Camera Work

Holiday Photo Books, Both Extravagant and Accessible

If the holidays are the time for extravagant gifts, there are plenty to choose from this year. At the top of the list are two boxed sets that would thrill any serious aficionado of photography: August Sander's seven-volume People of the 20th Century (Abrams, $195) and Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set (Abrams, $150), a two-volume edition that reproduces all 1642 photos donated to the National Gallery of Art by Stieglitz's widow and frequent subject, Georgia O'Keeffe. Sander's project—619 portraits of German farmers, artists, businessmen, and laborers made between the first and second world wars—is one of the most influential undertakings in the history of photography. Published here for the first time in the format that Sander envisioned, with people separated into volumes by profession or type ("The Skilled Tradesman," "The City," "The Woman"), People of the 20th Century epitomizes the matter-of-fact detachment of German New Objectivity. But it also contains the seeds of a more soulful sort of sociology, and it's impossible to imagine Arbus and Penn, much less Ruff and Struth, without the precedent set by Sander. Stieglitz's accomplishment, while harder to quantify in contemporary terms, is just as significant historically. An early innovator of photographic modernism, he was also among its first American promoters and entrepreneurs, founding the quarterly Camera Work and establishing the Fifth Avenue art and photo gallery known as 291. The Key Set gathers work from throughout his long career, including streetscapes, landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, as well as his daringly intimate investigations of the nude O'Keeffe and countless variations on his famous "Equivalents," studies of clouds that he intended as abstract mirrors of his "most profound experience of life."

For extravagance in another vein, there's Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue (Edition 7L, $120), an appropriately lavish celebration of the career of model-turned-creative director Grace Coddington, who worked first at British Vogue and is now at its American counterpart. Coddington's talent is her ability to imagine a particular designer garment out in the world and to translate that fantasy into something startling, amusing, or seductive—ideally, all of the above. She can't do this without the close collaboration of a number of trusted photographers, and, if all goes right, her work is virtually indistinguishable from theirs. Grace devotes most of its 400 supersized pages to the fruits of these collaborations, with individual portfolios by Annie Leibovitz, Norman Parkinson, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Ellen Von Unwerth, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, and 23 others, each accompanied by a few brief paragraphs from Coddington that substitute anecdote for insight. No matter—what the book lacks in pithiness is more than made up for by its wealth of great images and its insider's view of the history of contemporary fashion photography. Worth the price of admission all by itself: Leibovitz's deftly orchestrated standoff between Sean Combs and Kate Moss at the Paris haute couture collections.

For an even headier dose of fashion history, there's the reissue of Diane Vreeland's Allure (Bulfinch, $75), originally published in 1980 after the former editor at Harper's Bazaar and Vogue had moved on to the position of curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Legendarily opinionated and passionately over-the-top, Vreeland had a taste for the grand gesture, for beauty at its most rarefied, but she knew how to make extravagance entertaining, and she could talk up a storm. Allure, bound in her signature lipstick red, is a scrapbook (she called it a "potpourri") of pictures by Beaton, Horst, Avedon, Penn, Man Ray, Baron de Meyer, and other primarily fashion photographers that evoked her sensibility and provoked her comment (faithfully transcribed and edited by Christopher Hemphill). The photos, all in black-and-white, suggest a world swinging manically between cool elegance and overheated exuberance—a place where Anna Magnani, Nijinsky, Eva Perón, Fred Astaire, and Penelope Tree are the gods and goddesses, and mere mortals can only swoon. Vreeland inhabits this world so fully you've got to submit to her considerable will, and her pronouncements are Allure's real meat or, more accurately, fizzy champagne. She knows she's parodying herself when she declares that blue jeans are "the most beautiful things since the gondola," but she's not joking when she says, "I loathe narcissism but I approve of vanity."

Down on the farm, inspired improvisation: Jackie Nickerson's Gladys, Tengwe, Zimbabwe
photo: From Farm, Courtesy Jonathan Cape
Down on the farm, inspired improvisation: Jackie Nickerson's Gladys, Tengwe, Zimbabwe

Vreeland would approve of the inimitable style displayed by the African women and men in Jackie Nickerson's Farm (Jonathan Cape, $55). Although her book of portraits and landscapes from the farmlands of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa has a documentary underpinning, Nickerson is not particularly interested in the conditions under which these tomato pickers or tea pluckers work. Instead, she's interested (like Leni Riefenstahl with the Nuba) in their physical beauty and the way they wear their clothes. And no wonder: On the evidence she presents, African farmworkers are not only uncommonly dignified, they're among the planet's most inventive dressers. The radical deconstructionists of Paris and Brussels have nothing on the Zimbabwean woman whose eyelet skirt is wrapped in a wide panel of wrinkled silver fabric or the man in Malawi whose pants are a loosely stitched collage of cloth and plastic patches. It may be heedlessly reductive to turn barefoot laborers into exemplars of DIY style, but their originality and flair are too astonishing to ignore. With these handsome, understated pictures, taken in the fields where they work, Nickerson gives her subjects much respect and pays their inspired improvisation the attention it deserves.

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