Saturday, May 19, 2007

5 Catalogs from Stephen Daiter Gallery

For the past few years, the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago has been publishing handsome little catalogs from several artists off their roster. What is nice is that they range from common household names to the more obscure. You will find catalogs on: Andre Kertesz, Leon Levinstein, Art Shay, Joseph Sterling, Wynn Bullock, Peter Hujar, Aaron Siskind and others. The catalogs are usually 30 to 50 pages in length and the reproductions are well done. They have a nice substantial feel due to the cardstock wrap around cover that acts as a stiff dustjacket. They are priced around $15.00 to $25.00.

Their most recent title is Art Shay: Chicago Accent. Shay was a writer for Life and Time magazines and would write text and captions for photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Wallace Kirkland and Francis Miller. Around 1948, he moved to Chicago and started taking photographs full time. He often collaborated on projects with the writer Nelson Algren who was best known for his book The Man With the Golden Arm.

Remarkably, there really hasn’t been a great book published that celebrates Shay’s contribution to photography. A book called Album For An Age was published in 2000, but it really suffers from poor reproductions and has a feel of cheapness to the whole production. I don’t own that title and haven’t spent a lot of time with it, but I do remember that it gave the work an understated and completely ignorable feel. When seeing this catalog, it was if I had never seen his work before.

The catalog features a wide range of subjects from celebrities to street scenes of everyday life. Of course, it is the everyday life that wins over for me. He was drawn to the rough and tumble margins of Chicago’s underworld. Backroom card games, drug deals, prison lock ups, and court hearings were common subjects for Shay. The work is journalistic but with a poetic edge. They could exist as journalistic documents or as art.

In one image, a woman who has fallen to the pavement adopts almost the same exact pose from the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World. (Curious note: Wyeth painted that image in 1948 and Shay made this photograph in 1949.) In another, taken through a car window, we are witness to a range of street characters (one with out legs) occupying a complex frame that leaves no space described without an interesting element. The photographs are a nonjudgmental look from a man comfortable navigating within the margins of society.

This catalog is also available as a limited edition of 200 that come slipcased and with an 8X10 print for $300.00. There are four images to choose from.

Another catalog is on John Cohen called The Shape of Survival published in 2002. This booklet features Cohen’s work from Peru.

As an artist Cohen has worn many hats. Photographer, musician (New Lost City Ramblers), filmmaker and teacher. Originally traveling to Peru to document the weaving of indian Paracas fabric, he would return several times documenting the people and landscape in a manner that was more artistic than journalistic by mostly photographing nonevents. The photographs share a similiar patina to another artist’s that also made his way to South America, Robert Frank.

This catalog was published in partnership with Deborah Bell gallery in New York City.

In 2004, they published a catalog on Bob Natkin who was another Chicago based photographer who worked from the early 1940’s, off and on again until his death in 1996.

In the late 1940's, he made memorable photographs in Mexico consummately and without condescension. A series made on commission from the Chicago Housing Authority (1948-53) documents the interior and exterior life of Chicago’s South Side slums. One series, seemingly made in one take, guides us through the arrest and subsequent sentencing of a suspect in narcotics court. Natkin also did his share of commercial assignments that examine the popular culture of radio and early television of which there are fine examples included in this catalog.

Although Natkin’s work may not be of such a distinct voice so as to be heard above the crowd, there are many wonderful images here that deserve their moment. Natkin is the prime example of one of the artists that I wouldn’t have known had it not been for one of these catalogs.

On a different note, one catalog published in 2004 by Daiter Contemporary is on John Gossage’s epic project Berlin in the Time of the Wall. This catalog diverts from the usual trimsize that these catalogs tend to follow into something a bit more grand. At 10X13 it is the largest of them all. It is essentially a teaser for the larger book of the same name published by Loosestrife Editions in 2004. In fact, the inside flap subtitle for the book is Berlin in the Time of the Wall: An exhibition about a book and its photographs.

This work made from 1982 to 1993 is a look at both the physical landscape of the Berlin Wall and the psychology of the Berlin Wall. This catalog gives the essence of what his larger book touches upon. The wall is an obvious barrier but Gossage finds every conceivable way to describe it metaphorically that we may be led to believe that this soot grey world’s only reason for existence is to stop life from happening. And just when you think you’ve had enough, he teases you with small offerings of comfort like a fine china tea cup before serving up another round of industrial claustrophobia.

This catalog is made from pages as they appear in the larger book and although this is a lot cheaper in price, the real punch comes from the relentlessness of the actual book (464 photographs). There is a slightly different version of this same catalog published as Contact Sheet #129 from Lightwork in Syracuse, NY.

The last I will mention is one called From Fair to Fine: 20th Century Photography Books That Matter published in 2006.

This is the most substantial “catalog” to date this is actually a 240 page book. Like the two history of the photobook volumes from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, except without all of the insightful information, this features over 200 books that were a part of an exhibition and for sale. The book includes several essays on books by photographers, curators and art historians.

As you have probably read, I have a problem with the commerce aspect of photography books and this is certainly a title aimed at selling or enticing sales of the books on exhibit. I love these types of books on books though. What is refreshing is that in the introductory essay, Stephen Daiter acknowledges the current market and how certain people who have had a long passion towards photobooks have been “priced out” of the market on certain titles. Paul D’Amato penned a good essay about the social documentary traditions. John Gossage writes about his revelation towards books due to Japanese publications, and AnneDorothee Bohme writes about the photographic narrative in artist books.

One other interesting aspect of this book is that it utilizes print-on-demand technology through LULU book publishers. I have to say, it is a really fine production. It, like many photobooks, will cost you $50.00.

Theses are available directly through Stephen Daiter gallery at: