Book review: Photography Visionaries

and USA

Publisher Laurence King writes: Photography Visionaries is an inspiring guide to 75 of the most influential photographers from around 1900 to the present. Entertainingly written by an expert on photography, it provides fascinating insight into the lives and careers of men and women working in a medium which perhaps more than any other in the visual arts has been deeply affected by technological change.

The entries are arranged chronologically, instilling in the reader an understanding of what marks each photographer as a visionary. Each entry is less about providing a full biography of the person and more about creating a sense of excitement regarding their work and the lasting impact that it has had on photography.

With the aid of an arresting selection of photographs, some well-known and others less so, this book offers a unique and engaging perspective on the development of photography through some of its most inventive practitioners.

0hid0weegee.jpgWeegee, Charles Sodokoll and Arthur Webber use their top hats to hide their faces, 1942

“A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent.” Eugène Atget.

Mary Warner Marien knows where to find a quote or anecdote that says more about a photographer’s life, career and ethos than a long biography. She found something witty or striking to say about each of the 75 photographic visionaries she selected for the book. Those visionaries are people who experiment, expand the scope and significance of photography and are inspiring to their peers. They work in any field: portraiture, advertising, photo reportage, documentary, fashion or conceptualism.

Each of them gets one page of bio and three pages of images with a timeline charting the most salient moments of their career. There is always also a portrait of the photographers. I thought i didn’t care much for artists’ portraits until i realized i had never seen a photo of Bernhard and Hilla Becher before. Or one of Cindy Sherman being no one else but Cindy Sherman.

Obviously not everyone is going to be happy with the author’s selection. And i’m going to agree with the English reviewers who deplore the absence of Martin Parr. Another reviewer mentioned Hiroshi Sugimoto. Indeed! He should be there as well. I’m going to add Broomberg and Chanarin to the list. What i like in the author’s selection, however, is that women and non-Caucasian people do not feature only as subjects. I don’t know if there was a conscious effort to include women photographers, black photographers, Chinese photographers, etc. But it feels just that the white male monopoly is somewhat under assault.

Warner Marien is also the author of Photography. A Cultural History, perhaps the most informative, interesting and intelligent photo book i’ve ever read about photo. Photography Visionaries is very different (i probably shouldn’t compare one with the other anyway): it’s snappier, shorter and less elaborate. But it’s written with the passion and verve that characterizes her style.

And now for some images and (fairly random) comments

0august_sander_1boxers1929.jpgAugust Sander, Die Boxer, Paul Roderstein, Hein Hesse, 1928

0AculturenaziL00151_9.jpgAugust Sander, National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture 1938, printed 1990

August Sander’s major project, People of the 20th Century, attempted to give an overview of the most archetypal figures of contemporary society, categorizing his subjects by profession or social class. His photos represent types (The Woodcutter, The Farmer, The Sculptress, The Bricklayer, The Bohemian, The Bank Official, etc.), not individuals.

Although there was nothing progressive about this model of society, the Nazis disapproved of Sander’s work. In 1936 they confiscated the publisher’s copies of Face of our Time (a selection of portraits from his series People of the 20th Century); the printing plates were destroyed and the book was officially banned.

0i5_TwoMiners.jpgLiu Zheng, From the series The Chinese, Two Miners, Datong, Shanxi Province, 1996

0liu_zheng_39_2002.jpgLiu Zheng, Convicts Fetching Water, Baoding, Hebei Province, from The Chinese series, 1995

Inspired by Sander’s work, Liu Zheng traveled throughout China to portray archetypal Chinese characters from every social stratum: homeless children, transvestite performers, provincial drug traffickers, coal miners, Buddhist monks, prison inmates, Taoist priests, waxwork figures in historical museums, and the dead and dying. The images of The Chinese series depict a country caught between tradition and unprecedented economic upheavals.

0Bobbie-Libarry.jpgImogen Cunningham, Irene “Bobby” Libarry, 1976

When she was herself in her early nineties, Imogen Cunningham started working on After 90, a series that portrayed the elderly. One of them was Irene “Bobbie” Libarry who used to be a circus attraction and was living in a nursing home at the time of the photography.

0tuexcusado280.jpgEdward Weston, Excusado, 1925

0heartfeldAnd_Yet_it_Moves.jpgJohn Heartfield, Und sie bewegt sich doch! (And Yet It Moves!), 1943

0Self_Portrait_with_Police.jpgJohn Heartfield, Self-Portrait with Berlin President of Police, 1929

John Heartfield was one of the first artists to use photomontage, manipulating photographs to satirize the brutality of the Nazi regime.

0lisette-mode-6-785x996.jpgLisette Model, Woman with veil, San Fransisco, 1949

0i5divorceeeeeee1f.jpgLisette Model, Divorcee, Reno, 1949

Lisette Mode never formally studied photography but took it up in the 1930s while living in Paris. Her images are early examples of “street photography,” a style which developed after the invention of the hand-held camera, which made impromptu shots possible.

0cdamaged.jpgWalker Evan, Workers Loading Neon “Damaged” Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City, 1928-1930

0americanway-ohio-river-flood.jpgMargaret Bourke-White, At the Time of the Louisville Flood, 1937

0i3gestapoinformer40fc.jpgHenri Cartier-Bresson, Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany, April 1945

0gordon-parks-27.jpgGordon Parks, Colored Entrance, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

Yes, the photo above just made me realize how black and white the book is.

0nacholopezlecumberri.jpgNacho López, Hands with cigarettes under cell door, Lecumberri Penitentiary, Mexico City, from the series Prisión de sueños, 1950

0i2venus37_n.jpgNacho López, La Venus se va de juerga, 1953

López orchestrated situations in public space and document passersby reactions. In the series “La Venus se va de juerga”, for example, a man travels through the crowd carrying a blond mannequin.

0santu-mofokeng1.jpgSantu Mofokeng, Democracy is forever, Pimville, 2004

0Atget_-_Avenue_des_Gobelins.jpgEugène Atget, Avenue des Gobelins, 1927

0CstairwaysRI_10406.jpgFrances Benjamin Johnston, Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton, c. 1900