Issue #199  11/4/2013
Photo Books: China, The American Civil War, And Arthur Tress's Transréalités

By Matt Damsker

By Terry Bennett. Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London; 386 pages; 400 four-color plates; hardbound. ISBN No. 978-0-9563012-4-6. Information: http://www.quaritch.com ; email: rarebooks@quaritch.com .

Completing his three-volume series on China's photographic history, preeminent Asia photography scholar Terry Bennett has delivered the first extensive survey of early Chinese photographers with this superb volume. Bennett's observations, complemented by hundreds of well-reproduced examples, are fascinating from the very first page, in which he notes that the art of photography may well have had its most distant origins in China, as far back as the fifth century, when Mo Tzu and his followers made reference to the camera obscura. This supports the notion that it was China where the pinhole image--the optical basis of the medium--was first discovered.

Ultimately, such historical detective work is less the point of Bennett’s scholarship than the evidence of China's photographic mastery. Of all three of his volumes on the subject, this one is, in its way, the most liberated from speculation and equivocation, focusing instead on the rich trove of photographs Bennett has collected and identified, many by forgotten or overlooked Chinese masters. One can only envy the fruits of Bennett's devotion to his subject, symbolized by his own collection's gorgeous 1902 hand-colored silver print by court photographer Yu Xunling of the Empress Dowager of China surrounded by sisters and attendants. Grouped tightly together in their pink, blue and golden finery, beneath a large umbrella in a monochromatically snow-covered grove, these royal women epitomize the blend of the formal and the naturalistic that defines so much of China's classic portraiture.

Of course, formal images of China’s upper classes were the rule among studio photographers of the late 19th century. Lai Fong’s images of merchants' wives, bankers (“compradores”), Mandarins and others of wealth and privilege, are careful, sober studies that teach us much about China's sartorial splendor. More exciting are the extravagant costumes of Chinese acting troupes, a stunning portrait of "Chang," China's tallest man at 7 feet, 8 inches, towering above a companion of normal stature, not to mention the ironic dignity of the well-dressed Hong Kong opium merchants Lai Fong also photographed. This cross-section is a priceless window on China's world of cultural and commercial prestige.

But there is so much more. Another studio master, Pun Lun, was adept at chiaroscuro lighting and expressive arrangements of his subjects, whether Mandarins, merchants or musicians. He captured a range of moods and an exceptional vitality in their faces and casual postures, conveying a strong sense of life-as-lived. Meanwhile, there was A Chan (Ya Zhen), whose expansive interior views of ornate temples and exterior studies of city walls, pagodas, plus a remarkable image of a narrow, busy, street in Canton with some figures huddled in shadow and others moving in a blur of activity are defined by great depth of field, compositional genius and a true modernity of technique.

Countless examples similarly surprise and delight, as Bennett's survey moves us through the urban depths and riverside panoramas of Shanghai, Taiwan, Macau, highlands and lowlands, with excellent appendices on cartes-de-visite and the identification of photos from Lai Fong's dominant and prolific Afong studio. Indeed, Lai Fong emerges, arguably, as first among the Chinese masters, and his pictorialism is especially powerful in images of cliff sides and rural vistas, easily rivaling or surpassing Ansel Adams with the more understated black-and-white chromatics of Asian photo-art. With this crowning volume, Bennett's trilogy stands as an essential work that can be admired by anyone intrigued by or invested in the supreme visual artistry of the East.

By Jeff L. Rosenheim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, distributed by Yale University Press. 298 pages; 297 four-color plates; hardbound; $50. ISBN No. 978-1-58839-486-6. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum, which is now at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, S.C., from until Jan. 5, 2014; and the New Orleans Museum of art, from Jan. 31 through May 4, 2014.

This first-rate catalogue amplifies what some may view as a less than comprehensive exhibition of Civil War photography, depending on how severe their judgments and how deep their experience may be of what such an ambitious and momentous display should include--commemorating, as it does, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg--and how best to present it. Nonetheless, anything that confronts us with visual evidence of the Civil War in the context of strong scholarship and ample photographic resources must be taken seriously and can hardly fail to affect us with considerable power.

The show is drawn from key sources including the Metropolitan's own collection, photos from the famed holdings in the Met of the Gilman Paper Co., including a mint-condition copy of America’s first photo anthology, "Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War" (1866) and George N. Barnard’s "Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign," also from 1866, along with various other photos from public and private collections.

The point is made, unavoidably, by catalogue author and chief photography curator at the Met, Jeff L. Rosenheim, that the Civil War was not only America's hinge moment, when its nationhood was tested and forged forever in a blood crucible, but also a watershed in the history of photography, when the still-young medium would make real and indelible the evidence of total war that had previously been chronicled only in myth and history painting.

In their day, these photographs exuded such publicly traumatic power that they would shape the direction and tone of American art--from the symbolic realm of painting to the realism of modern and post-modern photographers, including Walker Evans, Robert Frank and even Friedlander or Eggleston. Indeed, this body of photography plays importantly into such key philosophical and sociological deconstructions of the war as Drew Gilpin Faust's 2008 book, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War."

Yet for all its elegiac intensity, it was largely a photography of opportunism for its main authors--Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner (who took many of the greatest photos attributed to Brady's studio, while Brady self-promoted rather than set foot on a battlefield, until Gardner set up his own highly commercialized Washington, DC, emporium), Timothy H. O'Sullivan, and Andrew Joseph Russell. For these and other photographers, the war was an unparalleled career chance, but by now, of course, their careerism is purely academic to us, while their output during the war lives on vividly, in all its violence and in its poignant reminder that these were people of the same homeland--fathers, sons, husbands--killing each other, dying in misery, wept for, with far too many of their bodies lost to their loved ones as the carrion flesh rotted unrecognizably on the plains of Antietam, or Cold Harbor, or countless other killing fields.

Thus, the many fine ambrotypes, often with delicately applied color, of soldiers, soberly and vulnerably looking out at us from gilded frames, tell the story at least as movingly as more graphic and justly famed images such as O'Sullivan's "A Harvest of Death", with its gruesome focus on a dead soldier's bloated face and gaping mouth at Gettysburg. Brady/Gardner, O'Sullivan and Russell were true artists of these dark harvests, and their familiar battlefield images with broad, sweeping angles that convey the desolation of war while bringing us forensically close to its human toll are unforgettable. At the same time, there is as much pain not only in the ambrotypes but perhaps even more so in the cheap ubiquity of the tintypes (the most efficient photo process of the day, but hopelessly flat in terms of image quality) that soldiers would clutch unto their death: faded images of beloved family.

By any measure, this is an important exhibition, and the fact that it can be sliced and diced in a thousand critical ways, or that one can fixate for hours on its minor as well as major aspects, says more than anything about it. As for the catalogue, curator Rosenheim writes cogently and concisely on the range of issues raised by this anniversary undertaking, without basting the reader in prolixity or scholarship for its own sake. His most compelling chapter, and perhaps the most visually arresting images, focus on George Barnard's shots of Sherman's campaign, his fabled march to the sea to raze, demoralize and ensure that the South's way of life would indeed be gone with his army's terrible wind.

These immense, long views of cities like Atlanta, Nashville or Charleston in ruins under moody skies impastoed with thick clouds have the look of classical antiquity, and it is easy to see how the documentary thread of Civil War photography is here woven into an aestheticism that resonates beyond the brute facts and pathos of the war. Noting that Barnard's Sherman album "resembles as much a contemporary book of art photographs as it does an exemplar from the nineteenth century," Rosenheim concludes: "That may explain why so few devoted Civil War collectors find Barnard's photographs and his striking album of much interest and, to the contrary, why so many art collectors interested in photographic aesthetics find it exceptional."

By Arthur Tress. Contrejour Books. 112 pages; approximately 100 black-and-white plates; hardbound. Information: Innovative Logistics LLC, Lakewood NJ; US phone: 1-866-289-2088; outside US (28 euro): + 732 363 5679, ext. 111. Available in French and English.

Arthur Tress's photography has endured amidst less and more famous exemplars of the medium's capability for magical realism, and the best of his work remains singular and emblematic, a darkly playful, dream-haunted blend of black-and-white documentation and sheer imagination, some of it strikingly Gothic yet always grounded in the specifics of the visual moment. This sets him apart, significantly, from the surreal extravagance of, say, Jerry Uelsmann or Lucas Samaras, while still connecting him with the groundbreaking, rule-breaking era of 1970s photography, when his most famous images were made.

This collection of Tress's work spans the '60s to the '80s, and the earmarks of his style are consistent from the outset: the preference for the square format over the prevailing 35mm approach, the emphasis on strong contrast, crisp gradations of black to white, and careful yet unfussy composition.

Born in New York City, Tress is an urbanist who, in the '60s, made unassuming and easily intimate pictures, of schoolchildren at blackboards, leather-jacketed teens in Brooklyn’s vacant lots, the prideful poverty of Kentucky coal miners, or dour civil rights demonstrators in San Francisco. His travels and his eye led him all over, and he kept his square frame alive with either close-up, frontal views of vulnerable humanity or, as the '70s approached, more abstracted chiaroscuro visions of the city, such as office workers walking home, like shadowed statues, in New York, or slant vistas of architecture.

If there’s an emblematic image, it's probably Tress's "Flood Dream" of 1971, in which a blond boy-child is the remarkable focus, his head and arms popped through the rooftop of a ravaged shingled roof in Ocean City, DE, while what appears to be a beached ship sits in the distance, topping the horizon. The wonder of this picture is its fully plausible realism and equally convincing dreaminess. We needn't know or care if there’s any image-manipulation at work here; the dream logic is pure and seamless. That's the case for much of his most imaginative '70s work, which never allows photographic effect to undermine or overshadow the human element. Thus, the image of a crying child, his face distortedly pressed against a window, with Tress's own shadow darkening the window frame, is emotionally available even as it is postmodern in conception.

Similarly, high-contrast images of children posed, seemingly flying, atop playground chain links, or suspended from metal framework, as if crucified, or the disturbing "Boy with Root Hands", of a child prone on some wet New York pathway, a knot of root vegetables extending from his shirt where his hands should be, are all framed with a strong sense of place despite the surreal conception. And the issues they court--of childhood abandonment, isolation, estrangement--are never heavy-handedly drawn for us.

Meanwhile, Tress's sexually charged images--of gay youths cruising each other, or a male nude gracefully moving down a playground slide--seem as much about form, often classically so, as they are about sexuality or gender issues. And at his most expressionistic, with angled shadows looming, or his most nightmarish, such as 1977's "Singing Chair", in which the head of some cackling ghoul seems to be erupting from the slashed upholstery of a gutted chair somewhere in the Sag Harbor sands, the surface and textures of the real world are carefully observed and framed for us, with enough order imposed to win our trust in the artist's essentially humane vision. As Claude Nori observes in his introduction to this engaging book: "His ouvre is a form of revenge on screens, illusory images, existential powerlessness, and the overwhelming fear of other people. It points the way to a certain form of redemption."

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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