Thursday, August 8, 2013

Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work: A Pictorial Guide

Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work
A Pictorial Guide
Edited by Marianna Fulton Margolis.

This book is intended as a more or less academic index to the pictures in Alfred Stieglitz' seminal quarterly "Camera Work", published from 1903 to 1917 over a total of 50 issues. The present book contains all 559 pictures reproduced in that periodical, in chronological order. They are neatly indexed, and contain some somewhat compressed but useful notes on such things as the reproduction method used (in the original) for each picture. There are some opening notes that give some context, and which explain the system of notation throughout. At the end several indices are found: By artist, by title, and by sitter.

I am personally not terribly interested in this book itself, although it is clearly a useful and important resource for the relevant historians. I am interested in the book for the pictures it contains. It takes almost no research whatsoever to learn that "Camera Work" is among the most important bodies of work in the history of photography, especially photography as art. Even in the broader context of Art as Art, it is not an unimportant body of work, as it brought forth not only a great body of photography but also other works by Matisse, Rodin, and Picasso (at least).

My edition of this book has four pictures per page, on a pretty big page, which yields pictures perhaps 3 to 5 inches on a side. The reproductions in this book are also suspiciously similar looking in their renditions. Whether this simply reflects the aesthetic of "Camera Work" itself, or is in part the result of some of the pre-press handling of the pictures for this book, I do not venture to guess. Regardless, this is not really a book to get for the quality of the reproductions. They are adequate, but not excellent. Happily, most of the pictures in here are superb enough to stand up well in spite of less than perfect reproduction. The stylistic choices made by the artists are perfectly clear. Some hint of the various photographic processes used in the originals comes through, enough to get the flavor of it. Seeing some originals, by way of giving you some visual information to fill in the gaps, as it were, would do you no harm. But, as a for instance, I had no trouble instantly recognizing the work for Frederick Evans, even though no platinum was used in these reproductions.

The book's very compactness lets the reader quickly skim the entire body of work represented by "Camera Work", which is a very useful and interesting experiment to perform. What strikes me most about the work is the small evidence of progression. Much has been made of Stieglitz' evolution as a photographer and an editor, but it is frankly not particularly apparent in this book. There is some evolution. Surely some evolution is obscured by the non-chronological nature of the works presented, the magazine would back-track from time to time, to show us older work. Nonetheless, there is, to my eye always greater variation between the artists shown than between the early issues and the late. A few ideas drop out over time, there are no heavily manipulated negatives, no masses of scratches, by the later issues, for instance. For the most part, though, a great breadth of excellent work is shown, and the excellent work in 1917 was not all that visually different from the excellent work in 1903.

The lone exception, and it is an exception, is that Paul Strand's work dominates the end. The last issue (possible several issues?) were all Paul Strand. This does not strike the reader as particularly the endpoint of an evolution, but rather another radical leap in a new direction, similar to the magazine's reproductions of paintings and so on. Strand's work is almost completely different from almost everything else in the periodical. It's possible, though, that this last stage has been viewed as the last stage of a natural evolution. It's even possible that it is, and that the other stages are simply not clear to me.

Readers with suitable backgrounds will already know that "Camera Work" was a major outlet for Pictorialists. The magazine published dozens of portraits inspired by Rembrandt, and dozens of scenes inspired by JWM Turner. Not all the pictures in "Camera Work" look like paintings, but a lot of them do. What's missing, happily, is the worst of the Victorian sentiment.

This is, to my eye, the "good stuff" of the Pictorialist aesthetic. Photographs that look like paintings, nothing more, nothing less. Good photographs, not crummy fake looking messes.

They're really pretty good.

They look almost nothing like anything being shot today.

Buy this book! It's cheap, and good, and will be a wonderful addition to your library, caveats indicated above.

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