Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
The Documentary Impulse By Stuart Franklin (Phaidon, 2016, $20.40)
Stuart Franklin is a highly experienced documentary photographer best known for his iconic "Tank Man" photo of a Chinese civilian standing defiantly before a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
He also happens to be an extraordinarily erudite and articulate student of art and photography. This deceptively small volume comprises eight chapter-length essays addressing questions ranging from the link between documentary photography and the origins of representational art in cave paintings, to the role of ambiguity and visual poetry in photographic storytelling, to manipulation and staging as they relate to the future of documentary photography. A handful of intellectual threads tie the various essays together; perhaps the most central is the concept of photography’s capacity to "undeceive," to tell new truths to the wider world, or conversely to reinforce existing comfortable deceptions. Chapter 2, Lost Eden: Traces of the Colonial Legacy, for example, illuminates how beautiful landscape photography by Ansel Adams et al. conveyed the notion of the Americas as an empty paradise, conveniently eliding the genocidal removal of the previous inhabitants. Franklin’s analysis of documentary photography of aboriginal populations is particularly pungent, demonstrating how even the most sympathetic Western photographers from Edward Sheriff Curtis to Sebastião Salgado tend to reinforce a false "trapped in amber" vision of such cultures, while the work of indigenous photographers receives far less exposure. Franklin also makes a very persuasive argument for the marriage of informative captions and text with images, noting that leaving photographs to speak for themselves without context can greatly limit their potential for story-telling.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of Franklin’s conclusions, but he surely makes the reader think. His comfort with ambiguity and nuance is one of the book’s great strengths.
Physically the book is beautifully done; the cover playfully emulates a classic Leica, and the typography is brilliant. The paper is high quality matte stock. Despite modest size and dense typesetting, the clean digital neohumanist font (complete with f-ligatures and lining numerals, hallelujah) is extremely readable. The text is nicely illustrated by scattered photographs, many of them recognizable classics. Kudos to Phaidon for obtaining all the necessary rights.
Rouge By Michael Kenna (Prestel, 2016, $45.94)
Michael Kenna’s elegant black-and-white photographs have presented a vision of subtle beauty for decades. This volume is a revised and expanded edition of a book ﬁrst published more than 20 years ago. Included are many images not part of the original book, and others re-interpreted from the existing negatives. Consider it an antidote to the current fad for huge high-resolution color photographs of abandoned and decaying industrial sites. Kenna spent the better part of two years photographing Ford’s colossal River Rouge factory complex. The resulting images range from his signature brooding nocturnal photographs to dramatic, graphic compositions invoking Charles Sheeler. Not for everyone, but if you like this kind of work, you’ll love this book.
Essential Elements By Edward Burtynsky (Thames & Hudson, 2016, $51.33)
Edward Burtynsky has been photographing the transformation of the Earth by human activity since the 1980s, typically working on long-form projects culminating in exhibitions of his giant prints and accompanying coﬀee-table books. Initially using large-format film cameras, he has more recently employed medium-format digital cameras, generally from an elevated viewpoint or from aircraft. Most of his books are still in print, and they are consistently beautiful, despite the often toxic and disquieting subject matter. This volume summarizes his oeuvre, with sections addressing each of his major projects, accompanied by a range of brief essays and reviews. Certainly the most illuminating are the comments from Burtynsky himself, spelling out what he was trying to achieve with his photographs. Admirers of his work may want to seek out project-based books like Oil and Water. But if you want the best single volume treatment of his photography, this is the one to get. The photo reproductions are as good as it gets these days.
[Note that there is also a Deluxe Collector's Edition of this book that includes an original print. The cheapest way to get it as of this writing is through The Book Depository, where it costs $377.10, shipped free, versus £325 at Amazon UK and $500 at Amazon.com. —Ed.]
Dirt Meridian By Andrew Moore (Damiani, 2015, $36.04)
I will readily confess to being a sucker for the austere beauty of the great plains of North America. I’ve made multiple trips to the region, and always find its vast horizons compelling. Andrew Moore’s unsentimental yet sympathetic documentation of the endless prairie skies, cultivated ﬁelds, and weathered farming families just sings for me. Many of the photographs were taken at dusk with a high-resolution medium format rig mounted to the wing strut of a low-ﬂying Cessna and directed from a tablet in the cockpit. The photo reproduction quality is excellent, and the accompanying text includes a brief foreword from Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong, the quintessential contemporary novel of (Anglo) prairie life. Not for everyone, but if you like the subject, you’ll love this book.
TOP Contributing Editor Geoff Wittig is a rural family physician with interests ranging from health care quality improvement, medical informatics, and integration of health care delivery to photography and landscape painting. Photo books are a particular area of interest; he admits he has far too many for his own good.
©2016 by Geoffrey Wittig, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Joseph Vavak: "Andrew Moore's 'Dirt Meridian' is on display at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha right now. It's a really nice exhibition with immaculate large prints and dozens of photographs. His use of an airplane, especially at very low altitudes, really gives the series a different look than what we generally see photographers (myself included) do. He really captures the isolation of the plains in an effective, beautiful way. The following video is playing alongside the photographs. It shows how he works (ladders, airplanes, etc.)."
Tom: "I look forward to the TOP book recommendations at this time of year and pick out a book I would probably never have otherwise considered. My collection is much the richer for it. This year I've gone for The Documentary Impulse."
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): "For the record, while the repro quality of Essential Elements is as good as Geoff notes, I highly urge readers to make an effort to see Burtynsky's prints whenever possible. Unlike so many art photographers who make exhibition prints gratuitously large, most of Burtynsky's images really require scale to make the complete message. Having seen many in both public and private collections all I can say is it's worth the effort."