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March 09 2012

The month in photography – audio slideshow

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring William Eggleston, Weegee, Tim Hetherington, Ryan McGinley and Eve Arnold



January 06 2012

The month in photography – audio slideshow

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Pieter Hugo, Eve Arnold, William Eggleston, Don McCullin and Annie Leibovitz



October 29 2011

Britain's photographic revolution

The big art institutions here are finally catching up with their American counterparts, with a new photography gallery at the V&A, increased prominence at the Tate and exciting plans elsewhere. We asked four leading curators about the state of the art

The September issue of the art magazine Frieze ran a glossary of "keywords" in contemporary art and culture. Under "Photography" the compilers wrote: "The first photograph was produced in 1826. In 2009 Tate advertised the following job for the first time: Curator (Photography and International Art). Discuss." The question invited was: why had it taken so long for photography to be viewed as a serious art form in Britain? The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, appointed its first curator of photography, Beaumont Newhall, in 1940.

There are wider cultural and historical reasons why America embraced photography so enthusiastically while Britain did not. The relatively new, technologically driven medium was ideally suited to the fast-forward momentum of American life in the early-to-mid 20th century and to capturing the country's vast natural landscapes and the towering architecture of its cities. Britain's relationship with photography was less open-minded, more suspicious, more retrospective. We tended for too long to look back, acknowledging photography's masters, from Atget to Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt to Robert Frank, in celebratory exhibitions that were staged in Britain long after they had been safely canonised elsewhere.

Major London galleries such as the Whitechapel, Barbican and the Hayward have hosted monographic and group photography shows over the past four decades while both the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery have extensive collections and regularly hold exhibitions pertaining to their remit as historical institutions. But for far too long, photography in this country was on the outskirts of the art world, dogged by the accusation that it was too instant and effortless to be real art. That began to change in the early 1990s with big groundbreaking London shows such as the Barbican's William Eggleston retrospective, Ancient and Modern, but it's worth remembering that the Tate's first major photography exhibition was the group show Cruel and Tender, in 2003.

In the past decade, though, things have changed dramatically. In 2000 Wolfgang Tillmans became the first photographer to be nominated for the Turner prize, which he subsequently won. Since then, photography has become big business on the global art market. In 2007 Andreas Gursky, the master of high-end, epic, contemporary landscape photography, sold a single print, 99 Cent II Diptychon, for £1.7m at Sotheby's in London. It displaced Edward Steichen's The Pond – Moonlight, made in 1904, as the single most expensive photograph. That record has since been broken twice, first by the conceptual artist Richard Prince, whose Untitled (Cowboy) fetched just over £2m in November 2007, and then by Cindy Sherman's Untitled #96, which sold for almost £2.5m at Christie's New York in May this year.

A host of new private galleries dealing in contemporary photography has sprung up around London, including Brancolini Grimaldi and Diemar/Noble in central London and Michael Hoppen in Chelsea. Both Flowers galleries (Kingsland Road and Cork Street) regularly show photographers, as does Timothy Taylor, Riflemaker and Haunch of Venison, while Victoria Miro has recently shown work by William Eggleston and Francesca Woodman.

Two of the most critically acclaimed and well attended shows of this year have been the Whitechapel's retrospectives of Paul Graham and Thomas Struth, two photographers who have worked quietly and determinedly on their bodies of often difficult works over the past three decades.

The culture around photography – festivals, book publishing and selling, workshops, websites and prizes – has grown exponentially, making London a centre of contemporary photographic practice. Finally…

Inevitably, if belatedly, the major art institutions have responded in kind. Last week the Victoria & Albert unveiled its new Photographs Gallery, a permanent space to show highlights from its extraordinary collection, chronicling the history of photography from 1839 to the 1960s. Ironically, the exhibition harks back to a time when London embraced what was then a revolutionary new medium that threatened to make painting a thing of the past. The V&A was the first museum to collect photography and, in 1858, to exhibit photographic prints. The oldest photograph on display in the new gallery is a daguerreotype of Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square by an anonymous photographer, and many of the pioneering giants of photography, from Margaret Cameron to Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray to Irving Penn, are represented. What's more, the exhibition will be re-curated every 18 months to show off the scale of the museum's archive of original prints.

"We play to our strengths," says curator Martin Barnes, "which, in photography, is the fine print. We are not showing the history of photography, nor charting a chronological story with examples along a linear trajectory, but nevertheless the collection is deep enough that the historical reach will always be evident in the exhibition."

Over at Tate Modern, photography curator Simon Baker's remit is perhaps more tricky, not least because it's a contemporary art gallery rather than a museum. Since his appointment in 2009 he has overseen last year's big group show, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, as well as recent shows of new work by the young American photographer Taryn Simon and Britain's Simon Norfolk. Next year, William Klein and Daido Moriyamo will face off in a big show that traces their overlapping approaches and influences.

Currently, Tate Modern has three rooms devoted to Diane Arbus, and five of new documentary work by the likes of Boris Mikhailov, Mitch Epstein and Luc Delahaye. Here, contemporary practice in all its forms would seem to be the defining strand, alongside an ongoing appreciation of more recent masters.

"It is important to say that we are not trying to build a photography department that is separate," says Baker. "We try to keep the photography displays integrated with all the other media, but also keep our ideas integrated. I'm always working on a broader context, which is that we are a contemporary art gallery."

Baker's appointment, he says, was part of "a bigger strategic decision by the Tate to engage more with photography. But it's also a reflection of the fact that the old distinctions between art photography and conceptual art are increasingly hard to maintain. In the 80s, the Tate tried to make that distinction. It bought photography by artists such as Cindy Sherman or Richard Long but didn't buy art by photographers. That distinction no longer applies. It's impossible to maintain and it should never have been there in the first place."

Britain has caught up with photography at the very moment that the nature of photography, as well as curatorship, is being questioned by digital culture. "People engage with photography in every aspect of their lives," says Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers' Gallery, currently closed for renovation but open again in early 2012. "Photography has become a very natural, even compulsive thing with the coming of the mobile phone camera and relatively cheap, hi-tech digital compacts. The democratisation of photography and distribution of photos via social networks has changed everything, and we, as curators, cannot simply stand back and ignore that."

Her response is to reopen next spring with not just an expanded gallery space for contemporary photography in print form, but with what she calls The Digital Wall For All. "People still need a quiet space to look deeply at photographs and to reflect on their form and content, but there is also this tsunami of images on the internet and we, as a contemporary gallery, have a role to play in somehow making sense of that." The Digital Wall, says Rogers, "will reflect the new ways of curating, editing and re-imaging" that the internet has spawned, and "will involve the public as co-producers of some of the work".

Perhaps the most intriguing new space for photography will be the Media Space, due to open in spring 2013 behind the Science Museum in Kensington. Linked to both the Science Museum and the National Media Museum in Bradford, the Media Space has seen British-born Charlotte Cotton tempted back from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be its creative director. Having served for 12 years at the V&A and then, briefly, at the Photographers' Gallery, Cotton's new job is an intriguing one. "We are at a point where everything is up for review," she says, "including the idea of what a cultural space should be doing at this moment of what you might call exhilarating crisis."

To this end, Cotton envisages the Media Space as more "a kunsthalle than a museum" and describes it most animatedly when she lists all the things it will not be. "I don't think anyone is waiting for the history of photography according to the National Media Museum." The Media Space, she says, will have private rooms and workshop spaces as well as exhibition spaces, and will view its audience as contributors to the vision rather than passive viewers. "It will be a place to discuss the new media in creative technologies in a non-institutionalised way. And it will be about how photography fits into that discussion rather than a photography gallery per se. I'm not particularly interested in fighting the battle to legitimise photography as an artform. That battle has, to a great degree, already been won."

It took an inordinately long time for that battle to be won in Britain. How curators now make sense of the brave new digital world, this unprecedented shift in our collective way of seeing – and mediating – reality in a world drowning in images, will be a defining question of the next decade.


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July 30 2011

Blackpool Through the Camera

Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool

Humphrey Spender and Julian Trevelyan were among the millions of visitors to Blackpool in the summer of 1937. They were not there, though, to partake of the myriad diversions on offer along Blackpool's fabled Golden Mile, but to observe ordinary Britons at play. Spender, a documentary film-maker, and Trevelyan, a collagist, were part of a team dispatched to Blackpool by the Mass Observation project, a social research organisation set up that year by three young men, which hoped, through its many volunteers, to create, in words, photography and film, "an anthropology of ourselves".

The Mass Observation team were drawn to Blackpool because it represented an ideal of the English working class at play. As early as 1920, Blackpool was by far the most popular British seaside resort, drawing eight million people annually in the summer months. It had a famous tower, three piers, an extra-long promenade, spectacular illuminations, all manner of amusements – from fortune-tellers to fairground attractions to tattooists – as well as the country's first Pleasure Beach. It also, crucially, had the railway, which brought the holidaying hordes from the prosperous industrial towns of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

By the late 1950s, Blackpool was attracting an estimated 17 million visitors a year, but, as the Beatles signalled the birth of the modern pop era and swept away the last vestiges of Victorian Britain, Blackpool began its long fall from grace. The decline of traditional industries and the birth of the package tour put paid to Blackpool's long pre-eminence as Britain's most popular holiday destination.

This week, the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool is hosting a group photography show entitled Mass Photography: Blackpool Through the Camera. The exhibition's title, and much of its observational reportage, nods towards Spender and Trevelyan and their fly-on-the wall approach, but it adds up to nothing less than a potted social history of Blackpool though the lens of some of Britain's greatest documentary photographers, including Bert Hardy, Tony Ray-Jones, Homer Sykes, Chris Steele-Perkins and Martin Parr.

The curator of the exhibition is a German video artist, Nina Könnemann, who previously edited a catalogue about Mass Observation and became intrigued by Spender and Trevelyan's Blackpool photographs. "What they actually did was walk around a bit like a tourist and photograph and observe what they saw, rather than, say, delving behind the scenes or going a bit deeper," she says. "Their photographs are literally observational and it made me start looking at similar approaches." This, then, is Blackpool as an idea and then a brand, a place that changes but somehow stays the same, that grapples with the weight of its own – and England's – former glory.

Though the show includes some Victorian photographs, its thrust is 20th-century Blackpool. Perhaps the most absorbing set of photographs come from the collection of ephemera amassed by the late Cyril Critchlow, a magician and founder of the "Witches Kitchen", a museum-cum-theatre where he performed in the years leading up to his death, at the age of 85, in 2008. (He was celebrated in the Blackpool Gazette as "the world's oldest magician".) The photographs he collected, or possibly even took, of Blackpool in the 1970s, are extraordinary for their faded colours and sense of the town's hustle and bustle. "They were a real find," says Könnemann. "Some are almost like William Eggleston's work in their composition."

I was taken too by local photographer Geoff Buono's series about the box office on Blackpool's south pier, all of which were taken from over the shoulder of the ticket seller inside the booth who, one suspects, is a man of infinite patience. Elsewhere, the gaze is more contemplative: the greatly underrated Homer Sykes, who is best known for his often witty images of Britain's more esoteric folk traditions, catches a glum girl eating ketchup-drenched chips outside a burger stall. She is wearing a hat that says "Sex Appeal" but she exudes that almost tangible sense of stoicism that a British seaside resort on a grey day instils in even the most optimistic souls.

What emerges from most of these images, which Könnemann has chosen not to display chronologically or even thematically, is the sense that Blackpool is a place forever in thrall to its own semi-mythical past. Here, the nostalgic and the brashly new constantly collide, yet there will always be plastic bowler hats and candyfloss on sale as well as somewhere to have your fortune told.

Könnemann's own video installation, which forms a kind of contemporary coda to the exhibition, plays with Blackpool's ongoing identity crisis in the form of a film comprising edited footage culled from VHS tapes of the annual illuminations event.

"Every year the local shops sell VHS cassettes and, more recently, DVDs, of the same footage with extra material." She elaborates: "In my installation, there is a sense of this continuous, cyclical loop that suggests this strange thing that is Blackpool time. It really is a place that relies on the past so much even as it tries to reinvent and remarket itself. You sense that same feeling in the photographs, too."

The most dramatic picture of Blackpool life on display is also the most contemporary, the least nostalgic. Maciej Dakowicz is a Polish photographer best known for his garish, colour photographs of Cardiff at closing time, wherein all human life in extremis is on display. Here, he turns his outsider's eye on contemporary Blackpool in a single startling image entitled simply A Saturday Night Out in Blackpool, 2010. Freeze-framed in the pink and orange hues of the city's streetlights, four lads seem lost in some grotesque, alcohol-fuelled mime show that is both disturbing and hilarious. Here, for perhaps the only time in this illuminating show, Blackpool could be any town in Britain today. It is like a slap in the face from the present – Mass Observation with attitude.


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July 22 2011

Photobooks – affordable collectibles that are soaring in value

Rare editions now sell for tens of thousands, but collectors on a limited budget can invest in emerging photographers

At first glance they may look like overpriced coffee-table books, but photobooks are highly collectible works of art. In recent years, a boom in the market has seen prices skyrocket. At a dedicated auction at Christie's in London last year, signed early editions of influential photobooks such as Robert Frank's The Americans and Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment sold for £43,250 and £13,750 respectively.

The sudden surge in prices is thought to have begun with the publication of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's lushly illustrated two-volume retrospective The Photobook: A History, in 2004. These books, along with Andrew Roth's 2001 work, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, attempted to reveal what Parr described as "the final frontier of the undiscovered". As a result, a canon of sorts was established and the values of the featured books soared.

According to Sven Becker of Christie's Books and Manuscripts, prices have risen so quickly in the last five years that values put on the more famous books have stalled. Higher prices will only be attained, he says, when the "books or copies are in perfect condition" or where they have "extraordinary things attached such as signatures and inscriptions".

Despite the scarcity of signed or inscribed books and the high plateau in prices on the seminal works, there is hope for the average collector with a modest budget. In fact, even if you're a complete novice, there is a good opportunity to combine learning about the art form with a sound piece of investing by collecting new editions.

Photobooks are expensive to produce and, while demand is too small to warrant long print runs or multiple reprints, it is large enough that the books remain desirable, soon become scarce and can eventually be very valuable. This means new editions costing between £20 and £60 can double or triple in price in as little as two to five years. In 10 or 20 years – and if the work of the photographer becomes particularly fashionable – the price may increase even more.

Jeff Ladd of the photobook blog 5B4, cites the example of John Gossage's book of gritty landscapes, The Pond. When the groundbreaking work was published in 1985, you could pick up a copy for about £20-£30, but it soon went out of print and became very scarce. Today it sells for £500-£600 via rare book trader Vincent Borrelli.

Similarly, photobooks by Bruce Davidson have become very valuable. Reprinted 2003 editions of his 1980s book Subway (see below) cost £40 on release but now sell for anywhere between £200 and £300.

If you want to pick up some books currently on the shelves that might follow this trend, William Eggleston's For Now (Twin Palms, 2010) and Before Color (Steidl, 2010) can still be found for around the £30-£40 mark; they are expected to double in value relatively quickly and perhaps even increase beyond that in years to come.

You need to look after anything you buy very carefully. Martin Amis of photobookstore.co.uk, which sells rare and limited-edition books, says books must be in perfect condition. "Blemishes or damage can knock as much as 40% of the price," he says, "which is why you have to be careful with places like Amazon who don't always package books as well as they might."

Amis, a collector himself, recommends buying from stores that specialise, straight from the publisher or from dealers you know. Other online specialists include the excellent photo-eye.com, based in Santa Fe. If you prefer to buy from a physical bookshop and can get to London, Photobooks International in Bloomsbury is a good place to rummage for used editions.

But one of the great things about photobook collecting is discovering the work of emerging photographers whose early books may become sought after. A good place to look is among the current boom in self-published titles.

Self-publishing in photography has a fine pedigree. Perhaps the greatest example is Ed Ruscha's 1963 work Twentysix Gasoline Stations (see below). More recently, Ryan McGinley's self-published 2000 debut The Kids Are Alright sold for £3,528 at Swann Galleries in New York.

"You can't go wrong if you are paying £7-£10 for something you like," says Becker, who believes these self-published books are "guaranteed to be collectible in the future".

To help you navigate the bewildering array, look at websites that collate the best of self-publishing, such as theindependentphotobook.blogspot.com, indiephotobooklibrary.org and selfpublishbehappy.com. Also, many established photographers, such as Stephen Gill, sell through their own sites. His Book of Birds, £19, or Hackney Flowers, £28, are available through Gill's own imprint Nobody and are worth a look for their uncommon detail as well as their potential collectability.

Finally, to make the most of collecting you will need to stay in the know and – most importantly – get to know what you like. Luckily, there are some excellent resources at hand. As well as Ladd's 5B4, there are blogs such as Marc Feustel's eyecurious.com, Nathalie Belayche's foodforyoureyes and the Guardian's own photo blog by Sean O'Hagan, all of which cover in depth what's new, where to go and what to see. Add to this magazines such as the British Journal of Photography, Photoworks, and Foto8 and galleries such as the Photographers' Gallery in London and the Redeye network in the north-west and you will find many opportunities to learn.

Collecting photobooks is a wonderful way to discover more about photography and build a small alternative nest egg at the same time. The only downside is that you might incur the cost of installing a sturdy set of shelves.

Where to start

The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 and 2 by Martin Parr & Gerry Badger £49.95, Phaidon; £30.40, Amazon

Published in 2001 and 2004, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's retrospective of the history of photobooks has become hugely influential in the used photobook market. It's a good place to start learning and may even become a collectors' item itself.

New editions and reprints likely to go up

William Eggleston – Before Color £40, Steidl; £28, Amazon

Elegant edition of the eccentric American photographer's early work in black and white before he dazzled in colour. Small run and sure to be worth more than the cut-price £27.66 on Amazon in years to come, a good place to start and a unique introduction to the work of Eggleston.

Bruce Davidson – Subway £40, Aperture; £35, Amazon

Previous editions of Bruce Davidson's study of the New York subway system and its passengers have shot up in price. Gritty yet human, the highly anticipated Aperture Foundation reprint due in September is sure to fly off the shelves.

Ones to covet

Ed Ruscha – Twentysix Gasoline Stations £23,800, signed first edition, abebooks.co.uk

Regarded by some as the first "modern artist's book", pop artist Ruscha's self-published photobook consists of pictures of 26 gasoline stations taken on a trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. First editions in a run of 500 sold for $3.50 in 1962. At the time the minimalist imagery was shocking, but it is perhaps the price that raises eyebrows now – it can fetch between £6,000 and £12,000.

Alexey Brodovitch – Ballet £6,460, first edition, alibris.com

Legendary photobook by Harper's Bazaar designer Brodovitch whose backstage pictures of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, taken with limited equipment, became famous for their radical challenging of technique and powerful depiction of movement. If you can't afford the original, Errata Editions does a fantastic 2011 version for about £25.


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December 10 2010

The month in photography

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – including works by William Eggleston, Gerda Taro, Bill Brandt, W Eugene Smith and Richard Avedon



2010's best photography books

For this Sunday's Observer, I've gathered some of 2010's top popular releases. But here's an extra selection from my own personal cellar, featuring those that are slightly more difficult find

In this Sunday's Observer, and with an eye to Christmas lists everywhere, I have chosen seven photography books of the year – best music photography book, best fashion photography book, best compilation and so on. But I've some personal favourites, too: books I genuinely admire but which are harder to find (and/or expensive). I've thought long and hard about this selection, and have had to leave out some brilliant contenders – Mark Power's The Sound of Two Songs and Todd Hido's A Road Divided spring immediately to mind – but that's the nature of lists like this one. Feel free to offer your own suggestions below the line.

1. Inside Out by Bruce Davidson, Steidl, £220

This three-volume retrospective covers 50 years of Davidson's life as a documentary photographer. It includes the Brooklyn Gang series from 1959, which remains a landmark of youth-culture reportage, as well as striking images of the early civil-rights struggle in the American deep south. In the 70s, Davidson began chronicling what he called "worlds within worlds", producing the groundbreaking East 100th Street series, which focused on a single block in New York's East Harlem. All human life is here, reflected though the lens of a photographer who once described himself as "an outsider on the inside".

2. Before Colour by William Eggleston, Steidl, £40

A selection of Eggleston's early black-and-white photography, which provides an intriguing record of the birth of one of the defining visual styles of the last 50 years. The photographer's wilfully skewed way of seeing was there even before he discovered the power of colour, as these strange and wonderful monochrome shots attest. An oddly familiar glimpse of an American south Eggleston would go on to redefine in the most dramatic way.

3. Grimaces of the Weary Village by Rimaldas Viksraitis, White Space, £25

Viksraitis's photographs capture village life in his native Lithuania in all its surreal and sometimes sordid intensity. The 55-year-old disabled photographer travels through the countryside on his bicycle, recording the widespread decline after the local farming system's collapse. He cites Fellini as a prime influence but there is a darker, stranger vision at work here. "Slightly insane and wonderfully surreal" is how Martin Parr puts it.

4. New Topographics by Various, Steidl, £44

In 1975 the New Topograhics group exhibition, curated by William Jenkins in New York, redefined landscape photography. Thirty years on, the stark, almost mundane photographs of Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon and Bernd and Hilla Becher remain incredibly influential, as I argued earlier this year. This austerely beautiful book of images of the "man-altered landscape" of America and Germany is a testament to the enduring power of a cool and detached collective vision.

5. Kanaval by Leah Gordon, Souljazz, £39.99

Gordon spent almost 15 years taking photographs of the annual pre-Lenten carnival in Jacmel for her book Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti. She captures the stock characters of the carnival tradition in all their exaggerated and often disturbing grotesqueness. Her portraits exude a sense of quiet stillness that amplifies the surreal nature of an event merging Vodou imagery and political satire. Dramatic and disturbing.

6. The Jazz Loft Project by Sam Stephenson, Random House, £25

From 1957 to 1965, W Eugene Smith took an estimated 40,000 photographs of the jazz scene in and around a rundown loft at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City. The building was his home, his studio and, to an extent, his world. It was also became the home of the Jazz Loft, a rehearsal and performance space that attracted Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, as well as their retinue of musicians, hangers-on, dealers, girlfriends, visiting writers and photographers and various colourful characters from the city's demimonde. Sam Stephenson's book is a work of social archaeology and a testament to the artists whose music caught all the tumult and excitement of a fast-changing America.

7. Contraband by Taryn Simon, Steidl, £40

Taryn Simon is best known for her strange and wonderful book An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar, in which she documented the unseen government, industrial and religious sites of her native country. Now comes this inventory of contraband items seized by customs at John F Kennedy international airport in New York over a single year. It's not a new idea – Checked Baggage by Christien Meindertsma does much the same with items retained by security after 9/11 – but it is an intriguing book that will make you wonder at the ingenuity of those who illegally import ostrich eggs and cow manure tooth-powder, as well as those who smuggle fake Louis Vuitton bags.

8. A Million Shillings by Alix Fazzina, Trolley Books

Fazzina won this year's Nansen Refugee award from the UNHCR for the 10 years she has spent documenting the plight of the displaced in Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone and beyond. This book tracks migrants from war-torn Somalia who risk all to cross the Gulf of Aden in search of a better life. A heartbreaking and inspiring work of often intimate photographs that is almost novelistic in its narrative approach.

9. Yangtze – The Long River by Nadav Kander, Hatje Cantz, £55

For two years, Kander followed the course of the Yangtze along its banks from Shanghai to the rural Qinghai Province in the extreme west, a journey of 4,100 miles. He won the 2009 prix Pictet for the photographs collected here, which, according to Kander, reflect the unease he felt while travelling through a country that "feels both at the beginning of a new era and at odds with itself". A contemplative look at the new China and at a river whose banks are home to more people than live in the entire US.

10. See You Soon by Maxwell Anderson, Bemojake/Self Publish, Be Happy, £20

It feels important to include a book that reflects the best elements of the small but burgeoning self-publishing industry. Maxwell Anderson's See You Soon is a "photographic love letter" to his Japanese girlfriend, tracking their relationship from distance to intimacy to departure. A beautifully intimate work – the visual equivalent, perhaps, of one of those coy, lovelorn early songs by Orange Juice.


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December 03 2010

Memphis in monochrome: William Eggleston's Before Colour

A new book of black and white photography, started in suburban Memphis in the 1950s by William Eggleston, has been published by Steidl. View a selection of the photographs here



Monochrome man: William Eggleston

As these rediscovered prints reveal, the man who made colour photography into an artform worked brilliantly in monochrome – and his eye for unsettling detail is every bit as sharp

Eggleston in black-and-white? It seems a contradiction in terms. But here, finally, is the evidence that even the most famous colour photographer of all once saw the world around him in monochrome. It is quite a surprise.

A new book, published by Steidl, is called simply Before Colour. It's a great title: specific to the arc of William Eggleston's development, but suggestive of the wider impact that his first colour images had on photography in general. We now often divide the history of photography into before and after colour – a shift of consciousness that is often put down to Eggleston's ground-breaking show at MoMA in 1976, which shocked critics with its dramatic, heavily saturated dye-transfer prints. In fact this wasn't the first time that colour photography had appeared in a major American gallery: photographer Stephen Shore exhibited colour images of America at the Metropolitan Museum of Art four years earlier, and also caused something of a critical storm.

Eggleston's exhibition is now regarded as the moment that colour photography became an art form in itself. Ever since, he has been regarded as the most dramatic colourist in American photography.

Hence the surprise of these prints, which were found a few years ago in the offices of the William Eggleston Artistic Trust in Memphis, in a box containing his earliest photography. They form a kind of Egglestonian photographic prehistory. More intriguingly, they also show the beginnings of a style. In the late 1950s, Eggleston wandered around the suburbs of Memphis shooting whatever caught his eye on high-speed 35mm black-and-white film: people, usually unaware or only just aware of the camera's gaze; and places, including supermarket interiors and exteriors, roadsides, barbecue shacks, shop windows, garages, diners, hotel rooms, crossroads, bushes, trees and fences.

The images here are the first examples of Eggleston's now-famous democratic gaze: everything, even the most banal-seeming subject, is given equal importance in the unfolding visual narrative. This might seem a scattergun approach, but in his short introduction to the book, the southern writer and cultural critic Dave Hickey sees in them echoes of early photographs of the British Raj. There is a "dissonance" in Eggleston's photographs, Hickey notes, suggesting the tension of the moment that America, with all its "mass-produced banality", began to colonise the old south.

This is an interesting analysis. It sheds new light, too, on the so-called "snapshot aesthetic" that the likes of Eggleston, Shore and before them Robert Frank deployed. Hickey argues that, in Eggleston's work, there is "no other honest option" but "to make 'bad' pictures of bad places". (The quotation marks that frame the word "bad" are of the utmost importance.) Eggleston, Hickey writes, "abandons composition for a world with no composure. The truth of formal arrangement, contrast and atmosphere would be a lie imposed on these settings. It would deaden the acidic essence of the subject matter."

There is a great deal of truth here, but I'm not sure it's the whole story. In fact, you can see composition, contrast and atmosphere aplenty in Before Colour. Many of the early photographs here recall Walker Evans's vernacular gaze or Robert Frank's bleakly poetic vision of the other – sadder, poorer, stranger – America. The very first image in the book – a herd of mules and their drivers on a dusty road at twilight – is a shock, so painterly and old-fashioned does it look. Look harder, though, and you see a very Egglestonian sense of dark surprise: the leading rider, head bent, is a black man dressed in what looks like striped prison garb. The tone of the photograph shifts into more ominous psychological terrain, the whole dark history of the south hoving into view behind a single telling detail.

More than once, Eggleston turns his eye on lone figures, often daydreaming women in empty, ornate diners. In one deftly composed image, a stylish woman taps her cigarette into an ashtray. It is an image of considerable formal and atmospheric beauty, and one that possesses the kind of romantic, Edward Hopperesque undertow not often associated with Eggleston's work.

In another almost perfectly formed image, Eggleston freeze-frames a sleek American car swishing though the teeming southern rain, catching it brilliantly, and ironically, between two striped roadside sun umbrellas. There's a hint here of what is still to come: you can sense how different this image would be had he shot it in colour; but perhaps also that it would be less atmospheric too. The same thought occurs while looking at his many supermarket interiors, the cartons of milk and juice arranged in Egglestonian rows, but bled dry by the mysterious power of monochrome.

Part of the power of these photographs rests in the fact that we know what is coming, and where it will take photography. Yet even though it's hard not to return to the question of what these images would look like if only they'd been shot in colour – let alone Egglestonian colour – this is an important work both for students of photographic history and in its own right. Before Colour tells us what we already know: that the greats do not suddenly become great, but work hard to establish a style and signature. But it also shows something more – the great iconoclast, honing his democratic vision before he found the perfect medium for it. The future is just around the corner, but it will take some time before the world catches up with William Eggleston's brilliant – in every sense of the word – vision.

Now see this

Flash Projects specialise in what they call "iconic vintage photographs of popular culture from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s". Their current exhibition is a pop-up show called Canned Candies: the Nudes of Jean Clemmer, which runs at 8 Kingly Street, London, WC1 until 18 December. Clemmer was Salvador Dali's close friend and personal photographer. This series of glamorous (semi-)nudes, a collaboration with the fashion designer Paco Rabanne, shows off his more mischievous side. It was first published in Paris in 1969, when things were altogether more swinging.


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November 05 2010

Picture this

In pictures: The month's best photo exhibitions and books – including works by William Eggleston, Gerda Taro and W Eugene Smith



The wonder of hue

William Eggleston's thoroughly deserved retrospective, Democratic Camera, looks back at the 'unhurried' career of the father of fine-art colour photography

By now it's a commonplace that William Eggleston more or less invented fine-art colour photography. In the early 1970s Eggleston began producing large prints using Eastman Kodak's dye-transfer process, resulting in bold, saturated hues previously seen only on roadside billboards – a shock to sophisticated audiences of the time, but in retrospect, a natural step forward from pop art.

These days, colour photography is an art form like the rest, and Eggleston is a enjoying a well-deserved career retrospective that began at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and recently transferred to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This provides an opportunity to reassess Eggleston, lately the darling of hip connoisseurs from Harmony Korine to Sofia Coppola, and take the measure of his large and various – but extraordinarily consistent – body of work.

What fascinates about Eggleston's oeuvre is the gap between what we expect pictures of small-town streets, dogs drinking from mud puddles, and the insides of ovens to look like and the startlingly gorgeous results he routinely extracts from such subjects. Resisting fashion-plate glamour on the one hand and journalistic grit on the other, Eggleston brings an ethically neutral, incurably curious aesthetic to everything he sees – the "democratic way of looking around" alluded to by the retrospective's title.

Sometimes his eye for the beauty of the apparently banal has got him into trouble. Take the 1976 Election Eve series, commissioned by the New York Times, but rejected when Eggleston returned from Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia, with no shots of the successful presidential candidate – or, indeed, any human beings at all – but image after image of farmhouses, gas station signs, sprawling live oaks and unassuming churches. These places, Eggleston's images insist, are not about to change, no matter who wins what.

Not to say that there isn't dramatic interest in Eggleston's pictures, though it's often implicit and enigmatic: the old man lounging with a pistol on his bed in Morton, Mississippi, or the naked man scratching his bedraggled head in front of a vandalised wall in Greenwood, Mississippi. Like an ominous sentence plucked at random from a Cormac McCarthy novel, these pictures tease you with a whole southern gothic milieu that the photographer politely refuses to elaborate.

Even when there's nothing apparently mysterious going on, the boldness of the colour in the photographs can be unsettling. Eggleston's reds, in particular, tend to be hyperlurid, giving even mundane settings the look of freshly discovered crime scenes. While Eggleston has disclaimed any desire to bring out the sinister side of American life, violence finds its way into even his most domestic scenarios, such as the shot of his young son Winston dressed in white overalls, poring over a handgun catalogue.

Even though the oldest of these images date from more than half a century ago, the work feels strangely timeless. One wonders how much has changed in Eggleston's America, which seems frozen in an eternal present: nothing looks too modern in the anonymous, predominantly rural and ex-urban areas he favours, but very little looks all that old, either. Over the years there have been developments in technique, subtle though they are: blues and greens begin to take over from reds, and for the first time in recent work he allows diffused light and the play of reflections to compromise the perfect precision of his compositions.

Still, one doesn't exactly get a sense of progression. Eggleston's career has been an unhurried drift through a vast dreamlike region, not a bullet train of significance speeding from coast to coast. Though Democratic Camera is arranged chronologically, it could just as well be reorganised by subject, or even at random, without losing its basic coherence: a testament to the consistency of Eggleston's vision.


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October 02 2010

Photographing the American South

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex
These photographs of the American south offer widely differing views of the same elusive subject, writes Sean O'Hagan

The American south has been mythologised in literature, film, popular music and photography. From William Faulkner to Muddy Waters, Tennessee Williams to William Eggleston, Gone With the Wind to Huckleberry Finn, it has colonised our collective imagination as a place apart, even a state of mind.

In photography, the American south has been viewed from the inside by native southerners such as Eggleston, William Christenberry and Eudora Welty (who was a very good photographer before she became a great writer) and from the outside, most famously by Walker Evans in the 1930s, and by the likes of Carrie Mae Weems, Alec Soth and Susan Lipper in more recent times. All of the above, with the exception of Welty, are included in Myth, Manners and Memory, a relatively selective, but nevertheless illuminating, group show at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

Walker Evans's photographs of the American south, taken between 1935 and 1938 during the Depression, for the Farm Security Administration, are among the most celebrated images of the 20th century. You could even say that they made the south synonymous with poverty and struggle in a way that it was once synonymous with segregation and slavery. They changed the way America viewed the south, and the way the south saw itself.

In 1936, while Evans was photographing in and around Hale County, Alabama, William Christenberry was born in nearby Tuscaloosa. In 1960, aged 24, he came upon a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans (and James Agee), which had been republished that year, in a bookshop in Birmingham, Alabama. It changed his way of thinking, helped him see the south anew as a place he could rediscover though photography. Soon after, he began to photograph the places and sites he recognised in the book, many of which were now crumbling remnants of another time.

In 1973, Christenberry persuaded Evans to accompany him on one of his regular road trips to Hale County, which Evans had not visited for 37 years. "Walker kept his distance," Christenberry would later say. "The place is so much part of me, I can't escape it and have no desire to escape it. I continue to come to grips with it… the place is my muse."

One could say the same of the south that William Eggleston, another friend of Christenberry's, depicts. From Memphis, Tennessee, Eggleston also looks with an insider's eye, but his south is a stranger, darker place even in its everydayness. As a southerner, Eudora Welty implicitly understood Eggleston's democratic gaze and its artistic and mythical resonance. "In landscapes, cityscapes, street scenes, roadside scenes," she wrote in her introduction to Eggleston's book The Democratic Forest, "in dreaming long view and arresting close-up, through hours of dark and light, he sets forth what makes up our ordinary world. What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us."

In their separate ways, Carrie May Weems, Susan Lipper and Alec Soth have also subverted the mythology of the south in their photographs. In Sleeping by the Mississippi, Soth created an American south that, however much it has changed socially and politically, remains essentially the same. There are echoes here of the old south of plantations and slow-flowing rivers, but also traces of the work of other, older photographers, including Evans, Christenberry and Eggleston.

Weems, the most political photographer here, confronts the turbulent racist history of the American south, placing herself in a series of resonant locations and contrasting the barbarity of slavery with the refined social etiquette that held sway among rich plantation families. Here, photography becomes a kind of still theatre as well as a repository of memory, suffering and struggle.

The most wilfully problematic photographs in Myth, Manners and Memory belong to Susan Lipper. A New Yorker, she spends several months every year in Grapevine Hollow, a remote rural community in the Appalachian mountains. She calls her photographs "collaborations" and curator Celia Davies describes them as "much less documentary, far more cinematic in character".

Lipper's characters are real, but her scenarios are often staged. She plays with stereotypes of the Appalachian south –rednecks, white thrash, the ominous backwoods – while simultaneously portraying a place – and a community – where the often alcohol- or drug-fuelled violence and poverty are very real. It is a long way from Walker Evans but that, perhaps, is the point. The American south is not so much another country as several overlapping, and often contradictory, narratives, all of which continue to tug on our collective imagination even as they elude our understanding.


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Images from another America

A new exhibition featuring prominent American photographers such as Walker Evans and William Eggleston reflects the widely differing views and cultures of the deep south



October 01 2010

The month in photography

William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Tim Hetherington feature in our guide to the best new book releases and shows across the country this month



August 04 2010

Worth a thousand words?

Photographers such as Robert Adams and Stephen Shore aren't just fine photographers – they're insightful critics. But is it possible to write words that keep out of the way of the pictures?

"For photographers, the ideal book of photographs would contain just pictures – no text at all" photographer Robert Adams once wrote. He went on to admit that he "once worked through more than a hundred drafts of a four-paragraph statement for a catalogue, all to find something that would just keep out of the way of the pictures".

Finding words that keep out of the way of the pictures and yet shed light on the nature of photography is nonetheless something that Adams has excelled at, in two books of essays: Why People Photograph (from where that quotation is taken) and Beauty in Photography. Like Stephen Shore, he is a brilliant photographer who also happens to be a gifted and incisive writer. Adams's main subject is the American West, the encroachment of the man-made on the natural. In his writing, he champions clear and concise language, whether visual or in the written word. Often, he writes against the prevailing academic and curatorial thrust towards theoretically-driven conceptual photography, the kind of photography, indeed, that relies most heavily on words, whether to explain or obfuscate its meaning.

"At our best and most fortunate," he writes in Why People Photograph, "we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honour what is greater and more interesting than we are." I would also recommend Adams' book, Along Some Rivers, Conversations and Photographs, in which he almost convinced me that Dorothea Lange was a better photographer than Walker Evans. Almost.

If Adams seems unconcerned with appearing old-fashioned, Stephen Shore is, for want of a better word, a modernist. His groundbreaking colour photographs from the early 70s showed us a vernacular America that was so everyday as to be almost invisible, an almost banal place of brightly lit diners and dowdy motel rooms. Shore photographed armchairs, faded lampshades, bedspreads, curtains, even the food he ate every day. The photographs in Uncommon Places and American Surfaces evoked a sad, ever-spreading hinterland that novelist Raymond Carver also mapped out in his minimalist prose.

Shore also shared with Carver a passion for fly-fishing and, in his short "artist statement" for his first book, Uncommon Places, originally published in 1982, he compared the rituals of his favourite pastime to the demands of his vocation. It remains an illuminating piece of writing:

"As I wade a stream, I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I've cast is on the water, my attention is riveted to it. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes, I strike. Then, the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still. Fishing, like photography, is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy."

Shore is also a successful teacher of photography at Bard College in upstate New York – a secondary career of which, one senses, Adams would not approve. "When I have been asked to teach photography", he muses in Why People Photograph, "I have found myself puzzling over three questions: 'Can photography be taught? Ought it to be taught? If so, am I the one to teach it?'" He concludes that the doing and the teaching are not totally exclusive, but that "there are not many people in whom the enthusiasms are balanced". Stephen Shore, though, would seem to be such a one. His text book, The Nature of Photographs: A Primer, is a kind of ideas manual for aspiring photographers. It is a somewhat (wilfully?) dry book, but it does go off into some interesting places that you won't find in many photography primers – particularly in the third section, The Mental Level, which is a kind of Zen-like meditation on awareness and perception in photography.

For years, though, my favourite piece of writing about photography was William Eggleston's brief but intriguing afterword to The Democratic Forest (1989). It begins with a description of what, for Eggleston, was a photographic epiphany. When out taking photographs around Oxford, Mississippi, he realised "it was one of those occasions when there was no picture there. It seemed like nothing, but of course there was something for someone out there." So Eggleston simply pointed his camera at the earth and began "taking some pretty good pictures". Later, over dinner, a friend asked him what he had been doing all day and he replied, "Well, I've been photographing democratically."

Eggleston, as I have found out on more than one occasion, is a photographer who, in interviews, can often be inscrutable and/or resolutely unforthcoming about what he does, but here he gets as close as anyone to pinpointing his prevailing aesthetic. Later in the afterward, the tone of his voice changes as he talks scathingly about the "blindness" of those who use the word "snapshot" when referring to his work. "The word has never had any meaning," he says, "I am at war with the obvious". That final sentence has come to, if not define then at least hint at, the singular attitude that underlies his democratic way of seeing.

In the same piece of writing, Eggleston cites Henri Cartier-Bresson's book, The Decisive Moment, as an influence. Cartier-Bresson's 1952 essay remains one of the key pieces of postwar writing on photography. His sporadic essays and reflections are collected in the thin, but invaluable The Mind's Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. "To photograph is to hold one's breath when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality," he wrote, neatly defining the moment of suspended reality that occurs when the shutter opens and closes in an instant. "It's at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy."

There are too many great photographers who also write well about photography to cite them all here, but I would like to mention William Gedney's journals which now belong to Duke University library. This is a different sort of writing: a mixture of insight, gossip, theorising and reflection, the flavour of which can be tasted here. The description of a dinner in honour of Edward Steichen is priceless: "I do not relate to the affair of the people, dull speeches, pompous … the self-glorification is disgusting … The Times' cameraman sat at my table … He is such an ass." In the next entry, though, Gedney's tone changes to pure wonder as he looks again at E.J. Bellocq's book, Storyville Potraits.

"How beautifully lucid and strong the pictures are … I was struck now in looking at the book how in just 34 pictures, so complete a world is rendered, an all encompassing wholeness. Each one of his photographs seems to contain the germ [of] all his work. If only one of his pictures existed (all the rest had been destroyed) you would still sense he was a great photographer, at least I get that feeling. So consistent and concisely clear is his vision."

That sense of wonder, expressed by one photographer for another, speaks volumes about how the work of great photographers impinges on the consciousness of those that follow them. I'll give the last word to Robert Adams. "Your own photography is never enough," he writes. "Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people's pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community."

Now see this

Still City is a small group show that, according to Room Gallery's blurb, is about the "under-represented aspects of cultural life in London". Don't let that put you off. Featuring work by Polly Braden, Ollie Harrop, Billy MacCare and Colin O'Brien, it takes a sideways glance at life in the capital, from stark portraits of travellers' children to surreal inner-cityscapes. From 6 to 29 August, Thursday to Sunday, 12pm – 6pm, at Room, 31 Waterson St. E2 8HT


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July 20 2010

Close calls

An insightful critic as well as a visionary curator, Szarkowski filled New York's Museum of Modern Art with the colour photography of William Eggleston, and championed the transgressive work of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. Everyone who cares about photography is in his debt

It's three years to the month since John Szarkowski died: a good time to reappraise his role as a defining figure in photography, both in establishing it as an art form and in influencing the public's perception. Szarkowski was a good photographer, a great critic and an extraordinary curator. One could argue that he was the single most important force in American post-war photography.

Like all good critics and curators, Szarkowski was both visionary and catalyst. When he succeeded the esteemed photographer Edward Steichen as director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1962, he was just 36, and must have been acutely aware of the long shadow cast by his predecessor. Steichen had curated the monumental group exhibition, The Family of Man, at Moma in 1955, which he described as 'the culmination of his career". Featuring 503 images by 273 photographers, famous and unknown, it had aimed to show the universality of human experience: death, love, childhood. The show had drawn huge crowds to the gallery and then toured the world, attracting an estimated 9 million viewers.

It was, as Steichen had no doubt intended, a hard act to follow. "We were different people", Szarkowski later said, "with different talents, characters, limitations, histories, problems and axes to grind. We held the same job at very different times, which means that it was not really the same job."

More revealingly, Szarkowski also said that Steichen and his predecessor, Beaumont Newhall, "consciously or otherwise, felt more compelled than I to be advocates for photography, whereas I – largely because of their work – could assume a more analytic, less apostolic attitude." That difference in approach would prove to be a crucial one, and it underpinned a new photographic aesthetic that continues to shape our view of the world to this day.

When Szarkowski took over at Moma, there was not a single commercial gallery exhibiting photography in New York and, despite Steichen and Newhall's pioneering work, the form had still not been accepted by most curators or critics. Szarkowski changed all that. He was the right person in the right place at the right time: a forward thinker who was given control of a major art institution at a moment when his democratic vision chimed with the rapidly changing cultural tastes of the time.

Szarkowski insisted on the democracy of the image, whether it be a formally composed Ansel Adams landscape, a snatched shot that caught the frenetic cut-and-thrust of a modern city or a vernacular subject like a road sign or a parking lot. "A skillful photographer can photograph anything well," he once insisted.

In his still-challenging book, The Photographer's Eye (1964), Szarkowski included snapshots alongside images by great photographers, and argued – brilliantly – that photography differed from any other art form because its history had been "less a journey than a growth". "Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal," he suggested. "Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a centre; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies."

As a writer, Szarkowski was innovative; as a curator, he was revolutionary. In 1967, during the so-called Summer of Love, he curated a show called New Documents at Moma. It featured the work of three relatively unknown photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, and was, in its visceral way, as out of step with the times as the urban, edgy, atonal music of the Velvet Underground. It caused a stir. Arbus's images were transgressive in both their form and content: harsh black and white shots of so-called freaks, outsiders and misfits. Friedlander and Winogrand, in their different ways, shot on the streets of New York, producing snatched images of the city's everyday momentum that often appeared to be casual, even random – documentary photography, but not as it was then known or understood.

In his introduction to New Documents, Szarkowski deftly defined the shift in emphasis that the work represented and the attitude that unified the three photographers. "In the past decade," he wrote, "a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it."

At Moma, Szarkowski also hosted challenging shows by pioneering European photographers like Lartigue, Brassai and Cartier-Bresson, and, in 1969, purchased most of Eugene Atget's archive for the museum. The Lartigue show, which consisted of photographs he had taken as a child, was controversial and critically lambasted. The controversy was low-key, though, compared to the tidal wave of outrage that greeted Szarkowski's showing of the work of a then-unknown photographer from Tennessee called William Eggelston, in 1976.

Entitled William Eggleston's Guide, it was the first show of colour photography at Moma, a decision that incensed the critics almost as much as the supposedly banal and vulgar subject matter. When I once asked Eggleston about the reaction to the show, he said, It didn't surprise or offend me. Didn't impinge on me at all". The loudest critical voice belonged to Hilton Kramer of the New York Times, who famously wrote: "Mr. Szarkowski throws all caution to the winds and speaks of Mr. Eggleston's pictures as 'perfect'. Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly."

As time has shown, Kramer was wrong and Szarkowski – not for the first time – was right. His introduction to the book of the exhibition remains one of the great pieces of writing on modern photography. In retrospect, though, Szarkowski's greatest gift was not his brilliant critical mind, nor his ability to help define what is now accepted as a canon of great photography, but his willingness to take risks with his own reputation. By the time he died, on 7 July 2007, aged 81, Szarkowski had returned to his first love, the taking of photographs. He was described by an obituary writer as "the man who taught America how to look at photographs." It still does not seem too extravagant a claim.

Now see this

Nazrali Press specialises in producing beautiful limited edition art photography books. Retrados Pintado is no exception. The book collects images of hand-painted portraits of the dead that appear on the walls of houses throughout north-east Brazil. Here, recently expired relatives take on the appearance of contemporary saints. Collected by Titus Reidl and edited by Martin Parr, the book is available from Amazon and selected photography book shops. At £40, it's costly, but beautiful.


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