery Standard Bearer” (p. 40) is one such example. A lone stock stands bound in front of a simple white background, creating the vision of a condemned man about to be executed. The adjacent photograph “Celery Wright’s White” (p. 41) — starkly lit against a dark background — exudes a tension and mood that extends far beyond its simple caption.

“Radish White Icicle” (p. 75) is a further example. Standing, seemingly balanced on their ‘toes’, the radishes huddle tightly together as if discussing an important secret. Are they discussing what an unusual and exceptional man is this Charles Jones?

Today we have endless and immediate options for inundating ourselves (and others) in a flood of often banal imagery. Jones clearly revered and contemplated his subjects and most surely loved the medium of photography.

Yet, so little is known about this man whose prints – since Sexton’s discovery of them – have been added to private and public collections and enjoyed a measure of fame: exhibited at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musée de Elysée, Lausanne.

There is a joy in the mystery around Jones, especially in a time when we have become so used to having everything revealed with a simple click. Charles Jones died in Lincolnshire on November 15, 1959 at the age of 92. And though he may have taken most of his inner-most thoughts with him, he did leave a beautiful and poignant legacy for us to ponder.

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Alan Sirulnikoff is a photographer living in Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada. See his Still Life photographs here.

Pierre Gonnord

 

Pierre Gonnord
PHotoBolsillo
5.25 x 7, 112 pages, softcover
La Fabrica, 2012
$20.00

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

 

I have this funny thing which is that I’m never afraid when I’m looking in the ground glass. This person could be approaching with a gun or something like that and I’d have my eyes glued to the finder and it wasn’t like I was really vulnerable.

Diane Arbus

If Rembrandt were a photographer instead of a painter, and if he were drawn to the margins of society rather than to himself (and his other subjects) he might have produced works very much like those of Pierre Gonnord.

With their dark backgrounds and characteristic lighting, these images are sculpted with an exacting attention to detail. They are, in fact, so painterly that they invite the viewer closer, encouraging a careful examination of the shadows and highlights in an attempt to perceive their true nature. In the book the images are the size of a postcard and so it is easy to mistake them for paintings. In his exhibitions, Gonnord displays the images much larger than life – sometimes four feet high, and so I expect, the effect is quite different.

The subjects and the images are timeless. The clothing gives nothing away: an overcoat, perhaps a scarf; sometimes there is no clothing, only a naked shoulder.

The portrayed are European punks, transients from Eastern Europe, Venetian Jews, Spanish and Portuguese peasants, Japanese geisha and yakuza, the Gypsies of Seville … There is beauty and there is a brutality – often combined in the same face.

I choose my contemporaries in the anonymity of the big cities because their faces, under the skin, narrate unique, remarkable stories about our era. Sometimes hostile or distant, almost always fragile behind the opacity of their masks, they represent specific social realities and another concept of beauty. I also try to approach the unclassifiable, timeless individual, to suggest things that have been repeated over and over since time began.

Born in France in 1963, Gonnord moved to Spain in his twenties and taught himself photography. He has been widely exhibited in Europe and in 2012 the French Consulate in Atlanta invited him to complete a residency and a series of photographs, using local American southerners as his subjects.

In the essay, “A New Perception of the Real” by Lorena Martinez de Corral (which accompanies the volume) Gonnord states:

The camera has been like a lifejacket for me, an opportunity to go towards the rest, to approach the Other, to overcome the limits of my shyness, of my loneliness, of my condition and also my taboos.

This sentiment is the echo of Diane Arbus’s relationship to her subjects, but where Arbus was uninterested in technical finesse, Gonnord has clearly perfected not only the art of photography but the painterly use of lighting to convey a specific conception of portraiture.

PHotoBolsillo publishes a series of monographs on “the most important Spanish photographers” in an “instructive yet readable format.” The books are similar to the popular Photo Poche series started by the Centre National de la Photographie in 1982 (and brought into the English-speaking world in 1989 by Thames and Hudson under the title Photofile).

Despite the PHotoBolsillo motto, the English translation of Lorena Martinez de Corral’s essay is not very readable, it is, in fact, awkward and a little painful. A minor complaint, and the only one I could make in the light of the pristine nature of the rest of this book.

The tiny volume on Pierre Gonnord is an excellent introduction to a masterful and provocative photographer.

 

Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review
Pierre Gonnord Review Pierre Gonnord Review

Disclosure: A copy of Pierre Gonnord was purchased online.