Issue #249  3/31/2019
Photo Book Reviews: Ralston Crawford's Camera; and a 'True to the Eyes' Collection

By Matt Damsker

By Keith F. Davis. Distributed by Yale University Press. Published to accompany the exhibition Structured Vision: The Photographs of Ralston Crawford, through April 7, 2019, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Hardbound; 204 pgs.; approximately 120 black-and-white and four-color plates. ISBN No. 978-0-300-24136-5. Information: http://www.nelson-atkins.org; http://www.yalebooks.com/art.

Recognition for Ralston Crawford's large and significant body of photography has lagged behind his reputation as a painter and draftsman, but the exhibition now on view at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art should go a long way toward leveling the aesthetic playing field. So should this handsome accompanying book of photos, authored and organized–as is the exhibit–by the museum's Senior Curator for photography, Keith F. Davis.

Davis is a strong scholar of Crawford (1906-1978), and his essay describes its Ontario-born subject as "a willfully unfashionable artist" who achieved significant renown by 1939 but "fell out of general critical favor after World War II." No matter now, it seems, since Crawford's dedication and skill in a Renaissance-worthy panoply of disciplines, from drawing to painting, printmaking, photography and film mark him as an exemplar for emerging generations of art-makers who are, like Crawford, proud to shun a reductive label.

Crawford studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but his greatest influence was probably his proximity to the Philadelphia mansion of Albert C. Barnes, whose peerless collection of hundreds of Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings allowed Crawford to study Cezanne closely. Writes Davis: "Crawford loved the French master's use of color as well as his formal logic--his reduction of the visible word to a taut fabric of faceted planes and volumes." Like Cezanne (and Barnes), Crawford would not fully embrace abstraction in his art, preferring Cezanne's "geometric mode of perception to…unify the disparate facts of visual experience."

Thus, Crawford's drawing and painting–or his cover art for Fortune Magazine–paired his gift for representation with a bold, energetic emphasis on the drama of pure form and essential geometries. His photography follows suit, most pronouncedly in his focus on industrial structure, from ships in drydock to railroad boxcars, the undersides of elevated train tracks and, by the 1960s, the decaying evidence of concrete rubble, junked cars and scrap metal. In between, he journeyed, and his camera sought human subjects as well, whether pedestrians crossing on busy sidewalks, carnival life, the street sights of New Orleans poverty (and its jazz and brass bands), or the terrible moments of truth of Spain's bullfight culture. Throughout, his eye was on the eternal nature of form and flux, of lines crossing, of plane and surface worked by man and undone by time.

Crawford's photography of the 1940s and '50s reflects much of what modernism made of the visible world in the more heralded photos of, say, Aaron Siskind or Robert Frank. But a close look at the images assembled by Davis for this book and exhibition (many drawn from the Nelson-Atkins' extensive Crawford holdings) reveal what a master of composition, exposure and expressive depth Crawford was in his crisp, considered, yet unfussy black-and-white prints. Seeing the world through his eyes is a lesson in both clarity and complexity.

Edited by Paul Roth & Gaelle Morel. Published by Hirmer Verlag/Ryerson Image Centre to accompany the exhibition of the same name organized by the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada, through April 7, 2019. Hardbound; 232 pgs.; more than 200 four-color and black-and-plates. Information: http://www.hirmerpublishers.com; http://www.ryersonimagecentre.ca.

As Paul Roth notes in his introduction to this beautifully crafted tribute to a first-rate photography collection, the experience of visiting Howard and Carole Tanenbaum in their Toronto home is to encounter "a veritable warren of imagery, with pictures hanging salon style on every wall." And yet, adds Roth, "While the profusion of images and camera equipment reveals the intensity of the Tanenbaum's interest…the feeling in this room is more one of emotional warmth, curiosity, and wonderment than mania or fixation…"

That's likewise the feeling one gets from "True to the Eyes," which depicts a collection that enfolds rather than dissects, with a sweeping view of the medium, from the first daguerreotyped decades of photography to more recent works. Canonical images coexist warmly with all manner of complementing choices–from an 1855 portrait of two children with a trundling hoop by Aristide and Cie to many portraits by unidentified photographers, all mounted in marvelous, eccentric frames, all sharing qualities of expressive richness and cultural drama. There's a black woman of immense dignity holding the white child in her care, from 1850, as well as portraits of pure privilege in the family shots by Reuben F. Lovering or the Marcus Aurelius and Samuel Root Studio.

An essay by Charlene Heath–on the cased objects ("Silver, Copper, Tine, and Glass")--explores the collection's early treasures, while Anthony Bannon and Brian Wallis take the long view of its breadth and depth. A stereopticon by Francis Frith from 1856, of Theban ruins, is another wonder, as are the later portraits of Bedouins, of Jews in Damascus and at the Wailing Wall--all by Felix Bonfils in 1875.

Images by William Notman of an icy Montreal, along with other shots of Niagara Falls in its splendor (including Charles Bierstadt's astonishing shot of the rapids below the Niagara suspension bridge, from 1870) connect us with the geography of the collectors' passion. But soon you were swept into a new century, with Ernest J. Bellocq's "Storyville Portraits" of fulsome nudes, from 1912, and Margaret Watkins' shadowy study of concert pianist Marion Rous, from 1923. Classic images of immigrant arrival in the new world by Stieglitz ("The Steerage," 1907) are matched with Paul Strand's close-up modernist study of white picket-fence domesticity in 1916. Charlotte Rudolph's studio portraits of Mary Wigman's dance group of the 1930s and Barbara Morgan's photo of Martha Graham further remind us of the women artists whose claim on the medium's history should not be overlooked.

Thus, the collection is rich with everything from familiar Diane Arbus prints to Helen Levitt's 1942 image of wary working-class parents and child, and of Lisette Model's mysterious woman with a veil in 1949 San Francisco. There's also the iconic nightclub drama of Brassai's couple, angry with each other, from 1932, and of other club denizens, just as the night work of Bill Brandt and Weegee bring the 1940s to moody life. By the '50s and '60s, Duane Michals' portrait of Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia Warhola, begin to define the postmodern moment, as do Polaroids by André Kertész from the '70s and '80s, Lynne Cohen's chilled images of Ottawa indoor spaces, or Edward Burtynsky's 2005 color shot of China shipyard in all its smoggy surreality.

"When we pass by a piece we've had for forty years, we see it as an old friend," says Carole Tanenbaum in an interview included in the book. "There is an intimacy; these objects are precious to us, and they reflect who we are." The evidence of this intimacy is very much what makes this volume–and the collection it showcases–more than the sum of its many parts.

BRIEFLY NOTED: In the context of the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Ralston Crawford exhibition, "THE BIG PICTURE" is another past project by curator Keith F. Davis and his fellow curators, Jane Aspinwall and April Watson, that is worth considering. The slim softbound monograph looks at the history and highlights of the museum's Hallmark Photographic Collection, from the 1930s to the present, exploring "the promotion and reception of the art of photography in the Kansas City community," with an emphasis on the Hall Family Foundation, and the surrounding context of university programs, commercial and non-profit galleries, private collecting, criticism, and advocacy that sets it apart as a mecca for the medium. Information: http://www.nelson-atkins.org.

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.)