Now here is a book that will appeal to the baby boomer generation and others who believe that they have a solid sense of American culture during the 1950's-60's. Hang on kids, this book will surprise, delight, and enlighten. Incredibly rich photographs and great stories, told by a cast of collaborators who gave birth to this book, all swirl together to provide a new insight into an aspect of African-American history which until now has been all but invisible.
"In my wallet there is a tattered black-and-white photograph of my mother." This is how Shawn Wilson's story begins. He takes us with him as he goes back to his hometown to find Mr. Anderson, the man who made this treasured image. This is a book about the almost-lost photographic archives of Henry Clay Anderson, a Greenville, Mississippi photographer/activist who chronicled the life and times of his small southern town during an era of great struggles, segregation and the rising civil rights movement. The content of the 130 photographs beautifully reproduced are each a testimony to a proud and uniquely progressive segregated black community striving, thriving, and successfully living out the American Dream.
The photographs will be familiar, very familiar. And they will be charming in their evidence of a determined collaboration between photographer and sitter to portray the truth about a black society whose values revolved around education, family stability and economic prosperity.
Each image carries with it a host of icons and codes that can only be interpreted as the symbols of middle class status: televisions, cars, stylish clothes, fashionable home furnishings and children, all polished and poised for the future. But there may seem to be a kind of irony that dances around these images. You'll find yourself asking questions like, "How come I have never seen black families portrayed this way before? Are these photographs for real?"
Yes, well, we may just be used to the products of "out of town cameras", a term essayist Clifton L. Taulbert uses to describe northern journalists who came south to take pictures of the cruelty, poverty, ram shackled lives, and weary black faces of field workers living with Jim Crow. I see nothing of that world in Anderson's photographs of the Greenville society. Instead I am confronted by a mirror image of my own white middle-class culture recorded in family albums; classic snapshot subject matter that says, "Look what we have!" and that ubiquitous sense of 1950's optimism.
Taulbert's contribution to the book is an eloquent essay that rocks gently between his memories of rural Mississippi and the sophisticated town of Greenville, all triggered by Anderson's photographs.
Mary Panzer's essay provides a political and historical context to a story Anderson himself tells us about--"one of the most fearsome nights" of his life, a night when he and his camera were witness to high-pitched racist violence and murder. Here Anderson's own words and images are more powerful when they are allowed to float free from Panzer's political anchors. And without a doubt, Henry Clay Anderson's own stories delivered in his vernacular cadence provide the best reading.
This is a gem of a book with plenty of material for the cultural anthropologist to the photographic historian with a handful of images to rival the aesthetics of Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Wee Gee or any of our great photographic documentarians. Henry Clay Anderson, welcome to the annals of photographic history and many thanks to all of those who introduced you.
The book is available through most real bookstores and on-line bookstores for between $24-$35. Published by Public Affairs.
Other Books and Catalogues Reviewed by Alex Novak
Prince and Other Dogs II, by Libby Hall. This is a sequel to a sweet book of dog images collected by an English woman (of course). You expect the English to like their dogs, and this little book illustrates this point admirably. While not masterworks, the images are cute, and any dog lover (or dog image lover) would appreciate the book as a holiday present. The images are largely 19th and early 20th-century. Published by Bloomsbury. Books and available for under $15.
In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West, by Alexander Lee Nyerges. This is a beautifully printed book of landscapes of the American West that was conceived to accompany a traveling exhibit of the same name. The images are certainly magnificent and the text is an interesting incite into the photographers and their subject--from the mid-19th century to today. The work of Adams, Weston, Gilpin, Watkins, Muybridge and many others make the book a great reference work as well. Highly recommended. Published by the Dayton Art Institute.
Most of the following have a charge associated with them, but it will be worth it.
The Shape of Survival: Photographs by John Cohen, produced by Stephen Daiter and Deborah Bell. I have always admired the many fine catalogues produced by Steve Daiter, and I feel guilty about not have written about any of them earlier. This one is a joint project with Steve and Deborah Bell, another good friend. While the images are of every-day Peru, that is like saying aliens visit us every day. Cohen, who spent years immersing himself in the Indian culture of Peru, has produced images that make you wonder again. These are a people so strange, yet so familiar. Huancayo, Peru is one such image. The mists of the mountain and time drift over these people that inhabit Cohen's dreams. You can reach Steve in Chicago at 312-787-3350 and Deborah in NYC at 212-691-3883 to find out more about these images.
Joseph Sterling's "Age of Adolescence" by Keith Davis, produced by Stephen Daiter. This is another one of Stephen's fine catalogues (see, Steve, I am trying to make amends) with a long article by Keith Davis, one of photography's most articulate voices. Sterling serves as another of the many photographers influenced by the Institute of Design in Chicago. His work is raw and creative, and worth a look.
Sun Pictures: Catalogue Eleven, by Larry Schaaf and produced by Hans Kraus, Jr. Hans and Larry have continued to team up to produce some of the most important photo literature on English photography available. The catalogues are in my picks of Must Catalogues in my Photo Collector's Library that is published on the I Photo Central web site. This one is no exception. It is ostensively about the early 19th-century team of Hill & Adamson, with side trips to early Australia. What it is really about is how Larry Schaaf's mind works as a researcher: a truly amazing trip. Great reproduction of very rare material and important information on another area of early English photography make this a must-have catalogue--what every photo dealer should strive for. Available from Hans at 212-794-2064. If you are lucky, you might still be able to catch his show on Hill & Adamson with a private appointment. Worth the trip up to the 70s in NYC.
Jamais Deux Fois le Même Regard, a Selection of Photographs from the Leon Herschtritt Archives. Actually Leon published this a year ago, but I am just getting around to thanking him for my copy. It is indeed a treasure feast of images printed in color, and it makes another great reference tool. Many of the images (both 19th and 20th-century) are well known and some are not, but all are iconic. Leon can be reached in Paris at 011-33-1-42-77-53-87.
We will consider other books and catalogues for review, but receipt is not a guarantee that we will review a book or catalogue.
Ms. DiElsi is a photographer, teacher and photo historian. She owns and runs Janus Gallery & Collectibles, an eclectic online retail store. The store's website is at: http://janusonpine.com.