Issue #214  3/12/2015
Photo Book Reviews: Thomas Struth in the Holy Land, Alexander Gardner's West, Photographic Theory:An Historical Anthology

By Matt Damsker

Mack Books. Hardbound; 50 pgs.; 16 four-color plates. ISBN no. 978-191-01-641-29. Information: http://www.mackbooks.co.uk.

This remarkable collection of 16 personally, politically, and culturally charged photographs by Germany's Thomas Struth results from an invitation Struth received to join ten other artists in creating a pictorial narrative of Israel and the West Bank over a period of years. Struth's phenomenal fame over the past four decades derives from a capacious range of work: his austere portraiture and street photography, his images of museum spectators as they experience art, and his stunning large-format color photographs of natural and urban worlds and techno-scientific sites.

As he declares in a brief statement at the close of this book, and like many Germans of his generation: "Having grown up in Germany not long after the war and the Holocaust, a deep sorrow about this past has fundamentally influenced my life."

If this influence hasn't always been evident in his work, it resonates powerfully within the imagery collected here, photographed in 2009, 2011, and 2014. The book benefits, to some degree, from a deeply read essay, perhaps too steeped in semiotic/deconstruction theory, by Ulrich Loock, whose cerebral arabesques may not make it any easier to approach Struth's work but who provides some excellent context for considering these Holy Land photos.

For example, Struth's beautifully specific vistas of Mount Bental in the west of the Golan Heights area annexed by Israel, close to the Syrian border, depict abandoned military positions and, in the distance, the broad Valley of Tears, so named after a great tank battle of 1973 during the Yom Kippur War between Syria and Israel. The two images that precede this pastoral shot are indecipherable studies of high-tech machinery in Israeli laboratories.

As Loock interprets it, "The two images…radicalize the relationships in 'Mount Bental, Golan Heights'. The exact depiction of a large number of technical details corresponds to the missing insight into the reality that is processed by such devices. These images replace the sublimity of the surveyed land with the 'negative sublime' of a reality that resists sensory access and photographic exposures." And so it goes in this book of subtle juxtapositions, as Struth distills his 16 signal images from the many shots he took over these years. The saturated color and calmly composed elegance of his exposures range broadly, from the war-battered, broken cement columns of Golan Heights architecture to the time-scarred arches and columns of the iconic interiors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in East Jerusalem, or the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Such iconography is balanced and deepened by the street images of harshly weathered, graffiti-scrawled, empty lanes in Hebron.

The final image is pure Struth: a mural-like frontal depiction of Tel Aviv's City Hall, a great rectangle of a building checkered with office windows. It is viewed as an architectural monolith fronting a blue sky that struggles to establish its presence against the institutional banality of the building.

As for human portraiture, an old woman is viewed, from a distance, like a black-garbed ghost along one pathway, but otherwise there is only a deceptively simple portrait of the Faez Family, Jewish Yemeni immigrants photographed on the steps of their home in Rehovot. There are nine of them--toddlers, teens, proud parents--and their expressions range from guarded smiles to motherly grins. Loock's interpretation of the photo offers contextual depth, and seems to symbolize the complexity of the entire portofolio:
"The Faezs do not seem absolutely sure of their place. They have been positioned on and in front of the steps to their house, on the threshold between home and public space. Just as the place which the parents and children assume is one of transition, each member of the family seems to be searching for a posture that suits them…the photograph raises the question as to what promise they were following when they immigrated to Israel, and how they could feel at home in the place that Struth has photographed." Whether Struth would place that much weight on this image of humanity is open to question, but there's no doubt that the rigor and power of his photography embraces art at the highest level of thought.

By Jane L. Aspinwall. Catalogue of the recent exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Distributed by Yale University Press. Hardbound; 180 pgs.; approximately 50 full-color plates; ISBN No. 978-0-300-20824-5; information: http://www.nelson-atkins.org.

Scholars and collectors will have taken note that this recent exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum explored two rare bodies of Alexander Gardner's work: the 1867 series "Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad," in which he photographed the existing rail line and the proposed route to the Pacific Ocean; and the 1868 series "Scenes in the Indian Country," depicting the treaty negotiations between the Indian Peace Commission and Indians in Fort Laramie, WY.

In this fine catalogue, Jane Aspinwall, associate photography curator at the Nelson-Atkins, marshals first-rate scholarship and sensitivity in detailing Gardner's life and the contexts of these important images. The plates themselves are superbly reproduced and speak volumes about a pristine Western landscape in the process of being linked, indissolubly, to Eastern commerce and the depredations of an encroaching commercial culture. The wide open spaces of what would become a bustling Lawrence, KS, for example, are captured in dusty glory by Gardner's lens (which was still fresh from his grisly documentation of the Civil War), along with rock formations and the brute work of turning tough land into tracked and trestled railway routes.

As for the Indian country scenes, Aspinwall notes that there is no complete known inventory of Gardner's photographs of the Wyoming tribes, although there are at least 62 large-format photographs. Gardner used both large-format and stereo cameras for this series, and the results were stunning images of everyday Native American life, along with obligatory but nonetheless expressive portraits of such emblems of Western expansion as the suited-and-hatted white men (and, strangely enough, one black man) of the Laramie Peace Commission.

Aspinwall describes the ultimate import of Gardner's Laramie series when she writes that his photographs of the proceedings at Fort Laramie "could be seen as the first and last to document a rapidly dwindling people accurately. Even as he was photographing, the traditional Indian way of life was being replaced by a government-imposed system. Sensing this change, Gardner was committed to creating the richest archive he could by photographing even the most mundane scenes thoroughly and thoughtfully."

Edited by Andrew E. Hershberger. Wiley Blackwell Books. Hardbound/Softbound; 462 pgs.; ISBN No. 978-1-4051-9863-9. Information: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-140519863X.html.

This may be the first major photography textbook without a single photograph, and yet that incongruity is easily forgiven when one considers that Andrew Hershberger--chair of art history at Bowling Green State University, Ohio--has compiled an indispensable anthology for anyone seeking a broad history of photography theory.

To begin at the beginning, indeed, Hershberger includes excerpts from Plato's "The Republic" (the famous allegory of the cave, which serves as conceptual a priori for photography in its description of human perception as shadows of a hidden reality seen on a cave wall). From there, we have Leonardo da Vinci's descriptions of eye function as explained by the camera obscura, and soon enough there is William Henry Fox Talbot's 1839 account of the "Art of Photogenic Drawing."

Hershberger's anthology moves most readably from invention to Pictorialism; Pictorialism "to/and/vs." Modernism; Modernism to Postmodernism; and finally from Postmodernism to Digital Imaging (along the way, he wonders if that represents a return to Pictorialism). The names and essays collected and excerpted are canonical, including Oliver Wendell Holmes discussing the stereoscope and stereograph in 1859, Julia Margaret Cameron's "Annals of My Glass House" from 1874, a discussion of the hand camera by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand's 1922 "Photography and the New God," Edward Weston's "Seeing Photographically," Ansel Adams' "A Personal Credo," and theoretical challenges from 1970s and 80s semiotic darlings Jacques Derrida and Rosalind Krauss.

While the points of view sprawl, the intellectual engines are stoked to a fine point, page by page, and there is probably a lifetime of reading here, since few if any of us could absorb it all in even an extended sitting, or five, or ten. More to the point, there are ideas here that send the mind in so many directions they seem like surreal canapés of thought, to be digested all too quickly and wondered at forever. Derrida's declaration that "All photography is from the outset a fetish" points back to Christian Metz's 1985 essay on film and still photography--and so on, as Hershberger annotates and cross-references the material with great authority and erudition.

If there's any sort of gaping hole, it may be the absence of any of Susan Sontag's essays from "On Photography," although Sontag is cited fairly extensively throughout the volume, and so her vital ideas on the medium are hardly excluded. Most likely, copyright issues prevented more than fair use of her work, and one wonders if publisher Wiley Blackwell's budget also precluded any photographic examples. Then again, the sheer power of mind and galactic span on display in this anthology would seem to render a handful or even a fair-sized portfolio of images somewhat beside the point. This is theory, after all; let's leave the practice of photography to other tomes.

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.

(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. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)