Issue #163  8/3/2009
Photo Books: Leonard Photo Memoir and Fraenkel's Edward Hopper & Company

By Matt Damsker



Forward by Lucy R. Lippard. University of Michigan Press. 252 pages; approximately 200 plates, including black-and-white photographs and color collages. ISBN No. 978-0-472-11402-3. Clothbound, $35. Information: http://www.press.umich.edu .

Turning personal experience into art is never easily accomplished, nor should it be. The line between what matters to us as individuals and what resonates universally--or at least a fair distance beyond our own parameters--is hard to cross, and so the autobiographical is often, and rightly, challenged as self-indulgent, steeped in sentiment and failing to provide the emotional distance that would allow an outsider to join and build on the experience. Everything from the poems of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath, to Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night, " to the dog photography of William Wegman can be argued to matter more to the artist than they ever can to the detached observer, and yet there's no denying that deeply personal subject matter can strike public chords and endure.

As this volume argues, Joanne Leonard's four decades of photography and collage is a strong example of just that. Though built from the honest and often painful detailing of her experiences, Leonard's art convincingly stands in for the challenged journey of modern womanhood, what Lucy Lippard calls in her introduction to this handsome volume, "a feminist story par excellence, and its guardian angel is the spirit of collage, which hovers over so much art by women." Indeed, Lippard cites Leonard's 1973 "miscarriage collages, though still not well enough known, [as] a feminist landmark."

There's no question that Leonard's project is an artistry of accretion, as her photography--sturdy, unpretentious black-and-white portraiture of family, friends, and domestic totems of the 1960s--moves outward, past her social documentation of Oakland, California's black population, and then ever more inward, toward images and collages that struggle with representational beauty, dark symbol and abstraction, and pure celebration.

Thus, Leonard's polemicized images of a nude, sleeping ex-husband--sculptor Bruce Beasley--observe a male reality that might be interpreted as dead to female/feminist stirrings, while the graphic bloodlettings and cruel symbolic penetrations of the miscarriage collages are powerfully intimate and palpably painful, yet light-handed enough, in their manipulation of image and relieving white space, to draw in and somehow even charm the viewer.

As Leonard's journey progresses through single motherhood, embodied in her photo-chronicle of her daughter, Julia, from infancy to young adulthood, to witnessing the death of her mother from Alzheimer's disease and her father from cancer, her collages are steeped in cosmic wrenchings and questionings. Ultimately, Leonard's collages become the signature of female experience--shards of feeling, thought, life objects, dream states, and indomitable will, all pulled across the canvas in a scrawl that challenges our view, our voyeurism, and our own sense of self.


Published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name at the Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., San Francisco, California 94108, which ended May 2, 2009. Introduction by Jeffrey Fraenkel. Hardbound; 60 pages, 54 color plates. ISBN No. 978-1-881337-26-3. Information: http://www.fraenkelgallery.com .

The bleak realism of Edward Hopper's painting has long begged such an exhibition as the Fraenkel Gallery's inspired assemblage of photography by eight greats--Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Stephen Shore--along with several borrowed examples of Hopper's own work. The result, as chronicled in this accompanying catalogue, beautifully reveals the guiding spirit of Hopper's modernism on several generations of photographers.

As Jeffrey Fraenkel's introduction notes, quoting the writer Geoff Dyer, "[Hopper] could claim to be the most influential American photographer of the twentieth century--even though he didn't take any photographs." Indeed, it's hard to deny that Hopper's concerns, which included a focus on the quotidian, a sensitivity to psychological states bred from isolation, and a passion for the humbler manifestations of America's architecture, landscape, and colors, have been forcefully echoed and built upon in the art photography that paralleled and follows from Hopper's art.

In 1936, for example, Walker Evans was noticing the simple, weathered grace of deserted storefronts and a rural post office in Alabama not long after Hopper began to establish his mastery with paintings that expressed similarly unpeopled vistas and squat geometries ("Wellfleet Road," from 1931). And yet by the 1970s, long after Hopper's day, his desolate streetscapes, somber hues and predilection for raking sunlight are alive in the breakthrough color photographs of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.

Importantly, these artists aren't so much imitating Hopper as they are affirming the relevance of Hopper's vision. He saw through the artificiality and grandiosity of 20th-century America to its lonely, often Puritan core, and so the photography that likewise haunts us to this day picks up where Hopper left off, as in the pop-cultural recognitions of Lee Friedlander, who sights a Coca-Cola sign through a dark apartment or else notes the walls between people in his complex rhapsodies of shop window reflections and urban comings and goings. And Diane Arbus's 1962 immortalization of a woman smoking at a luncheonette counter in New York City owes a lot, ungrudgingly, to Hopper's classic "Nighthawks."

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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