Issue #219  10/12/2015
Photo Books: Forty Years of Nixon, Twenty of Langer, Williams’s Stirring Songs, Spagnoli’s Heirlooms

By Matt Damsker

Published by and accompanying an exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., San Francisco, through Oct. 24, 2015. Hardbound; 98 pgs.; approximately 50 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-1-881337-42-3; distributed by Artbook/D.A.P. Information: http://fraenkelgallery.com; http://www.artbook.com.

As gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel writes in his brief introduction to this sturdy compendium of Nicholas Nixon’s unpretentious yet always arresting photography, Nixon is so well-known and celebrated for his annual serial portrait of his wife and her three sisters, The Brown Sisters, which he began in 1975, that “the fame of a single work can make it harder to see the other rich currents in an artist’s life, obscuring their significance to the whole.”

This book and exhibition is a worthy corrective to that trick of fame. Over the 40 years that give this collection its title, Nixon has remained consistent in his approach (despite some color and digital forays), delivering gelatin-silver contact prints made with large-format cameras (8 x 10 inches, and sometimes 11 by 14 inches).

The early work--such as a 1974 view of Boston’s Copley Square, or a broad 1975 view of the Charles River and highway overpass with scullers rowing by, along with other high-vantage images of Boston’s or New York City’s urban landscapes--marry capacious vision with a delicate sense of atmosphere, as the sky, mist, and gradations of daylight seem to knit the images together and soften the hard architectural edges and turns. Nothing beatific or glorifying, just a subtly rendered sense and stamp of place.

When Nixon moves toward more intimate artistry, he offers a complementing aesthetic. The images of New England’s housing developments, rural roads, and farms tend to be devoid of much human figuration, and capture a soft essence of sun and shadow, one that extends even to his more charged portraiture. From New Jersey to Mississippi to Florida and back to Boston in the 1980s, Nixon focuses on people in a state of ease that often belies their situation.

There are prideful yet poor African-American families, or grimy gaggles of Kentucky children half-dressed on a clapboard porch, all studies in the underside of the American economy that don’t devolve into pity. And Nixon’s even closer studies of the physically ravaged elderly, or monochromatically naked babies, or his 1988 shot of Tony Mastrorilli, gaunt and mottled by Kaposi’s Sarcoma--a byproduct of AIDS--as well as of other AIDS sufferers, are unflinching yet deeply compassionate, paragons of truly seeing with the camera.

The more recent work, from the late 1990s and into the 2000s, gives us a Nixon prone to experimentation, moving his lens ever closer, into the faces and bodies of his subjects as if to find their cores. While these tend toward an almost Renaissance elegance, they may seem to be trying too hard, but they reveal Nixon as an ever-questing, always questioning modern master.

JASON LANGER: TWENTY YEARS. Radius Books, Santa Fe, NM; distributed through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, New York. Hardbound; 186 pgs; approximately 75 black-and-white plates; ISBN No. 978-1-934435-78-6. Information: http://www.radiusbooks.org; http://www.artbook.com/catalog--photography--monographs--nixon--nicholas.html.

Jason Langer has been at it for some two decades less than Nicholas Nixon, as the title of Langer’s new collection makes clear. Born in Arizona and now based in Portland, OR, Langer has assimilated the great influences of black-and-white modernism, and has emerged with a dramatically energized, high-contrast style that roams from street to interior, prosaic to abstract, mixing views of the outer world with moody figuration, nudes, and a consistent poeticism that is refreshing, never suffocating.

The essays in this handsomely produced book--from Julia Dolan, photography curator at the Portland Art Museum; John Hill, a California art consultant; and collector/dealer Michael Shapiro, whose Westport, CT, gallery represents Langer and others--are persuasive and richly engaged by Langer’s work, and they spark with insight.

“In Langer’s parallel universe the possibility of foul play lurks just outside the camera’s frame, fortified by our imaginations,” writes Hill. Noting Langer’s Buddhism, Dolan writes of his “willingness to embrace the complexities of the human condition…the tension that builds between life and death.” And Shapiro notes that when he first encountered Langer’s work, it “seemed as if it were created at around the same time” as vintage Andre Kertesz imagery. All good appraisals, but the work must speak for itself, and does.

This being the first mid-career anthology of Langer’s work (he has published two earlier monographs), “Twenty Years” traces a restless and rigorous aesthetic that finds haunting focus in rhetorical observations of cemeteries (gravestones heaving up under swelled earth, crumbled memorial statuary), deeply shadowed night shots that beg the entrance of a ghoul or two, but visual interest is the priority, and there’s always worthwhile detail to observe.

In the ‘90s, Langer’s street photography concentrates on angular views, silhouetted figures, neon signage and the symbols of urban solitude, evoking his modernist forebears. And his emphasis on the female form, clothed or nude, avoids faces, expressing a turned-away shyness or sadness that forms a narrative of modern alienation without heavy-handedness so much as an empathic connection to his anonymous subjects.

By the year 2000 and beyond, Langer’s variations are loose-limbed, sometimes jittery, inspired by random sights and objects, and also crisply attuned to the richness of black quadrants offset by flashes of white: shots of men’s dark-trousered and women’s stockinged legs, or a simple hotel bed, its white sheets backgrounded by a dark headboard. From page to page, this survey paints Langer as an inspired wanderer, deeply schooled in the power of black-and-white, and with fresh lessons for his audience.

Photographs by William Earle Williams. Printed in conjunction with the 2014 exhibition of the same name presented by the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, Haverford College and Lehigh University Art Galleries. Paperbound; 61 black-and-white plates; ISBN-10 No. 097891998X. Information: http://www.haverford.edu/exhibits; http://www.luag.org.

This collection of historically fraught black-and-white photos by William Earle Williams--professor and curator of photography at Haverford College, and a widely collected artist--is nothing less than a tour-de-force, deceptively serene in its depiction of places and spaces. But these square silver gelatin prints are all of historical locations in the New World, from the Caribbean to North America, where, as Williams writes, “Americans black and white determined the meaning of freedom.”

In other words, these images are the loci of slavery, the slave trade, the war fought over slavery, and the legacy of America’s original sin memorialized, but not expiated, over time. As Yale University professor of English & American Studies Alan Trachtenberg writes in his catalogue essay: “What we have are pictures of places that seem quotidian, ordinary, unmarked by monuments, what in ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’ the poet Wallace Stevens calls ‘the vulgate of experience’…Yet, as in the poem, things happen here that alter these places, happened and then forgotten, erased from the site, made invisible yet present enough as recoverable residue…”

Indeed, Williams’s project is to capture the past in the present, make it painfully new again by showing and telling with precision and a clear eye. Thus, the park that now flourishes on the site of abolitionist John Brown’s house in Akron, Ohio, remains implicated by the tall trees that have grown there for centuries, while the forks in the road that define a former slave market site in Natchez, MS, seem steeped in the same shame they once blared to the world. A one-way street sign bisects the image, as if to suggest that time and history flow in only one direction, and inhumanity, once perpetrated, is irrevocable.

Other images, of Civil War battle sites in Tennessee, South Carolina, Gettysburg, hardly glorify the Union dead who died there for the right cause, so much as they remind us that battlefields are destined for oblivion, overgrown by the weeds of time, unless we remain determined to remember. But through Williams’s camera, monuments are little more than conscience-salving markers, diminished by the unforgiving landscape. The Tennessee Monument at Gettysburg National Park is thus photographed as a black monolith alien to the surrounding fields, a signifier of death and the opaque racism that bred it.

More straightforward are Williams’s views of slave and soldier cemeteries or Underground Railroad sites, which speak for themselves without any symbolic prompting. The fair growth of trees and foliage graces these locales with the benediction of the ages, but the graves are stark reminders of blood spilled, pain endured. As for the interiors that Williams mines, they tell us how the repercussions of slavery still trouble us. The abandoned schoolrooms on the site of Fort Henderson in Athens, AL, seem like vacant intentions, totems of a promise unfulfilled for the successive generations of slavery’s children.

Pointedly, Williams photographs these places in the absence of any human figures. People would only sentimentalize and distort, perhaps, the eternality of places where history happened. As Trachtenberg explains, the photos “affirm themselves as moments in a recurring dialogic process focused on the meaning of freedom and of heroism…The struggle to define American freedom in the context of race-based slavery and its ensuing structures of prejudice takes the form of struggles to attain it, to be free. To have it is to know it; to have earned it by struggle is to know it even better.”

HEIRLOOM HARVEST. By Amy Goldman, with photographs by Jerry Spagnoli. Design by Doyle Partners. Bloomsbury USA, New York and London. Hardbound: 134 pgs; approximately 80 four-color plates; US$85.00. ISBN No. 978-1-62040-777-6. Information: http://www.bloomsbury.com

“What Better way to pay homage to heirloom plants than to marry them to the most heirloom of heirloom photography?” So Amy Goldman frames her rhetorical question in this glisteningly beautiful book, for which she has commissioned Jerry Spagnoli, the premier American daguerreotypist, to photograph the myriad fruits and foliage of the historic Abraham Traver farm in Rhinebeck, NY, where Goldman lives. As one of the leading heirloom plant conservationists in the U.S., Goldman has chosen to preserve her vegetative treasures for posterity via Spagnoli’s superb images on silver-plated copper, all to memorable effect.

Indeed, the result is far more than another coffee-table tome, though it’s hard to imagine a book that would make a better holiday gift for both plant lovers and discriminating daguerreotype enthusiasts. Simply put, there’s a lot going on here--Goldman’s eloquent introductory essay details the history of the Traver farm, her connection and commitment to it, and the challenge of saving and growing heirloom varieties “in the face of pressures not to garden, not to save seeds.”

As for Spagnoli, whose fame coheres in his streetscape and anatomical studies, he delivers extraordinarily sensitive close-ups of these earth-bred forms: the organic curves and plumpings of Tennessee short cut beans; the soil-caked swell of root vegetables; the outer grain and inner cavities of Crane and Fordhook Gem melons; the bulbous gleam of a Sheepnose pimento pepper; the dusty ripeness of Fredonia grapes. The treasures on display here are matters of multiple stewardship and artistry, beginning with Goldman’s labors of love and culminating with Spagnoli’s finished representations, in which the organic forms are offset by masterfully controlled shadowing and high contrast.

The book’s afterword, by M Mark--founding editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement and PEN America journal--features a revelatory interview with Spagnoli, who discusses the project and his approach to photography. Noting the evolution as well as the timelessness of the daguerreotype, Spagnoli says: “I’ve come to appreciate [it] as a presentation method, not simply as an image-generating system. A daguerreotype captured from any source, if properly executed, still presents the image to the viewer with uncanny immediacy.” That’s certainly the effect of this remarkable book. You can very nearly touch and taste it all.

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.)