Issue #131  7/23/2007
Summer Viewing: Joseph, Vicomte Vigier; John Humble; and Anonymous Snapshots

By Matt Damsker


Photographs by Joseph Vicomte Vigier. Text by Larry J. Schaaf with Russell Lord. 95 pages; 38 sepia-toned plates. Sun Pictures Catalogue 16, published by Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Inc., 962 Park Ave., New York, NY 10028; phone: +1-212 794-2064; fax: +1-212 744-2770; email: info@sunpictures.com ; Internet: http://www.sunpictures.com .

A prized pupil of Gustave Le Gray who mastered not only Le Gray's wax-paper negative process but also Fox-Talbot's calotype technique, Joseph, Vicomte Vigier, was one of France's most popular early photographers, thanks to his large-format views of the Pyrenees, which are among the most atmospherically rich photos of the mid-1800s. Vicomte Vigier's 1853 summer idyll through the mountains resulted in this newly discovered album, its salt-print images crisply reproduced in their original sequence, with an informative introduction by Larry J. Schaaf.

Indeed, Vicomte Vigier was an inspired, solitary soul who began this Pyrenees trek deep in the south, in a vaguely defined frontier between Spain and France. Working northward, his camera took in the unspoiled pictorial majesty of misty landscapes, with stone ruins, footbridges, distant waterfalls, and the great snowy peaks as an ethereal backdrop. Often focusing from a hilly vantage point on the gorges and passes that gracefully lead the eye to the natural depth of the scenery, Vicomte Vigier brought home a storybook world of simple, rugged beauty, with a keen sense of scale that often locates human evidence (a small cottage, a trace of broken bridge) to orient us to the landscape.

These photographs are magical without seeming overwrought, and define the particulars of their vast territory with a rigorous determination to convey the multitude of natural effects, textures, and terrains that are the Pyrenees. This timeless context of soil, rock, vegetation, and water almost mocks the humble effort of inhabitants to find shelter within it. Indeed, Vicomte Vigier was acutely attuned to the quiet drama of man's hope-borne intersection with indifferent nature, which makes this album one of the great documents of its kind.


Photographs of Los Angeles by John Humble. Essays by Gordon Baldwin. Issued in connection with the exhibition of the same name at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. 2007, Getty Publications, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Ste. 500, Los Angeles, CA 90049; information: http://www.getty.edu . ISBN. No. 978-0-89236-881-5; 95 pages; 39 color plates.

Anyone driving through the vast Los Angeles region is struck as much by the sun-beaten sprawl and urban decay of most of it as by the rarefied glitz and picaresque charms of Rodeo Drive, the Sunset Strip or Hollywood. John Humble's photographs focus entirely on the glamour-starved side of L.A--its landscape of car dealerships, colorfully squat and boxy storefronts, poor housing shadowed by power lines and oil riggings; the evidence of ubiquitous freeways that define and detract from the general quality of Southern California life; and the troubled, choked passages of the Los Angeles River.

This collection, recently displayed at L.A.'s Getty Museum, offers fine examples of Humble's square, large-format views, many of them in the high-noon sunlight that always seems to blanket the city, with few human subjects in evidence (as opposed to the mute evidence of a humanity that has built and spiritually abandoned these impoverished sites). The geometry of telephone poles, traffic signals, billboards, the iconography of liquor and cigarette advertising--the broad decay of consumer society--are the stuff of Humble's social realism, but so is another side of Los Angeles, documented here in his many images of the L.A. River, as it struggles along--much of it only inches-deep--through ugly neighborhood channels, beneath overpasses, past electrical towers, and finally to its broad mouth in Long Beach.

The gorgeous shot of the river at Long Beach is Humble's single expression of natural grandeur, with a low row of clouds on the horizon, pale blue sky above, and a famed tourist attraction--the decommissioned Queen Mary ocean liner--as a lovely accent in the distance. Like his other photos, in which the imposing skyline of downtown L.A. is glimpsed far from such sites as the graffiti-scrawled walls along train tracks, this reminds us that Los Angeles is a powerful, multi-dimensional presence--founded on the Pacific Ocean as a mighty commercial engine, yet by now an industrial polluter and an over-developed and under-served metropolis like, and unlike, any other.


Edited by Jeff Fraenkel. 2007. Approximately 115 pages; 88 photographic plates. ISBN No. 978-1-933045-66-5. Published by Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94108; phone: +1-415-981-2661; fax: +1-415-981-4014; Internet: http://www.fraenkelgallery.com . Co-published by D.A.P., Distributed Art Publishers Inc., New York, NY; information: http://www.artbook.com .

This charming collection of anonymous snapshots from Jeffrey Fraenkel's large collection of flea-market and otherwise gathered curiosities is a testament to the richness of found photography, and suggests that the medium is the only art form that can yield such accidental evocativeness.

Each of these shots--from the early part of the 20th century to the 1950s--features the shadow of the photographer looming from the bottom edge of the frame. In some cases, it makes for a remarkably complex composition, as Fraenkel notes in describing a snapshot of a young man leaning against a wall, and "the mobius strip that begins with the boy's right hand…and passes with a gentle touch to the spectral arm and unseen hands of the photographer, who is and is not in the picture."

Such images may or may not be intentional, of course, but the ghostly presence of the picture-maker in each of these--whether wedding photos, playground photos of twins on swings, informal portraits of uniformed loved ones in school outfits or heading off to military service, backyard and beach snapshots, or graveside gatherings--touchingly conveys the emotional investment of the photographer. And where intentionality seems most likely--as in a 1966 image of a young soldier, his shadow thrown on the brick wall behind him, where it stands at attention next to the smaller shadow of (presumably) his photographer father; or in an expressionistic shot of a tree dominated by the elongated ground shadow of the man taking it--the effect is sublimely artistic. Most of these images don't rise above the level of curiosity, of course, but bound in this affectionate volume, they connect us to the simple humanity of photography in a profound way.

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.

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