Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Worlds Away

For lovers of art and history, books of fine photography collapse time and space.

By Fred Turner

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  When it comes to books, it is always tempting to give someone more of what they already have. Uncle Harry likes fly fishing? Then surely he'll treasure another glossy volume on the subject. Aunt Emily cooks? Well, why not slip her another hardbound pack of recipes? Come the moment of exchange, Harry and Emily will smile and you will bask in their recognition that you have taken the time to find out what really interests them.

The trouble with this strategy is that if a subject really intrigues someone, they've probably already found their favorite books on it. This is especially true in photography, where the works of certain masters -- Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Diane Arbus, for instance -- have kept the dust off bookstore shelves for years.

Fortunately, 1997 has witnessed the publication of collections by several lesser-known masters, as well as the rediscovery of powerful and long-neglected images made for various industrial purposes. Together, these two phenomena should guarantee givers of photography books a chance to satisfy even those photobibliophiles who seem to have it all.

Foremost among this year's books for serious collectors stands Seydou Keïta (edited by André Magnin, text by Youssouf Tata Cissé; Scalo, 206 duotone photographs, $49.95), the first retrospective gathering of images by one of West Africa's most important photographers. Born in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, in 1921, Seydou Keïta was one of the earliest portraitists to set up shop in the area. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he took pictures of whomever came his way. Young men, families, mothers, fathers, lovers -- one after another, they sat together in his studio or posed outside, often against the annually changing pattern of Keïta's bedspread, hung as a backdrop against a wall.

The power of Keïta's portraits derives in part from the historical moment in which he made them: by depicting men whose cheeks bear tribal scars wearing western tuxedos, or women swathed in fabulous West African cloth perched on Italian motor scooters, Keïta has captured fascinating moments of postcolonial consumer ambition. But what makes his portraits meet -- and often exceed -- the standards set by, say, a Richard Avedon is his sympathy. Even from the most formal posers, Keïta coaxes visible emotion. Thus, his photographs constitute not only a record of a fascinating time and place, but still-vivid evidence of his sitters' interior lives.

Like Keïta, American Tina Barney uses her camera as a tool to achieve a certain intimacy with her subjects. Yet the emotions that emerge in Photographs: "Theater of Manners" (introduction by Andy Grundberg; Scalo, 180 color and 20 black-and-white photographs, $60) tend less toward the longing and affection that characterize Keïta's work and more toward tight-lipped, high-WASP chill. Barney has spent her entire life with her subjects -- with few exceptions, they are members of her family -- but she never seems to have felt at home. Her semiformal portraits reveal people ill at ease with themselves and one another, a nervous aristocracy. Never mind the fancy furniture and the cheerful, J. Crew color schemes: this is a drab and anxious world. Barney's courage in depicting that world as she finds it, of course, makes this book a perfect antidote to the false bonhomie that so afflicts the Christmas season.

For those not quite ready to face a troubled present, historian and literary journalist Michael Lesy has gathered a soothing collection of historical views in Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (The New Press, 208 black-and-white photographs, $40). Culled principally from the Library of Congress and comprising postcards made by the famed Western landscape photographer William Henry Jackson and some two dozen anonymous cameramen, Dreamland is a gentle, comforting echo of Lesy's classic collection, Wisconsin Death Trip. Like that earlier work, Dreamland consists of workaday images of daily life interlaced with bits of historical fact and preceded by a lyrical essay by Lesy himself. But where Wisconsin Death Trip evinced a semipsychotic edginess, Dreamland offers a steadying vision of order and righteousness. Glorious public parks, harmonious factories and bridges, noble Indians, rustic frontiersmen -- the whole panoply of turn-of-the-century American subjects appears here, bringing with it a long-forgotten but still-comforting air of national confidence.

John Szarkowski, former director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, has performed a similar feat with A Maritime Album: 100 Photographs and Their Stories (Yale University Press, 100 black-and-white photographs, $39.95). Selected from the rich archives of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, these largely anonymous photographs depict all facets of maritime activity from the mid-19th to the late-20th century. They include portraits of homesick seamen, studies of breakers smashing down on the decks of schooners, aerial views of aircraft carriers, and even a snapshot of a tattoo parlor. Alongside the images, Richard Benson, dean of the Yale School of Art, offers uncritical and oddly charming commentaries on the subjects at hand. Together, the images and essays offer a highly entertaining ramble through photography's oceangoing past.

British journalist Liz Jobey has put together a different sort of ramble in The End of Innocence: Photographs from the Decades that Defined Pop: The 1950s to the 1970s (Scalo, 200 duotone photographs, $39.95). Having combed the archives of EMI Records, she has dug up a trove of promo pics that do indeed reflect a more innocent time. As she notes in her introduction, emerging artists in the '50s and '60s faced the demands of EMI's publicity hacks with "good-humored compliance." Thus, we see the Animals, neatly coifed and posed in what appears to be a London subway station. Or we watch the newly signed Beatles playfully jump down a set of stairs. The best pictures in this book, though, don't depict the soon-to-be famous. They present people like the Vernons Girls -- two bouffant-and-chiffon lovelies headed straight for obscurity -- or the Bo Street Runners, five British adolescents dripping with nerdish ennui. For all their campy formality, these more obscure photos remind us of a time when we might actually have believed that rock and roll could save the world.

But of course, that was before acid and Tet and the rise of Andy Warhol. In All Tomorrow's Parties: Billy Name's Photographs of Andy Warhol's Factory (essay by Dave Hickey, interview by Collier Schoor; D.A.P., 122 color and 13 black-and-white photographs, $34.95), a different rock and roll world emerges. It's a high-contrast, super-color-saturated 24-hour-a-day circus, a true-life Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club. And if you ever fell for Nico or Edie Sedgwick or even Andy himself, it's delicious. Billy Name (a/k/a William Linich) was Andy Warhol's sometime lover and full-time house photographer. Until now, he has been known for his black-and-white publicity stills of Andy and the gang. But these color pictures, which Name made on his own time, are something finer. Predating Jack Pierson and Nan Goldin by 15 years, they have a way of making the time between now and then disappear.

And even for the most jaded connoisseurs, isn't that what photographs should do?

Fred Turner is still waiting for someone to give him that Kodak Instamatic with the pop-up flash.

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