I had intended this to be "book week," in which I planned to publish some of the book reviews I have by others still awaiting the light of day, as well as churning through some of the many books I have awaiting review by me. But we had to pause yesterday while I made another Implacable Enemy, something I inadvertently do from time to time, and Edward Taylor has written a nice review of his new Sigma DP-1 that I'd like to post soon, probably later today or tomorrow. Besides, it's obvious I'm not going to make much of a dent in the book situation anyway, without letting them take over the website indefinitely.
Still, there are two that I'd like to discuss briefly, and they deserve to be discussed together, and not just because they arrived chez Johnston in the same box from Amazon. They are E. O. Hoppe's Amerika: Modernist Photographs from the 1920s and New York Rises: Photographs by Eugene de Salignac.
I've been hearing about E. O. Hoppé for years—his name almost always associated with a word like "underrated" or "forgotten" or "underappreciated"—but had never seen much of his work, so I figured it was high time. Since my memory is mainly visual, my most vivid impression of Hoppé was a mental image of Bill Jay's characteristically excellent portrait of him in old age, which I was pleased to find online. Bill had hunted him down in a nursing home in 1972.
Bill also made efforts to resuscitate Hoppé's reputation. With Cecil Beaton, he secured for Hoppé an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society, which had been Hoppé's fondest desire, only weeks before the older photographer died at the age of 95. Fascinatingly, Bill also says of Hoppé: "Rarely in the history of photography has a photographer been so famous in his own lifetime among the general public. All photographers revered him; Cecil Beaton simply referred to him as The Master." (Bill Jay, Occam's Razor, which I am dismayed to see is out of print, p. 143. You can find the essay here, filed under "E." It's a PDF.)
Looking at the pictures, this fame is, frankly, mystifying. The meaning of work does change with time and fashion; innovations can be eclipsed, and the needs of a public and a society—what it wants reflected of itself, what it hopes its artists will say about it—is more evanescent than we give it credit for being; a study of the many figures in all the arts who were hugely popular during their lifetimes but are then dismissed by posterity, sometimes utterly, would be fascinating. What I see here is work that is not modernist, but transitional between pictorialism and modernism, hesitantly and somewhat indiscriminately employing the visual tricks and tropes of both. It's not assured technically: Hoppé seems to misplace focus, consistently putting it too far back, as if his ground glass were mis-calibrated and he never figured it out. Phillip Prodger, in comparing Hoppé's subjects with similar themes by other famous photographers such as Evans, Sheeler, Strand, Weston, Stieglitz and Coburn (and the painter Edward Hopper) in his introductory essay, unintentionally demonstrates Hoppé's comparative weakness, his inability to construct an assured picture even out of promising material.
In fact, "unassured" is as good a word as any for what I see in these pictures. Hoppé seems to be always searching for a means of organizing his subject visually, aware that there's a picture in in the vicinity somewhere but seemingly never able to quite find it. He casts about this way and that for modes of approach, now heroic, now ironic; here classical, there iconoclastic; first descriptive, next impressionistic. (These pictures were originally published under the title Das Romantische Amerika—Romantic America. Phillip Prodger claims that the title was "partially ironic," but an English version was subtitled "Picturesque United States." ) The work just lacks confidence. The best pictures seem like near misses, and the worst are no less approximate than snapshots.
From one extreme to the other
The case of Eugene de Salignac couldn't be more opposite, in so many ways. The front flaps says, "From 1906 to 1934, Eugene de Salignac shot over twenty thousand 8-by-10-inch glass plate negatives of New York City. As the sole photographer at the municipal Department of Bridges/Plant and Structures during that period of unprecedented change, he documented the creation of the city's infrastructure—bridges, major buildings, roads, and subways." He was not only not famous among the public in his lifetime, he was almost irredeemably anonymous during his lifetime, and might have remained so had it not been for the visual acuity and detective work of Michael Lorenzini, who performed a rescue operation to save de Salignac from the dustbin of history almost on the order of Berenice Abbott retrieving the plates of Atget from the trash. (It took Lorenzini a fair amount of sleuthing just to unearth de Salignac's name. We still don't know what he looked like.) It's a fine story, and enlivens the book's verbal essay. But it's the pictures that carry the volume.
Eugene de Salignac might have been just a workman (a blue-collar photographer, one might say) doing a quotidian job for a salary, but his vision is consistent and bold. He's the soul of capability, organizing well-composed pictures out of complex situations, readily handling tough situations and confidently playing with unusual and quite sophisticated arrangements (see the picture of the cable-oiler on the Williamburg Bridge on p. 57, for example, or the now-famous cover picture). He seems an authentic prototype for what some modernist art photographers strive for. (That giant W has probably made some contemporary art photographers jealous!) Of course, out of 20,000 pictures it's probably possible to make any number of different cases for what kind of photographer he was, like a fanatic extracting one or two lines from the Bible to defend some wacky worldview. I won't say I know where this book's small sample of his work places de Salignac in the pantheon of photographers, but I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would.
The two photographers even visit the same theme once. Compare Hoppé's nondescript, approximate, vague and fuzzy view of the Woolworth building made in 1921 (p. 65 in book #1) with de Salignac's magnificent, crisp, no-nonsense and supremely descriptive picture of the same building made in 1914 (p. 6 in book #2). No contest.
It's very tempting to draw pat conclusions from the contrast between these two books by these two very different photographers—the famous artist aiming high but harboring the more modest talent, and the unassuming, near-nameless workaday pro transcending his day job to rise to genius. I can't say it's an unappealing object lesson. The two of them might be a good embodiment of David Bayles and Ted Orland's story, in Art and Fear, of the pottery instructor who divided his class in half—one half to be graded on the basis of a single perfect pot, and the other half judged purely by the number of pots they could churn out. The moral of the little tale was that the people who threw the most clay also learned how to make better pots. There's something to be said for approaching photography as if it were a job, even if it's not.
Eugene de Salignac, Williamsburg Bridge, view showing Kent Avenue Yard "W," 20 feet, for "WSS" to be placed on towers March 20, 1918 [WSS stands for "War Savings Stamps"; the letters were erected on the south side of the Manhattan tower during World War I.]
The pat answers aren't the right answers, however. I've pawed through my share of vast forgotten archives in my time, and I'm here to testify that many workaday jobber photographers were plain hacks, their work no more graceful or well-seen for being plentiful. Talent is rare, period, and de Salignac (like Arnold Odermatt and Mike Disfarmer, two other talented photographers with anonymous, earthbound jobs) was gifted, plain and simple, no matter what his job description or work instructions. It may be, however, that de Salignac's pictures—or Michael Lorenzini's selection of his pictures—simply conform to modern tastes and expectations better. (Much better.)
I'm going to shelve these books next to each other. The two of them really do add up to more than either one alone, and I'm glad I encountered them together. But for a buy recommendation for others, the de Salignac is the one to have, assuming you have an interest in one or more of the following: pre-WWII America, documentary photography, large format, men at work, architecture and construction, or New York city.
(And by the way, if you haven't at least browsed Bill Jay's lovely website of portraits, you really should. I published a portfolio of his portraits of photographers in Photo Techniques a decade or so ago, and I've been a big fan for much longer than that. He really is one of our very best portraitists.)