Issue #67  2/6/2004
New Photography Catalogues

100 Books with Original Photographs, 1846-1919

This fascinating catalogue documents a collaborative passion for seminal images married to words, all on the part of San Francisco photography dealers Paul M. Hertzmann and Susan Herzig, and Santa Fe antiquarian booksellers David Margolis and Jean Moss. Compiled in the course of their four-year search for bound rarities, it is a beautifully printed and thoroughly annotated compendium of photographically illustrated books.

The treasures within stretch from the very beginnings of the medium, in the mid-1800s, to photography's early adolescence in the early 20th century, when silver prints of solar eclipses and Royal Navy submarines were feeding the nascent modern thirst for documentary wonder. Thus, there are descriptions of four 1846 copies of "The Art Union", a publication that shared the birth year of photography, 1839, and with which editor William Carter Hall championed the new medium, to the extent of including an original Talbotype in every copy of the June, 1846 issue (William Henry Fox Talbot had published "The Pencil of Nature", the first photo-illustrated book, only two years earlier).

Indeed, there are a lot of firsts here, including the first American book with an original photograph, "Homes of American Statesmen", published in 1854 by Putnam. The book features a mounted frontispiece crystalotype photograph of Boston's Hancock House, from the studio of John Whipple of Boston. There is also the first scientific work with original stereographs: a personal account of Scottish Royal astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth's 1856 journey to Teneriffe in the Canary islands. The book holds 20 mounted "photo-stereographs" taken atop a dormant volcano, each pair of images measuring 2 3/4 x 4 /34 inches (70 x 121 mm.). Less inspirational, perhaps, is the first photo-illustrated book of skin diseases published in Spain (1880), but there is no arguing against its place among early medical texts.

The pride of this 64-page catalogue may well be the remarkable, bound-as-one, two- volume history of the Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria's famous arms and armor collection, begun in 1547. With photographs by Austria's great photo pioneer Andreas Groll, the volumes were published in 1859 and 1862, and feature 128 superb images, 105 of them mounted salt prints, and 23 early albumen prints. Size is a great value factor here, with the salt prints averaging 11 x 6 inches (279 x 152 mm.) and the albumens as large as 11 x 9 inches (279 x 229 mm.). The catalogue shows Groll's handiwork to be rigorous and exemplary, with well-detailed exposures of the ornate filigree of rifles and pistols, horse armor and helmets.

Yes, there is a fair amount of highly arcane material here of minor historical value--photos of floral arrangements for a deceased New York mayor, for example, or a report on a group of Pacific Ocean sponges called Turkey Legs. But many of the books seem revelatory, among them a complete portfolio of 24 toned silver print photographs from James McNeill Whistler's 1892 London painting exhibition, including 'Whistler's Mother,' and a group of 98 mounted albumen photos of paintings by Camille Corot. And the portraiture of Australian aborigines, or Egyptian mummies, convey real anthropological gravity.

While the usual decision to present the books in chronological order was made to illustrate the development of the major 19th-century photographic processes, a more reader-friendly catalogue could have resulted from a logical grouping of subjects: botanical photo-books, architecture, paintings, objects and so forth. But that is a quibble. This catalogue rewards all the attention you give it, with scholarly depth and worthy reproductions.

Published under the dual imprint of Paul M. Hertzman, Inc. and Margolis & Moss, the catalogue's $20 price seems more than reasonable, and copies may be available from either Hertzmann (P.O. Box 40447, San Francisco, CA 94140; tel.: 415-626-2677; fax: 415-552-4160; pmhi@hertzmann.net ) or Margolis & Moss (P.O. Box 2042, Santa Fe, NM 87504-2042; tel.: 505-982-1028; fax: (505-982-3256; mmbooks@comcast.net ). --Matt Damsker

Josef Breitenbach: Munich, Paris, New York

The art world awoke fully to Josef Breitenbach after his death in 1984, and since then the German-born master of photographic experimentalism has become an easily acquired taste to viewers and collectors who cherish fresh ways of seeing. This slim, beautifully printed 32-page catalogue (with 26 prints) was produced for a recent exhibition at Chicago's Stephen Daiter Gallery. It surveys the photographer's work in Europe and America, and makes a vivid case for Breitenbach as a strong influence on later approaches to photography.

Breitenbach's odyssey-as a Jew who barely escaped Nazi Germany and Vichy France before settling in New York for the rest of his life-was marked by immigrant hardship. Eventually, he enjoyed the security brought on by recognition and key teaching posts at such academic oases as Black Mountain College, Cooper Union and The New School. From his earliest to his latest photographs, Breitenbach teased and pleased the eye with imagery that mixed realism with a surrealist delight in the painterly possibilities of the medium. His 1928 image of a misty Seine glimpsed through a crosshatching of Eiffel Tower girders is pure modernism. By 1942, his black-and-white images of scrap iron and steel pipes in New Jersey junkyards are overlaid with rust-colored washes that add tonal beauty to industrial detritus.

These and other images--such as a 1948 photogram of erotically swirling fluid, a solarized nude, or 1942's "Omen," in which a Dali-esque flayed figure is posed against a New Jersey beach while warplanes track across the sky--prefigure styles and statements that would emerge decades later, in the work of Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras and Vito Acconci.

Breitenbach's vision was truly protean, and his restless sensibility ranged easily, yielding not only formal breakthroughs but also such classic portraiture as his sensitive Munich readings of Marianne Hoppe, Max Ernst, Josef Schaffner and a playfully color-washed 1933 shot of the performer Anabella.

Even in his most pointed work--the tombstones of New York's Trinity Church Yard strung with confetti on V.E. Day in 1945--Breitenbach avoided sentimentalism through his attention to the conflated details of foreground, middle distance and architectural backdrop. Indeed, there are no easy effects in his photos, though his artistry has a deceptively effortless air. The catalogue essay, by gallery director Paul Berlanga, does a fine job of chronicling Breitenbach's life and output, and conveys a rich sense of his genius and hard-won victories.

You can order a catalogue through Stephen Daiter Gallery at 1-312-787-3350; email stephen@stephendaitergallery.com . --Matt Damsker

Modern Hungarian Photography

The crisp black-and-white reproductions in this 49-page catalogue (with as many prints), produced last year for an exhibition at the Vintage Galeria in Budapest, speak volumes for themselves. Still, these prime early examples of eastern European modernism would have benefited from a well-wrought essay that might have gathered together their potent visual energies from a freshly curatorial point of view.

Without that scholarly dimension, the catalogue amounts to a time capsule filled with the starkly formal spirit of Hungarian photography as it began to grapple with a modern world on the verge of great change. Most of the images are from the 1930s, and all are silver prints, but the brace of photos shot in 1917 by Istvan Kerny, especially an illusionistic one of a man serving up another man's head on a platter, expresses a darkly playful tone that resurfaces in later work.

For example, Marta Aczel's 1935 still lifes of matchboxes, milk bottles, light bulbs and bowls are bathed in raking light and dramatic contrast that make ponderous icons out of everyday objects. And Klara Langer's 1930s series of smashed, bandaged, and bedridden dolls is creepy, political and presages an era of conceptual art that would blossom much, much later. Meanwhile, Erno Vadas's 1930-32 street scenes, looking down from lamppost height on the curvature of streetcar tracks in the snow, are dense with filigree and shadowy geometries. Zsuzsa Sandor, also from a high vantage, explores the dust, rock and man-made furrows of the countryside, with the elongated shadows of human figures casting a ghostly pall on the otherwise bright exposures.

Then there is the great Brassai, represented by two 1930s prints of the Dagiljev Ballet--one of a dancer rehearsing in a mirror and the other of dancers and impresario watching a performance from the wings--that capture the edgy casualness of modernity with a master's flair and eye for the decisive moment.

Meanwhile, irony and social realism collide in the work of Karoly Escher, who shoots everything from a priest playing tennis to newspaper editors feverishly examining movie-star publicity stills to a grimy gaggle of homeless men warming themselves by a stove in a night shelter.

Finally when Hungarian eyes find the United States in a series of 1930s photos by Jolan Gross-Bettelheim of New York rooftops, elevated train tracks, smokestacks and suspension bridges, the old world brings its rigorous, rueful vision to the new.

You can order a catalogue through Vintage Galeria at +36 1 3370584; email vintage@c3.hu . --Matt Damsker

Gerard Petrus Fieret: Photographs

Born, bred and still very much a fixture in the Hague, photographer Gerard Fieret is a Dutch national treasure. His eccentric style--he'll stamp his prints repeatedly with his name and P.O box number, and sign them obtrusively--is the mark of a rule-breaking sensibility that came into its artistic prime in the 1960s and helped pull photography into the edgiest of post-modern realms.

This catalogue, a 28-page collection with 20 plates, chronicles an exhibition of 1960s photos by Fieret, all vintage gelatin silver prints, at Deborah Bell Photographs in New York, and the quality is first-rate. It is enhanced by a brief but revelatory recounting by Susan Herzig of a meeting with Fieret in The Hague. "He has a story, often a long one, about each photograph," writes Herzig. "Earthy, sexy, warm, they are pictures by a man who cares genuinely about women."

Indeed, these studies, several of them classic Fieret nudes posed indelicately, perhaps, but with an unmistakably loving eye for the grace and vulnerabilities of the female form, are rich in evocations. It is hard to miss the echoes of Bonnard, Renoir or Daumier in Fieret's grainy exposures and hand-worked prints of calves, thighs, and limpid breasts. And when Fieret zeroes in on the faces of his women, they can haunt us with all the complexity of a Vermeer, or the chiaroscuro force of a Rembrandt, as in one shot of a girl in a dark bonnet, clutching her coat collar to her chin, or another of a black-clad beauty shadowing her face with her hand.

Fieret's camera looks unforgivingly, and his subjects look back, with reserves of dignity, intelligence and a delicately balanced trust in the artist's vision. It is a truly liberated vision of a photographer that knew, before a good many fellow fine-art photographers, that photography was meant to be stretched, scratched, pushed to its limits and graphically redefined. Signed, stamped and rife with Fieret's gesture, fetish and feeling, these photos press their subjectivity upon us and upon their subjects, transforming the objective moment into a life experience.

The catalogue is a co-production between Deborah Bell Photographs and Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc. You can order copies of the catalogue through either Deborah Bell at 1-212-691-3883; email: deborahbell@rcn.com ; or Paul Hertzmann at 1-415 626 2677; email: pmhi@hertzmann.net . --Matt Damsker