Photo Books

Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography, Photographers A-Z, Paul Graham: Films

BY Vince Aletti, July 1, 2011

Drawn from the Library of Congress’s archives, Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography (Aperture) offers a fascinating and tantalizing glimpse of one subset of that vast collection. Verna Posever Curtis, a curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, has chosen an historically broad but decidedly eccentric group of photo albums by Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Danny Lyon, Jim Goldberg, and a number of lesser-known or anonymous others. Most of the albums are handmade one-offs, like F. Holland Day’s slim booklet of Clarence H. White’s teenage son, Maynard, diving into a pond. But even the books that were professionally printed and bound have unique qualities, including the spiral-bound volume commemorating JFK’s 1961 inauguration that Phil Stern and Frank Sinatra compiled for Leonard Bernstein, or the gold-embossed and vellum-covered celebration of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics that Leni Riefenstahl presented to Adolf Hitler, later confiscated from his library by American troops. Two carefully sequenced Walker Evans notebooks collect the photographs later featured in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but two volumes of pictures of Pennsylvania coal-mining towns by Jack Delano never found a publisher. Most of these albums weren’t made with an audience larger than family and close colleagues in mind, however, and it’s the evidence of personal attention, combined with the hands-on quality of much of the bookmaking here, that make them such important artifacts—and make Photographic Memory essential for anyone interested in the origins of the artist’s book.

Books and other printed matter provide the illustrations for Photographers A-Z (Taschen), Hans-Michael Koetzle’s handsomely designed reference to those modern and contemporary artists “whose contribution to the culture of the photographic image is beyond question.” Koetzle concedes that the book was never intended to be “complete,” yet he describes his selection as “a sort of pantheon.” But that pantheon, while quite large and inclusive, is skewed toward European photographers, many of whom are entirely new to me. The presence of all these unfamiliar names was stimulating until I started searching for photographers in my own pantheon and found a number of them missing, including Leon Levinstein, Lucas Samaras, Susan Meiselas, Steven Meisel, Nicholas Nixon, Peter Hujar, Roy DeCarava, Adam Fuss, Fazal Sheikh, and Judith Joy Ross. These omissions were aggravated by odd choices in emphasis: in a book where even the most accomplished and prolific photographers (including Richard Misrach, Martin Parr, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand) were held to a single page, the decision to give two to Milton Greene, Ernst Haas, and Yousuf Karsh seems arbitrary. This is all the more dismaying when the book is such a pleasure to look at. Some choices are questionable (Robert Adams is misrepresented by his 1970 book, White Churches of the Plains), but illustrating Guy Bourdin with spreads from French Vogue and Larry Burrows with his work for LIFE, is perfection.

Paul Graham’s new book, Films (Mack), is full of super-glossy pages of what looks like confetti, sugar sprinkles, or the static on an old TV screen. But these pointillist abstractions aren’t pictures of anything—they’re highly magnified images of the emulsion in the pre-digital film stock that Graham used throughout his career, much of it no longer available. His book, celebrating the pure physical beauty of analog film, is exuberant, melancholy, and right on time.