Issue #73  6/19/2004
New Photo Books and Catalogues

By Matt Damsker

IN THE WAKE OF BATTLE: THE CIVIL WAR IMAGES OF MATHEW BRADY. By George Sullivan; 2004. Publisher: Prestel Verlag. Library of Congress Control No.: 2004100561; ISBN No. 3-7913-2929-4; $29.95. www.prestel.com .

For most of us, America's great Civil War exists today almost exclusively in the photography of Mathew Brady, a name synonymous with the black and white images of battlefields, cavalry, soldiers, and generals that continue to haunt and inspire us. The Civil War marked not only the beginning of modern warfare, but also of modern documentarianism, with the ready eye of the camera replacing the retrospective brush of the history painting--and it was Brady's vision that urged it along.

Ironically, Brady had poor eyesight, owing to a childhood illness, and rarely took photographs himself. As George Sullivan explains in his concise, authoritative essays in this fine, 450-page collection of more than 400 Civil War photos, Brady was more entrepreneur than artist. Before the war, he had achieved fame for his daguerreotype portraits of the rich and famous, and his New York gallery was at the forefront of the 19th-century vogue for all manner of formal and souvenir photography. With the advent of the wet plate collodion process, which resulted in a glass negative from which any number of prints could be made, the daguerreotype was rendered obsolete, and the era of mass-produced photography was under way.

Thus, Brady's determination to document the breadth of the Civil War was as much a business decision as it was a historical imperative. Brady knew that the war was a momentous opportunity, so he assembled teams of superb, passionate photographers--among them Alexander Gardner, James Gibson, and Timothy O'Sullivan--to capture as much of the action as possible. The wet collodion process was cumbersome, though, requiring mobile darkrooms and 55-gallon water tanks, and as the war--which Brady thought would be a short one--began to drag on, the expenses mounted. Brady's finances were in a shambles before the war ended, and bankruptcy followed.

But the enduring legacy of Brady's studio outshines the unflattering light in which Brady's opportunism and mismanagement have cast him. Drawing from the thousands of Brady images that now reside with the U.S. Library of Congress and in the National Archives, author Sullivan offers crisp and often unforgettable reproductions of photos that span the war. From the first major battle, Bull Run, in 1861, through Antietam, Gettysburg, Sherman's Atlanta campaign, and the fall of Richmond, this book captures the tragic progression of a conflict that marked the end of America's innocence and the emergence of its new geopolitical landscape.

Indeed, landscape is at the heart of these photos--the sweep of muddy field, smoky encampment, rural and urban ruins, the linear vanishing points of railroad lines and wooden fortifications, and, inevitably, the saddening sprawl of dead bodies on a battlefield. Some photos are almost too perfect in the lost-innocence category--for example, an image by George Barnard of children staring in awe at a line of cavalrymen across the marshy plain of Bull Run. Other shots seem to hum with audible urgency, as in James Gibson's image of a field hospital after a battle, a veritable sea of the wounded.

Less interesting, perhaps, are the many posed photos of soldiers, officers, and regiments standing stiffly for posterity. But when the men are truly historic figures, their postures can be revealing. One famous shot, by Alexander Gardner, depicts President Lincoln before a tent at Antietam. To either side of him are Allan Pinkerton, of the Secret Service, and Major Gen. John McClernand, both of whom affect Napoleonic poses, with their right hands tucked inside their jackets. The stovepipe-hatted Lincoln, by contrast, towers over the two men, and stands easily, unselfconsciously, with an air of such dignity and grave understanding that there is no mistaking him for anything but the very soul of the Union.

Similarly, the images of displaced slave families and of the black Union soldiers of Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, remind us that the Civil War's catalyst, slavery, lent it its most human face. The black soldiers stand proudly, yet with a sober, mistrustful demeanor that charges the photograph with high ambiguity. It would have been easy for Brady's photographers to ignore the racial component of the war, given that the audience and market for these photographs would be overwhelmingly white, but it is obvious that the likes of Gardner and Gibson responded to a higher calling.

By the end, of course, as Brady's cameras document the "Grand Review" of the Army--a parade of troops along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., only weeks after the war's end and Lincoln's assassination--we can sense how quickly this central event in American history would become steeped in myth. The photos palpably convey a tired march of horses and men, an almost Homeric procession that carries a message of irrevocable change, sacrifice and the ongoing cost of freedom. Perhaps Mathew Brady viewed the Civil War, at first, as a theater of capitalism, but his cameras always saw it for what it was.

UN MONDE NON-OBJECTIF EN PHOTOGRAPHIE. November 2003. Catalogue published by Galerie Thessa Herold; 7, rue de Thorigny – 75003 Paris. Telephone: 33 (0) 1 42 78 78 68; Fax: 33 (0) 1 42 78 78 69. E-mail: gatherold@noos.fr .

Maybe it is misleading to ascribe non-objectivity or pure abstraction to the fruits of photography, given that the medium inevitably fixes images of things that exist in the world. And yet the abstract tradition has played a great role in photography's development ever since the advent of the modernists and, certainly, the surrealists. In the early 1920s, surrealism's pied piper, Andre Breton, was ecstatically championing the potential of a "veritable photographie de la pensee," relishing the contradiction of an objectifying medium that could channel the essence of pure thought and unmediated dreams.

Ultimately, such lofty sentiment matters less than that a great many memorable and haunting images have resulted from photography's abstract wave. This 190-page catalogue, keyed to a recent exhibition at the Galerie Thessa Herold in Paris, charts the course of non-objective work with a sampling of wonderful photos, stretching from the surrealist heyday to contemporary artistry, all superbly annotated and printed on luxuriantly glossy paper. Thus, and with the help of fine essays by one of France's great scholars of photography, Michel Poivert, we can trace Breton et al.'s fascination with photos of lightening bolts and electrical surges. These were suggestive to the surrealists of convulsive mental processes and the beauty of sheer, preliterate inspiration.

By the 1930s, we can see, in the carefully crafted black and white exposures of Brassai, how photography can turn the natural geometries of rock crystals, sponges and coral into dream symbols. And Raoul Ubac's close-up, tightly cropped shots can turn anything from the drops of water on a windowpane to the patterns of a manufactured bottle into biomorphic mysteries. Then there is Man Ray, of course, whose Rayogrammes caught the shapes of various everyday objects--brushes, straws, string--as they interacted with light sources and photosensitive paper.

Interestingly, one of photography's great realists, Henri Cartier-Bresson, is even represented here with an image of mud-caked terrain, "Roches," from 1935. By 1940, we have Herbert Matter's kinetic shots of Calder mobiles in motion, with their blurred ellipses and mathematical rigor. Indeed, the sheer visual energy of the European avant-garde ranges widely, from Alexander Rodtchenko's naturalistic abstraction of agave cactus needles and Poet Zwart's textural tours de force, exploring tree bark and cobwebs, to Ernst Fuhrmann's or Carl Struwe's magnifications of plant cells, pollen, and plankton.

From there, American and German photographers, such as Edward Quigley, Arthur Siegel, Aaron Siskind, Otto Steinert and Hannes Kilian, are featured. It is interesting to note how they build on the surrealist and European pioneers, echoing some of the classic abstract imagery with ever sharper focal approaches and more ambitious patterning. Is it surprising that much of the non-objective work sampled here from the 1940s and 50s does not seem to reflect the gestural heroics of Abstract Expressionism? Maybe not, since photography has a way of being painterly without calling on the rhetoric of painting.

If anything, this catalogue shows us that today's non-objective photographers want to connect with the real world in fresh ways, not merely by crafting a swirl of imagery but by evoking emotional complexities, as in Joan Fontcuberta's "Tao Te Ching" (1999), which makes a kind of lunar horizon from a sheet of Braille. And Beatrice Helg's 2001 series of "Equilibre" photos places a wiry metal sculpture on an oxidized, shadowy stage--a ballet of industrial material that mimics human movement. As paintings, these abstractions might seem forced; as photographs, they are more purely, and logically, about vision.

TEN PHOTOGRAPHERS, 1946-54: THE LEGACY OF MINOR WHITE, CALIFORNIA SCHOOL OF FINE ARTS, THE EXHIBITION PERCEPTIONS; 2004; $25. Catalogue published by Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc., P.O. Box 40447, San Francisco, CA 94140; Phone: (415) 626-2677; Fax: (415) 552-4150; e-mail: pmhi@hertzmann.net .

Any survey of American fine-art photography ought to linger gratefully in post-World War II San Francisco. That is where such groundbreakers as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunnigham, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Minor White inspired a fresh generation of students at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). At the time, White led the school's new fine-art photography program, and the post-war energy and optimism of the era seemed as fresh and strong as the wind gusting from the Bay.

This liberated atmosphere led to at least one legendary display, Perceptions, a 1954 show at the San Francisco Museum of Art in which Adams, Cunningham, Lange, Weston, White, and 41 other photographers--many of them students of the famous five--exhibited their work. The show was unusual in that it emphasized the photographs rather than the photographers, leaving the prints unsigned and espousing something of a new California manifesto for fine-art freedom. It also proclaimed its artists as cutting across "the boundaries of several contemporary 'isms.' Some photograph nature, some lean toward the non-objective and surreal, some photograph the social scene; but all have a vital principle in common. This principle is to photograph with the inner eye."

Fifty years later, the ongoing influence of Perceptions--and, indeed, of the California "inner eye"--has inspired San Francisco fine-art photography dealers Paul Hertzmann and Susan Herzig to revisit the show in their way. So they have created a 48-page catalogue focusing on ten of the "distinguished students" represented in the original show, each of whom has gone on to enjoy a fair share of recognition since 1954. Alphabetically, they are John Bertolino, Zoe [Lowenthal] Brown, Benjamin Chinn, Bob Hollingsworth, Gene Petersen, Nata Piaskowski, F.W. Quandt, Jr., Donald Ross, Charles Wong and Harold Zegart.

An essay by Deborah Klochko articulates the legacy of Minor White as educator, co-founder of Aperture magazine, and the driving force in the acceptance of a Bay Area photographic aesthetic that took root back in the early 1930s. At the time, a group of several Bay Area photographers known as Group f.64--Adams, Cunningham and Weston among them--embraced a "straight photography" approach that believed that fine-art photos "must develop along the lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions or art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself."

In other words, to invoke Ezra Pound on modernism, it was time to "make it new" again. The Bay Area school thus favored social realism, available light, cropped-out figuration and a tonal rigor that made the most of the California melting pot and the documentary power of black and white. But it was not easy to "remain independent" of European classicism. And so, John Bertolino's iconic image of an exhausted young woman on a city bench, her head in her arms while she rests on a battered suitcase, marries the formal elegance of a Vermeer to the immediacy and random discovery that only photography offers--that shred of torn paper at her feet seems to echo the curve of her shoulders.

Likewise, Zoe Brown, Charles Wong, and Benjamin Chinn capture black and Asian children very much in the act of being themselves or in the context of Chinatown celebrations and inner-city dwellings that emphasize the rhythm and freedom of Bay Area life. Bob Hollingsworth and Gene Peterson, on the other hand, document the abundant visual information all around them, turning traffic signs, fire hydrants, graffiti and tombstone friezes into found objects. And then there's Nata Pieskowski, whose still lifes and street scenes--especially an image of a poor black couple in troubled conversation--suggest a complex social fabric. More atmospherically, F.W. Quandt, Jr. and Donald Ross capture mist on the Bay and industrial detritus with sharp attention to detail, while Harold Zegart finds beauty in the geometries of vacant lots and a wall of apartment-house mailboxes. Clearly, these ten photographers are kindred artists, united by a sense of place and a confidence bred by a truly Californian sense of possibility.

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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