Books On My Desk: Idaho!, Cartier-Bresson, Postcards, and Atget’s Paris

Photography books worth noting

So Incredibly Idaho!: Seven Landscapes that Define the Gem State By Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes
Published in 1996 by the University of Idaho Press

I may have purchased this book in Idaho, a state normally forgotten aside of the techies who buy expensive houses in Sun Valley, survivalists, and potatoes. Taking seven landscapes as touchstones Schwantes hopes to offer the reader a more complex view of the state’s history and its people, sharing hundreds of professional images of his own along the way.

My copy had been a gift to visiting “Professor Taylor” who taught a law course entitled “Summary Judgment” at the College of Law at the University of Idaho—the first two pages of the book are covered in thank-yous from students and other professors who seem to have greatly enjoyed the class. A charming addition to a charming book.

Man and Machine
By Henri Cartier-Bresson
Published in 1971 by The Viking Press but there is also a copyright notice: “Copyright © 1969, 1971 by IBM World Trade Corporation”

In 1967 IBM paid Cartier-Bresson to produce photographs for what would become a touring exhibit and then this book, depicting mans’ relationship to technology. Cartier-Bresson made new images but also delved into his archive to put together this ninety-image collection.

One spread shows a group of Chinese photographers clustered together at a sports stadium, wearing similar clothes, nearly identical hats and armbands—and (nearly) all pointing matching cameras and zoom lenses. The facing page shows a man bent over at the waist, an artists’s pallet in one hand, a fine brush in the other, touching up the trim of a luxury automobile.

On another spread, there is another automobile—an old sports car, maybe from the 1930s—and there is a child walking by, but the photograph is made up mostly of a wall painting, organized in horizontal rows, the first row depicting in near-silhouette a row of camels, a royal tent carried up one, buglers upon two others, and warriors walking out front. Below this row is a depiction of a passenger train, smoke coming out of its soda can-shaped engine, and electric wires strung on poles behind. The bottom group shows a shrine with two pilgrims—and just offshore a smoke-belching ship. The facing page offers a boy, head akimbo, pondering a carnival strength-scale, with its crescent-shaped indicator hand perfectly mirroring the horned shape atop the Islamic minarets of the painted shrine on the left, a shooting gallery machine gun mounted in the display to the right of the boy.

Ignore the awful quotations that intrude on each spread and the book’s rewards are made clearer, even if its overall intention remains a bit opaque.

Real Photo Postcards: Unbelievable Images from the Collection of Harvey Tulcensky
Edited by Laetitia Wolff with an essay by Todd Alden
Published in 2005 by Princeton Architectural Press

Like the Cartier-Bresson book, this book rewards close looking. It’s a collection of postcards from the days when you could send a custom postcard with your own image.

There’s the one of a French manufactory, a lab-coated crowd of workers gathered around, looking sternly toward the camera, and there in the front center a man engrossed in the study of a thin glass rod , holding it with such care and gazing at in with such gentleness. There are sets of glass bottles with stoppers at work stations all around, with rectangular, shiny plates to work upon. The maker of the postcard—R. Gulleminot—from the early days of photography a supplier photo chemistry and papers, also made postcards—this one may even depict their own operations.

An open-air roadster automobile fills the frame of another, its three rows of seats filled with a smartly dressed man and woman, a soldier and, in the rear, all but surrounding a man in a top hat, sit four people wearing elaborate lion costumes.

There are optical illusions, scientific curiosities, special effects and pure goofiness. Every page is worth a gander.

Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugène Atget’s Paris
By Christopher Rauschenberg
Published in 2007 by Princeton Architectural Press

The book is what you expect, a sort of a before and after format with Atget’s work as the “before” and Rauschenberg’s meticulously matched images as the “after.” There’s a lot to look at, there’s been a lot of change, often a blander concrete future poured over a more flavorful past. But nostalgia can be a bit of a drug. If you look again at the Atget’s you see hints of squalor and dirt and perhaps clue to a social structure that would repel any modern, aside from the true Francophile, accustomed as we are to a modernity in more ways than in unban development.

But there are puzzles unsolved. There is a park bench that remains seemingly untouched—how can that be? And trees around it which have grown but a little. There are modern scenes that with a change in Photoshop settings would be near-indistinguishable from Atget’s views, and other where you marvel that the structures, which look rather rickety in the old photographs, look just as rickety in Raushenberg’s.

Atget’s great project was an attempt to document Paris while it transformed, before the old Paris was lost. Rauchenberg’s book is an assessment of that achievement.

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