Fall 2007 Book Reviews
by Peter Brown
The Nature of Photographs
Phaidon Press Limited, New York, 2007
136 pages, $35
The photographer Stephen Shore (Uncommon Places, American Spaces, The Gardens at Giverny) has written an unexpected and interesting book, which he subtitles A Primer. It's a photographic grammar of sorts published initially in the mid-ninetiesby Johns Hopkins Press. Last May, Phaidon reissued it in an expanded and updated edition.
The book itself is subtle, beautiful and useful. It is relatively small; its cover understated; its typewriter-like font unassuming and its pages filled with a gallery of astonishingly well-reproduced photographs. These pictures both illustrate and in some ways run counterpoint to Shore's analytic text. The book's design includes a good deal of white space, and the images (which run from anonymous pictures, to Watkins, to Evans, to Struth) breathe easily - both as stand-ins for ideas, and resonant in their own right.
John Szarkowski's 1966 book The Photographer's Eye apparently inspired the idea for The Nature of Photographs, and there are certain parallels. The book's initial purpose was relatively simple: to introduce Shore's students to the qualities photographs inherently possess. And as an introduction to the basic properties of photographic images, I know of no book published recently which compares. It deals with a body of thought conventional photographic texts gloss over, and it would make sense to publish a paperback edition for classroom use.
Although clearly written, The Nature of Photographs is not light fare, and I often found myself rereading passages. The prose is spare and unemotional and the book does often come across as a primer. Succinctly, Shore thinks of photographic images as possessing three distinct levels: The Physical, The Depictive and The Mental. Although these particular terms would not have occurred to me in this context, they serve well.
In Shore's lexicon, The Physical Level refers to the actual stuff of the photograph - the kind of print, the backing, whether it's black and white or color, the size - the object itself. The Depictive Level refers to the photographer's decision making process, as well as the viewer's interpretation of these decisions: vantage point, framing, timing and focus. The Mental Level comes into play with the transition of the image on the wall or on the page - wherever the photograph is encountered - to its new residence in a viewer's mind. While all of this may seem a bit self-evident, the detail that Shore goes into is not, and there is much to consider.
He is clear about what the book is and what it is not. He does not deal with content or meaning - which for most of us is central to the enjoyment of a photograph. On the contrary, he plays his own responses to the images in the book remarkably close to the vest. "The aim of this book," he writes, "...is not to explore photographic content but to describe physical and formal attributes of a photographic print that form the tools a photographer uses to define and interpret that content."1 Within these boundaries, the book is clear and often illuminating.
It would be fascinating to see Shore take on a second book, one that might parallel Szarkowski's Looking At Photographs - a classic in speculative content. I'd be interested to hear what Shore has to say about the reading of images, about photographic narrative. Perhaps he feels, as some do, that photographs should stay word free - luxuriating in silence. In this case of course there would be little to write. But, either an essay debunking interpretive thought, or a second beautifully illustrated book, would find many readers.
by Miranda Lash
Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007
184 pages, $50.00
Time and rupture are central themes in the work of JoAnn Verburg. In her diptychs, triptychs, and series of photographs, a story is told in the gaps between each picture. In 3x Jim (1989), for example, we are given three portraits of the same man, each seemingly reflecting a distinct moment in his thought process. Each portrait has the ability to function independently, yet they are unified into a single composition. The division of this moment into three frames emphasizes the time spent as the eye moves over the scene, resting on different snatches of reality, while the brain formulates an overall impression. The result is an experience that teeters between a narrative and a fragment of memory. This sense of rupture, Susan Kismaric argues, comes not only from the breaks between the picture frames, but from the distance emphasized between the viewer and the interiority of the sitter. The pauses, she claims, echo our inability to transcend our "fundamental aloneness" (26).
In her exhibition catalog Present Tense: Photographs by JoAnn Verburg, Kismaric, curator of photography at MoMA, focuses on three series by Verburg: black and white portraits from the early 1980s, still lifes and portraits of her husband Jim from 1991 to 2003, and photographs of olive trees from 1995 forward. Taking the reader through Verburg's biography, we learn that time and rupture were central concerns in her artistic development. Her MA thesis exhibition at George Eastman House, entitled "Locations in Time," incorporated work by photographers, including John Baldessari and Aleksandr Rodchenko, who dealt with temporality through serial frames. In her "Rephotographic Survey Project" done in collaboration with Mark Klett and Ellen Manchester in 1977, Verburg retraces the steps of the American landscape photographers William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan. Taking pictures at the same locations as her predecessors, the irreversible effects of settlement in the West become clear through comparisons between Jackson and Verberg's photographs.
Kismaric, using ample quotes from the artist, does an admirable job of probing Verberg's ruptures, as they relate to types of personal disconnect, and as they pertain to Verberg's interest in "a world outside the frame" (28). The plates in the catalog also play with Verburg's idea of repetition and interruption: they offer multiple views of the same work, views of the work installed, and large details spread across the book binding. What could be probed further, however, is how Verburg's depictions of everyday moments are arguments in themselves about how reality can be selectively represented and even heightened. Kismaric makes a key mistake in arguing that Verburg's "ultimate subject" is "the creation of non-theatrical space that functions as a threshold to experience" (12). In First Day Back in Italy (Pisa), 1998, Verburg's attention to composition, accomplished through the startling closeness of fruit and crumpled paper, accents of color, and the positioning of the sitter in the background, evokes a theatre tableau. Verburg's life-size prints, figure poses, and sharp, vivid focuses, convey, but also poeticize human experience. Through her subject matter is quotidian, her technique elevates the moment into something exceptional.
The corresponding exhibition is on view at The Museum of Modern Art July 15 through November 5, 2007 and at the Walker Art Center January 12 through April 20, 2008.