Issue #226  7/29/2016
Photography Books: Josephson's Conceptualism, Sternberger's Pathognomicism, Katsiff's Nature Morte

By Matt Damsker

University of Texas Press. Hardbound; 265 pgs.; 254 duotone and color photos. ISBN No. 978-1-4773-0938-4. Information: http://www.utexaspress.com.

This impressive volume spans the career of Kenneth Josephson, whose vast body of conceptual photography has made its way into most major museums since he made his mark in the 1960s and '70s, but has seldom been published in book form. "The Light of Coincidence" makes that right with a superb retrospective, featuring gorgeous reproductions of Josephson's bold and sensual duotones along with a variety of images that define this still-vital artist.

The inclusion of essays by curators/critics Gerry Badger and Lynne Warren (a former student of Josephson who brought his work to light in 1983 via a mid-career survey) result in sharp-eyed focus on the art. Warren notes that the Detroit-born Josephson, who is now 84, was mentored by the likes of Harry Callahan and cut his teeth, aesthetically, with images of Chicago's urban environment. But it was the rise of conceptual art that helped set him apart.

"Josephson had very different influences from those of the emerging conceptual artists in Europe and New York," writes Warren. "He had been moved by the example of painter Rene Magritte, among others, and by his own experimental film 33rd and LaSalle from 1960-62, which shows a building that sported billboards advertising [movies] in the process of being demolished. It was these things that pushed him to explore ideas about photographic representation in the form of 'images within images.' "

By now, of course, such conceptual strategy may not seem unusual, especially given that photographers from Walker Evans onward have produced famous images that contain other photographic images. However, Josephson broke the illusory plane with a 1967 photo, "Drottingholm, Sweden," in which we see his outthrust arm in the foreground, holding a postcard image of the same Swedish building he's capturing with his lens, in what becomes a kind of backgrounded foreground. This wry yet elegantly wrought statement of photography's ubiquity and the challenge of originality is fully in step with the aesthetic impulses of '60s pop art and the conceptualism that would soon flower in all media.

The outthrust, arm-held image would become a Josephson trademark well into the 1980s, with increasingly subtle results, especially when he would hold, for example, a square with a cut-out center to frame a sight or figure in the middle distance. But the technique would amount to gimmickry if it were all Josephson offered. His many female nudes and restless formal experiments–with shapes, patterns, focus, and contrast–are consistently startling and disciplined. A seemingly straightforward shot of four old men seated round a table in Rochester, NY, in 1957 is made glorious by a flood of sunlight from the facing door and windows. There are countless such treasures in this volume, and we're lucky to have them collected in one accessible place–finally.

By Jacob Loewentheil. Skira Rizzoli Publications. Hardbound; 210 pgs.; 206 portrait photographs. ISBN No. 978-0-8478-4831-7. Information: http://www.rizzoliusa.com.

This brilliant monograph by art scholar Jacob Loewentheil is a welcome appreciation and analysis of the work of the great portrait photographer Marcel Sternberger, who died in a 1956 car crash while on his way to visit his legendary friends (and his camera's great subjects) Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Indeed, many of Sternberger's portraits have become part of our global sensibility–the famed, darkly backgrounded images of Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Kahlo and Rivera, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and countless other European, Asian and American luminaries, who literally shaped their times.

In his foreword to Loewentheil's scholarship, no less a luminary than Philip Prodger, head of photographs at London's National Portrait Gallery, notes that few photographers "matched Sternberger's determination to create what we might in retrospect call pathognomic portraits. Between the lively expressions he captured and the minimalist lighting he used to reveal them, one might argue that there is hardly a more recognizable portraitist in the history of photography."

Whether we term them "pathognomic" or simply psychological, Sternberger's portraiture reached for a depth beyond the tenets associated with celebrity photographs. Where Yousuf Karsh or Cecil Beaton sought to immortalize the public face of their world-famous sitters, Sternberger's masterly use of deep shadow and darkness combined with an eye for the subtlest expression of his sitters–bemused, amused, lost in deep thought. The greatest of the photos convey a profound sense of their sitters' inner lives. Loewentheil chronicles the master's time and technique with great care and clarity. The result is a portrait of the portraitist that is as free of ponderousness as Sternberger's own work.

Catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum. Hardbound; 80 pgs.; 29 four-color plates. ISBN No. 978-0-996676-0-7. Information: http://www.brucekatsiff.com; http://www.delart.org.

The striking and richly toned still lifes of Pennsylvania-based photographer Bruce Katsiff were given a deserved showing more than a year ago at the Delaware Art Museum, and this fine book makes for a worthy memento. Indeed, the French term for still life–"nature morte," or dead nature–becomes a neat visual pun in Katsiff's case, since his staged assemblages of animal skulls, mammalian and avian carcasses are totemic evidence of nature's deathly cruelty. But all the same, they are celebrations of visual splendor and organic form.

As Philadelphia Museum of Art photography curator Peter Barberie notes in his foreward, Katsiff's artistry evokes an early American forerunner, the painter Charles Willson Peale, who famously displayed stuffed animals in his Philadelphia museum. "Like Peale, he embraces art's fundamental task to show us things in the world but also its mysterious potential to transport us into imaginative realms," writes Barberie.

In her more detailed catalogue essay, Delaware Art Museum curator Heather Campbell Coyle connects Katsiff's work to the vegetative assemblages of Joel-Peter Witkin, and notes that Katsiff's "staged narratives and constructed sets" emphasize his embrace of a "directorial mode," as if he were coaxing life from his decidedly dead subjects. And so Katsiff does in his highly controlled way, animating–or visually re-animating–his still lifes with meticulous lighting and fascinating arrangement, boxing, splaying, mounting, and decorating his objects to bring out fresh geometries and spiritual depths.

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.)