Some chance remarks in Mike's "Incidentally..." post reminded me that I had been meaning to write about books of photographs that I considered important moments in the field (what Mike called touchstones), and why.
Now, understand that these books may not appear impressive by today's standards. I would say that we live in a golden age of photographic reproduction, except that I think it's only going to continue to get better. A touchstone, though, doesn't have to stand up well today. It's a marker, a highlight. The Wright Brothers flight will always be a touchstone of aviation, although it's utterly unimpressive today, technically. I will close with a book that I consider the current pinnacle as well as a touchstone, but most of my touchstones date back to the 1960s and '70s.
First on my list is Gentle Wilderness: The Sierra Nevada, text by John Muir, photographs by Richard Kauffman (1967). Mike favors Eliot Porter, but a case could be made for any of the Sierra Club-Ballantine books of that period. Me, I'll vote for this one, because it's the book that drew me into the series primarily through its utterly luminous blue cover photograph of the Center Basin. I'd never before seen a reproduction with that kind of step-through-the-page clarity, and I rarely have since. It doesn't hurt that the book was printed by Kauffman's own company, H.S. Crocker. (I should do a column about Richard, one of photography's greatest under-appreciated amateurs.)
The entire series is a touchstone. Art reproduction books typically were expensive and good or cheap and, well, cheap. Ian and Betty Ballantine felt that they could make money on affordably-priced, high-quality art books. Even as a college student, I was able to buy the majority of the trade paperback editions of the Sierra Club–Ballantine series. The series was a commercial success that opened the doors to the thousands of good photography books we've had since.
And, yes, by today's standards the reproduction is only adequate. At the time it was a level of quality that had been hitherto unaffordable by mere mortals.
My next touchstone goes to the other extreme: Himalayas by Yoshikazu Shirakawa (1971). The deluxe wraparound slip-covered edition tips the scales at 12 pounds, filled with sumptuous reproductions, full-side, double-side, and even quadruple-side, that positively drip ink. An amazing tonal range and color gamut for the time, and it sold for an amazing price. I can't remember what; I think traumatic amnesia has blotted out the number, but it was the most expensive photography book offered up for general sale in the U.S. I bought a copy because I was fresh out of college and had a great-paying job. I'm still amazed that I did. There are many ways that today's books have better reproduction, but this one just screams "rich," and in a good way.
My third touchstone is Ernst Haas' The Creation (the original 1971 hardcover edition, of course). Much more affordable than Himalayas, although it was not inexpensive, and not quite as sumptuous in its reproduction, but it was designed (and succeeded eminently well) to make you fall in love with color. It's a positively lyric book filled with lyric reproductions. I got my copy as a gift, and, sadly, it sustained water damage a few years later. Because I was something of an idiot at the time, I didn't replace it while the book was still in print. I've never seen the 1983 reissue, which seems to be available on Amazon for not too much money. Does anyone know how it compares in quality to the original? [Not very well. Hold out for the original. —MJ]
Lest readers think I pay no attention to black-and-white books, my fourth touchstone is a landmark that ushered in a new era of fine photographic reproduction. I'm talking Ansel Adams. Not the 1974 opus, Images 1923–1974. No, I'm thinking five years later, with the publication of Yosemite and the Range of Light. It's not as superficially impressive as the 1974 volume, until you open the covers and compare reproductions between the two. It's like night and day—the 1979 book has open, luminous tones and lovely shadow and highlight separation that comes immensely closer to conveying the feel of original Adams prints than anything previously done. The reproductions are also sharper and more exquisitely detailed. Put the two volumes side-by-side and there is simply no comparison.
What changed? The advent of electronically-controlled laser platemaking. It revolutionized press work and every subsequent photography book that had pretensions to seriosity had to stand against Yosemite and the Range of Light.
Up till now
Lest any readers conclude that I am hopelessly mired in books of the past, I'll close with two modern works, one of which I'm pretty sure will be a touchstone and the other of which I'm certain about. First, Bruce Davison's three-volume masterwork, Outside Inside (2009). I haven't seen a lot of Bruce's work in the original, but the reproductions in these volumes feel "right" to me. Maybe I'll look back on them in time and find otherwise, but for the present I have a sense that they convey the photographer's vision with a verisimilitude that is uncommon in book reproductions.
Finally, a touchstone that is currently at the pinnacle of color reproduction: Bill Atkinson's Within the Stone (2004). I reviewed this five years ago here. Amazingly, Bill still has copies of this book for sale, although it is out of stock with Amazon. I just ordered three copies; I will have no trouble finding people to give them to as gifts over the holiday season. Read my original review to understand why this is such an amazing book. Everything I said then still stands; nothing else I've seen comes remotely close to this volume for color reproduction, and the price of $40 makes it eminently affordable.
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Those are some of my touchstones, certainly the ones that have stayed in my memory the best and the longest. Let's hear about some of yours!
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Featured Comments from:
Thomas Osbourne: "Oh my...I happen to own two of these books, Yosemite and the Range of Light and Within the Stone. I bought the Atkinson book after seeing an exhibit of Atkinson's photographs. Seeing the exhibit was like discovering cave paintings—pure visual poetry. The book is more of the same, but the images are perfectly paired with luminous passages of poetry and prose."
Nigel: "The Atkinson appears to be in stock with Amazon—in the U.K. at least. (Just ordered a copy.)
Charles Cramer: "Ctein, I consider Gentle Wilderness to be one of the great photography books. Kauffman's photographs are absolutely luminous. I would love to read a column by you about him."