Issue #239  2/16/2018
Photo Books: Hard Life from Eugene Richards, Sun-Kissed 19th-century Riviera and Schatz's Kink

By Matt Damsker

EUGENE RICHARDS: THE RUN-ON OF TIME. Yale University Press. Catalogue to accompany the recent exhibition of the same name at the George Eastman Museum and currently at the Nelson- Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, through April 15,2018. Hardbound; 232 pgs.; approximately 200 black-and-white plates. ISBN No 978-0-3-022717-8. Information: http://www.hallfamilyfoundation.org; http://www.nelson-atkins.org; http://www.eastman.org.

"In Dogged Pursuit of Complex Truths" is April M. Watson's title for her essay on Eugene Richards, and it's hard to imagine a better descriptor of the great documentary photographer's purpose. Watson's piece is one of several fine appreciations of Richards' artistry in this handsome catalogue, which represents the first comprehensive museum retrospective for Richards, thanks to the Hall Family Foundation and the curatorial prowess of the Nelson-Atkins and George Eastman museums.

As Watson explains, Richards was in his twenties at Boston's Northeastern University when the Vietnam War raged, along with his opposition to the conflict. "The collective political and social ideals that fueled the progress of the civil rights and antiwar movements teetered on a precipice," writes Watson, "as grand notions of peace and democratic, postwar prosperity clashed with the harsh realities of war and national interests. Richards felt this conflict intuitively and personally. Wary of rhetoric and suspicious of authority, he would soon find in photography a medium…to satisfy his search for complex, individual truth about human lives."

For her part, Lisa Hostetler writes that Richards' work "can easily be linked to the American traditions of documentary photography, photojournalism and postwar street photography, but it is his weaving together elements from each that results in his unique, and at times risky, approach." Indeed, Richards' 1970 shot of an African-American marine, standing at attention for the camera in front of his family's Arkansas home--not much more than a shack, really--unites those multiple elements with an aura of classical portraiture. The soldier's eyes are deeply shadowed by the brim of his military cap, just as the entrance to the house behind him is shadowed by a porch roof. There's rhetoric here, but the naturalism prevails--it's all in the seeing.

In his shots of '70s Arkansas, Richards locates ironic beauty--a sweeping vista of cotton fields is that of a prison farm, with a horse-mounted guard keeping watch on a black prisoner at hard labor. The tears of an old black sharecropper are half-hidden by his hand, and a sad smile. And so it goes, powerful and angular imagery of a shadowed culture, its mystery and misery--and its hope–fused in Richards' decisive moments. In that same decade, Richards swung to the material and spiritual poverties of Dorchester, MA, its uneasy truce between black and white residents; and by the 1980s and '90s he was exploring the pathos of cancer wards and state hospitals in the Midwest, in Denver, the shantytowns of East coast cities, as well as in Uganda and West Africa.

By 2005, Richards turned to a muted color palette to widen his themes--more abstracted landscapes, high clouds, yet never far from the earthy toils and troubles of humanity in Oklahoma or North Dakota.

"Richards continues to explore, through color portraiture, the themes and subjects that weave through his life's work: individual struggles with extreme poverty, loss, addiction, and war-induced trauma," writes Watson. There is nothing gratuitous or splashy in his ongoing project–just hard life, living color.

LA PHOTOGRAPHIE A NICE, MONACO ET DANS LES ALPES-MARITIMES AU XIXE SIÈCLE. By Didier Gayraud. Academia Nissarda. 384 pgs.; hardbound; 53€. ISBN No. 978-2-919156-02-3. Email: didier.gayraud@ville-nice.fr.

This magisterial study takes the full measure of 19th-century landscape photography of the French Riviera, focusing on the coastal meccas of Nice and Monaco, through the smaller beach spots and interior villages, and winding as far as the Maritime Alps bordering Italy.

Didier Gayraud's decades of research and collecting result in a thorough accounting of the pioneering photographers who brought the sun-kissed beauty and provincial charm of the Riviera to a wider world in the earliest days of the medium--from the cliff-hugging terraces of Nice and the unpaved breadth of its Promenade des Anglais, to the emerging urban density of Menton, at the other end of France's Mediterranean coast.

Many of the names associated with these photographic idylls are familiar--Charles Negre, of course, as well as Anfosssi, Baldus, De Bray, Giletta, and a number of others who left their mark. These 44 mini-biographies comprise the catalogue's first half, tracking the history, techniques and aesthetic approaches of the image-makers who flocked to the Azure coast from Paris, Great Britain, and as far afield as Cuba.

Generally, the early photographers struck a careful balance between the rocky terrain, sweeping coastal views, and documentarian impulse to capture the energy of housing development in the various locales.

The book's second half is presented as a "périple," or photographic journey along the Riviera, combining many superb anonymous images, some delicately hand-tinted, that convey the broad enchantment of the coast, with its Gallic architecture nestled in the fecund curvature of bays and vast oceanfront.

The trek begins with the medieval chateaux of Mandelieu-La Napoule, and moves through the splendors of Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beaulieu, La Turbie, Monaco. Roquebrune Cap-Martin and Menton, and on to the interior sites.

The wonder of it all is how unchanged so much of it seems. For those of us lucky enough to have wandered the Riviera's pleasure plains, these early photos resonate with familiar magic. The integrity of pastel-sanded seaside sights and their peaceful harmonies are ageless, and Gayraud has meticulously gathered them for us.

KINK: THE FOLSOM STREET FAIR—PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOWARD SCHATZ. Lawrence Richard Publishing, 31 W. 21st St, Suite 2N New York, NY 10010. Paperbound; 385 pgs.; approximately 200 color plates; $40. ISBN No. 978-0-0710210-1-3. Information: http://www.howardschatz.com.

In an illustrious career, photographer Howard Schatz has hardly wanted for fresh subject matter, and so it's a tribute to his restless eye--and to his wife/partner, Beverly J. Ornstein–that this brilliant new volume of images delivers a wonderful sequence of color photos he began 25 years ago.

Serendipitously, they resulted from his errand to drop off some film at a San Francisco film lab south of Market Street, when he came upon the colorful humanity–in elaborate makeup and costumes–that marks the annual Folsom Street Fair, celebrating the Bay City's culture of kink and bondage in all its theatrical glory. Schatz was inspired to rent an exhibitor's space at the fair, constructed an outdoor studio and made portraits of attendees year after year.

This book is a fascinating compendium of the human form–nude, outsized and glamorized, elaborately costumed, unashamedly and unselfconsciously parading its sexuality and pride-of-person (and persona). From graphic displays of kink to tender images of couples in arms, the sheer transgressive energy and creativity of Schatz's subjects is on display. Nose- and nipple-pierced, bound in chains and leather, gender-fluid, gay or straight, they face the camera with infinite, often acrobatic personality. Schatz lights and poses them with verve, style and substance.

If anything, this portfolio recalls, in its way, Richard Avedon's classic, "In the American West," which posed the denizens of America's post-cowboy culture outside of their daily context, delivering their inner narratives with full-frontal studio portraits. In this case, Schatz's subjects are largely wearing the context of their private (and often public) lives, so there's nothing forced or deeply rhetorical coming from Schatz's lens. "We're here", it tells us, memorably.

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.

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