Twelve Best
Photo Books
Sometimes we get books of photographs so appallingly good we want to simply post the whole damn thing on-line. Fortunately, our wood-burning scanner doesn't permit it: we are lucky to get two shots up there at best.

Here are some favorites we've reviewed over the years. At the bottom of each excerpt, you'll find a link to the complete review (with pix).

Past Tents
The Way We Camped
Susan Snyder
Bancroft Library)
Susan Snyder takes us back to these halcyon times. She opines that camping was slow to catch on in America because in the 19th Century, camping was all there was. When you wanted to get from West Virginia to Missouri, and from there to Oklahoma, and from there to the Nevada Territory and California, you camped your way across the country.

Sleeping under the stars and cooking over an open fire had been matters of necessity and expediency in trackless wastes that concealed wild beasts and nightmare sounds. Wilderness had been the formless enemy to be conquered and crossed at all costs.

"Now," she writes, "the trailblazers became pleasure trekkers, and trails that had been the routes of arduous travail become the paths of holiday jaunts."

Ms. Snyder has collected here over a hundred photographs to delight the soul: people dressed to the nines, posed formally outside their white-and-blue striped tents; three young fellows on high-front-wheel bicycles of the times, their packs carefully hung from the steering bar; a booted ruffian in a pork-pie hat standing before a wood-plank lodge marked WELLS FLAT; a "Silver Dawn" Sauerkraut can cut at both ends to serve as smokestack.

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An Album of
Historic Photographs

T. Lindsay Baker
(University of Oklahoma)
If you ever saw "Days of Heaven" --- that heavenly movie about the northern Great Plains --- the most characteristic noises of that flat country were the trains, and the wind, and the wind making the windmills creak and sigh. Windmills, as the author reminds us, were omnipresent, either to pump water from underground, or to mill wheat, rye, oats, or any other grains.

It's the essence of solitary, isolated, inward-looking, turn-of-the-century American life, this sentinel hovering at the edge of the horizon, arms moving slowly, counting the winds, as it were. And, as you got closer, you would hear that mournful soughing, the wind passing through the great hands, moving the blades around and around and around. A sweet, sad sign out of our solemn pasts.

There are, in American Windmills, almost 200 black-and-white photographs of these sentinels of the continent, some from the late nineteenth century, some from as late as the 1950s.

As photograph collector John Carter explains, in his windy introduction --- complete with the word "ontologically" offered up not once but three times --- if you passed through the Great Plains a hundred years ago, the most obvious structure would be either a church steeple or a windmill. Or, we might suppose, what they called the hangman's "cradle." The names of the manufacturers were displayed on the single back blade behind the windmill, one that kept it oriented towards the wind: Star Mill, Standard, Plymouth Iron, Atlanta Wind Engine, Wonder, Kregel, Challenge, Dempster, Sampson. For free Sears would paint in the name of the owner of the windmill for all to see.

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E. O. Hoppé's

Modernist Photographs
From the 1920's

Phillip Prodger, Editor
E. O. Hoppé  came to America in 1919, immediately after World War I, intent on setting up a studio to photograph the rich and the prominent in New York City.   At times, he also slipped out of his studio to study "the down and the out," the poor people of the Bowery and the Lower East Side.

He stayed in this country for two years, returned to Europe, then returned, eventually taking his camera through the northeast, the south and the far west, photographing people, natural landmarks, and industrial America.

These "modernist" pictures make an unusual juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines: overhangs, wires, transmission towers, with an artful perspective.   Hoppé used a wide-angle lens, one that made it possible to join the distant and the close-at-hand without losing focus.

The editor of this volume suggests that the pictures made in New York, Boston, Chicago, and the manufacturing centers of the middle west are composed much as "a shift supervisor might see them: a cascade of forms in chaotic rhythm, punctuated by the steel beams of the vertical. "The majority of the 150 photographs in this volume are what you might label as "Industrial Bleak. "But as Marshall McLuhan would have it, the products of yesterday's factories --- indeed, the very factories themselves --- will become tomorrow's antique icons.   So it is with these shots of conveyer belts in Detroit, the industrial slums of Alexandria, the Woolworth Building in New York City, the new, uniform suburbs of 1920s west coast America.

Hoppé shows a magisterial hand.  He sets his camera perfectly to insert a cross-purpose in every scene: steel beams going that way, transmission lines going this, a roof over there.  It is a photographic style that is both architectural and subtly transforming. The stockyards of Chicago reveal a crisscross artistry of light and shadow. The pictures of factories, cityscapes, and buildings chosen for inclusion in Amerika outnumber the studies of faces, but the latter are daring close-ups:   faces of beggars, farmers, the poor, blacks, and American Indians [see "Yakima Indian, 1926" above].

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Penguins of
The World

Wayne Lynch
Wayne Lynch is a penguinophile.   He doesn't, I assume, carry one about in his backpack; rather, he goes to visit them in Antarctica, the Falklands, Macquarie Island, New Zealand, Cape Horn.   He seems to know everything there is to know about penguins: that they have been clocked moving through the water at nine miles-per-hour; that the smallest --- the Fairy Penguin -- weighs less than three pounds and lives along the coast of New Zealand and southern Australia; that there are almost ten million Macaroni penguins but the one that I slept with as a child was most likely modeled on the Adalie.   

The biggest threat to penguins is a bird called the skua, although up to a few decades ago, humans murdered them to light their oil lamps and to enjoy in a stew.   In 1902, while studying them, the geologist Otto Nordenskjold reported eating "cold penguin and sardines; salted penguin; macaroni and salted penguin; breast of penguin and dried vegetables; salted penguin and beans; and pastry with leftover penguin."

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50 Photographers
You Should Know

Peter Stephan
John Gabriel,
Text Translator

Rather than give us an exhaustive history of photography early and late Peter Stephan has chosen to give us an overview.   He has the advantage of the cut-off number --- only fifty masters --- along with the natural limitation of his working space (13"x13").   He has --- through the publisher --- had access to superb reproduction from the firm Druckerei in Germany.   

The layout is perfect, and is perfectly managed.    Each of the masters is presented with timeline at the top of the page, one large representative photograph to the left, brief succinct essay to the right, 2"x2" photograph of the photographer (how do you shoot the one who shoots us?) and chronology.   Where and when was André Kertész born (Budapest, 1894)? Where did he show (Paris, New York)? What did he publish (From My Window, Hungarian memories)? When did he die (1985)? Are there any other books about him? (Yes, at least two).

All this information is presented in modest agate type because you and I know that the payoff here are the photos: in Kertész' case, three large, two small.   Indeed, he sports more than most: Stieglitz only gets three ... one of Georgia O'Keeffe (naturally --- one of the 350 of her because Stieglitz and O'Keeffe were sweeties).   

Surprisingly, the photographer who merits more space than anyone else is one we never heard of, the Italian Felice Beato (d. 1908).   He gets a rare two page spread of a shot of a corner of the City Wall of Peking, which we could have done without as it reminds of us of a 19th Century version of Le Corbu at his worst.   Still, Beato's 1868 take on two Sumo Wrestlers (from Photographic Views of Japan) is a kick in the pants.   There is mention of pictures from a war we never heard of, "Photographs of dead soldiers during the American campaign in Korea," not from the landing at Inchon; but from a mysterious martial invasion of 150 years ago.

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Seduced by Modernity
The Photography of Margaret Watkins
Mary O'Connor, Katherine Tweedie, Editors
(McGill-Queens University Press)
When Watkins died, she left behind a carefully sealed box, with instructions that it was to be opened only after her death.   It was filled with photographs, many of which are reproduced here.

Photos of dirty dishes (part of the collection) do not come off as the most interesting.   Rather, there are the straight-on photographs of men (dressed) or the women (more often not so).   The former, presumably friends and clients from New York, are warm, inviting. The shots of the women are somewhat more chilly.   The nudes are carefully framed, discrete, with a tell-tale drape to hide the obvious.

One of most interesting is shown as the cover of a book, The Art of the Body: Rhythmic Exercises for Health and Beauty. The book was published by Harcourt Brace in 1931.

It carried over forty illustrations of the author, Marguerite Agnielm. The editors tell us that it is "an odd mixture of moralistic monitoring, efficiency management, cosmetic advice, and spiritual guide."   There is a well-oiled lady on the cover. We aren't told if it was composed by Watkins or not.    Whatever it may be, it's a doozy: an excellent example of Early Depression Neo-Classic Quasi-Erotology.

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The New Dance Photography of Lois Greenfield
Designed by William A. Ewing
(Chronicle Books)
Lois Greenfield specializes in stark black-and-white photographs of dancers.   But it's not ballet members, locked in rigid steps,   in tutus.   Better ... it's dancers suspended (through the magic of photographs) in mid-air, human figures reflected back on each other, shadows and moves that --- for this reviewer --- redefine bodies ... elegant bodies.

William Ewing, the book's designer, states that in his visit to one of her shooting sessions, he expected that he would see that "the dancers appear to have lifted themselves into the air, waited for the photographer to snap the shutter."

It was not so, for

    I could see nothing in front of me that remotely resembled a Greenfield image; all I saw were heavy, sweating bodies thudding about, the strenuous movements accompanied by sharp exhalations of breath as they landed.

"I watched the dancers repeat each take with minor variations according to Greenfield's directions but the action never seemed to coalesce into the elegant, ordered motif I was expecting."

There are over 100 shots in Airborne, and they not only redefine bodies, they do the same to the art of dance, and the art of photography.   We might say that what we have here are "motion pictures" --- Greenfield stretching the art of still-life (and still life photography so that there is in the images a powerful frozen motion that --- at times --- seems to make the dancers dance right off the page for us.   

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the complete

Hidden Seminoles
Julian Dimock's Historic
Florida Photographs

Jerald T. Milanich
Nina J. Root

(University Press of Florida)

Like all American Indians, the Seminoles of Florida had it bad once the foreigners came to town.  The colonialists gave them three important presents: Christianity; a variety of social diseases; and, ultimately, The Removal.

The first taught them guilt; the second taught them that their God-driven conquerors had no shame (VD wiped out 95% of the Indian population); and the third --- mostly delivered under the aegis of Andrew Jackson, which either killed them outright or forced them to resume their lives in the barren wastes of Oklahoma.

Jackson's three Seminole Wars --- 1818 - 1858 --- brought their population down from over 3,500 to an estimated 200. The few survivors disappeared into the swamps of south Florida, where they made a living fishing and hunting and hiding from what one of them referred to as the twin scourges: "government agents and meddling missionaries."

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The Art of

Jonathan Elphick
(Rizzoli International)

There are 212 plates in Birds, plus a few drawings dotted about here and there, including Leonardo's famous sketch of bird with wing.   All are drawn from the Natural History Museum in London which   has   almost 1,000,000 books and 500,000 "works of art on paper."   This means you are getting about .0004% of the museum's entire collection.

It ain't much, but what appears here is devilishly beautiful.   It is arranged chronologically, starting with a woodcut from 1492 by one Hortus Sanitatis --- a village scene with eight birds --- followed by a 1550 watercolor, a ferociously beautiful ruffle-tailed rooster (technically a "jungle fowl," father to all our present day chickens).   

In the wonderful Burros & Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, Everett Gee Jackson recalls flying over the Mexican jungle in an old DC3, bound for Lake Chapala. The airplane was cousin to many Mexican busses of that time (and this): it had no door, was filled with to the brim with fruit, vegetables, and livestock.

Somehow, a jungle fowl got out of its cage and when the crew tried to catch it, it flew right out the door.   Jackson watched it for a long time, watched it circling, circling, knowing it would come to rest in a strange jungle, from whence it had gotten its name.   Thus Mexican transportation.

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