Issue #140  2/20/2008
Photo Book Review: Photofile Series

By Matt Damsker



2007, Thames & Hudson Ltd., New York and London. Each book in the series features between 60 and 90 photographs, most in black and white, and is priced at $15.95. Information: http://www.thamesandhudson.com .

The Photofile series is Thames & Hudson's estimable English-language reissuing of the pocket-sized Photo Poche series originally produced by Paris's Centre National de Photographie, collecting the classic work of the world's greatest photographers in a simple, affordable yet high-quality format. These four volumes represent a powerfully diverse, globe-spanning sequence, beginning (alphabetically at least) with the arresting modern provocations of Japan's Nobuyoshi Araki, and continuing through the Depression-era images of Walker Evans, the seminal modernism of Andre Kertesz, and the powerful war and social documentation of Don McCullin.

Araki, of course, is nothing less than a photographic force of nature--a post-World War II eye that emerged in childhood from a Tokyo air-raid shelter and has devoted itself to an unblinking account of urban chaos, the unraveling of Japanese traditionalism, and ultimately, to a disturbingly erotic series of young Japanese women trussed in bondage. Araki sees the outward expression of a blighted world--in his images of children scampering through bombed-out streets, of lonely, broken souls being conveyed on escaltors like stoop-shouldered commodities, of overflowing trash and pop-cultural clutter.

Whether delivering the decisive moment in his street photography, or in the carefully composed and lit color artistry of his bondage photos, Araki's potent subjectivity is a palpable expression of what Alain Jouffroy calls, in his introductory essay, "a photographic novel, the kind of autobiographical tale that is known in Japanese as … 'the novel of the I.'" Indeed, each of these Photofile volumes captures the essence of their subjects with concise, first-rate essays and helpful biographic and bibliographic notes on each photographer that can nicely serve the needs of student or collector.

In the case of Britain's Don McCullin--whose battlefield photography during the Vietnam war evolved into a humanistic odyssey, capturing images of poverty and suffering refugees on the world's margins--excerpts from his autobiography are the introductory matter of this volume. "It has been said that I print my photographs too dark," he writes. "How can such experiences be conveyed with a feeling of lightness?"

There are certainly no tonal problems in McCullin's body of work--it is stark, shadowed, yet never self-consciously artistic. Images of dead soldiers in Vietnam, and their plundered belongings, make poignant statements about war's hell, just as the bitter hunger of Biafra, with a child suckling at the wrinkled, barren breast of his mother, speaks loudly and wordlessly, and McCullin composes these wrenching moments with such fluid instinct that we feel, mainly, that we are there; there's no rhetorical shirt-grabbing or hand-wringing. The subjects make their own case to us, not the photographer.

As for the Kertesz and Evans volumes, they contain photographs that are perhaps the most familiar in this quartet of Photofile books. Kertesz's spare 1928 image of a fork on a plate is a declaration of modernism nonpareil, while Evans' dry landscapes of the late 1920s and early '30s in a troubled America are the most enduring calling cards of the FSA (Farm Service Administration) photographers.

Still, these portfolios have the power to startle--especially in the context of the various artists collected in the series--whenever we may think we've seen it all before. Evans' later work is a wonder--his 1968 image of "Trash," for example, with pop-tops and matchsticks glimpsed from above, and the rough granite edge of the street's curb running vertically to the left of the frame. It evokes Barnett Newman on one hand, William Eggleston on the other, yet remains utterly true to Evans' vision. And it is reason enough for the claim that the Photofile series deserves to be on the shelf of every photography enthusiast.

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.)