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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Holiday Gift Books

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

We just finished having the downstairs of our house painted and my knee hurts. It hurts because of all the time I spent lugging books upstairs to my office, or downstairs to the basement, so the painters could paint the bookshelves in the living room and dining room.

And not just any books. We have comparatively few paperbacks. As an author I love big hardcovers, and as a photographer I love first quality (and most often heavy as lead) photography books.

Though my left knee probably would love the idea of a virtual library, electronically shoehorned into a Palm Pilot, the rest of me rebels at this.

I love books. I love to read them. I love to write them. I love to get them. I love their heft. I love their feel. I love their smell. Bill Gates and a generation of computer geeks notwithstanding, there is something about the palpable, sensual "bookness" of a book that always will trump the impersonal pull of a personal computer.

So, as we approach the holidays, I naturally gravitate to those books that have thrilled, excited or perplexed me over the past year in order to share them with you.

While there is no accounting for taste, as the saying goes, I guarantee that at least one of the following will knock your socks off and make a wonderful present this holiday season:

*CHANGING PARIS: A Tour Along the Seine. Photographs by Philip Trager (Arena Editions; 64 bxw duotones; $60)

This beautifully seen and lushly printed love poem to the City of Light grew out of Phil Trager's longtime affinity for Paris and reflects his meticulous style and unerring visual taste. In an interview, Phil noted that Paris is rare among modern cities in its ability to juxtapose the new with the old – and to do so with verve. Critics may not always agree – inevitably, some will view I.M. Pei's pyramidal additions to the venerable Louvre Museum as an outrage – but there is no denying that this glorious city embraces change while revering the past.

[Interestingly, Trager told me he had just appeared on a panel about architecture in which one participant made that same point about Washington, D.C.]

Trager uses the River Seine as the armature for his book, concentrating on the buildings that line this storied waterway, and often composes his images to include both old and new with remarkable success. That Trager's black-and-white duotones show tremendous detail should come as no surprise since he shot his seven-year project with his trusty quarter-century-old Sinar 4x5 view camera, alternating between Kodak's T-Max 100 and 400. At times, for panorama shots, Trager tried out a Horseman roll film back on his Sinar that gave him excellent results because of its ability to hold the roll film perfectly flat. Working in large format is tiring: setting up the camera is hard enough; waiting for the exact light is no picnic either. But physically lugging the camera from place to place is what takes its toll. "I'd get so exhausted," Phil said, "that I broke the cardinal rule of any photographer." At the end of a day, and too tired to lug 40 pounds of gear back to the hotel, " I'd go to a bar and ask if they could lock [the equipment] up with the beer and wine at night."

Happily, the gear always was there in the morning.

[Note: one indication of how successful Trager has been in capturing this jewel of a city is that he soon will be given a three-month exhibition of the platinum/palladium prints from this project at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris. Such an honor is rare for an American, much less a living American, and Phil was justifiably proud of it.]

*PLACES OF POWER. Photographs by John Sexton (Ventana Editions; 83 bxw duotones; $60)

If a beautifully produced book is a wonderful way to see a photographer's work, seeing that same work simultaneously in huge exhibition prints at a glitzy showplace like New York's Edward Carter Gallery in SoHo is even better.

And even better than holding the book while seeing the prints in the gallery may be chatting with the photographer on his cell phone while all of this is happening.

It's good to be a photography columnist.

I had known John Sexton's work for years – in fact, his classic book Quiet Light is on my list of all-time favorite photography books: a gentle symphony of landscape and still life, all exquisitely printed in black and white. We had met briefly in Maine some years ago. But I was unprepared for the aesthetic leap John has made with his latest effort. [And I had forgotten, too, what a generous teacher he is, as attested to by the voluminous picture notes and other technical writing at the end of his book..]

Places of Power is really four separate photo essays: on the Anasazi cliff dwellings in the Southwest, the Hoover Dam, Power Plants, and finally, the Space Shuttle. The connection is not obvious at first, though one is aware immediately that the photographs work beautifully together.

"The attraction of these seemingly disparate subjects," Sexton writes in an introduction, "lay both in the beauty of the objects – the sculptural aesthetics of functional form – and in the story of the technological achievements of humanity through time."

Everything here, from the cliff huts all the way to the shuttle console, reflects "the soul of human creativity and ingenuity that lives in the form of these functional structures."

I have rarely seen such beautiful images of industry – including the landmark work of Alfred Stieglitz, Lewis Hine and Walker Evans. The images are so beautifully printed that they seem to leap from the page – and Sexton's lengthy description of how he achieves such luminosity is worth the book's asking prices all by itself.

One priceless anecdote: Sexton was sure the rumble and vibration in one huge power plant turbine room would ruin any long-exposure view camera shots he made. But as he discovered to his great relief, "the camera, the turbine, and the building were vibrating in synchronization, and the negatives were tack sharp."

*MATT MAHURIN. Photographs by Matt Mahurin (Twin Palms Publishers; 44 sheet-fed gravures; $60)

The polar opposite of the outgoing teacher that is John Sexton may be the introspective and taciturn artist that is Matt Mahurin. What each has going for him, though, is monumental talent.

Mahurin lives in New York and has earned entire separate reputations as an illustrator and a music video director. He may be best known to the lay public as the guy who made O.J. Simpson look really, really guilty on the cover of Time Magazine in 1994 – a cover that ultimately prompted a public apology from the magazine. That computer-enhanced mugshot of the ex-football great and accused murderer exemplified Mahurin's talent for producing dark, disturbing imagery, often based on photography.

But in Matt Mahurin, his second book for Twin Palms, the photographer has pulled together a mesmerizing collection that doesn't need any manipulation to be effective.

"All the images are just straight," Mahurin told me, "no digital anything. [They are] prints from negatives, on paper."

And what images they are. Not since Diane Arbus have I been so moved, disturbed, or stimulated by one body of work. The pictures span 14 years, from 1984-98, and can best be described as black-and-white street photography: two suspects in leather jackets handcuffed to a rail; a little boy (I think) dressed as a clown and squatting on a tile floor, looking both cute and menacing; a black cat staring into the camera through a ruined face. The sheet-fed gravure process means that this book was produced slowly, using far more ink, on elegant uncoated stock. The images resemble platinum prints, with their velvet blacks and rich shadow detail.

There is absolutely no text. And Mahurin would not discuss with me the content or background of his pictures, preferring, he said, to preserve their "mystery." Whether I agree with that view is immaterial; the pictures are wonderful.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Changing Paris by Philip Trager.

Matt Mahurin by Matt Mahurin

Places of Power
Places of Power by John Sexton

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Photographing Castro's Cuba-Fascination and Frustration

'Magical' Pix With Hassy's SWC/M

The Perfect Camera System

The Odd Genius Who Froze Motion

The Day I Shot Aaron and DiMaggio

When Technology Weakens Technique

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