Books On My Desk: Buried Things in the Sand, Buried Things in Your Mind

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Egypt and the Holy Land in Historic Photographs. 77 Views by Francis Frith.
Introduction by Julia Van Haaften, Selection and Commentary by Jon E Manic White
Published by Dover Publications, 1980

Frith was an English photographer in the 1850s who made images of the Middle East, scenic views of the day that, a hundred and seventy-five years later, are so much more than that.

This thin Dover paperback offers a wealth of delights. Start with the cover image: A obelisk at the left margin, covered in hieroglyphics, at the base of which stands a man, diminutive at this scale. The right and center of the image are filled with the wall of some fortress wall, the passage through the wall on the right. A road, upon which the man stands, runs through the bottom of the image and through an open-to-the-sky gap in the fortified wall. Guarding the entrance are two stone sculptures, hard to make out at first but then obviously two twenty-some-foot-high busts of some pharaoh or god, the shoulders evident, the tall Egyptian headdress on both of their heads now clearly seen.

This, the long caption inside the book explains, is the entrance to Luxor and the statues aren’t twenty feet high but forty-six feet high—most of their mass buried beneath an accumulation of dirt, as was a ceremonial avenue that connected Luxor with the temple at Karnak, the lower portion of the statues guessed at in Frith’s time but the existence of the Avenue unknown.

This is an Egypt where the ruins are falling further into ruin, where people build ramshackle huts amongst the stones.

The captions, wonderfully informative, are written by Jon E. Manchip White, improbably named and improbably prolific, writing novels, screenplays, and scripts for television and film.

The Moons of Saturn. Photographs by Frank Rodick.
Text by Nancy Brokaw.
Published by The Photo Review, 2023

Every once in a while I get a thick envelope from the Photo Review and inside is a magazine-sized monograph. The paper is thick to the touch, and the printing quality high. It’s like being a member of a secret book club.

This newest volume is by photographer Frank Rodick. The images are dark, both in ink and in spirit, and the second one you come to after you open the cover appears to be of a dead child. Dark indeed.

I said that Rodick was a photographer and his images are photographic but if you told me he never touched a camera I would believe you—and, in fact, the text suggests all of the images are based on found photos. The ink on the images looks to have been made by thrusts of the end of a thick bristle brush, some crazy aquatint laid down in anger or despair. The text says it is a digital technique but I suspect there is more to it than that.

There are portraits here, phantasmagoria paraded by, the text claiming the death of each sitter, death by neglect, by suicide, by murder, a woman beaten with a metal pipe by an unseen intruder as she sat at her desk.

There is a full-length portrait of a boy, the source image an old-fashioned photo shot at a slow shutter speed and the boy’s head moved during the exposure giving his face a double-exposure and what looks like three eyes. The text talks of a college classmate who died cooking breakfast, a blood vessel in his brain bursting open, and the writer’s discovery later that the dead classmate’s parents fled the Holocaust.

There’s a lot of death and darkness in this slim book that is so very alive.