Issue #190  3/24/2012
Photo Books: The Sight of Reading, Eye/Object and More

By Matt Damsker



Texts by Dany Laferriere, Vicki Goldberg and Elaine Sernovitz Zimbel. 2011, Les editions du passage, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; hardcover, $49.95, 160 pages, 70 black and white plates. In French and English. ISBN No. 978-2-922892-52-9. Information: http://www.editionsdupassage.com .

The venerable George S. Zimbel has been a force for more than a half-century, known most famously, perhaps, for his images of Marilyn Monroe with her dress billowing up around her as she stood astride a New York City ventilation shaft (promoting her film, "The Seven Year Itch"). But the breadth of Zimbel's work and career far exceeds his celebrity photography, and this book reveals some of his very best work, the unique outgrowth of his penchant for capturing the unselfconscious absorption of people in the act of reading.

As critic Vicki Goldberg notes in her fine essay in this collection, Zimbel's own love of reading alerted him early on to the contemplative centers of gravity established by the sight of readers, wherever he finds them. "Time being at a premium," writes Goldberg, "passionate readers read even while walking…, waiting in line, riding the subway, tending a baby."

Thus, Zimbel's trusty Leica and Tri-X film court those casually decisive moments when a subject is drawn obliviously into the world of a book, a newspaper, or even the card catalogue at the New York Public Library. A women in a tight dress, standing stoutly, hand on hip, while she reads a paperback novel on a subway platform, conveys an attitude of cocksure sexuality, and one can only wonder if she's transmitting that aura as much because of the words she's drinking in, as by the force of her personality (a bit of both, no doubt). Other shots explore the same odd intimacy. A young man looks up from his reading in the quiet of the library, staring out a window, deeply affected (or merely bored?) by the words; an old man cradles his bald head as he peers near-sightedly at the notices in a newspaper; and a child reads a comic book in bed, biting his lip from a world away.

These (literally) prosaic moments, in all their static familiarity, seem the antithesis of the dynamic street photography and 20th-century photojournalism we've come to cherish. But Zimbel's genius is to distill the utterly private act of reading into a public iconography of the purely human (maybe whales and primates can communicate more than we know, but they cannot page through the Times, arrested by some small-print revelation). Indeed, there's something infinitely touching in Zimbel's modest recognitions, as when he photographs schoolchildren anxiously concentrating upon their textbooks, or a woman straining to read a book in low light. Readers all--avid or casual, obsessive or avoidant--we've been and are these people, and Zimbel's camera loves us as much as it once loved Marilyn.



Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago. 135 pages; 121 black-and-white and color plates. Information: 1-312-787-3350, or by email: info@stephendaitergallery.com .

This catalogue of photographs from the collection of the late Jonathan Williams--admired poet, essayist and publisher of the North Carolina-based Jargon Press--is more than just a bound sales offering of vintage photography. ssembled by the Stephen Daiter Gallery and lovingly stewarded by Williams' lifetime partner, poet Thomas Meyer, "Eye/Object" attests to Williams' love of and superb eye for austere and somewhat haunted American photography. With several of Williams' spare, ecstatically observant poems sprinkled through, the book's visually imagery ranges as thoughtfully and earthily as did Williams' fertile mind.

Portraits of artist friends, such as Aaron Siskind (standing casually in a doorway, as captured by Harry Callahan's camera), Joel Oppenheimer (by Robert Schiller) and Guy Davenport (by Ralph Eugene Meatyard), as well as classic images of American legends such as Charles Ives (by W. Eugene Smith) are more than matched by images that ramble, beautifully, across American places and poses. Simpson Kalisher's untitled gems are here--a joyous African-American couple, just married it seems, in the hopeful midst of the 1960s, or his shot of railroad men at a lunch counter--as are more personal totems, including nude studies of Tom Meyer, and portraits of Williams himself, by the likes of Elizabeth Matheson and Francine du Plessix.

Williams was equally inspired, though, by photographs that courted the fantastic, whether vintage imagery such as Alvin Langdon Coburn's smoky, dreamlike view of St. Paul's Cathedral from Ludgate Circus, Henry Holmes Smith's drippingly abstract "Husband and Wife," or the morbid cadaver close-ups of Ron Namath and Frederick Sommer. There are also several first-rate examples of Aaron Siskind's textural walls from Manzanillo, Lima and Rome, as well as Siskind's tree studies from Martha's Vineyard, and some fine Harry Callahan Chicago portraits and a looming color image of a clapboard home in Providence, RI.

And there is much more, including examples of Williams' poetry and essay book covers, for which he always found an expressive photograph to convey his wide embrace of form and fancy. Siskind's "F102," a wonderfully composed portrait of a flexing foot, graces Williams' "The Magpie's Bagpipe" cover (1982, North Point Press), while the picaresque Kentucky line-up of nude dancers, as photographed by Guy Mendes, marks the cover of Williams' 1979 "Elite/Elate3 Poems, Selected Poems 1971-75," which includes a portfolio of Mendes' work (1979, The Jargon Society). Indeed, Williams' legacy amounts to a long and inclusive love affair with art and humanity, and we are lucky to have it codified so well by this catalogue.


From erotic studies to urban visions, Croatia's Stanko Abadžic; is among the most prolific and energized of Europe's post-World War II artists. Abadžic's latest collection, ZAGREB – SKETCHES FOR A PORTRAIT OF THE CITY (published by ArTresor Naklada) is now available from Abadzic's dealer's, including Contemporary Works, info@contemporaryworks.net ; 1-215-822-5662 for $39.99, plus $8 shipping in the U.S. The book represents Abadžic at his most passionately engaged. As he notes in a dialogue from the book's introductory section: "My Zagreb is completely private. That's the only way I portray cities." Thus, these 125 or so black-and-white images are the infinite journey of an all-encompassing eye, shutting out nothing and bringing us scene upon scene of witty, abstracted beauty and utter realism.

For example, a man seen guzzling from a beer bottle is the only occupant of a sea of wicker chairs, as Abadžic toys with our perception, matching the crisp weave of the wicker against the slovenly humanity of the beer-drinker. Other shots take us through the shadowed streets and gardens of Zagreb, its pastoral suburbs where dogs lounge and women bathe in the glades. There are industrial yards and upscale plazas, citizens wandering alone through modernist architecture and old streets, their shadows flung like the sands of time amidst the geometries of stairs, railings, ceilings and floors pressing from above and below. The random moment is surreal and utterly concrete in Abadžic's world: a man carries a huge clock into a repair shop, and it is at once a magical and mundane image.

Far from mundane, and frequently magical, are Abadžic's artful portraits of female nudes, which illustrate SAMI U TOJ SUMI, a collection of poems by Drago Glamuzina (http://www.bibliofil.hr ). The book is an elegant paean to nubile womanhood, in which the restrained erotic outpourings of Glamuzina are more than matched by Abadžic's images of feminine beauty in a shadowed netherworld of isolation and desire. These legs, torsos, breasts, and rapturous faces are sculpturally enriched by Abadžic's feel for collaborative light and texture. A woman lies regally in room that pulses with afternoon sunlight baffled by lace curtains and floral wallpaper, while in another shot a woman's chin rests on her knees, above fishnet-stockinged legs. Somehow, Abadžic avoids mere fetishism, capturing emotion and alienation as much as he delineates Eros.

From Galerie Daniel Blau (Munich, London) comes a catalogue that accompanies the recent London exhibition HAUNTING THE CHAPEL: PHOTOGRAPHY AND DISSOLUTION. As Daniel Campbell Blight writes in his introductory note, "photographs…are the only plausibly accurate visual record of this world that we have as it changes and disappears…One should not look for truth in a photograph, only the sprit." Thus, these dozen or so images range from the familiar spirit photography of the late 19th/early 20th century (including one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), in which "ghosts" are captured through double exposure, to the more direct evidence of evanescent reality, such as the traces of wall drawings, the decaying stonework of ancient monuments and the dissolving integrity of photographic prints themselves. For information: +44 (0) 207 831 7998; email: london@danielbalu.com .

Finally, but by no means least of all, we note that the esteemed photographer and teacher Henry Horenstein has now published another indispensible textbook for aspiring (and, indeed, practicing) photographers. DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY: A BASIC MANUAL (Little, Brown and Co.; trade paperback, $29.99) is a richly illustrated, clearly written and exhaustively well-organized compendium of expert guidance on the key aspects of digital picture-making, with a step-by-step approach that will not fail any serious or casual student. Horenstein explains it all: how to choose the right digital camera (and set it up), selecting file formats, when to use manual vs. auto settings, lenses, high-resolution scanning, and so on. While we don't usually review "how-to" photo books, there are many first-rate photos that serve to illustrate the techniques, including many by Horenstein himself. These remind us what an affecting and versatile photographer he is. Highly recommended. Information: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com .

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.)