Issue #197  6/5/2013
Photo Books: Horenstein's Honky Tonk Heaven, Spagnoli's American Dreams, and Photo Catalogues

By Matt Damsker


By Henry Horenstein. W.W. Norton & Co., New York. 143 pgs; 120 black-and-white plates; $50. ISBN No.: 978-0-393-07366. Information: http://www.honkytonkbook.com ; http://www.horenstein.com ; http://www.wwnorton.com .

Henry Horenstein's output since the 1970s makes a strong argument for his status as America\'s prime minister of photography. Over the course of some 30 books, including the powerful domestic imagery of "Close Relations", the artful "Animalia," and widely used textbooks on black-and-white and digital photography, the Massachusetts-bred Horenstein loves the medium deeply, and it seems to love him back. He has trusted his camera to take him, and us, deep within the everyday, with results that speak easily in a steady stream of recognition. Those middle-class relatives, young and old; those horses and canines; that unfussy composition, instinctive eye and reliance on natural light--all of it bears the mark of a master who calls attention only to his subjects, never to himself.

With "Honky Tonk"--an updating of an earlier tome that began with images of country music artists from the 1970s--Horenstein takes aim at the icons, denizens, dives and local color that define the culture of country. It is a generational narrative: a youthful Hank Williams Jr., striding from his tour bus in 1973, carries the bloodlines, while an image of bluegrass titan Bill Monroe, also in '73, affirms the stylistic legacy.

The dapper Monroe is cowboy-hatted and truly honky tonk in his white shoes, checked jacket and vivid tie, clutching a pair of eyeglasses that leave no doubt he is the dignified daddy of the hoedown. Several years later, in 1980, a stunning Emmylou Harris, posed thoughtfully with guitar in the leafy backyard of her Los Angeles home, marks country music's crossover moment, as its tradition blends with the urban and contemporary impulses that will come to full flower in the 21st century with the likes of Taylor Swift.

Horenstein is drawn to the stars, for sure, and his 1976 backstage image of Waylon Jennings puffing on a cigarette, slumped in the corner of some makeshift dressing room, is as good as gets: the classic shot of the outlaw in his element. It is part of a broad gallery of big-timers and old-timers--Little Jimmy Dickens in the make-up mirror glare of the Grand Ole Opry; blind guitar god Doc Watson picking away on some overstuffed couch; Conway Twitty, pompadoured to perfection in 1975; and Jerry Lee Lewis, imperiously lighting a cigar before bashing a Baldwin piano. Horenstein brings us legends in their legendary space: Mother Maybelle Carter strumming the dulcimer on a tiny New Hampshire stage; Kitty Wells signing autographs; Loretta Lynn inspiring backstage awe; or Dolly Parton in 1972, hair piled high, in an angel\'s dress, trembling on the verge of her iconic status.

Of course, Horenstein is no less interested in the underside of country glamour--the drunken dancing and boozed-up sprawl of roadhouse patrons and music fans, the scrawled-upon walls, and beaten-down décor of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, or the Bearcat in Louisiana. The details say a lot in almost every one of these square-format, deceptively artless shots: so much is crammed into the frame, from the filled ashtrays and drained cocktail glasses to the littered floors and low ceilings. It is as much an apotheosis of what honky-tonk is all about as there could be. Like a Scorsese of the snapshot, Horenstein brings a non-judgmental fascination and empathy to these slices of Americana.


By Jerry Spagnoli. Steidl, Germany. Hardbound; ISBN No. 978-3-86930-307-9. Information: http://www.steidlville.com ; http://www.steidl.de .

Far removed from Henry Horenstein's naturalistic portraiture, Jerry Spagnoli’s American vision is a fragmented series that brings an hallucinatory kind of black-and-white realism to the fore. Armed with a Leica and a 35mm lens, Spagnoli began shooting this in 1990, during the build-up to the Gulf War, intending, as he explains in a brief introduction, "to reflect the feeling in America at that time...I selected the bits of the negative that I found interesting rather than using the full frame. This process freed the images from the constraints of their apparent context and allowed them to be more open-ended."

Spagnoli's approach blends a notion of collage/montage from the early days of modernism with a de-contextualizing that seeks to reframe documentary photography through a heightened subjectivity. The blown-up graininess of many of these image fragments suggests something of Gerhard’s Richter’s "blur" approach to painting, in which Richter traced photographs in order to reify an illusion of photo-realism, playing profoundly with our perception and notions of artistic conception. Spagnoli seems to seek a more direct effect, and at their best, these images have a neat, Duchamp-ian power: a close-up of a man\'s feet, his black shoes at right angles to each other, or of a man's head shadowed by his hand held up to the sun, resulting in a spidering of finger shadows on his face.

Such fragments do a good job of suggesting a larger context and the power of withheld visual information, as do the more straightforward shots of people anxiously in conversation, or on the move, or staring at some distant event. When Spagnoli drops bits of imagery onto a blurred photographic field, the results vary but the effect is often only, or merely, surreal. Fragmented images of clasped hands and a rifle with bayonet are placed over a magnified field image of birds in flight, and the broken, jazzy rhythm of the conception compels a closer look.

Less interesting are the purely formal explorations--a shot of a sunbather buried in sand, this fragment itself buried in a grainy field that may or may not be sand, but it doesn't seem to matter. Likewise, fragments of men staring at the sky are placed on a panoramic image of a gloomy, cloudy sky, a helicopter in the distance, and the effect seems too literal-minded in its war-mindfulness.

Even so, Spagnoli can construct beautifully jarring juxtapositions, such as the close-up fragments of entwined limbs and jumbles of hands, arms and legs, all set across an undulant field image of the ocean, with a pair of swimmers in the upper right corner. This compression and expansion of our view is a fresh and insistent approach, a kind of new, artisanal cut-and-paste that frees the medium from a post-Jerry Uelsmann, cheaply Photoshopped brand of surrealism. Spagnoli\'s ambition to recast our way of seeing reality may fall short on some fronts, but its energy and charged potential pop from the page.

BRIEFLY NOTED: From Chicago's Stephen Daiter Gallery, an exhibition catalogue sheds a lot of worthwhile light on the work of Joseph D. Jachna ("Surface Contradictions 1958-1971"), who graduated from the city’s famed Institute of Design under the tutelage and influence of Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. Jachna's black-and-white world is a close-up textural abstraction of natural forms in which wet/dry, dark/light, teeming/empty, opaque/transparent are the frequent dichotomies, with compelling results that draw us in for a close inspection (information: info@stephendaitergallery.com ).

From artist/dealer Charles Schwartz, "Light Reclaimed" is a new catalogue that explores the possibilities of what the Japanese called wabi sabi, or the celebration of objects that bear the marks of time and use. These damaged images--crafted from Schwartz's daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes--have a richly evocative quality, with scratchings, mottlings and crustings that bring out the haunted and haunting aspects of old photography with a fresh vividness, as if activated by memory all the more powerfully as time leaches them away. Information: http://www.cs-photo.com .

The vintage photographs of "Catalogue Un" from Paris-based Adnan Sezer include several fine anonymous stereoscopic images from the 19th century, with images of Victor Hugo, and some self-portraits of the pornographic daguerreotypist Felix Jacques Moulin. Some erotically charged nudes from the likes of Bruno Braquehais are featured, along with images from Constantinople (1854) by James Robertson and Felice Beato; street photos by Eugene Atget ("Cour de Rohan, Paris," 1915); and wartime images of the Paris Metro by Robert Doisneau, among many other specimens spanning the beginnings of photography to its modern flowering. In all, 58 works are featured. Information: ADN Patrominie, c/o Adnan Sezer, adnan@adnpatrimonie.fr, 226 rue Saint-Denis, Paris, 75002; phone: +33 (0) 6 27 52 78 26.

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.)