Tuesday 26 January 2010
I have not contributed a book review here before and it may appear odd to begin doing so by discussing a book that is just about a decade old. Yet, to me, this is a book which has not dated. In fact, it feels like a more substantial book after eight years of reading it.
One Hundred Photographs – a collection by Bruce Bernard (Phaidon Press, London 2002) is a heterogeneous gathering. What publisher in New Zealand would consider issuing such a personal assemblage of photographs? The book's concept is simple - present a selection of photographs sampled from a remarkable private collection that Bernard was invited to establish by a collector in 1996. This is a tough collection full of flavour and relish. It is not driven by either the fame, or name, of any particular photographer but by an obsessive commitment to the power of images. Bernard says ‘I wanted to include every kind of photograph that truly stimulated and satisfied me, and that it seemed could permanently continue to do so.’
In his commentary to this book, Mark Haworth-Booth, a much-respected Curator of Photography, notes ‘Now his eye embraced, with equal enthusiasm, the diversity of photography – the rare, the classic, the offbeat.’
Mardi Gras Distortion circa 1931
gelatin silver print
My first surprise was encountering August Sander’s atypical image of the Mardi Gras Distortion from about 1931. It is utterly different from his usual sharp focus photography, with its dead centre symmetrical style of seeing, for which Sander is justifiably famous. He had an eye for what Germans then called die Neue Sachlichkeit ('the new reasonableness' or, perhaps, even more accurately, 'the new objectivity'). In type, this photo is much more comparable to the experimental Bauhaus photography of the brilliant T. Lux Feininger (one of my all time faves). By distorting this print upon the enlarger's base, he creates an utterly woozy image. A sinister, funny and seductive snapshot that was never to be repeated by August Sander.
I reckon Bruce Bernard was England’s most incisive post WWII picture editor. We have never had an equivalent to him in Australasia. His innovative work for theSunday Times Magazine totally altered the contents and appearance of international colour news supplements. His 1981 book Photo discovery is a classic of photographic research and it has helped redefine how early travel photography is regarded. Bernard had a talent for opposing the contemporary with the historical in a manner that made both photographic periods utterly beguiling. He contrasted the familiar with the unfamiliar, and commissioned innovative new work from photographers.
E. O. Hoppe
Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes in Le Spectre de la Rose circa 1911
Most everyone who knows about the history of ballet rates Vaslav Nijinsky not only as a brilliant performer but as one of the most spectacularly talented dancers of the 20th century. Yet, it often hard for us to understand why he was idolised as no moving images of him remain. No film of him seems ever to have ever been shot. (The material you are told is of Nijinsky dancing on YouTube is faked up from Baron De Meyer’s justifiably renowned stills). E. O. Hoppé’s studio portrait of Nijinsky in his costume for the dance Le Spectre de la Rose is one of the most beautiful photographs of the dancer. One can easily see that he is someone who not only has the stamina of a strong athlete, he is also able to show himself to be as delicate as a flower - as if he is the rose's own fragile scent. That combination of being tough but showing tender comes together in this image. The silhouette that Nijinsky creates for the occasion of Hoppe’s portrait is absolutely gender-bending. The 20 year old man reveals himself as a 'rose' of extreme physical elegance. Nijinsky is both expanding and contracting within the one pose. Dance historian and Nijinsky biographer Richard Buckle wrote ‘No one who saw Nijinsky dance the role of the Rose ever forgot it.’
Weegee (Arthur Fellig)
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Circus circa 1945
gelatin silver print
There are 12 Weegee photographs in one New Zealand public collection (Te Papa Museum of New Zealand). They were acquired by Luit Bieringa when he was Director of the National Art Gallery. Weegee was the moniker of Arthur Fellig (1899-1968) and he made the use hand-held flash one of his specialities. He liked to catch people off guard, frequently in dark and shadowed places. He was also one of the first photo-voyeurs. Weegee made his income from getting the shots that no one else wanted to take. Proto-paparazzi style.
One does not think of mid-century British royalty as ever letting their hair down amongst the masses. Here is a shot that would never, ever, have been published in Britain. Strangely, it is one of the most flattering photographs ever made of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They are completely relaxed and appear humanly real. For someone who was born to be King Edward VIII, the Duke is actually shown as having the time of his life. Yet, recording pleasure was not a favourite subject for Weegee. He preferred profiling trails of clotted blood. It helped that he had a radio in his car tuned into the Police channel. He always wanted to be the first at any crime-scene.