Photo Books

Richard Avedon, Brassai, Ari Marcopoulos, Justine Kurland

BY Vince Aletti, January 3, 2017

Just back from Paris Photo with two books worth searching out. Both are catalogues to exhibitions in Paris that continue into the new year: La France D’Avedon: Vieux Monde, New Look (BnF Editions), at the new Bibliotheque Nationale through February 26, and Brassaï’s Graffiti: Le Langage Du Mur (Xavier Barral) at the Centre Pompidou through January 30. Both are in French but their pictures need no translation. Many of Avedon’s most famous photographs, including Dovima with Elephants, were made in Paris in the fifties. But that obvious picture is not included here, and fashion work would be mostly overshadowed by portraiture were it not for the attention devoted to Funny Face, the 1957 Stanley Donen musical inspired by Avedon’s career. That film’s opening credits and freeze-frame fashion-shoot sequences, all designed by Avedon, introduce the book on a decidedly upbeat note; following his lead, this is a celebration, not a critique. Portraits of a pantheon of French luminaries, including Picasso, Chanel, Truffaut, Genet, and Jeanne Moreau, are spread throughout the brick-like book, between chapters on Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose high-spirited photographs
Avedon introduced to the U.S., and Egoïste, the Paris-based publication that rivaled The New Yorker as a showcase for his best late editorial work. Avedon was so prolific, inventive, and engaged that an examination of any aspect of his career would be of interest, but this thick slice of French culture is especially rich and rewarding.

Graffiti would seem to be a much narrower segment of Brassaï’s oeuvre, but he was clearly fascinated by its ubiquity, variety, and rude wit and, beginning in the 1930s, he collected a wealth of examples. This compilation isn’t the first, but it’s the most substantial, with a text by Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska that documents previous publications of the work and notes its affinity with Dubuffet and Picasso. Some of the graffiti Brassaï photographed was drawn in chalk, but much more of it was gouged into walls, where faces and skulls recall prehistoric cave art but vibrate with a fierce outsider energy. The book is full of devils, imps, clowns, cocks, and hearts: the collective unconscious, carved in concrete.

Back home, pictures of spray-paint graffiti are among the many things Ari Marcopoulos includes in his terrific retrospective survey, Not Yet (Rizzoli). With sections curated by Matthew Barney, Kara Walker, Paul McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Marcopoulos’s sons, Ethan and Cairo, the book makes the most of multiple perspectives on an artist whose style can be simultaneously raw and elegant, intimate and blasé. Marcopoulos gets boy-centric youth culture – hip-hop, skateboarding, graffiti, basketball – from deep inside, but his shots of Run-DMC and Jean-Michel Basquiat look conventional alongside more unsettling subjects: blasted landscapes, improvised weapons, tattooed arms. Although the mood can shift radically from one image to the next, the book skews dark and darker without ever seeming cynical or pessimistic. Marcopoulos has published a ton of books, both big and small; this is his best, at once bleak and dazzling.

Since 2004, when her son Casper was born, Justine Kurland has been taking him along on her cross-country travels. “My photography felt peripheral to my parenting,” she writes, but you wouldn’t know that from the pictures. Like Alec Soth’s Broken Manual, her Highway Kind (Aperture) records Americans living precariously off the grid and the landscapes they inhabit. Maybe Kurland is acutely sensitive to her subjects’ strengths and vulnerabilities because working alongside her young son forces her to be all the more aware of her own. But the little guy she’s raising also makes her pay particular attention to all the guys they encounter on the road – the mechanics, the drifters. As a result, her fine, tough, empathetic book is as much about masculinity as it is about family, freedom, and the badly damaged American dream.

NOTE: La France D’Avedon has been released in an English edition by Abrams under the title Avedon’s France: Old World, New Look, giving those of us who struggle with French a wealth of new material to savor. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a letter Avedon wrote to Truman Capote in 1958, when the writer was working on his text for Observations: “I’m very lucky to have found photography as I am inarticulate in every way but with a camera. With a Rolleiflex I can say everything I feel. There isn’t a picture in the book that isn’t an expression of a feeling or an opinion.”