Books on My Desk: Studying “Ballet,” Ice, and the First Road Trip Photographer

On the Amazon-owned DPReview, probably the most popular photography site in the world, the forum area has over forty-five million posts spread over four million threads. Only eight of those threads mention (and only just mention) Alexy Brodovitch and only two of these mentions (and only just mentions) his book Ballet.

In the graphic design world both Brodovitch and Ballet are legendary, the former being the art director at Harpers Bazaar during the late thirties through the nineteen fifties and the later a book of photographs by Brodovitch, which he also designed.

Ballet can be purchased on the used market if you have three thousand dollars in your book budget, and even then you won’t be getting a good one. It’s a famous book, in its way, but probably fewer than two hundred copies survive and given its cost it’s a question of how many people have actually seen—and been influenced—by the book.

Errata Editions does as its name hints—it publishes editions of hard to find books so that mere mortals can see and try to understand our visual past. They don’t publish replicas, rather they publish a book of the page spreads of the subject book, printed smaller so that one or two spreads can fit onto one spread. It won’t substitute for the real thing but it will give you something to study.

The Errata Editions version of Ballet is—this might not be surprising—out-of-print and sold out. That’s what used bookstores are for.

I can’t remember why I purchased Camille Seaman’s Melting Away. In fact, I had forgotten I owned it and only re-discovered it as I sorted through the piles of unread and unblogged photography books piled on my desk in preparation for this post.

Melting Away is (I think, it is still shrink-wrapped) a series of images of iceberg and scenics from the polar regions. I googled and have seen examples of the work that is waiting for me in the book but the texts of the articles I found (at well-known sites) were remarkably similar and all read like something Seaman’s public relations agent may have written. Is all of the Internet just people selling stuff?

I think the reason I bought the book is that I used to have another book of polar photography, shot from a research vessel. The cover image was exciting—a view looking down at the ship from some mast. Taking up the bottom of the frame is the deck of the ship, the top of the frame filled with the edge of a glacier or iceberg, the cubes of ice unbelievably huge. It was like the effect that you get with a telephoto lens where the ship or the house or trees in the distance are grossly magnified in relationship to your closer-in subject. But in this case the ship and the ice was more or less the same distance from the camera. The great cubes didn’t just look preternaturally large, they were. Simply extraordinary. The photographs inside not so extraordinary.

So I’m trying again.

One of the reasons I buy a lot of photography books is that I miss many exhibitions and buying the catalog is a substitute for seeing the show in person. Many times the catalog is a poor substitute as surely must be the case here. Monumental Journey, The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey looks from its cover to be an uncommonly lovey book but there’s little chance the shine and life of a daguerreotype will reproduce on its pages. Still, I could not make it to the show in New York and I am immensely thankful for the book and look forward to opening the cover.

Girault de Prangey was one of the first road trip photographers, traveling through Europe and into the Middle East in the 1840s (not a typo). He seems to have been the first one to make photographs in many of those places. The first photographer, imagine that.

Though I am very excited about what is inside the book I will not be writing a review. Excellent ones already exist at the Wall Street Journal, 4Columns, The New Criterion and the New York Times.

The reviews at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are probably behind paywalls if you are not a subscriber. But then that begs the question: Why aren’t you? Both offer extraordinary journalism (compare other well-known news sites who really don’t do much original reporting) and the New York Times especially is worth it just for the articles on serious photography and the arts. It’s not free, but why would you trust journalism that is?

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