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Tuesday, 22 December 2009


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Mike, this brings to mind an important question for me: if you had to pick just a couple of portraitists -- preferably with a reasonably-accessible book or two -- what would you recommend?

I've seen, but not not yet walked through, the Chuck Close book. I can say, however, that I've seen a few of Chuck Close's portrait prints upon which this book is based; they're quite memorable. The cover self-portrait, in particular, is quite large. "Pores. Skin pores. Craterous, oily, vivid skin pores in high relief. " describes it well. Unlike, say, Karsh portraits these are not at all revealing of the subjects. They're exercises in photo gymnastics largely for the entertainment (and presumably enrichment) of the photographer. Many are hauntingly memorable for their visual values but a little of this goes a long way. For me, viewing 3 or 4 at a sitting is enough to sate my appetite for years.

Regarding the HCB portraits: The Washington Post has a small gallery of these online for those interested in seeing some (for free). Was HCB a good or great portraitist? Shrug - I dunno. But I do know that I much prefer seeing his portraits than those of Chuck Close's.

I think you make a good point about HCB's portrait work. Where I have seen them printed in the past I've often wondered where the magic, so evident in his street work, went to.

If you are looking for a great, cheap book, check Broken Spears: A Masai Journey by Elizabeth Gilbert. Great large format portraits, really intense photodocumentary photographs of rituals (erm - some are pretty rough to look at). And a lot of historical photos and documents to go along with it. And her own writing about the experience. A really impressive book. I got it for $9.99 remaindered, looks around that on amazon.


John Yuda,
That's a very tough question to answer as asked...for what? For reference, to learn from, to use as models for your own work, or my favorites to look at?

But hey, I'm nothing if not game. I'll nominate "Alice Springs Portraits" from Twelvetrees Press and "Camera Portraits: Photographs from the National Portrait Gallery, London, 1839-1989," by Malcolm Rogers, from Oxford University Press. Like many such compendia, the latter book gets weaker as it goes on, so I'll really only recommend the first half of it or so. "Alice Springs" was a pseudonym of Helmut Newton's wife, and the scuttlebutt I heard was that the book was published as a sort of political maneuver because Jack Woody of Twelvetrees (now Twin Palms) was wooing Helmut to do a book. I don't know that, I'm just spreading gossip. I also seem to remember Helmut being quite condescending toward his wife's work, but I like hers better than his--they're mostly plain Leica portraits done simply with a Tele-Elmarit, but in Woody's lavish presentation they show great visual style and inventiveness, sensitivity and insight. They've aged quite well for me.

I guess now I'm not allowed to mention Bruce Davidson's book of portraits from Aperture or Lee Friedlander's "Portraits" from New York Graphic Society, am I? ;-)


Dang it, Mike...
I picked up 'A Couple of Ways of Doing something' and set it back down again about four times at a bookstore maybe 6 months ago, before finally, reluctantly deciding against it. And now you made me buy it through your Amazon link. The reproductions are indeed gorgeous, and the charming anachronism of 21st century Dagerreotypes is irresistible.

The Limited Editions Club/Heritage Press analogy is interesting. High end book printing, producing books that are works of art in their own right, has always represented a tiny sliver of the publishing world. The Limited Editions Club was actually George Macy's attempt to democratize this part of it. 1500 copies may not seem like many, but typical 'private press' fine editions of the day ran to 100 – 300 copies or even fewer. Most of the LEC books from 1929 until WWII are lovely. They have gorgeous letterpress printing, generally contracted out to the era's finest artisan-printers like John Henry Nash, Bruce Rogers, Pynson Printers or Nonesuch Press. The books' illustrations were often photogravures, woodcuts or similar original impressions rather than reproductions. The Heritage Press versions, at least through about 1950, were simply reduced-format versions of the original books. They substituted photo reproductions, commercial printing and plain cloth bindings for the hand-crafted LEC methods, but the typography and overall design were preserved. It really was a 'democratic' way to acquire really nicely printed books without paying the equivalent of a months' salary. I started my book collecting with Heritage Press editions, and they're still a very valid way to start acquiring decent books. (They're waaaaay nicer than almost all contemporary offset printed trade books, which tend to have abysmal typography and brain-dead design.) Unfortunately, from the early 1960s onward, the nice letterpress type was replaced by far cheaper offset printing, and so subsequent volumes are less appealing.

Fine editions at different quality levels still exist for a very few books; Ansel Adams' Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail is still available in a nice trade edition, and a gorgeous (very pricey) letterpress limited edition.

Andrew Hoyem's masterpiece, Moby Dick, was actually available in three different versions. The original letterpress edition of 268 complete with hand-printed wood engravings by the great Barry Moser now goes for about $12,000, FYI. There was a facsimile slip-cased reproduction in an edition of (I believe) 500 that can occasionally be found in rare/used bookstores for about $300, and provides a fair imitation of the original. Finally, there's a more reasonably sized trade edition that does very nicely reproduce the typography and engravings via offset printing for about $50 via Amazon.

That´s interesting I´ve seen the "Alice Springs" book at my local library,but I´ve never stopped to look at it and that´s Helmut Newtons fault. I will certainly now stop to have a good look, mind you never liked Helmut Newton´s work.
Talking about archaic techniques and portraits I´m going to buy through your website next month Sally Mann´s "Proud Flesh", that should be quite something!
Didn´t you interview her once Mike? Anything worth writing a post about.
Happy Christmas to everyone round here!

Sorry to disagree, but I think Carter-Bresson was a great portraitist.

Maybe it's no accident that a world-class street photographer would be a world-class portraitist as well. As Max Kozloff explains in the introduction to "Lone Visions / Crowded Frames" (which I recently acquired on someone's recommendation on TOP), "a link exists between portrait and street photography, in the condition of their regard." He continues:

"The unpredictable conduct of one subject comprises the field of interest for the portraitist, just as the unforeseeable actions of many create the field of the street photographer. The incidents we think characteristic of both modes can be equally fugitive and subtle, though, of course, of different scale. . . . [T]he closely observed human physiognomy is the site of as many uncontrollable moods and variables as the street."

Or, to put in HC-B's terms, decisive moments occur in the street as well as in Matisse's studio, Faulkner's yard, Sartre's Paris, Capote's garden, or the Curies' apartment.

For a great portrait book I don't think you could go wrong with Irving Penn. I just looked up my platinum prints book (I think I paid $60ish dollars for it 4 years ago) and it's up to $238 on Amazon. How I wish I wanted to sell it. I never had a book appreciate on me like that.

But I'm guessing this would be pretty amazing too, at not too bad a price:

Your comment has made me wonder -- is Eisenstadt brushed aside when considering the "greatest of the great" photographers? Perhaps he was TOO prolific, and his work too accessable, without the angst of Gene Smith, the drama of Karsh, or the formality of Strand and Weston. Just one hell of a photographer.
I've owned "The Eye of Eisenstadt" for 40 years, and still often enjoy romping through its pages from cover to cover.

hehe, Mike does it again. HCB portraits out of stock at amazon uk now as well.

Mike, in all honesty I'm not sure which of those categories I was necessarily looking for with my question. I mostly enjoy your book recommendations so I figured I'd nudge you toward a couple more of them.

When I was a kid I sent Eisenstadt (who was by that time retired) a couple of my prints. Silly me! But Eisie immediately sent back an incredibly warm-hearted and personal typewritten note on his Life stationery, urging me forward. I still have that note somewhere, dry-mounted to a spare piece of matt board, and though I became a molecular biologist the importance of that early encouragement by a an important elder has never left me.

Most "artists" don't really make exceptional photography when they try their hand, falling into many of the same basic pitfalls experienced by any Ordinary Joe. These portraits by Chuck Close most certainly break that mold; they are exceptional, both in their retro technique and their "unique," penetrating vision.

Two other recent books that succesfully mix visions of traditional and "modern" portraiture are Living With War by Judith Joy Ross and South East by Mark Steinmetz.

I was lucky enough to be given the HCB book last year and I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment — it's beautiful. I have no basis for assessing whether the reproductions do justice to his work but they certainly look excellent to me. As for his status as a portrait photographer, I agree with Ken; I certainly prefer his work over Chuck's, but perhaps that's because I generally like portraits that at least hint at a context.

Finally, something that struck me strongly about the HCB portraits was how many have what would be considered by the forum-dwellers to be faults — typically a slight or even strong element of camera shake or out-of-focus blur (e.g. the cover photo of Samuel Beckett). That photos with these kinds of "faults" can succeed so well has been an eye-opener for me.

I've been resisting the temptation to buy a photobook these last few months (except for one; read on) because I was saving up for a fast 35mm, but with the lens now save on the camera I could not resist this HCB book. Managed to get one in the UK just in time I gather.
The one exception was Garry Winogrand's 'The Game of Photography', which I found in a used bookstore in town and loved. I was especially smitten with myself when I found out later that on Amazon it costs 10 times what I paid!
I also distinctly remember seeing a book by Alice Springs in that same bookstore... When I'm in town next week I'll go and see if it's still there.
Thanks for all your posts this last year Mike and happy holidays to you and your loved ones.
Nick, The Netherlands

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to a posting problem--entirely my fault--some of the comments to this post were temporarily not visible. Several comments I've had to rescue--I can't repost them under their author's names, but here are the otherwise missing comments:

Posted by: DaveS., The Black Isle, Scotland | Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 07:24 AM:

Went for one of the remaining H.C.-B. books from Amazon UK - there were 5 left prior to me ordering mine.

Have a Great Christmas Mike, and thanks for all your contributions and work throughout the year. The same goes to all your other contributors too.

Posted by: Miserere | Wednesday, 23 December 2009 at 03:54 PM

I see you followed my H.C-B recommendation, Mike. At that price, it would be silly not to buy oneself a copy for Christmas, IMHO.

Posted by: Richard | Thursday, 24 December 2009 at 04:10 AM

I think he has some great portraits. There is something very touching about the portrait of Ezra Pound, and I have always marvelled at the portrait of Francois Mauriac gazing right with the little world out of focus behind him. The Joliot-Curies is a shot for the century. They are quite different to the classic geometries of Cartier-Bresson's street work but fine enough to be remembered for in their own right.

My apologies for the SNAFU.


I bought a copy of HCB portraits on amazon.ca (canada) yesterday and it looks like they still have stock. Thanks for the great blog!

You wrote: "If Ansel Adams's color work (also the subject of a good new book)..."

According to Amazon, this is an expanded edition (20 new prints) of the 1993 edition. Also, from Amazon: "New digital scanning and printing technologies also mean that the book now offers a more faithful representation of Adams's color photography."

I've admired the book for years, and will probably purchase the expanded edition.

Thanks for posting!

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