Issue #182  8/5/2011
Photo Books: Important Two-Volume Set On Europe Photographic History

By Matt Damsker


Vaclav Macek, editor. Published by Central European House of Photography, FOTOFO and Eyes On--Month of Photography Vienna, supported by the Department for Cultural Affairs of the City of Vienna. Hardbound, approximately 700 pages; ISBN No. 978-80-85739-55-8. Tel./Fax:+421-2-5441-8214; email: info@sedf.sk . Information: http://www.sedf.sk . Cost is 99 euro per volume, plus shipping.

The immense task of chronicling a history of European photography calls for nothing less than encyclopedic rigor, and that's precisely how these two volumes approach their dense aesthetic universe. It is worth noting that, at this point, the project is focused on the 20th century and beyond, so these first volumes limit themselves to the seminal era of modernism, from 1900 to 1938, alphabetically moving from Albanian through Irish photography in Volume I, Italian through Ukrainian photography in Volume II.

Editor Vaclav Macek is well aware that defining European photography in the first place requires a point of view, and from the central European perspective of this project there has always been a struggle of perceptions, with the mainstream focus of European culture often reduced to a "map with a few big cities on it." However, this metro-centric reductivism is at best arguable, and Macek questions "whether it is possible to reduce Europe to a few metropolitan areas, where the decisive impulses are still taking place, followed by multiple echoes, that become weaker, the closer you get to the geographical outskirts of Europe…"

To him and to the contributors to this encyclopedia, "The transformation of Europe into a 'skeleton' deforms the picture of development…this book is clearly about the problem of hierarchy." That said, the anti-hierarchical approach thus taken is to catalogue, country by country, without favoring the obvious front-runners. We can ask whether it makes sense to devote 20 pages to Estonian or Portuguese photography and not too much more than 20 pages or so to French or British photography, but the issue of quantity versus cultural influence soon enough fade as we read these thoughtful and well-researched essays that are careful to connect the uniquely cross-bred socio-political and cultural contexts of each country to their photographic output.

Importantly, the various photographic examples make their case strongly, and are well-reproduced in four-color glory on quality matte paper, with clean, engaging graphic design, thorough annotation and footnoting that make each chapter easy to follow and encourages further independent exploration. One would expect nothing less from a grand project such as this, but that's not to be taken for granted. Still, the discrete, country-by-country format is challenged to present the sort of richly cross-referenced historiography we might pine for, and so these individuated chapters may lead us to wonder why Pictorialism, for example, played no role in Slovak photography when it was flourishing not so far afield. Ultimately and inevitably, quibbles and dangling questions are all but guaranteed by this encyclopedic approach, and they should be viewed more as an invitation to more scholarship and discussion, not as a systemic failure.

Thus, the sheer documentary and compositional power of such unfamiliar gems as Dutch photographer Emmy Andriesse's 1938 street view of two "Negro Students in the Quartier Latin, Paris" sweeps away any misguided sense we might have that only the likes of Atget, Brassai or Lartigue were doing great work in the City of Lights at that time. Andriesse was clearly drawn to an image of liberté-egalité-fraternité that outclasses the prevailing-class iconography of her French peers. Indeed, the two well-dressed students are viewed with a slant framing that suggests their exoticism on the Boulevard Saint-Michel while at the same time enhancing their noble bearing. It is an unforgettable photo.

It is no surprise that the power of these volumes resides in such discoveries, all of which remind us of the depth and richness of European modernism. Thus, the chapter on Romanian photography becomes almost emblematic of the trans-European essence of the medium, despite the myriad national borders and political winds that swept from every side.

For example, Etienne Lonyai's 1910 gelatin silver print of a dozing "Princess Marie of Romania," seated on a leopard rug , surrounded by domestic grace notes, is a brilliant study of royal languor, while Alexandru Bellu's 1900 image of "Peasants Fording a Stream" is equally beautiful at the opposite end of the social spectrum. And to its credit, the chapter reminds us that Romania's greatest artist--and father of modern sculpture-- Constantin Brancusi, also left us fine photographic documents of such seminal works as his "Endless Column" in Targu Jiu.

If anything, the triumph of this encyclopedia may well lie in the balance and restraint with which the various chapter authors make their cases, and in the sublimely well-chosen photographic examples that bolster each chapter. Indeed, the years of classic modernism were nothing if not deeply divided by political reality even as Europe's photographers began to cross-pollinate aesthetically. It takes an omnibus project such as this to connect us meaningfully and in context to, for example, the strains of surrealism and social realism that differentiated Spanish photography from its Russian counterpart. It seems, in fact, a near-impossible task, but here it is--the multiform world of modern Europe compressed into an entertaining, enlightening atlas.

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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