By Hans-Michael Koetzle
Published by Taschen, April 2011
12.8 x 10.2 x 1.7 inches, 444 pages
Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Two idiosyncratic German publishers stand out in the photo book world. Steidl reflects its founder's passion for photography, exemplified by a range of beautifully produced books for connoisseurs, such as Mike's favorite Bruce Davidson opus, Outside Inside. A recent article on Gerhard Steidl in the New York Times reflected on his almost monastic lifestyle, devoted to his art. The other publisher is Taschen, at first glance the "anti-Steidl." Active members of the L.A. "glitterati," founder Benedikt Taschen and partner/wife Angelika seem to go out of their way to be provocative, with a goodly number of fetish- and sexually-themed titles. If the reflective Outside Inside exemplifies Steidl, Helmut Newton's brash and campy Sumo (the big one) may characterize Taschen. But giant expensive tomes like Sumo are matched by many more affordable titles. Taschen has published a range of very reasonably priced large monographs on photography icons from August Sander to Edward Weston to Paul Outerbridge. They also have released a range of modestly-sized and very inexpensive small softcover monographs. And $10.19 for a hardcover Atget, Paris? Hard to beat for pounds (or kilos) of book per dollar. Reproduction quality has varied from just okay to pretty good. More recent titles include Sebastião Salgado's beautiful book Africa [now out of print —Ed.], with reproductions that are very good indeed.
This is a long-winded preface to Taschen's recent encyclopedic survey of photographers past and present. Photographers A–Z (here's the U.K. link) is a large, heavy volume that provides brief but pithy coverage of literally hundreds of individuals. The author's explicitly stated criterion for inclusion is "those whose contribution to the culture of the photographic image is beyond question, whose work is internationally recognized, presented and discussed–even if controversial." Koetzle acknowledges a preponderance of Americans and Europeans, but there is also extensive representation of Asian and Latin American photographers.
The book's design is clean, slick, pure modernism (rather than post-modern). Most entries get a single page, with a select few extending across the gutter to a second. Each begins with a terse but spot-on summary of the photographer's work. For example, Annie Leibovitz is introduced with "Staged portraits of American celebrities from the worlds of (pop) culture, politics, and high society. Star photographer of the 1980s and 90s in two respects." This is followed by a dense chronological survey of the subject's career and important projects. Next is a telling quote from a photography critic, ranging from the well-known (Vicki Goldberg, A.D. Coleman) to the obscure. Finally there is a list of important exhibitions, followed by (Hallelujah!) a selected bibliography for each photographer, including monographs and projects as well as relevant anthologies containing the artist's work.
The photo reproductions included with each entry are not full-bleed large images. Instead, as with Errata Editions, you get reproductions of the covers and 2-page spreads of photo books. These provide you a sample of the photographer's work in book form. And this photo reproduction format spells out this volume's mission. It deliberately treats photo books as the primary location for significant and accessible photography. If you want large, high-quality, beautifully reproduced examples of each artist's work, you will not find them here—but this volume will tell you exactly where they can be found in book form.
This book is an irresistible browse. You can page through the entries and in just a few minutes reacquaint yourself with a dozen great photographers you're already familiar with, and find a bunch of great leads for books to seek out at the library or Amazon. Better yet, you'll get a tantalizing look at great talents you've never heard of, but may find well worth looking into. For me the biggest delight was being reminded of many wonderful photographers who had fallen off my radar screen, but whose work I love. Now I know where to find more of their best images in print.
There are some older books out there with a similar mission. Abrams' PHOTO:BOX featured one or two images from each of 200 famous photographers. Phaidon's Centurywas more explicitly a survey of the 20th century in photography, but covers some of the same ground, with a very well-chosen selection of images. Finally, Phaidon's The Photo Book is the closest equivalent, with "500 pages on 500 photographers," each represented by a single iconic good-quality reproduction. Taschen's new book has a rather more eclectic mix, with a wider selection of Asian and Latin American photographers. In customary Taschen style, there's also a larger representation of nude and erotic subjects—Araki gets two pages, Walker Evans only one. Overall it's a fascinating selection of styles and eras. And for the lover of photo books, the bibliography entries are priceless. Just be forewarned that this feature may end up costing you far more than the purchase price!
Here's the link again.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.