Lost girls and lurid fantasies beckon from the pages of this season’s holiday offerings, alongside great art and fashion, exotic cuisines, and the New York City subway system. All of these volumes are packed with visual pleasures, but don’t confuse them with mere “picture books”—between their gorgeous covers lie worlds of complexity.
For fans of cheesecake, Liz Goldwyn’s Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens (Regan Books, 304 pp., $44.95) peeks behind the elaborately engineered undergarments of dozens of ladies who “flashed the knish” and otherwise fanned the flames of desire, from Athena the Grecian Siren of Sex to Rusty Lane, aka “the Duchess of Disrobe.” To her credit, Goldwyn (granddaughter of casting-couch aficionado Samuel) doesn’t clothe her semi-naked idols with a proto-feminist mantle; instead, she lets their recollections and the beplumed, sweat-infused artifacts of this engaging subculture speak for themselves.
At least one Ziegfield Follies dancer became a cinematic icon. Silent-film fans (and connoisseurs of beauty) will appreciate Louise Brooks: Lulu Forever (Rizzoli, 256 pp., $55), a lavishly illustrated homage by film historian Peter Cowie, resurrecting the screen idol whose reckless grace and unorthodox sensuality incarnated the roaring 20s—and who paid the price for defying Hollywood with decades of oblivion. Cowie encountered Brooks late in the star’s life, when she had found a new identity as an essayist and memoirist; his personal reflections on the ironies of her fate lend this volume an unexpected poignancy.
If time marched backward, Louise Brooks might have starred in a film about Edie Sedgwick, the poor little rich girl and Warhol acolyte whose gamine good looks and effervescent, amphetamine-fuelled cool are rediscovered with every passing generation. Sedgwick’s 15 minutes of fame have now stretched well beyond the quarter-century mark, with two new tomes to accompany her upcoming biopic. Melissa Painter and David Weisman’s Edie: Girl on Fire (Chronicle Books, 192 pp., $50) is kinder to its subject and seems more deeply researched (it also includes a CD of the “It” girl’s last interviews), but the insouciant tone and sordid details of Edie Factory Girl (VH1 Press, 160 pp., $29.95), by Nat Finkelstein and David Dalton, have the ring of truth.
For those who prefer bohemian renown accompanied by substantial artistic achievement, Francesca Woodman (Phaidon, 256 pp., $75) offers a comprehensive look at a fascinating and influential young artist. Woodman began photographing at 14. By the time she took her own life in 1981, at the age of 22, she had created a remarkably accomplished body of work—haunting photographic self-portraits in various states of self-effacement and poetic disarray, infused with a peculiarly personal surrealism and deeply resonant with the history of feminine representations. Edited by her father, George Woodman, this new monograph includes previously unpublished images, excerpts from her diaries and letters, and the moving reminiscences of her friend, artist and writer Betsy Berne.
The nutty collector with a taste for lowlife (and anyone interested in the forgotten culture of the image) will savor Will Straw’s Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50s America (PPP Editions, 190 pp., $60), a beautifully printed compendium of sensationalistic covers and spreads from the true-crime magazines of the 1950s. The “Strange Case of the Ravaged Housekeeper,” the “Secret of the Red-Head in the Bathtub,” and other tempting mysteries call out to readers from pages combining the visual styles of film noir, tabloid culture, Surrealism, and New York street photography, among a host of other influences.
As tall and chic as a 1950s fashion model, Balenciaga Paris (Thames & Hudson, 224 pp., $85), by Pamela Golbin and Fabien Baron, focuses on the Spanish couturier’s glory years in the French capital, where he reigned for three decades as acknowledged master of the ineffable mysteries of fabric, fit, and proportion. Stunning fashion shots by the likes of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, alongside Balenciaga’s own sketches, conjure his designs’ unparalleled elegance and radical modernity.
Speaking of modernity, two slim, highly personal volumes by photography’s éminences grises put weightier tomes to shame. Straight from the gutter (and without accompanying text), Daido Moriyama’s “it” (Rat Hole/dashwoodbooks.com, 56 pp., $40) presents the peripatetic, 60-something Japanese beatnik’s dark, grainy visions of nighttime Paris streets, Tokyo hot spots, and Dusseldorf in early morning light. His melancholy hipster’s camera renders hotel toilets, used tires, piles of fish, and a lone rhinoceros equally hypnotic.
And, eerily prescient of the current shambles in the Middle East, Robert Frank’s Come Again (Steidl, 48pp., $25) is a facsimile reprint of a notebook the artist recently put together of Polaroids he shot in 1991, while on commission to photograph Beruit’s ravaged downtown in the immediate aftermath of the Lebanese civil war. The casual instantaneity of Frank’s Polaroid collages lend his pages the texture of memory; the crumbling, deserted Mediterranean buildings, shorn of roofs and pockmarked by bullet holes, speak of untold apocalypses. How many religious wars have been fought since these images were taken, how many downtowns (including our own) ravaged by fanatic violence? Will it “come again”?
On a lighter note, the sybaritic pleasures of Near and Middle Eastern tables await the readers of Arabesque (Knopf, 352 pp., $35), an introduction to the cuisines Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by cookbook author extraordinaire Claudia Roden, who was born and raised in Cairo. Never just a collection of recipes, her books are delectable works of cultural anthropology. Where else could one learn of the dadas, the great Moroccan cooks descended from Sudanese slaves and concubines, or that the tomato arrived in Syria in the 19th century?
Finally, travelers whose curiosity is piqued by sights closer to home will be happy to receive Along the Way: MTA Arts for Transit, by Sandra Bloodworth and William Ayres (Monacelli Press, 240 pp., $45), a catalogue of artworks commissioned since 1985 by the Metropolitan Transit Authority for New York City’s subway and commuter lines. Ever wonder about those strange red metal frames surrounding the turn-of-the-century mosaics at the Union Square station? This is where you’ll find the explanation. You’d have to spend weeks moving around underground, accosted by panhandlers, solicited by itinerant musicians and mechanical-toy vendors, and rubbing up against your urban neighbors, to view these 160-odd works—from gorgeous mosaics by Elizabeth Murray at 59th Street to Alison Saar’s noble bronze figures in Harlem to Acconci Studio’s windscreens for a Coney Island platform, which recall the shapes of roller coasters, boardwalks, and ocean waves. Here they’re all presented for your delectation.