Issue #126  5/18/2007
Thames & Hudson Republishes Photo Poche Series; New Catalogue On Marcel Marien's Dadaist Photos; Zimbel's "Bourbon Street"

By Matt Damsker



Robert Delpire, Managing Editor of the series. Each paperback volume contains approximately 60 photographs, most in duotone. Price: $15.95. Published by Thames & Hudson, 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110. Information: http://www.thamesandhudson.com .

Elegantly compact, this Photofile series of classic modern photography is the original English-language edition of the Photo Poche collection from the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris. Given such a pedigree, it's no surprise that many of the most admired works of these great artists are here, beautifully reproduced in duotone and neatly bound with helpful essays. Ideal for students or casual photo buffs, these small troves are also wonderfully affordable at only $15.95.

As for their collective journey, the Photofile series moves from the surrealism and experimental modernism of Man Ray in the 1920s to the latter-day humanism of Sebastiao Salgado, with his images of famine and his great, third-world Workers project. In between these 20th-century polarities, the photo-journalistic supremacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the fetishistic fashion images of Helmut Newton round out the modern era. For collectors, of course, there may not be very much in the way of revelation here: Man Ray's solarizations, his nudes, or his portraits of artists from Duchamp to Ernst to Giacometti, Antonin Artaud and Tristan Tzara, are familiar touchstones, as are Cartier-Bresson's shots of Matisse with his dove, gray primal landscapes, countless street moments across the world, and so on.

Still, one never tires of these black-and-white treasures, and inevitably, there are discoveries that one had not been aware of--such as a Cartier-Bresson shot of entangled lovers in Mexico (1934) that is gritty in its eroticism. And the searing work of Salgado demands that attention be paid: while the Western world was awash in the prosperity of the 1980s and '90s, this Brazilian, trained as an economist, focused an unblinking eye on starvation in the remote deserts of Ethiopia, the Sudan, Mali, on the chaos of Mid-East warfare in Kuwait, and on the brutal conditions faced by Brazilian miners and Cambodian landmine victims. Salgado finds photographic beauty--or, more accurately, graphic drama--in his urgent subject matter, and his exposures are astonishingly detailed, most of them in burnished depths of sun and shadow that pit his frail humanity against unforgiving landscapes. Indeed, his master image of Brazil's Serra Pelada coal mine achieves a truly Biblical dimension: seen from a high angle, the ant-like army of burden-shouldering men, ladders and shafts suggest what it must have been like to build the Great Pyramids.

By comparison, Helmut Newtown's photographs of high-fashion indolence, spike-heeled nudity, and kinky, bondage-flavored scenarios are very much a decadent record of the 1970s, when taboos were falling away and fashion photography took on a more liberated narrative quality. Newton, as Karl Lagerfeld's essay asserts, is obsessed with "Nordfleisch"--Northern flesh, in all its Nordic whiteness--and if that links him in some crypto-Fascist way to Aryan ideals of womanhood, he also evokes the decadence of Weimar Germany and Berlin cabaret, especially in his androgynous images of models mannishly outfitted. At the end of the day, however, Newton wasn't about racial types or cultural deconstruction; he loved form, the female form, mainly, and context--often bizarre, somewhat shocking, touched with humor--as a means of activating form in a still photograph. Like those of all the photographers in this series, his pictures seem only to be getting better as they age.


Catalogue accompanying the recent exhibition of the same name at France LeJeune Fine Art, Battelse steenweg 67, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium. 63 pages; approximately 40 black-and-white plates; ISBN-10 No. 90-9021382-1. Available for $25 from Vintage Works, Ltd. http://www.vintageworks.net ; email info@vintageworks.net ; phone 1-215-822-5662 and France Lejeune Fine Art http://www.Francelejeune.com ; email: info@Francelejeune.com .

One of surrealism's standard bearers, the Belgian art scholar and provocateur Marcel Marien (1920-1993) produced most of his photographic work, which is very rarely seen, between 1983 and his death a decade later, and this catalogue affords a broad glimpse of a playful, inelegant style that evokes the odd objectifications of such mentoring figures as Magritte and Man Ray. Marien's Man Ray-esque nude images dominated his photographic oeuvre, in fact, as he indulged a series of photographic jokes--such as a "bearded" Mona Lisa glimpsed in relation to a nude model's unshaven pudendum, or a miniature model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa held from a female crotch as if it were a penis.

These and other such mockeries of the female form, the voyeuristic gaze and the sanctity of photo-portraiture are intentionally flat and seem amateurish, but the more one looks at them, the more evident it becomes that Marien was very much in control of his medium and his point of view. On one hand, he sought to pay homage to his surrealist inspirations, while on the other, he, as a true Dadaist, was intent on painting a childlike moustache on the fine-art tradition, and he did so with a mixture of deadpan bravado and disarming glee.

It is not surprising to learn, as this catalogue tells us, that Marien's long friendship with Magritte resulted not only in the first important monograph on the great surrealist painter (published by Marien in 1943) but also the end of the friendship (and some subsequent litigation) when Marien published a pamphlet purportedly written by Magritte and announcing absurd price reductions of the master's work.

Marien did produce at least one great photograph in his youthful surrealist heyday: 1945's "De Sade a Lenine," in which a nude slices a loaf of bread with a knife that precariously edges her left nipple. The evocative photo blends political/sexual subtext with sheer compositional panache--and is a fine legacy of Marien's mischief and mastery.


Published by les editions du passage, 2006; hardcover, 96 pages, approximately 40 black-and-white plates; $60.00. ISBN No. 2-922892-20-4. Information: info@editionsdupassage.com; phone: 1-514-273-1687.

This evocative look at New Orleans' French Quarter in its Post-World War II heyday captures a dark, feisty world of girlie shows, jazz, convivial coffees at the Café du Monde, as well as the loneliness of solitary figures at a bar. George Zimbel's career as an American photojournalist was thriving--he created the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt being raised around her by the air from a subway grate in New York, along with photos of the Kennedys--when he connected with New Orleans' night rhythms, and the resulting trove of images explores time, place and people vividly and compassionately.

Zimbel's photo sequence of the popular Cuban dancer Chelo Alonso, who found fame briefly as a featured player in Hollywood films, wonderfully marks the difference between striptease and genuine exotic dancing, while Zimbel's photos of less exotic strippers conveys the sheer exuberance of Bourbon Street burlesque.

Then there are the low-lit jazz singers and bands that sweat it out on small stages, the knots of sailors pooling their cash to enter a nightclub, male gawkers at the window of a lingerie store, and the hulking nighthawk profile of the actual streetcar named Desire. Engagingly art-directed, with its blow-ups of key photographs in darkroom red, and with descriptive passages in English, French, Spanish, and Japanese, this is certainly an above-average coffee table tome. And one dollar from each book sold is to be donated to charitable organizations for the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)