I received my copy of Peter and David Turnley's McClellan Street from Amazon yesterday, and I have to say it is everything I had hoped it would be.
I remember a photography project that had a deep and long-lasting effect on me. I think it was published by Jim Hughes in the short-lived but important original Camera Arts magazine in the 1980s. The photographer's name was David Heiden, and if I recall correctly he was or is a medical doctor. (An eye doctor, maybe?) Despite being on the alert for further news of him, I've never come across his byline again. He had taken a series of pictures in a Cambodian refugee camp. The magazine showed just a small selection.
What impressed me about his pictures was the way he had photographed people in dire circumstances, honestly, with no intent to deceive, but at the same time with a straightforward human dignity, so that the viewer understood them to be fellow human beings first and foremost. I was very impressed by his attitude towards his subjects: neither solicitous nor condescending, frank but not exploitative.
There's that same sort of fundamental respect in McClellan Street. It's not a sweetened view; these are poor people, and their poverty is obvious. But they're also just people living their lives. The brothers highlight the individuality and humanity of these people in a way that many photographers would do well to learn from.
The pictures reach a very high standard individually and collectively, and, like good music deserves repeated hearings, I think this book will prove well worth going back to look at again and again.
The brothers' technique is adequate; the reproduction quality is adequate. Well beyond adequate is the size and layout of the book: this is just about how I like to look at pictures, big enough but not too big, one to a page, centered in the page with no fussy or flashy "designy" elements or tricks. It allows your eye to concentrate on the pictures without distractions.
One totally unexpected and quite stunning sidelight is the way the book delineates how this entire project effectively launched the Turnleys' careers as photojour- nalists. Their short, almost terse descriptions of how they conceived and pursued the project, and then David Turnley's brief but eloquent account of how the work all but magically opened the doors of the world of professional photojournalism to both brothers, is a concise, vivid, and invaluable lesson. If you know of a young photographer whose ambition is to be a photojournalist, you could (I mean this very seriously) do them few better favors than giving them this book. It will literally show them how it's done.
A final side note: the same Jim Hughes who published David Heiden's Cambodian refugee camp pictures was also the first editor to publish the Turnleys' McClellan Street pictures, in Camera 35, the magazine he edited before Camera Arts.
Featured Comment by stevierose: "As noted, one of the most impressive thing about these photographs is that the Turnley twins were 17 years old and shared one camera with one lens between them when they did this project. However, an equally interesting thing is how they prepared themselves for careers as first class photojournalists (before they even really knew that was what they wanted to do).
"Both got degrees from the Residential College at the University of Michigan and then studied in France. I am not positive about David, but I know that Peter went to the Sorbonne and then the Institut d’Etudes Politiques of Paris, where he got a graduate degree in International Relations, before seriously embarking on his career in photojournalism. The Institut is a place where many of Europe's future leaders fine-tune their education. I understand that Nicolas Sarkozy was one of Peter's classmates there.
"Louis Pasteur reputedly said, 'Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés,' which roughly means that luck (or chance) favors the prepared. I believe that Peter Turnley's career is a great example of this. While it is very helpful to be talented, it is usually not sufficient. The amazing thing about Peter and David's body of photojournalism work is that invariably they knew where to be and got there first, and then took great photographs."
Featured Comment by Charlie H: "Dr. Heiden published a book in 1992, Dust to Dust, A Doctor's View of Famine in Africa, which recounts several months he spent treating refugees in the Sudan in 1984, and is filled with pictures he took during that time. Very compelling stuff. The book is available online at davidheiden.org."