Books On My Desk: Renaissance Etching, Soth, and Wolfe

Ah, books. Such an old technology yet photography books–art photography books–are in something of a golden age. There is a flood of them, too many to even know all of the titles.

I buy my share, although they seem far easier to buy than to actually find the mental space to open them and go through them. I like to set aside a block of time, not just a quick look. A block of time is necessary.

A few miles from my home is a colony of elephant seals. They come every winter to breed, to try and avoid the great white sharks just offshore, the males fight each other in matches of shocking violence and blood, and then they head out, the males first. It’s one of the quintessential “National Geographic moments.” You have to have a reservation during these times to visit and are guided down a dirt trail to an overlook at the beach to see the beasts, just a few dozen yards away.

While you wait in the park’s ranger station for your turn you can watch a live television stream of that same beach, those same elephant seals. People, conditioned by a lifetime of screen-watching, crowd around the picture, watching the seals. Most viewers have never seen an elephant seal in the wild before.

And then their time arrives and they walk out to see them. After having just seen them.

I can never understand–why would you want to have a preview of an experience? Why would you want to make your authentic experience a sort of deja vu? Yes, glance at the book enough to know to buy or not to buy, pick up a copy of the exhibition catalog after you’ve seen the show, but if you are going to look at an art book, then look at it, but look at it slowly, when you have the time, when you have the right state of mind.

It’s surprising how few such moments present themselves. So many unopened books.

One book I did open, as it was a Christmas gift from last year, is The Renaissance of Etching, an exhibition catalog from The Met of a show that ran until January of this year, which I was unable to attend. It promises not only a selection of examples of the flourishing of etchings (and, I suppose, woodcuts) in the early 1500s but also is supposed to have a detailed technical description of the technique of etching as practiced five hundred years ago. I don’t know, I only just peeked on Christmas morning.

What is a book on etching doing in a blog mostly about photography? The answer is simple: Albrecht Dürer–I’m a little but crazy about Dürer (and Cranach and Baldung)–is no doubt represented heavily in the book, certainly in his etchings and certainly in spirit and I firmly believe that Dürer, were he alive today, would have been a photographer. I can’t define it, but his work has that “photographer-ness” that speaks to me, a sense that is surprisingly lacking in so much photography.

Alec Soth is a photographer whose work does have that photographer-ness. I first became aware of his work at some museum show–I forget where or when–which had images from his Sleeping By the Mississippi project–images made following the river by car, photographing people and places on the way.

I like Soth’s work but I don’t favor his most famous image from this project, maybe his most famous image of all, of a bearded man, mustachioed, outside some mountain home wearing green overalls, holding two model airplanes. I think part of my reaction to the image–and I’ve seen it numerous times–is that the people viewing next to me it treated it as a sort of freak show, one of the images of oddball characters there for our (rich, educated, sophisticated) amusement. But, of course, Soth wasn’t rich and he wasn’t famous when he made this image. So I felt I needed to go back and give this work more of its own space to see what it is and in fact to see the whole project again. I had leafed through a desk copy at a show, years ago, but had never really spent the needed time with it.

The original version of the book is out of print and expensive on the used market. Steidl put out another one four years later, in 2008, but that one is hard to get, too. MACK Books did yet another one–looks identical to the others–was printed this year and that is the one I have.

I mentioned rephotography in my last “On My Desk” post and here it is again, this time a book that rephotographs Eadweard Muybridge’s images in Guatemala and Panama. Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground not only includes the new photographs by author Byron Wolfe (who sometimes works with Mark Klett) but also includes every Muybridge image from his time in Central America. It’s a twofer.

This book was published a few years ago but I only just purchased it–it arrived yesterday directly from the publisher, Radius Books. I learned of the book a week or so ago from a post by Radius, the book had been mentioned in some article somewhere and they were sharing the news. Instagram is a terribly useful tool for artists both to share their own work and for them to learn about the art of others. Such a shame that it is part of the evil Facebook empire, a monstrous brain-parasite feeding upon our society, upon all of the world.

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