Photo Shop

Surveying the Season's Most Extravagant Photo Books

Giving photo books as presents is always a little tricky, trickier on the holidays when something too weighty or somber seems a bit out of place. (I think virtually everyone would value New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers, for instance, but I somehow can't imagine powerHouse's excellent, shat-tering compendium of on-the-spot photojournalism tied up with a festive bow.) When it comes to gifts, seriousness needn't be sugarcoated, just spiced. The ideal book reconciles gravity with sensuality, intelligence with beauty, pleasure, even eroticism. If the book itself is hefty and handsomely designed, all the better. A great present should be a little over-the-top—an indulgence, a fabulous treat—and the books gathered here easily fill that bill.

Phaidon Press has put out two of the season's biggest retrospective volumes—one on the underappreciated Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli, the other on the overanthologized American Elliott Erwitt—both recommended for their range, depth, and all-around appeal. (Erwitt, who too often presents himself as a clever charmer, has rarely looked so sharp or substantial.) But Phaidon's best bet this year, Roy DeCarava's The Sound I Saw ($75), is an ambitious and genuine tour de force. If not quite a masterpiece, it comes damn close. Conceived in the late '50s, shortly after DeCarava's collaboration with Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, became a popular success, The Sound I Saw was written, designed, and laid out by the photographer in the early '60s but failed to find a publisher until now. DeCarava's brief introductory note describes the book, subtitled Improvisation on a Jazz Theme, as "a stream of images as seen and felt through the eyes and mind of a jazz musician on a stage." Its sequencing is intriguingly allusive, alternating full-bleed photos with smaller ones in a deliberate, staccato rhythm that begins onstage but encompasses and illuminates the world.

Included are many of DeCarava's most famous images of performers and anonymous city dwellers, all uncaptioned, along with other pictures that have never been published before. You'll recognize Ornette Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Miles Davis, and many others, but DeCarava grounds them all in ordinary life—not only in the black experience, but also in the broadest sort of human experience—so celebrity is eclipsed by the vision of a tough, vibrant, and shared soul. At times that message is unnecessarily didactic: Ella Fitzgerald, in a glittering dress and white fur, faces off with a housewife in an apron, ironing. But the photographer understands his subject too well to allow this sort of clumsiness to disturb his book's organic, emotional flow more than momentarily. Still, DeCarava threads his photos with a long poem that is no match for the subtlety and concision of the images; its mood of righteous fury and earnest celebration marks the book as a period piece in a way the photos never do. One can only imagine the impact The Sound I Saw would have had in its time, but that shouldn't stop it from having one in ours.

Flawless wit: Penn's Fish Bones on a Plate (a frugal lunch) (1993)
Photo from Still Life/Bulfinch
Flawless wit: Penn's Fish Bones on a Plate (a frugal lunch) (1993)

Richard Avedon delivers another extraordinary period piece with Made in France, the slim but lavish catalog of his recent show at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (Fraenkel, $75). Though nearly all the images here—both studio and environmental shots of the Paris collections taken on assignment for Harper's Bazaar in the '50s—have been published before, their format and presentation are completely original. Each page, front and back, is a faithful reproduction of the original engraver's print, including its heavily annotated mount. Preserved, along with the astonishing clarity and undimmed brilliance of the photos, are strips of masking tape, scuff marks, rubber stamps, and a flurry of penciled numbers and dates, as well as Avedon's crop marks and exuberant signature and Bazaar editor in chief Carmel Snow's meticulous, typed descriptions of the clothes ("Note how much you see of bosom," she underlines emphatically before pointing out the "I. MILLER SHOES"). "A picture in a magazine is a view without a window," Avedon says in Judith Thurman's graceful text. "Here you have the window—the context of production." That context doesn't entirely demystify these utterly convincing fantasies of feminine allure, but all the evidence of an artist (and his models, his editor, his printer, his art director, etc.) at work does put them in perspective. "This book documents the last time the sensibility of my fashion work wasn't commercially driven," Avedon tells Thurman. I don't really believe him—too much inspired fashion work followed—but no matter; it's the hectic, heady give-and-take of art and commerce that makes Made in France so exciting.

During the same years Avedon dominated the pages of Bazaar, Irving Penn ruled at Vogue. Their sensibilities were different, but they were so equally matched that they seemed less like rivals than goads to one another. An excellent competitor is often more important to an artist than an admiring ally. Unlike Avedon, however, Penn has continued to do regular editorial fashion work and, following a long period when he apparently couldn't have cared less, he's back to turning out sensational, showstopping images. Many of these pictures are still lifes, a genre he's excelled in from the beginning, and nearly 100 of them are collected in Still Life (Bulfinch, $85). There is nothing effortless about a Penn still life, but his calculated cool hasn't interfered with his uncanny ability to surprise, delight, and shock the eye. His stacked squares of frozen foods, spilled handbag, fly-dotted screen window, diamond-dripping faucet, and array of aphrodisiacs (including a $100 bill) are as flawless as they are witty. But nothing's as drop-dead elegant as Penn's debris: crushed cigarette butts, a blackened paper cup, a muddy glove. Next to these funky but chic icons, the skull-and-bones vanitasarrangements here look heavy-handed and arty. More than anyone, Penn should know that more is less.

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