Issue #216  6/4/2015
Photo Book Reviews: Ruskin's Lost Daguerreotypes, George Segal in Black and White, and Time's Memory

By Matt Damsker

By Ken Jacobson and Jenny Jacobson. Bernard Quaritch Ltd. 406 pgs; 601 illustrations; cloth-bound. ISBN No. 978-0-9563012-7-7; information: http://www.quaritch.com/books/U31/.

A first-rate work of scholarship and discovery, this newest effort from London-based experts, dealers and collectors of 19th-century photography Ken and Jenny Jacobson chronicles a remarkable find. In 2006, the couple came upon a distressed mahogany box crammed with early photographs at a small country auction. It quickly became apparent to them--though to few, if any, others--that the dusty treasure had once belonged to John Ruskin, the great art critic, artist and social reformer.

Taken, purchased or commissioned by Ruskin, these unearthed daguerreotypes included fine vintage views of Italy, France, and Switzerland, along with what may be the earliest surviving images of the Alps, and the largest known number of daguerreotypes of Venice. Indeed, Ruskin was passionate and rigorous in carrying off the palaces of the old world to his private British world, and photography was a great aid in formulating his ideas about antiquity and art.

To their credit, the Jacobsons haven't made this book a mere trumpet of their fortunate discovery but instead deliver a completist masterwork: a catalogue raisonne that also includes the 325 previously known Ruskin daguerreotypes, with nearly 300 additional photographs and fine essays describing technical procedures and every aspect of Ruskin's craft and artistry.

For all the careful annotation, bibliography, chronology, and indexing, the triumph of this tome may well be the fascinating chapter on Ruskin's privileged yet sacrificial life as an eccentric, brilliant, and widely celebrated polymath. His great contribution to our understanding of modern painting began at an early age, with his groundbreaking comparisons of the art of J.M.W. Turner to that of the old masters.

Ruskin established the terms of Anglo art criticism, and he went on to create his own notable paintings and to help lay the intellectual foundations of liberal democracy with his writings and activism on behalf of the laboring classes of England. A legendary lecturer and a solitary soul, Ruskin stood apart from the men of his day. As for the daguerreotypes themselves, the Jacobson's present them in a rich context of thoughtful, comparative scholarship, and the images are beautifully reproduced for our study. They bring to life the 19th-century soul of photographic wonder, illuminating the plazas and peaks, castles and cathedrals of Europe's natural and civilized bounty.

Catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, through July 31, 2015. 120 pgs.; approximately 40 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-0-9769030-6-2; hardcover; information: http://www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

These images represent a unique collaboration that began when photographer Donald Lokuta met the renowned sculptor George Segal in 1984, after a friend who had modeled for Segal invited Lokuta to come to the studio to see the finished sculpture. Lokuta arranged to come back to shoot a professional portrait, and so began a project that would engage him for more than 16 years and comprise nearly 15,000 negatives.

Segal's familiar statuary results from casts of human figures, assembled into extraordinary tableaux of the everyday, whether of people standing or sitting, alone together, on the streets or in various states of being. Segal died in 2000, but Lokuta's project is a vivifying portrait of the artist in his true glory: creating great works in his studio.

Lokuta not only had free reign to photograph Segal at work, but also got further inside the artist's vision by helping him cast figures over the years. A rare friendship blossomed into a fine photographic legacy, as Lokuta's rich, high-contrast prints cast Segal's wry countenance and many projects into sharp relief, bearing witness to the hard work of art-making and the cluttered, plaster-caked studio from which it issues.

This compact catalogue is one of the best photography books of the year, with excellent essays by Donna Gustafson, Suzanne Delehanty, Marti Mayo, and especially the poet Robert Pinsky, who along with Segal is among Rutgers University's most distinguished alumni. Pinsky contributed an evocative poem inspired by Segal's sculptures ("Genesis According to George Segal"), while curator Gustafson speaks poetically herself: "Like Segal's own relationship to his sculpture, these photographs are haunted by the possible and the momentary."

Catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, through September 13, 2015. Thames & Hudson, publishers. 160 pgs; 130 illustrations; hardbound; $50 ($58 CAN). ISBN No. 978-0-500-54449-5; information: http://www.thamesandhudsonusa.com; http://www.nga.gov.

In her introduction to this elegant catalogue, National Gallery of Art senior curator and photography department head Sarah Greenough sets the stakes in no uncertain terms: "The invention of digital photography…forever shattered the medium's hold on truth, undermined its supposed objectivity, and decimated its evidentiary status, for now nothing in a photograph need be real; everything could be fabricated. If photography was no longer a faithful witness, what was it?"

Never mind that artists from Man Ray to Jerry Uelsmann, Arthur Tress, Lucas Samaras and quite a few other were bending the evidentiary status of the medium with their dreamworks well before digital became the standard. Greenough and this exhibition are more concerned with how the digital revolution of the 1990s led photo artists to engage more than ever with time and memory as a means not of reflecting the world but of showing us how photography "constructs" our understanding of it. Thus, the show focuses on 26 global contemporaries, among them Sophie Calle, Moyra Davie, Idris Kahn, Sally Mann, Susan Meiselas, MIkhael Subotsky, Patrick Waterhouse, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss and Carrie Mae Weems.

The abstract challenge of all this opens it up to a range of interesting work, though some of it seems austere to an extreme, while much of the most arresting art doesn't trade so obviously in digital unreality but prefers to juggle the medium's traditional referents. Chuck Close, for example, turns to the daguerreotype for a wonderful 2007 silhouette of the African-American artist Kara Walker, while Carrie Mae Weems explores the modernist tradition with great subtlety in "After Manet" (2002), a series of chromogenic prints that depict young African-American girls lounging in the grass and boldly addressing the camera as Manet's models once had done in a far different context.

For Linda Connor, cosmic time is the matter, and she creates vivid portraits of the heavens by taking vintage 19th-century celestial photos from the Lick Observatory in California and setting the negatives directly onto photographic paper, then develops and gold-tones the final prints to give a deep violet-sepia tone to the night sky. Other artists go micro, such as Moyra Davey, whose close-ups of worn and gouged Lincoln pennies evoke lunar landscapes, and metaphoric bullet holes, in the midst of Lincoln's familiar coined profile.

But, for all the imaginative craft and vision on display here, "The Memory of Time" comes off as more of a grab-bag than a show that focuses the viewer on the immensities of time and memory more, or more meaningfully, than other, less conceptually minded exhibitions have done. It's the nature of photography to remind us that time and memory can be fixed by chemically--or digitally--manipulated light, and so it's arguable that every photograph, vintage or contemporary, says much the same thing, in essence.

IN BRIEF: Catalogue 160 from the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop (http://www.19thshop.com) collects nearly one hundred rarities ("Magnificent Books & Photographs") highlighted by a First Folio of Shakespeare, a first official printing of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and an array of photographs of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, in honor of its 150th anniversary. These include a unique photo album documenting the course of the war, from the attack on Fort Sumter to the capture of Richmond, and a signed photo of Lincoln that is the first to show him with full beard. There's also a first edition of Newton's Principia, and a rare Charles Darwin family photo album.

From Hans P. Kraus Fine Photographs (http://www.sunpictures.com), a brochure of "Paper Negatives" presents the work of British and French photographers and one American, John Beasley Greene, born and trained in France. Two examples from the 1840s utilizing Fox-Talbot's calotype process are Calvert Jones's "Ancient Carriage" and Humbert de Molard's "Two Men and a Girl." Dr, John Murray's large-format negative, "Taj Mahal," shows retouching with ink and graphite. There is also an 1855 negative of a small Burmese pagoda by Captain Linnaeus Tripe.

At another photographic extreme, nostalgic naughtiness from the 1950s flares winsomely in a catalogue from Neil David MacDonald Rare Photo Gallery of Toronto, Ontario, Canada (http://www.rarephotogallery.com). "Bunny Yeager XXX" offers classic images by the American nude model-turned-photographer Bunny Yeager (1929-2014), most famous for her photos of the legendary Playboy magazine pinup Bettie Page. The playful, healthy California sexuality of these shots from the mid-50s are offset by some "Rough Play" images by Irving Klaw, but the smart bravado, good cheer, and solid craft of Yeager's photos of Page mark the duo as pre-feminist icons destined to live on so long as Americana prevails.

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.)