Issue #206  9/5/2014
Photo Book and Catalogue Reviews: Sudek, Uelsmann, Levy, 19th-Century Texas and a Dealer Catalogue #150

By Matt Damsker

JOSEF SUDEK: THE LEGACY OF A DEEPER VISION. Edited by Maia-Mari Sutnik. Hirmer Publishing. 284 pages; more than 175 plates; hardbound. ISBN No. 978-3-7774-5291-3. Information: http://www/hirmerpublishers.com.

This superb catalogue, ably edited by photo curator Maia-Mari Sutnik, is of the eponymous recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, with its major collection of Josef Sudek’s photography. Every stage of the great Czech artist’s career is represented, with essays from foremost Sudek scholars that provide a rich context for considering his work. The stark, grim beauty of much of Sudek’s imagery is, arguably, best represented by his World War II-era shots of a dark urban world half-glimpsed beyond rain-soaked windows. Even when he photographs with clarity, as in a sunlit photo of the garden outside, with a glass of water or beer set on the windowsill, the effect is of a certain mystery and a reclusive retreat.

This is echoed in most of Sudek’s output, which focuses on objects and forms, from domestic totems to mannequins, along with a few urban panoramas of Prague that engage the greater world. But Sudek was drawn to photographic studies that reflect the influence of cubism, surrealism, and the Soviet avant-garde, and so much of his work, which became known outside of Europe only in the 1970s, is emblematic of a gnomic, meditative personality that has graduated from its youthful focus on the Romantic countryside he celebrated in the 1920s and ‘30s. “It is a world of light and shadow which addresses the careful acts of looking and cherishing more than chronicling or documenting,” writes Art Gallery of Ontario director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum, “while the poetic sensibility of his photographs serve to slow time and exalt in the rhythms of contemplation and reflection.”

Despite that, Sudek’s eye for interiors and chiaroscuro effects never seems depressing so much as quietly energetic, experimental in the best sense, absorbed in organic shapes and objects that speak of humanity and its will to create and preserve. As such, Sudek is much more than the “Poet of Prague” that has become his familiar sobriquet. He is just as much a world photographer, seeking universals in very specific evidence. And though his black-and-white, subdued visions and fetishistic focus on the manufactured and hand-made relics of his world have become the template for the flowering of Czech photography that followed him, he belongs to us all.

UELSMANN UNTITLED: A RETROSPECTIVE. Photography by Jerry Uelsmann, with an essay by Carol McCusker. University Press of Florida. 260 pages; more than 200 black-and-white prints; hardbound. ISBN No. 978-0-8130-4949-6; information: http://www.upf.com.

Jerry Uelsmann’s groundbreaking conflations of imagery--merging keen realism with a surreal dreaminess and a level of darkroom control that had not been seen in photography before he came to fame in the 1960s and ‘70s--are familiar and, by now, timeless tokens of post-modernism at one of its creative peaks. This volume features the largest number of his images yet collected in a single volume, with more than a few that haven’t been seen before, and several that are truly iconic.

Uelsmann’s startling vision of a house sprouted from huge roots in the earth, or his Man Ray-ish depiction of a woman’s lips seeming to grow from an otherwise prosaic country road, or a wave of water flooding from a seascape painting and into the room where it hangs, are signature flourishes that have been part of our waking dream-life for decades, but there is so much to his output that this book is probably the best way to scratch his surface.

Uelsmann has consistently managed to keep his surreality on a high plane, doing more with his conceptions than produce cheap wonder. Thus, an image of upraised hands before a cloud-shrouded mountain, with human eyes blended into the palms, becomes a notion of mystery and spirituality that combines tactility with sight, and mythic grandeur with spare portraiture. Hands and eyes are often the focal elements of a Uelsmann image, as are the trees and waterways of his journeys, from the urban wasteland of his native Detroit to the swamplands of Florida, where he has lived, taught, and created for decades.

Nudes, orbs, silhouetted figures, negative exposures and countless odd effects are the staples of his portfolio, and the integrity of his process is traditional. He uses film, not digital, to combine his images, a stalwart believer in the need to do the difficult darkroom work rather than take the Photoshop route. But it may not matter so much, in the end, how Uelsmann’s images are made, only that he brings a consistent element of surprise and imaginative energy to all of them, blending the eroticism of subconscious desire with the liquidity of thought. Writes Carol McCusker: “His photographs are maps of the human heart that include terra firma alongside terrains of passion and yearning. As with all maps, they are multi- and non-directional all at once. His figures stand at the intersection of psychological states and external worlds.”

APPALACHIA USA. Photographs by Builder Levy. David R. Godine, Publisher. 128 pages; 69 spot-varnished triton photographs; hardbound; $40. ISBN No. 978-1-56792-508-1. Information: http://www.godine.com.

New York photographer Builder Levy has made a four-decade project of traveling to Appalachia to record the region’s people and its troubled environment. His new book updates the 21st-century plight of coal country, which is undergoing unprecedented change. Competition from low-sulfur Western coal and the natural gas from fracking have closed many of Appalachia’s mines, while EPA regulation has only made it harder to open new plants and invest in equipment.

But if the coal fields of Appalachia are dying, its people persist, and Levy’s camera yields touching studies of old and young, the mine-driven towns and fields, the churches and hovels, the poverty and also the hope of children playing in rubble or, more fortunately, in schoolrooms. At the mines, of course, Levy’s camera finds the coal-dusted heart and soul of his project, with fine, dour portraits of miners, such as Cecil Perkins, who faces the camera with the resignation and dignity of a middle-aged black man surviving in a tough job.

There are many such portraits, even of female miners, such as Brenda Ward, whose youth glows through her tired smiling face. And then there’s the weary march of miners heading home or exiting the dark mouth of the shaft at the end of their shifts. Levy avoids mere sentiment or easy portraiture by pushing for the bigger story: the details of mountaintop removal and slurry impoundments, shot from high vantages, revealing how industry leaves its mark on what is beautiful, mountainous land, altering it forever and changing lives in the process. Levy’s black-and-white imagery is burnished and emotive without stooping to high-contrast drama; he prefers broad tonalities that capture the details of lives and places that are grayed by the realities of late capitalism.

LENS ON THE TEXAS FRONTIER. By Lawrence T. Jones III. Texas A&M University Press. 224 pages; 350 color plates; hardbound; $40. ISBN No. 978-1-62349-123-9; information: http://www.tamupress.com.

As a leading private collector of historic Texas photography, Lawrence T. Jones III showcases some of his most important holdings in this handsome volume, drawn from the 5,000 photos in his named collection at Southern Methodist University. Indeed, the contemporary flood of world-historical photography makes it easy enough to overlook this sort of regional focus, but the comprehensiveness of Jones’ collection demands close attention, and this trove of Texana is carefully documented here, with forwards by Russell Martin, of SMU’s DeGolyer Library, and Jones’ own main text and well-researched descriptions.

These images, from the years 1846 to 1945, depict the evolution of photography almost as much as they capture the faces and spaces of the Lone Star state. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and paper prints in various formats make for a rich and colorful omnibus of the settlers, soldiers, Plains Indians and countless personages, dwellings, and structures that began to define the vast Texas landscape in its--and photography's--era of early development.

Cartes-de-visite, cabinet cards, stereographs and oversized images include shots of Confederate and Union fighters, military officials from the Mexican Revolution, and the broad spectrum of Texas citizens of every stripe. Among the image-makers, William P. Bliss’s stereographs of Native American women and children are wonderfully expressive, while the images of the streets and buildings of population centers from Galveston to Houston, Austin and the countless small towns along the dusty roads reveal the determined growth of civilization in a challenging Southwestern environment. The large-format mounted photographs are especially interesting, making us feel close to distant moments of cattle ranching, Saturday markets, busy courthouse squares, and the unpaved settlements that would gradually flower in the Texas desert.

CATALOGUES IN BRIEF: “Icons of Western Civilization” is catalogue No. 150 from the 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop, and its contents include a number of notable photo rarities, such as the earliest known photograph, an ambrotype, of John D. Rockefeller; an original glass plate photograph of Sate Sa, a Zuni governor of the Native Americans, by Edward Curtis; and a stunning portrait of the Zuni’s fierce dignity. Amid the rare book treasures (such as a first edition of The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith), there are several photographic views of General Sherman’s Civil War campaign, by George N. Barnard, which chronicle the carnage and ruins of his bitter march through the South to the sea. Albums of photographs of pre-earthquake San Francisco in 1904 are of interest as well, along with a memorabilia collector’s dream photograph: all 16 original Apollo astronauts, circa 1962-63, autographed by each one of them. Information: http://www.19thshop.com.

“100 YEARS OF LEICA” is a special hardbound catalogue from the Westlicht auction house in Wetzlar, Germany, with fine multiple color photos of numerous rare Leica specimens: from the Leica Gun Rifle of 1938 (only about a dozen were made by the E. Leitz Co. in New York), to the Leica IIIc prototype, dummy sets, the 250 GG Reporter, the 1959 Midland, the 1995 Historica set, and countless lenses and other Leica fittings. There is also a portfolio of 100 lots of Leica photography, including Oskar Barnack’s 1914 image of Ernest Leitz himself, taken with an “Ur-Leica during a joint vacation in the Black Forest.” Classic Leica street and photojournalism examples abound here as well: Hiroshi Hamaya’s 1956 high-contrast shot of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong shaking hands in Beijing; Erich Lessig’s joyous shot of Maurice Chevalier in a Paris park in 1954, with a young couple embracing nearby; an image of John F. and Jackie Kennedy onstage, by Eisenstadt; and fine images by Bruce Davidson, Hilmar Pabel, and Jane Evelyn Atwood, among many others. We don't usually review auction catalogues and frankly this was for an auction this past May, but it was clearly an historic work with important information on this classic camera and its images. Information: http://www.westlicht-auction.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.)