Saturday, March 23, 2013

Yesteryear Versions of Today's Magazines - Part 2

In my last post, I recommended a recently published book that collects some early articles and portfolios that appeared in Aperture Magazine while under the editorship of Minor White. All the articles appearing in the new book were first published between the years 1952 and 1976, and - as explained in the previous post - are very different in subject and content from what typically appears between the covers in the current incarnation of the magazine.  

I promised to introduce the second of two anthologies I've recently enjoyed of this type, to which we turn to now. The difference this time is that both the reprinted articles and the book itself are "old," the articles dating back to its inception through 1977 and the first (only, so far as I know) edition of book itself to 1979! The magazine is Popular Photography, and has been around since 1937. The anthology I'm recommending is called The Best of Popular Photography, edited by Harvey V. Fondiller, and available from Amazon in used form (which is the form I bought mine in) for as little as $0.85; new ones starting at $9. Barnes and Noble also lists "new" versions, but they seem needlessly expensive (running from $24 up to $130.00).

To say it has been a long time since I've done much else than inattentively flip through the heavily-laden-with-advertisements modern variant of this once-wonderful magazine at Barnes & Noble is an understatement. Rarely offering more than a few paragraphs that contain general musings (if you can find them in the thicket of adds!) - about how "one should not forget to take a tripod on a trip," or "here is yet another lens you absolutely need (that reads like the review of last month's lens-of-the-month, which reads like..," to "you too can become an Ansel Adams with a few easy steps " - the magazine IMHO contains effectively nothing of use to anyone even remotely interested in the art of photography.

But, alas, this was not always the case, as in the early decades of this once fine magazine some very memorable prose, reviews, insights - and even art! - found their way into its pages. The anthology contains 392 thick semi-gloss pages - which is good because a thick stock generally ensures that used copies will likely have stood the test of time and use (mine is old, but in very good condition) - is broken into 8 sections (that range from retrospectives, to personalities, to techniques (most of which are just as applicable to today's digital world as they are to the analog world they were spawned in), to photojournalism, to careers, to history. There are also short but interesting color and black&white portfolios.

There are articles by Margaret Bourke-White, Ansel Adams, W. Eugene Smith (on Dorothea Lange), and Beaumont Newhall; essays on Andre Kertesz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Robert Capa, Arnold Newman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Weegee (among a host of others); retrospectives on the early years of photojournalism; early "debates" on the differences between snapshots and "real" images, and speculations on "what makes a good photograph?" (that are typically deeper and more probing than many of today's sound-bit bits of "wisdom"); and essays on emerging technologies like holography (one article had the prescient audacity to ask, by its title, "Holography - Is It Art? ;-). To give you an idea of the loving detail most essays provide (in stark contrast to the "we'll give you all you need to know in a moment or less of your time" approach followed by most of today's glossy-magazine editors), an essay on Arnold Newman (first published in November 1973) runs 8 pages and contains 6 images (including a wonderful full-page reproduction of his famous portrait of Picasso); the essays on Alfreed Stieglitz (published in September 1946) and Cartier-Bresson (published in May 1967) run 8 pages each and contain 7 and 3 reproductions, respectively; and the one on Paul Strand that appeared in April 1972 runs a full 12 pages (with small type!) and contains 7 reproductions. A mini-course on portrait lighting - again, just as relevant today as in 1973 when first published - runs 11 pages and contains more useful information that most of today's magazines seem to publish collectively over the course of year.

An added bonus in this anthology is a sprinkling of pages in which yesteryear products and advertisements appear. You can read about what the Polaroid Land Camera cost in 1949 ($87.75), the "new Leningrad" SLR from Russia in 1958,  and the Polaroid SX-70 (introduced in 1972). The book concludes with a useful index of all authors and pages on which discussions about a particular photographer appear. Pages 91-103 contain the results of a 1958 international poll  (of 243 critics, teachers, editors, art directors, consultants, and photographers) on the world's "10 greatest photographers." I'd give away the results of this poll, but that would be spoil the fun;-)

This anthology is highly recommended, for reference, for consultation, or simple joy of reading with a warm drink in hand in your favorite easy chair on a cozy rainy Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Yesteryear Versions of Today's Magazines - Part 1

Continuing on with my recently started series of discussing / reviewing photography-related books that are a bit "off the beaten" path (i.e., not necessarily those that one would find on shelves at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble store but which would be of interest to the dedicated photographer), we introduce the first of two anthologies of magazines that are still around but containing articles once published a generation (or more) ago.

The first is Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952-1976, edited by Peter C. Bunnell and published by Aperture (the second will be revealed in my next post). As the title suggests, Aperture was founded in 1952, and counted among its founders such luminaries as Minor White, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Dody Weston Thompson, Nancy Newhall and Beaumont Newhall. Inspired, at the time, by the memory of Alfred Steiglitz's long defunct Camera Work (published by Stieglitz from 1903 to 1917), the original incarnation of Aperture continued Camera Work's devotion to quality reproductions, and added a generous bounty of thoughtful essays, commentaries, and reviews. Aperture's appearance coincided with an important crossroad at which fine-art photography found itself at that time, which in a sense mirrored a similar crossroad met head-on by Camera Work. Camera Work was conceived as a publishing vehicle to establish - and promote - photography as something more than "just" a mechanical means to mechanical means of reproducing "images out there, in front of a lens" (see Photo Secession); i.e. it sought nothing less than to establish photography as a fine art. Arguably, and in almost all important respects, it succeeded laudably in this goal. 

When Aperture arrived, some 35 years later, the "fine art" of photography had again come under assault. But this time - ironically - not because people did not accept photography as a bona-fide art form (the efforts of Stieglitz, Adams, Weston, and others had made sure of that!), but rather because so many simultaneous channels of expression had arisen in the intervening years - from the social-documentary-style that came into vogue in the 1930s to the new photojournalism introduced by Life in the 1940s to a new breed of photography that is now called "street photography" and honed to early perfection by Henri Cartier-Bresson - that the focus on "fine art" photography, for its own sake, had started to wane. And so, by the time Aperture arrived in 1952, the photographic world was ripe for a renewed discussion of photography as art.

Under White's editorship, all of the important fundamental questions one might expect to be asked of a still nascent "fine art" medium were asked and discussed, at length, by some of that bygone era's greatest masters. What is the creative potential of photography? What is the relationship between photography and art? What is the relationship between text and image? Is fine-art photography something that can be taught, and, if so, what is the best way to do so? What is the role of criticism? And so on.

Included in the 40 reprinted essays (by such masters as Adams, Newhall, Wynn Bullock, Aaron Siskind, Carl Chiarenza, and Frederick Sommer, among others) are 14 essays by White himself, making this an indispensable resource for admirers of Minor White and his philosophy of photography as a spiritually infused creative medium (a group to which I unabashedly admit my membership). The collection also includes a complete index of articles appearing in Aperture magazine from 1952 to 1976. Since (IMHO, and as I've written a few words about before) later versions of Aperture - beginning with perhaps the very first issue published after White's departure (he died in 1976), and including the run through the most recent issues - took the magazine onto a vastly different - dissonant even - path from the one it would have likely followed had it still been under White's leadership, those readers and photographers who - like me - feel a certain revulsion to the "shock element" that characterizes so much of today's "art photography," will cherish the timeless wisdom of a bygone era contained in this book. My only lament is that this anthology is not (yet?) available as an eBook.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Perception and Imaging

"My earlier writings dealt with some of the technical aspects of photography. Recent writing attempts to integrate information from other disciplines and relate it directly to the understanding of photographs in particular and to pictures in general. Each discipline has its own vocabulary in dealing with philosophical issues such as truth, reality, and values . . . my interest is to build conceptual linkages among various disciplines by utilizing pictures . . . What is the visual equivalent of linguistic terms such as metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche?" - Richard Zakia (1925 - 2012)

I mentioned in my blog entry that I'd like to devote some attention to discussing / reviewing some photography-related books that are a bit "off the beaten" path; i.e., books that are not necessarily something one would find on shelves at the the soon-to-be-closed Barnes and Noble store but which would be of interest to the dedicated photographer.

So, to start off this series, I enthusiastically point kind readers to a new edition of Richard Zakia's Perception and Imaging (scheduled to be released on March 22, though this last edition does not appear to be much different from the previous one, at least judging by page count and the available description. But whichever edition is the object of focus, this is certainly a book that anyone interested in exploring the visual, psychological, and philosophcial dimensions of photography will want to spend some time with. The second edition (from 2001) is available for less than $10! Indeed, even the earliest available version from 1975, which I own and still treasure, is a treat despite measuring in at less than half the size of its latest incarnation (and is also available on Amazon for 3!). Sadly, since Mr. Zakia died in 2012, this will be the last edition (at least authored solely by him) to appear in print.

Richard (born Rashid Elisha) Zakia is considered by many to be one of the great photography teachers of his generation in the United States. Having graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1956 - and enjoying classmates such as Carl Chiarenza, Peter Bunnell, Bruce Davidson, Ken Josephson, Pete Turner, and Jerry Uelsmann (along with Minor White and Beaumont Newhall as teachers) - Zakia began his career as an engineer at Eastman Kodak before returning to RIT where he stayed on as professor for 34 years. At one time or another, he was Director of Instructional Research and Development, Chair of the Fine Art Photography Department and graduate program in Imaging Arts, and, in later years, professor Emeritus. In all, he authored and co-authored thirteen books on photography and perception, co-edited (along with Leslie Stroebel) the third (1993) edition of The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (and contributed to the fourth edition in 2007, my review of which appeared shortly after it was released), and, immediately prior to completing his last book, co-authored a book on Teaching Photography with Dr. Glen Rand.

While all of Zakia's books are worth reading and studying, it is his Perception and Imaging that I come back to again and again. Partly to relearn some fascinating theories and approaches, partly to just marvel at this extraordinary encyclopedic cornucopia of wisdom; and partly to just be inspired by the collection of quotes and insights so lovingly chosen and inserted in the margins to accompany the main text.

A mere list of chapter headings indicates the sweeping breadth of subject matter, though hardly does justice to the depth of coverage or the elegance of presentation: figure-ground theory; gestalt; memory and association; space, time, and color; contours; illusion and ambiguity; morphics; personality; subliminals; critiquing photographs; and rhetoric. This is not a "poetic" book on photography - that is, it spends little or no time on describing or probing Minor-White-like "Zen" musings about photography (though it does provide a great introductory discussion of Stielitz's and White's "equivalents" and even has more than a few cogent words to say about synesthesia, a subject close to my own heart! - rather, Zakia's book is mainly about what its title says, perception and imaging. 

It teaches you all about how to better see the world, how to better understand how you see, and how to exploit how the world appears to us in designing ways to communicate what we see to others. It also fosters a deep appreciation of the myriad layers of perceptual meaning and ambiguity. Strictly speaking, it cannot even be said that the book is "about" photography at all, since it touches on so many different aspects of art, composition, design, and presentation. But to all those photographers who like to both feel and think about their art - and are interested in exploring ways to take their photographic "eye" to a higher level of appreciation and understanding - this is a book to treasure! Highly recommended.