Issue #194  9/25/2012
Drtikol's Muscular Modernism; William Carter's Cause and Spirit; Photo Catalogues in Brief

By Matt Damsker


Catalogue by Annette and Rudolf Kicken, with essays by Matthew S. Witkowski, Vladimir Birgus, and Anna Farova. Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany. Published on the occasion of the exhibitions of Frantisek Drtikol photographs in 2011 and 2012 in Duderstadt, Prague and Erfurt, curated by Rudolf Kicken. Hardbound; 101 pages, approximately 90 black-and-white plates; ISBN No. 978-3-7757-2600-9; information: http://www.hatjecantz.com .

"Muscular but not threatening" is how Matthew S. Witkowski, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, describes the female nudes who dominated the output of the great Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol (1883-1961), and it's an apt equivocation for Drtikol's vision of the "new" woman he idealized in the flush of Euro-modernism of the late 1920s and into the '30s. Drtikol's nudes--shorthaired, athletic and harmoniously curved alongside the wavy cutouts against which they often pose--are images of sexual ripeness and sheer physical confidence, their erotic power and mystery typically accentuated by strong geometric forms, Art Deco atmosphere and Expressionist shadowing. And yet they remain relatable, vulnerable, more human than mythic (with the castrating exception, perhaps, of his "Salome" images).

This catalogue, a generous appreciation of Drtikol's oeuvre, with images ranging from his most famous (1927's justly renowned "The Wave," in which a raptly eyes-closed nude arches horizontally through a sea of constructed curves) to his later, heavily stylized wood cutouts, which miniaturize the human figure and other objects. A thorough biographical essay by photographer Vladimir Birgus, whose contemporary works are deeply schooled in Drtikol's seminal artistry, notes the rise and fall of the master's fortunes, while the late Prague art historian Anna Farova writes: "The female represented for him a being differentiated and stigmatized by myths, by society and epoch, and the artist interpreted this both in terms of his personal life and the changes in woman's position in the world."

Indeed, Drtikol's vision seems personal and passionate at every turn, yet without the codings and self-conscious tendencies of avant-gardism that we find in the likes of his contemporaries, such as Man Ray. Instead, the pure devotion to form and style, object and atmosphere create in Drtikol's work a strong sense of moment and of mood energized by the human presence. This catalogue, richly printed and beautifully presented, does real justice to one of the key figures of art photography's evolution.



Steidl, Gottingen, Germany. Hardbound; 205 pages, approximately 200 black-and-white and color prints; ISBN No. 978-3-86930-123-5. Information: http://www.steidlville.com; http://www.steidl.de ; http://www.wcarter.us .

William Carter's half-century career as one of the world's leading photojournalists has yielded innumerable images, contributing strongly and compassionately to the visual grammar we associate with places as disparate as the American West and Midwest, Europe, the Middle East, and India. A long career on the road eventually led him to fine-art nude studies that have only furthered his standing as something of a photographer's photographer, and this latest volume (his fifth collection) is his capstone survey of the places and (mostly anonymous) humanity that he captures with such clarity, crispness and unpretentious style.

Born in 1934 in a Los Angeles that was beginning to sprawl inchoately, Carter's upper-middle-class background gave him some time to find his calling, and by the 1960s he was working in publishing in New York and freelancing with his camera. Assignments led him to Beirut, London, Iraq, India, and eventually back to his U.S. beginnings, cementing his mastery with the bestselling "Ghost Towns of the West" (Lane Publishing, 1971/78), followed by "Middle West Country" (Houghton Mifflin, 1975) and, by 1991, a strong photographic tribute ("Preservation Hall," W.W Norton) to the New Orleans jazz he had always loved (and, as a clarinetist, often performs).

If anything, "Spirits and Causes" is Carter's heartfelt testament to who he is and where he's been, with its concise biographical narrative and modest affirmations. There's certainly nothing flashy or ego-driven about his work--the influence of everyone from Cartier-Bresson and Atget to Minor White and all of the great black-and-white artisans are evident enough, but Carter went his own way by going in the direction of deliberate craft and humanistic commitment. The most stylized effort in this volume is his 1962 shot of Louis Armstrong in concert at Cornell University, with Armstrong captured as a small icon in the lower left of the frame, opposite a mini-constellation of spotlights in the upper right; the remainder of this large photo is a cosmic black. It's a superbly designed image, but not as representative of Carter's vision as the street photography that sweeps us through the cities and mid-century moments of his professional heyday.

Children glimpsed from the windows of New York's Lower East Side, the lunchtime loungers of Midtown, the down-and-outers of the Bowery, the idle elderly in Washington Square, and all the equivalent humanity glimpsed in Illinois, Seattle, Ireland, Italy, and the Middle East: these are Carter's ultimate subjects, portrayed in nearly every case with an unforced naturalism and technical rigor. The sharp, high-contrast exposures and clean, unfussy composition never fail to focus our viewing eye on the everyday drama of global life-as-lived. Yet Carter's rhetoric is subdued, avoiding in-your-face pathos. The sine-wave transience and stasis of the street mark Carter's visual rhythm--people routinely on the move or at rest, and we can easily place ourselves among them. By the time he takes us to Italy's gorgeous lake country in the 1990s, his unsentimental feel for the urban relaxes in lush pastorals, but not before he has mapped the tribal conflicts of Kurdistan in the 1960s (a Life magazine assignment that was one of his greatest successes).

"Decades of exposure to gritty photojournalism, and to Hindu and Buddhist understandings, had proved to me that the 'real' world never really changes," Carter writes toward the end of this generously chronicled photo-journey, adding at one point, "Attitude is everything." With so much visual evidence, it is hard to argue with Carter's assessment of the world and his place in it. "Causes and Spirits" is as solid and refreshing a book of photography as we are likely to encounter this decade.


From Hans P. Kraus, Jr., New York, comes SUN PICTURES CATALOGUE TWENTY: JULIA MARGARET CAMERON, with two dozen classic images carefully described and beautifully reproduced. Cameron's loving focus on family groupings, and the great, frame-filling emphasis on the head and upper body of her subjects--including Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and various British nobles--mark her style, as do the statuesque depictions of poetry and Shakespeare. Oxford University professor Larry J. Schaaf contributes an informative introduction, noting that Cameron broke the rules that had informally bound the first great wave of amateur photographers of the 1860s: "She strove to make her heads life-size, and, if anything, her fuller figures seem larger-than-life, even within the physical constraints of the format … They are unlike the work of her contemporaries, and perhaps are more often echoed in modern photography… Big, bold and penetrating…" Information: +212-794-2064; email: info@sunpictures.com ; http://www.sunpictures.com .

Few recent photography books convey the discreet charm of Alain Amiand's limited-edition (100) collection of nine diverse, full-frontal photographs of the word HOTEL on the face of various buildings in the region of his home city of Toulouse, France, and as far afield as Germany, Amsterdam, and even Union Square, New York. The result is a worthy and revealing exercise in tight focus and architectural detail, as Amiand conceptually locates the notion of hospitality in the graceful script and block lettering (including the H-word formed by the cobblestones of a Berlin location) by which a simple, universal word invites us to rest awhile. These squared, colorful images are truly wonderful miniatures, rich with texture (the stubbled, sunlit stucco of a maison in Biarritz, the blue/green floral tiles of a stop in Portugal) and a strong sense of place. Information: http://www.hotelcomposition.com .

Finally, it's worth noting that the convenient new world of digital photography places the medium more easily within reach of ever more youthful practitioners. By now, it's obvious that toddlers are fairly capable of snapping a good picture with an auto-focusing, mega-pixel smart phone, so why not bring children more pedagogically into the world of proper photography? George Sullivan does exactly that with CLICK CLICK CLICK! PHOTOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN (Prestel: http://www.prestel.com ; author's email: gjsbooks@rcn.com ). Wisely, Sullivan keeps things straightforward and visual, with clear descriptions and ample graphics. He begins with a (blessedly) brief history of the medium, introduces his young readers to some well-chosen master photographers (Atget, Evans, Lange, Hines) and provides solid advice on photographing action, fireworks, landscapes, groups, pets, even self-portraits. The book acknowledges film, but the practical emphasis is on digital photography and its basic techniques. This is a thoughtful and entertaining gift for any child with even the slightest interest in image-making.

(Editor's Note: we are still working off of our backlog of book reviews. But these are all great ones and shouldn't be missed.)

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.)