Issue #231  4/24/2017
Photography Book Reviews: Thiollier's 19th Century, Dawoud Bey's Community

By Matt Damsker

Catalogue from the exhibit of the same name at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris. By Thomas Galifot. Hardbound; 223 pages with numerous four-color plates; ISBN No. 978-2-35433-135-1. Information: http://www.musee-orsay.fr; Email: b.julien-laferriere@orange.fr.

Catalogue from a series of exhibits at three museums in Japan. Softbound; 260 pages with numerous black-and-white plates; Information: http://www.apt.jp; email: apt@apt.co.jp.

These two handsomely printed catalogues can go a long way in introducing collectors and a wider audience to the luminously atmospheric work of Felix Thiollier (1842-1914), a French photographer of the medium's first great wave, who created a wide variety of images of France --its people and its ennobling urban and rural sights--during several decades of the 19th century. Despite the consistent quality of his work, he remained relatively unknown until earlier in this century, when the first-rate exhibitions represented by these catalogues were mounted at leading museums in France and Japan.

As the organizers of the Japan exhibitions recount, Thiollier was born in Saint-Etienne, in central France, and raised in Paris, although he returned to Saint-Etienne as an adult and found success as a ribbon-maker. He retired at age 37 and devoted himself to archeology and photography, immersing himself in the Pictorialism of the medium's European advent. He showed to a very limited audience, and it wasn't until recently that a young member of the Thiollier family discovered several thousand old prints that had been stored and forgotten.

Thiollier's work is lyrical and palpably nostalgic in its explorations of the French aesthetic and ethos. Mist envelops his landscapes, clouds billow high in the frame, evoking fairy tales along with the fine detailing of nature that helps his work move from Pictorial fancy to true document--as in an image of a stand of trees in the country with a hooded figure posed for dreamlike effect beneath the branches. This is a highlight of the Musee d'Orsay exhibition catalogue, but there are many such moments, framing earthen huts and farm animals to rival the compositional eye of Cezanne or Monet, to picturesque views of Paris, shots of craggy countryside, valleys, lakes and realist images of French industrial sites, spewing steam and jets of fluid that soar with the near-abstraction that would become the currency of photography a hundred years later.

This stunning variety is beautifully organized in the catalogue of the Japanese exhibits, beginning with chapters on Thiollier's portrait photography--luminous, richly tonal depictions of family members young and old, in solo and group portraits that evoke a compelling sense of the French bourgeoisie. From there, Thiollier's images of Paris locate us in the great interiors and exteriors (Notre Dame's, for example) and amidst the construction of grand sites for the 1900 International Exhibition. The chapters on Thiollier's rural and industrial studies are equally generous and convey his remarkable range: he photographed from many vantage points, emphasizing the play of sun and shadow, foreground and deep background, experimenting with contrast and perspective, never failing to produce an interesting, evocative moment of natural Gallic beauty.

Catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yale University Press for the Art Institute of Chicago. Hardbound; 80 pages, 34 duotone illustrations. ISBN No. 978-0-300-18126-5. Information: http://www.artic.edu; http://www.yalebooks.com/art.

Catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Hardbound; 112 pages, full-color and duotone prints. ISBN No. 0-941548-59-7; information: http://www.renaissancesociety.org.

As one of the most compelling and celebrated realists in contemporary photography, Dawoud Bey has been inspiring students and mastering his medium since his own student days (MFA in photography from Yale University) and, since 1998, as a professor at Columbia College Chicago. These two striking catalogues complimented his concurrent 2012 exhibitions at two of Chicago's premier art institutions, and each in its own way illuminate the intimate humanism of his approach.

Bey debuted in the late 1970s with strong images of New York's African-American in Harlem (he was born in the suburbs of Queens, NY, not long after his parents had relocated from Harlem), and his work is a reflection and celebration of community. The bowler-hatted Harlem resident of one print may be formally dressed as he leans on a brick-front railing, but he is very much the neighbor of the working-class vendors, barbers, mothers, fathers and youth that populate the other photographs.

Bey's Harlem is a place of black identity, to be sure, and many of his subjects are seen as they stand and wait, some anxiously, some resignedly--for public transportation, for a companion to arrive, or perhaps for a local parade to begin, while the children seem confident in their youth as they strut the streets or assemble for school.

The naturalism of Bey's photography in these images of the 1970s--when Harlem was intersectional with the realities of urban crime and black disempowerment, as the economy moved, inexorably, to further separate the haves from the have-nots of America--insists on the hopes of its community, but the shadows and struggles of the street are not elided by his discerning eye and compositional instinct.

In his color photography, as represented in "Picturing People" and which flourished in the late 1990s and continues into this century, Bey gets closer to a wider sociological range, with tighter portraits of diverse youth, biracial couples and artistic colleagues (a large-format Polaroid diptych of Sol and Carol LeWitt is a standout). There is less community than highly individuated humanity here, but the mix of confidence, intelligence and modern anxiety exhibited by his later subjects is the outgrowth of Bey's Harlem beginnings. There's nothing offhand yet nothing forced about Bey's artistry, and it conveys the uniqueness of his subjects with deceptive ease and empathy.

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.)