Issue #237  12/1/2017
Photo Books: Award-Winning "New Realities" from the Rijksmuseum; "For the Love of the Image", A Dealer Catalogue of 110 Key Photographs

By Matt Damsker

NEW REALITIES: PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE 19TH CENTURY. Edited by Mattie Boom and Hans Rooseboom. Published by the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. ISBN No. 978-94-6208-348-6. Hardbound; approximately 350 pgs.; 415 four-color plates. Price: €39.95. Information: https://www.rijksmuseumshop.nl/en/new-realities-l-photography-in-the-19th-century.

(Editor's Note: "New Realities" won the Aperture Foundation Award for Best Catalogue during Paris Photo. Our congratulations to Mattie, Hans and the Rijksmuseum for this fine effort.)

Having led the way in the exhibition of photography, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum takes the long view with this handsome volume showcasing some 400 of its treasures, all in an effort to provide some fresh context for the medium's journey. As edited, with scholarly essays, by photography curators Mattie Boom and Hans Rooseboom, "New Realities" is a painstaking effort in historicism.

Writes Rooseboom: "The images…have been specifically chosen to reflect the authors' belief that the history of photography is so inexhaustibly broad and varied that new discoveries and rediscoveries are always possible, and that we can always hone our understanding of the context in which pictures were taken and used. If we look beyond the traditional canon and are prepared to take seriously photographs which were not produced with the idea of meeting the criteria of 'high art'–which in the nineteenth century was held in highest esteem–then we have a good chance of stumbling on new photographs which…adhered less rigidly to these criteria or abandoned them altogether to satisfy other expectations or desires."

Boom and Rooseboom acknowledge Hans Hanfstaengl's 1864 book of photographic reproductions of Old Master paintings as a seminal work in the photographic conversation, raising as it did such issues as the emergence of a commercial market for photography, and various copyright questions, among larger aesthetic concerns.

"Different people demanded different things of photography," Rooseboom notes. "Science needed an objective, impersonal rendition of objects and phenomena, whereas art wanted interpretation, feeling, subjectivity and the stamp of a personality."

The book covers a great deal, in fact everything from clinical images–such as a truly hard-to-view, yet powerful photo of a patient with overwhelming psoriasis of the torso by Dirk van Haren Norman in 1889–to the stereographs and pictorial still lifes which provided such novelty value in the early days, and well beyond. Samuel Bourne's great albumen prints of overweening ferns in Darjeeling, India, are highlights worthy of any photographic era, while Jean-Baptiste Frenet's studio studies of "Three Women," from the 1850s, establish the naturalistic potential of the medium when it comes to human expressiveness.

The panoramic ruins of the temple at Baalbek (1860) by Gustave Le Gray is a milestone of a different sort, suggesting or at least portending the 20th-centruy surrealism of De Chirico, while A. Cavilla's portraits of North African natives convey an immediacy that leaps from the page, confronting us with a humanity that the 19th century had ignored until it could no longer–thanks largely to photography. Indeed, it is the international scope of the Rijksmuseum's collection (more than 150,000 photos to date, 23 years after its inception in 1994) that allows for a volume of this catholicity and power, ranging from the arresting portraiture of the masters to the numberless photographic illustrations found in various books. What matters is the ongoing dedication of the museum's curators.

The curatorial future also matters, and so Boom reveals that "American photography will be a focal point over the next few years. This collection currently includes work by George Barnard from the American Civil War, photographs by Carleton Watkins and plates with motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge. Since 1996 new focal areas have been added. The collection of tintypes has been extended with outstanding American examples of the strand of realistic vernacular photographic portraiture. They show that photography was in the blood of the American people."

What "New Realities" shows is that a deep commitment to photography in all its manifestations is in the blood of the Rijks Museum, and the result is scholarship of a very high order. Let's look forward to more globe-spanning projects like this one that help us focus and re-focus the mind's eye on the past, present and potential-filled future of photography as art and witness.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE IMAGE: A SELECTION OF 110 PHOTOGRAPHS. Published by Vintage Works, Ltd. 108 pgs.; 110 four-color plates; softbound; ISBN No. 978-1-38-950581-2. Price: $40. Information: http://www.vintageworks.net, http://www.contemporaryworks.net, http://www.iphotocentral.com; email: info@vintageworks.net; 1-215-822-5662. For a free PDF copy of the publication and net price list, contact: info@vintageworks.net.

In celebrating the 20-year anniversary of his photography business, Vintage Works, Ltd., dealer Alex Novak offers a new catalogue that represents something of an overview of the entire medium. As Novak notes in his introduction to this finely printed book of 110 generously sized plates (most of them given their own page, with careful annotation), his inventory "has always covered the whole of the history of photography, focusing on interesting and scarce images from the earliest days of the medium through its various movements and revolutions, including photo-impressionism, modernism, F64, surrealism and post-modernism, to name a few."

Thus, the 19th-century beginnings of photography are represented powerfully in such images as a Hill and Adamson salt print of John Ban Mackenzie, a Scottish piper seated in all his finery in Edinburgh around 1847. The image faces a delicately lit Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype, circa 1850, of two young sisters.

From there, the images sprawl with global reach: for example, an impressive reddish salt print long view of Rome and the Vatican, likely from within the circle of Caneva, in the 1850s.

Similarly, there is an early Gustave Le Gray view of Paris (Pointe de l’Île de la Cité et la Seine au Vert-Galant), a richly tonal albumen print from a wet plate negative, as well as studio work such as an anonymous study of an odalisque, and an uncut carte-de-visite sheet of eight poses from Andre Adolph-Eugene Disderi's studio (of Alphonse Lutteroth dressed as a devil for a costume ball). By 1855, of course, photographers were experimenting with concept–Philip Henry Delamotte's rare image, "Innocence," depicts a young girl posed beside a birdcage, serenely contemplative.

Singular images abound, such as Lewis Carroll's wonderfully domestic photo of the Hassard Dodson family seated around a table playing cards (a rare untrimmed version of a well-known oval image in the Princeton registry). Then there is a remarkable group image by Julia Margaret Cameron ("Mary Hiller and Four Other Women"), stunning in its variety of expression and complexity. As for other masters, Atget is well represented by a series of beautifully composed Parisian views–from staircases to quais and parks.

Indeed, time telescopes quickly in this fascinating catalogue: from Atget's old Paris to the New World, as seen in Lewis Hine's detailed image of Slovak immigrants at New York's Ellis Island. By the early 20th century, color photography makes a bold statement in a number of autochrome plates of female nudes, dancers, and costumed figures–all richly hued and impressively Pictorial. Sharing the same era are Edward Weston's black-and-white prints from California, and Andre Kertesz's seminal street photography of the 1920s.

With Rayographs and Photograms by Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, photography's plunge toward surrealism and the avant-garde is well represented. So are capacious modernist images by the likes of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Ilsa Bing, Brassai, Josef Sudek and Irving Penn (with the remarkable "Girl in Bed" image of model Jean Patchett).

As Novak's selections arch toward the present day, the milestones include tremendous diversity of vision–a vintage print of Robert Frank's 1956 image of a cloth-covered car in Long Beach, CA, with palm trees towering beyond the frame, is one of the best images from "The Americans," while Bill Brandt's "Nude with Hat" is a marvel of mixed exposures. So is Imogen Cunningham's 1957 study of an unmade bed, while the landmark surrealism of Arthur Tress's "Flood Dream," or Robert Heinecken's fetishistic lithography suggest the outer limits of photography as it moves toward conceptual art. And so does Lisa Holden's elegant chromogenic print of a woman seen from behind, peering mysteriously into a mirror. Taken together, this small but large-minded catalogue professes its love of imagery profoundly.

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.)