Issue #68  3/8/2004
Catalogue Review

I have been meaning to tell my readers a little about a new writer who has been reviewing some of the books and catalogues coming into I Photo Central and the E-Photo Newsletter. Matt Damsker is an old friend who used to work for me as Editor-in-Chief on a magazine for which I was publisher. He has had extensive writing experience, including high-profile stints at the L.A. Times and Hartford Courant newspapers, during which he wrote extensively on the visual arts and on photography.

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.

Robert Donald Erickson: The Lens of the Total Designer

Robert Donald Erickson (1917-1991) achieved Renaissance man status in post-World War II Chicago, having earned the first Master's Degree awarded by the city's legendary Institute of Design in 1945. A protégé of the Institute's great director, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Erickson went on to make his mark as painter, sculptor, merchandise designer, educator and photographer. Indeed, his restless experimental streak led him to design such innovations as kaleidoscopic lenses and a number of camera modifications.

In the context of Erickson's prodigious range and output, this slim (32 pages) catalogue from a recent exhibition of his photographs at Chicago's Stephen Daiter Gallery reveals but a slice of the man's artistry, yet there is a lot to appreciate, along with an informative biographical essay by Erickson's daughter, Diane. As one might expect of a Daiter catalogue, these 35 black-and-white images are crisply, richly represented on high-quality paper, with virtually no muddiness, given that Chicago by night, or very much in shadow, was one of Erickson's favorite subjects.

Erickson fixated on the heavily textural geometry of bridge and railway, architectural facades and scaffolding. That side of his camera brings to mind an emphasis on sheer visual information and urban iconography worthy of Berenice Abbott. But Erickson also located the human figure with a great deal of unsentimental grace, as in his justly famed 1946 image, "On Kelly's Playground 30th and State St.," in which all we see are the bare legs of children on a dusty set of cast-iron monkey bars. The shots say something about the vulnerability of man's connection to Chicago's overweening industrialism, but it is just as much a pure exercise in inspired composition.

Other photographs of paint-peeled doorframes and wooden fences or the shredded wall of a demolition site explore urban decay with an objective eye and abstract flair. Then there are images of people in silhouette or shot from a high vantage as they dot the sidewalk, or from the back as they lean in casual poses to regard some construction scene. All of them suggest a kind of city-bred isolation in numbers.

Less potent, perhaps, are Erickson's experimental fancies, some shot through his clever kaleidoscope (a constructivist view of downtown Chicago), or turned into photograms or solarized nudes, though one gets the impression that these arty flights may well have been closest to his heart. But at the end of the day, it is his sensitive eye and technical rigor that make the difference between arty design and arguable greatness.

The catalogue is available from the Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior St./404, Chicago, IL 60610; phone: (312) 787-3350. --Matt Damsker