Issue #209  11/5/2014
Photography Books: Conserving Color's Legacy and Cataloguing Paul Strand

By Matt Damsker

TWENTIETH-CENTURY COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS: IDENTIFICATION AND CARE. By Sylvie Pénichon. Getty Conservation Institute. 360 pgs.; 375 color and 70 black-and-white illustrations; paperbound; $65. ISBN No. 978-1-60606-156-6. http://www.getty.edu/publications.

Perhaps the pixelated empowerment of digital imaging is bringing a close to the era of color print photography and its darkroom complexities, but this first-rate reference book by Sylvie Pénichon reminds us that we owe a great debt of conservation to the vast trove of pre-digital color photographs produced in the 150 years since the invention of the color process. Pénichon was a conservator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, TX, and has just been appointed Photographs Conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago; and her authority is amply on display here.

Noting that "the modern era of color photography and its democratization began after World War II, when integral tripacks and color coupling chemistry combined with aggressive marketing efforts, brought color photography to the mass consumer market," Pénichon acknowledges an "irreversible shift" from black-and-white to color. It began in the 1960s, as middle-class camera buffs stimulated the development of dye diffusion and silver dye-bleach processes–chemical innovations that far surpassed the Kodachrome materials developed as early as 1935.

Pénichon's challenge with this textbook is to bring the long history of color and the techniques for identifying and conserving color photos into some coherent form in a relatively brief 360 pages. Thus, she organizes the book with a single chapter devoted to the historical context and concepts of 19th-century color photography, then offers eight chapters on the families of color processes of the 20th century, each chapter beginning with a historical section followed by a step-by-step account of process. The book's final chapter is devoted to the management of color collections and key aspects of preservation.

The hundreds of crisply reproduced color and black-and-white illustrations are indispensable instructional aids, especially when they are arranged for macro and micro viewing of the complete photo paired with whichever subtle color components are being studied. From additive color screen processes to pigment processes and, finally, the complex universe of dye and its imbibition, coupling, destruction, diffusion, and mordanting, Pénichon has delivered a rigorous deconstruction of color's chimerical presence on paper.

PAUL STRAND: MASTER OF MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY. Edited by Peter Barberie with Amanda N. Bock. Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with Fundacion MAPFRE. Catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, through January 4, 2015. 390 pgs.; 323 color and 31 black-and-white plates; hardbound. ISBN No. 978-0-87633-260-3. Information: http://www.philamuseum.org.

Accompanying the monumental survey of Paul Strand's photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (reviewed in this issue), this monumental catalogue superbly reproduces many of the master's greatest images in a large format that is more than worth the discounted cost of the book at the museum gift shop. It affords a good opportunity to linger over Strand's artistry in the comfort of home so that you can see the subtleties of his greatest photos, from the blind beggar woman of 1945 to the Ghana images that capped his career in the 1960s. It also contains fine, passionately engaged essays by Philadelphia Museum of Art curator of photographs Peter Barberie and project assistant curator Amanda N. Bock.

In addition, there's the transcript of a stimulating roundtable discussion with Barberie, Bock, Martin Barnes, Karen Beckman, Tsitsi Jaji, and Maria Antonella Pelizzari, all experts who bring tremendous insight to Strand's later work. As Bock notes in her opening statement to the roundtable, "Since [Strand's] death, curators and critics have privileged his early work, particularly his experimental pictures from 1915 to 1917, generally valorizing projects less and less as they grew later in date." But Bock affirms that "a central premise" of the museum's survey is that Strand's career hardly stagnates after 1920.

Certainly, the exhibition and this catalogue go a long way toward valorizing the later Strand. This is powerfully captured by Barberie's essay, "Paul Strand's Modernity," which traces the photographer's development thoroughly but not ponderously. Indeed, Barberie doesn't belabor or over-analyze the issue of Strand's continuing achievement; instead, he offers solid examples and scholarly connections, weaving biographical and technical detail that convincingly portrays Strand as a modernist who kept on growing and transforming himself through art, politics and place. Addressing Strand's great Ghana series, Barbarie writes, definitively: "What he shows us in Ghana, as in all the other places he worked, is modernity unfolding in local time--a modernity not simply of technology, industry and new styles, but of people and places with histories that he exhorts us to see."

POSTCRIPT: The Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery of Haverford College, just outside of Philadelphia, has recently published a catalogue chronicling a well-remembered exhibition, "Paul Strand: Prints in Ink," held at the Gallery late in the year 2000. The catalogue contains an informative essay by Haverford professor and photography curator William E. Williams, who notes the college has continued to acquire Strand's work since the 2000 exhibition to reflect the narrative of his work in ink and metal prints. The most recent addition to the Strand holdings at Haverford is a pristine printing of the 1967 edition of "The Mexican Portfolio."

Williams points out that not only Haverford but also Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore colleges hold meaningful Strand collections that, taken with the Philadelphia Museum of Art's substantial Strand holdings, make Philadelphia an important legatee of Strand's art–an association which began in 1917, when he was awarded first prize for "Wall Street, New York, 1915" at the John Wanamaker Department Store photography exhibitions.

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.)