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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Great Photography Books: A Dinner Table Debate

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

On a chill winter's night recently – when Judy and I, miraculously, were not shooting a wedding – a group of friends gathered around our dinner table to talk photography.

There were four couples in attendance that night and those of us who were not professional photographers had significant ties to the business, either professionally or personally.

The crowd joining Judy and me were: Judy and Peter Garfield, Peter being the well-known corporate and fine-art shooter; Barbara Tyroler and her husband and partner David Cooper, (Barbara's a University of Maryland photography instructor and commercial photographer), and Linda and Richard Pelletier. Richard is the Washington area rep for Eastman Kodak Company's Professional Services Division. As the last of the lamb shanks were picked clean and the final glasses of wine drained, I posed a dessert topic with the 100% selfish idea that I would turn what followed into a column.

"What are your favorite photography books of all time?" I asked.

That stopped conversation pretty effectively – but only because everyone had begun to seriously mull the photography books that had most affected them over the years. And the results we came up with provide, I think, a good (if partial) primer for anyone seeking to learn about photography by looking at great pictures.

[Note: I found it fascinating to compare this list with my own highly personal list of favorites that I published in this column more than eight years ago. For one thing, the new list contained virtually all black and white photography; my 1992 listing contained four books out of 12 that were in color. In addition, the new list of nine all-time great photo books featured the work of only one woman, Diane Arbus. In 1992, Arbus was on the list also, but she was joined by Linda Butler.]

If the following dinner table listing of great books has a timeworn feeling of Golden Oldies, it's because most of the books we chose – like the photographers who made them – have withstood passing fads and fancies. Each is a true classic. The newer ones have what all of us believe to be the stuff of greatness as well.

In no particular order – this was, after all, a dinner party, and the wine was really, really good – we picked the following:

1. MOMENTS PRESERVED by Irving Penn. (Simon & Schuster, 1960) This book is out of print, as are many of the ones that follow, so it may best be seen in the fine arts section of a good library. Penn, as I have written before, is modern photography's Renaissance Man – capable of shooting anything and anyone, from cigarette butts to fashion models, in color and black and white. Trained also as an artist, Penn has been making gorgeous photographs for decades, and has a new book coming out this year. I would add my own additional vote for Penn's gorgeous book, Passage (Knopf /Callaway1991), which is a superbly printed retrospective of this great photographer's varied work.

2. AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS by Walker Evans. Essay by Lincoln Kirstein. (Museum of Modern Art, 1938) This out-of-print classic is the standard by which most collections of Evans's work are measured. Evans is one of my heroes, not only for his Depression-era documentary work, but for his beautifully seen landscape and architectural photography as well. Fans of this enigmatic and highly articulate photographer also should consider Walker Evans First and Last (Harper & Row, 1978) as well as two current and very different "biographies": Unclassified/A Walker Evans Anthology (Scalo, 2000) that accompanied the recent Evans show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the superbly printed Walker Evans: The Lost Work (Arena Editions, 2000). Unclassified is extremely valuable for reproducing pages of Evans's own manuscripts, as well as contact sheets from some of his better-known work. The Lost Work is wonderful simply because it draws on so much Evans work that was unpublished, twinning it with sensitive, perceptive text from Evans scholars Belinda Rathbone and Clark Worswick. And, typical of books from Arena Editions, the reproduction is magnificent.

3. SUDEK by Josef Sudek. Text by Sonja Bullaty. (Clarkson Potter, 1978) Sudek, a Czech, was a superb documentarian in the tradition of Andre Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson. His photographs capture his native Czechoslovakia, especially the capital city of Prague, one of my favorite cities in the world.

4. DIANE ARBUS – An Aperture Monograph. (25th Anniv. Ed., 1997) One of the most famous books in modern photography history, it rightly cemented Arbus's place among the craft's giants. Though her bxw medium-format depictions of people on society's fringes once earned her the moniker "Wizard of Odds," Arbus's was a gentle, if unblinking, eye that never was cruel. She spawned numerous imitators. (Not as well known as her stark documentary work is her earlier magazine and fashion work, done with her then-husband and partner Allan Arbus. In the years following Diane's suicide in 1971 at age 48, Allan pursued an acting career and won fame on the hit comedy M*A*S*H as the pragmatic, sensitive Army shrink, Dr. Stanley Friedman.) Their daughter Amy Arbus is now a first-rate fine art and editorial photographer. See also: Patricia Bosworth's sympathetic, well-researched Diane Arbus: A Biography (Knopf, 1984).

5. ARNOLD NEWMAN and PHILIPPE HALSMAN: As it happened, both photographers – each a legendary portraitist – had had recent museum retrospectives in Washington and the dinner table consensus was that the catalogs to both shows deserved inclusion here. That certainly is true of Halsman: A Retrospective (Bulfinch, 1998), but I am going to overrule the panel on the huge Newman catalog. Why? Because I think with a few exceptions – his color portraits of arms maker Alfried Krupp and master builder Robert Moses – Newman's work is much stronger in black and white. Therefore his earlier, bxw book One Mind's Eye (Godine, 1974) is a better, and better-edited, selection of Newman's superb photography.

7. THE AMERICANS by Robert Frank. Introduction by Jack Kerouac (Scalo, 1998) A beautiful new edition of this classic and seminal work of photojournalism and documentary photography. The Swiss-born Frank's book of stark, gritty bxw images is simply a must-have for photographers hoping to capture the world around them. Frank's 1950s odyssey across the U.S. was paid for by a Guggenheim Foundation grant to reflect "a European eye look[ing] at the United States." Note to potential grant-seekers: Among Frank's big-ticket sponsors when he applied for his Guggenheim were Walker Evans and Edward Steichen.

8. HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON (Any edition of his work) No other photographer has so consistently captured telling gesture, composition and detail in his photographs as has the legendary HC-B. He defines the "decisive moment," caught by what critic/historian Beaumont Newhall called "the velvet hand; the hawk's eye." Of all the editions of his work, one of my favorites is a small paperback Photographs By Cartier-Bresson (Grossman, 1963).

9. WORKERS: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age by Sebastiao Salgado. (Aperture, 1993) Salgado, the youngest member of this distinguished group has spent years documenting the world's have-nots and wanderers. This book is his take on how manual laborers and others are being victimized in an ever-more mechanical, mercenary world. The bxw images are stunning.

So there you have the fruits of our dinner table debate. But I can't leave without adding three more titles that came to me after Judy and I had bade everyone farewell and done the dishes:

1. ROY DeCARAVA: A RETROSPECTIVE (Museum of Modern Art, 1996) The only African American on the list, DeCarava long has been a favorite of mine for his evocative bxw pictures of his (and my) native New York of the 50s and 60s. His image "Ellington Session Break, 1954" – a serene, almost abstract, picture of two seated men in a rehearsal hall flanking a coat rack – is one I can look at forever.

2. STEAM, STEEL and STARS, Photographs by O. Winston Link. (Abrams, 1987) This mad photographic genius and railroad buff documented the last days of America's steam engines in gloriously composed and painstakingly lit view camera tableaus that literally required hundreds of flashbulbs (that's right, bulbs) and miles of wire. God bless him, these are beautiful, bizarre pictures.

3. YOSEMITE AND THE RANGE OF LIGHT by Ansel Adams. (New York Graphic Society, 1979) Imitated but rarely equaled, America's premier bxw landscape photographer combines technical mastery, superb composition and unequaled printing skills in this collection of his most famous, most majestic, Yosemite images. Looking at these pictures is like going to church.

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.


Frank Van Riper Archive:

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A Whole Lotta Shakin' Can Improve Your Pix

Pat Fisher's Stamp of Approval

The Frustrating Genius of Edward Steichen

Stephen King, Photography Teacher

Pulitzer Pictures: Capturing the Moment


 Van Riper on Van Riper



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