I was inspired by Geoff's lament the other day regarding the alleged decline of photo book making to seek out these two very beautifully-made recent photo books, both of which happen to consist of portraits. In the case of the always aptly-named photorealist painter par excellence Chuck Close (that's him on the cover), the pictures are enlargements of large daguerreotypes made in collaboration with the master of daguerreotypy Jerry Spagnoli, whose work we have (somewhat controversially) featured before.
The book itself is certain type of artifact that I admit makes me a little uncomfortable. Let's put it this way. Do you happen to remember Heritage Press books? They can still be found in virtually any used book shop. George Macy began publishing ultra-deluxe editions of classic literature in the year of the Great Crash, 1929, a venture he dubbed The Limited Editions Club. The books were printed in editions of 1500 (hence the name) and sold by subscription. They were very expensive. They featured custom design and typography and bespoke illustrations by leading artists, and they were made using the finest papers and bindings. They're still traded by booksellers in the $60–$300 range, although a few high points go for much more. Then, in one of those seemingly un-self-aware cognitively dissonant moves seemingly much beloved of culture-vultures, Macy instituted a more downmarket variant in 1935—the thick of the Great Depression—called the Heritage Press. The Heritage Press (often a first enthusiasm for future book collectors) published and distributed, also by subscription, unlimited-edition middlebrow versions of their upper-crusty LEC counterparts.
Exclusivity for the middle-class masses? Unlimited editions of limited editions? I've always felt that something was not quite sound about the concept, even though I own a couple of HP books, and even though I have a tolerant fondness for midcentury middlebrow culture. My problem is that every time I see a Heritage Press book, it makes me wonder what it was really supposed to look like—that is, what the Limited Editions Club version looked like.
At any rate, that's what Chuck Close's A Couple of Ways of Doing Something (here's the U.K. link), published by Aperture, essentially is—it's the public and affordable version of a far more exclusive and expensive portfolio, to which ordinary people are not expected to aspire. There were only 75 copies anyway. This is the Heritage Press version, if you will.
If you can look past that feeling of being patronized, of being shown the table-scrap version of the real thing, it's a gorgeous book in its own right. The printing quality is pull-out-the-stops, the design exquisite, the binding fine. The poems accompanying each picture—"by Bob Holman, the celebrated and widely published New York School poet who originated and hosted the famous Poetry Slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café and now runs the Bowery Poetry Club," according to the publisher's description—are perhaps writ too large, so they might stand up to the photographs visually. That's a quibble.
The portrait subjects comprise an exclusive club, too, which gives the group a self-congratulatory feel. (Note Lorna Simpson's smugness, or am I imagining that too?) Essentially, they're a group of top artists who happen to be Chuck's friends and peers. There's more than a whiff of real, not feigned, elitism here—it's an "in group," for sure—but one can hardly grouse about a portrait artist making subjects of his friends.
To make monumental monoliths of human faces is Close's project, and I can't pretend to criticize—I don't feel his work, but then, I don't really know it. "Daguerreotype" and "monumental" don't seem to go together naturally, on, er, the face of it. This glistening book is beautiful in every conceivable way except that, for me, the pictures don't quite convince as portraits (can a portrait work as art yet not as portraiture?), and thus the project doesn't quite cohere. If I've really seen it.
And the pores distract. Maybe it takes paint to provide the needed distance from the excessively, er, close visual intimacy.
But a lovely, lovingly made volume it indisputably is.
Another stout and comely little book that's gained a place on my eagerly-awaited new shelving unit is the Thames & Hudson An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson by Agnes Sire and Jean-Luc Nancy, which I bought on Miserere's recommendation. (I apparently got the last one; the hardcover's gone out of print just since I started writing this review. The paperback is expected soon. If you live in Great Britain, you're in luck, as the hardcover is still available there. But act smartly.) As a book it has an exactly-made feel, its dust jacket fitting precisely, its paper rich and thick, its boards true and flat, the spine rounded just so. The reproduction quality is superb: the lustrous tritones are exact reproductions made directly from original prints drawn from the collection of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. In fact this was the new institution's first project. The reproductions are in an important sense reproductions, really, not just plates or illustrations; the book's creators have elected to be exactingly faithful to the prints, even down to their occasional flaws or hurts.
Many of the most famous portraits are here: Collette and her housekeeper; Pound at St. Elizabeth's; Truman Capote in the garden; Faulkner; Sartre; the severe and aloof Joliet-Curies. There are (naturally, because they're published here for the first time) a number I've never seen, emphasizing again that H.C.-B.'s archive is vast and he did not insist in life (as he surely cannot in death) on making the selects himself as an indivisible part of his process.
Among the missing are the famous one of Matisse with his doves, and my own favorite of H.C.-B.'s portraits, Giacometti crossing the street in the rain with his jacked pulled over his head. Also, a number of pictures that happen to be of people are pressed into service as "portraits" although they don't seem to quite fit the genre. H.C.-B. had a fairly well-defined project in mind in his portraiture, and random people at a bar or the famous black mama picture from America in Passing don't fit the enterprise, in my opinion, even if the pictures are nice.
Compare to Eisie
My only other cavil is that I'm not quite sure the general collector needs Cartier-Bresson's portraits. Is that too blunt?
With any artist's oeuvre, it is reasonable to ask, if this body of work did not exist, would the artist's reputation and accomplishment be diminished? If Ansel Adams's color work (also the subject of a good new book) were to disappear, it wouldn't affect his standing a jot. I wouldn't miss Walker Evans's subway pictures, although others might—they don't define that artist's best work for me.
One might also ask the question the other way around, so to speak—if this work were all that the artist did, would it be enough to secure the reputation he or she in fact has achieved? Cartier seems to try a bit too hard with his portraits, throwing the faces to one side or toward one edge a little too recklessly, as if searching, mostly in vain, for the dynamic framing that characterizes his best work out in the world; and I'm not sure he has quite the knack for capturing the essence of a personality or a person's appearance as surely as he was able to frame the strangeness and wholeness of moments amidst the melee of life.
So Cartier-Bresson is a very good but not, in my opinion, a great portraitist. (Compare to Eisenstadt for an object lesson.) If his portraits were never made I don't think it would diminish his reputation much. Similarly, if his portraits were all he ever did, I don't think he'd be known as a photographer of the first rank, much less as one of the greatest of the 20th century.
If you do like his portraits, however—for instance if you are a portraitist!—or if you seek a reasonably complete collection of the photographer's work, this book is well recommendable. It is a broad sampling, perhaps too broad and perhaps just a bit of a jumble, but 'tis a very pleasing example of the bookmaker's art. You will never have a chance to own better reproductions of these works, nor have cause to complain. I didn't add the Chuck Close book to my shelf, but I did buy this one: H.C.-B. suits my taste, and this here is fine H.C.-B. (Maybe I'm just "so 20th Century.")
MikeFeatured Comment by Robin Dreyer: "I love that Chuck Close book and have looked at it a lot. However, you didn't really mention the typography, which is pretty great. They turned Bob Holman's poems over to typographer and letterpress printer Ruth Lingen who made a distinctive visual composition out of each one. Very nice. Nice of you to give Jerry Spagnoli front and center credit for his role in this—you have to read the text carefully to find his name in the book."