Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Last Photographic Heroes by Gilles Mora


The notion of ‘photography’s heroes’ was brought up indirectly in a recent lecture at the NY Public Library with the photographers Paul Graham, Tod Papageorge, Katy Grannan, Danny Lyon and Mitch Epstein attempting to discuss ‘truth’ in photography. The conversation started off with Papageorge and Graham discussing their views of the medium and stressing the importance of Winogrand and Szarkowski as attributable influences on themselves and the course of the history of the medium since the sixties. The discussion quickly sidetracked off topic and fireworks erupted when loose cannon provocateur Danny Lyon, sitting grimacing and wincing at the mention of praise towards these two legendary individuals, spewed forth with an interruption of incoherent self-congratulatory bitterness with the intent to discredit and de-mystify.

Now generally I like to hear from people who do not naturally tow the same line of thinking as everyone else as it offers at least the possibility of further enlightenment, I just wish it hadn’t come from Lyon. His views seem seated firmly in his hostility towards the New York 1960’s art world and perhaps towards those who he sees, stole his spotlight. His argument shook loose from reality when he started criticizing Lee Friedlander for taking photos of ‘boring people’ (while praising his own photos of ‘interesting’ types like black transvestites), his perception that Winogrand didn’t (or couldn’t) edit, proclamations that Stephen Shore is a horrible photographer, that Szarkowski’s contribution shouldn’t be considered so important and that Robert Frank was a photojournalist. (His opinions are as valid as anyone's but the last one made me consider that maybe Lyon doesn’t understand the work of everyone he mentioned including his own hero, Frank. Wasn’t Frank the guy who rejected the notions of photojournalism and ushered in an era of suspicion towards literal photographic truth? Didn’t his work employ a language and approach that was full of subjectivity and 180 degrees from inherent photojournalistic principles held firm by the likes of Eugene Smith? Or am I the one who doesn’t understand? Maybe the definition of photojournalism can be twisted like a pipe cleaner into many different forms.)

Anyway, this opinionated battle over these two photographic heroes proved to be the most entertaining part of the lecture. It also leads me to a new book from Harry N. Abrams called The Last Photographic Heroes: American Photographers of the Sixties and Seventies.

In this book, Gilles Mora explores the well trodden subject of how photography in America enjoyed two decades of intense creativity and birthed a new understanding to the potential the medium holds. I had seen a pre-press mock-up of this book at the NY Book Expo earlier this year and have been eagerly awaiting its publication date. Unfortunately, upon seeing the final result, it disappoints more than it excites in almost every way.

The first problem is that the history of this period has been recounted so many times that its telling in this new book may ultimately be pointless. This book’s failure is that it adds little, if anything new, to the subject. It is the same cast delivering the same lines etc…etc.

Secondly, although the design is functional, the reproductions are terrible. Terrible in a…the photographers or the estates of the photographers should sue, kind of way. It really looks like a major technical screw up took place like the pages didn’t make enough passes through the press. Very few of our heroes escape with their dignity intact. For a book that starts as a celebration, this does its best to disgrace and, for some viewers, may be tantamount to sacrilege.

Tina Cameron is credited as the production manager on this book. She was also the production manager on the Books of Nudes that I just featured and with that title she did a fantastic job. There she proved herself capable of taking the helm but here with The Last Photographic Heroes, something went terribly wrong. The production crew is the same, the only difference I can see is that the nudes book was printed in France and this one was printed in China. (China may not be great at keeping making pet food but they sure are great at printing art books). So I am very confused as to what happened to make this book look the way it does. Did she succumb to bad Chinese food? Lead poisoning?

The only value I could have seen in this book is for photographers or students who do not know the importance of this time period in American photography, but due to the poor production work, that seems pointless as well.

The notion of ‘hero’ is a curious one. No doubt hero-worship occurs and I have not escaped such feeling when considering those who have caused me to think in more complex ways. (When my own work is crap I often light a candle in honor of the ‘photo-gods,’ Timothy O’Sullivan and others who had to jump through hoops just to take a single photo). The biggest ‘hero’ for many was Winogrand, who probably would have shunned the title for didn’t he say that, ‘once the work exists then the artist is irrelevant’? I tend to think that Winogrand’s thought, as truthful and ego sacrificing as it may have been, is not viable for many photography enthusiasts. The separation of artist from the art is exceedingly difficult to do when the myths are reaffirmed and disseminated to the point of being equal to, or a justification of, the work itself.

Book Available Here (Last Photographic Heroes)

20 comments:

Double E said...

Mora's last book from Abrams on the FSA also suffered from really bad reporductions.

China Plate said...

Dear Jeff, great blog keep up the good work.

I purchased a copy of this book yesterday. I would agree with you that the printing really isn't up to scratch. The cover is particularly bad. It seems that some photographers work is reproduced far better than others. This makes me feel that possibly the estates or photographers are not supplying the publisher with great quality scans? Look at the printed quality for example of Meyerowitz' images in comparison to Egglestons.
I agree with you that it is disrespectful for a publisher to print other peoples work poorly. However I feel that you have written off this book because of the poor quality printing. The content however, is very interesting and the essays are enlightening. It is a great introduction to a great group of photographers.
Most of Garry Winogrand's books were printed badly, but I am sure these are amongst the most prized in your collection? Would you advise people not to buy these because of the poor quality printing?
In an ideal world we would have a brilliantly printed book with brilliant content. However as far as I am concerned the next best thing is a mediocre print with great content, which is the category I believe this book to be in, I am happy to have it in my collection, warts and all.

Jeff Ladd said...

Me China,

I agree except it isn't 1970. The technology to do things correctly and be able to communicate quickly between production person and the providers is in place now. If the scans looked bad then do new ones. When printing, it is standard to do two rounds of proofing for catching screw ups and poorly made files.

My problem is that very poor reproductions make it hard to see and enjoy the content. When I teach, I ask my students to make work prints where the image is well centered on the paper and clear enough in quality so that the viewer doesn't have any barriers between seeing the image and the content. I think imperfections, even small ones like the margins on the print are funky because someone hasn't properly learned to use an easle, effect the way we look and perceive pictures. It makes us so much more aware of the SURFACE of the print than the ILLUSION the picture provides.

Would I not get a book because of poor reproductions? Of course not, but it does have an effect. I just have the forum to be able to bitch about it. Wait till my books and see if I crack under the pressure of being on press.

Double E said...

I agree with Jeff. No excuse for bad reproductions these days. The publisher peobably didn't pay to see wet proofs or go on press. The Mora/Abrams FSA book suffers from this too. And yes I have passed up books due to bad/lifeless reproduction.

Cold Medina said...

I am glad to finally see a little harshness in your reviewing, Mr. Whiskets -- which up until now has held a conservative mean of praise and criticism -- I assume, to keep the review copies coming. But I have to admit, you lost me with your use of the word "funky".

Jeff Ladd said...

Cold,
Yep...you have me pegged. I'm simply a whore for review copies. Want a good review? Just send me a book. It's that simple. My opinion can be bought. The more expensive the book...the better the review. Fuck integrity, I just want free shit.

If you think that then why do you read this stuff? Go make up your own mind.

Anonymous said...

The book blurb says Winogrand "roamed the world". I'm not aware he ever created a body of work outside the US?

Jeff Ladd said...

I know he was in London and there are some photos from that trip that are good. Other than that...you never saw that 'Winogrand in India' book?

Double E said...

sometimes Mr. More gets his facts mixed up. In one book he said Robert Fank traveled by bus crosscountry for The Americans.

Sam said...

This book Sounds Like a piece of Shit.

Thank god your not illuminating something else to spend my money on.

On another note, Do you own "the new color photography"??

I recieved it last christmas, and was having a look through it with some ICP alum who came to visit me in the woods, and It's got some great stuff in it.

if you haven't,Maybe I'll send it your way one day for the ol Whiskets treatment...

Jeff Ladd said...

Sam,

Yes I do...also check out her other books on color New Color/New Work and American Independents. Both are very good.

new sox said...

great blog jeff, like your pictures allot too. review more older books if you get a chance, would you please. don mccullin's perspectives is a favorite of mine, as much, maybe more than the pictures i love what he has to say about things...

Stuart Alexander said...

Heroes?! That is the last thing most photographers want to be called. American Photo magazine wanted to publish an issue last year featuring the greatest living photo 'heroes' and they all begged, screamed and pleaded for the magazine's editors not to do it. The magazine eventually called them the 'most important' or 'most influential'.

I am not going to get into the distortion of the term 'heroes' since 2001. Let's just leave it that this book has the worst title of any photographic book in the last decade. So what about the contents? I have just bought the original (since Mora is French, even though the English edition was published simultaneously) edition of the book which fortunately only has 'The Last Photographic Heroes' as the subtitle after 'La Photographie Americaine 1958-1981'. I have not yet had the chance to read beyond the preface and thumb through the pages but it is shocking to me that a book this bad has been put on the market.

If someone wants a good book that covers this period in American photography there are three sources that are still pretty easy to find on the secondary market. Jonathan Green's Americn Photography: A Critical History, 1945 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984. This has many illustrations and could benefit from being revised with an improvement in the quality of design and reproduction but it covers the period quite thoroughly although only through the view of Green. Far more satisfying is the book edited by Peter Turner, American Images, 1945-1980. New York: Viking/ Barbican Art Gallery, 1985. It was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Barbican in London. In addition to a text by Green it has brilliant texts by Gerry Badger, Bill Jay and Lewis Baltz. Each far outshines what I have read so far of Mora's book. And finally for a smaller more focused publication which I have not read but chose simply because it is a more recent publication that is far less pretentious than the Mora book and is a better selection for your money. The Social Scene: The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, LA: MoCA, 2000. Also published to accompany an exhibition at MoCA, it has essays by Max Kozloff, Emily Apter, Cornelia H. Butler, A. D. Coleman and Liz Kotz. Each one of these books individually is far worth more than the Mora book and you can probably get all three for the same price as the latter too.

One Way Street said...

I am so sorry I missed the NYPL talks - I got a very detailed account from Deirdre Donohue, which corresponded with your account. As much as I enjoy reading about books, a little gossip is appreciated as well!

Amy said...

Do you think there was a reference to the Jeff Bridges movie in that title? After all, it's well known that 'Junior' Eggleston used to run moonshine in his mustang...

Robert Stevens said...

Jeff, thanks. Now I don't have to buy this. I was intrigued by it and afterall Mora is good but this sounds like a terrible production mistake. Glad I diidn't order it yet!!!

Stuart Alexander said...

Hello Jeff and One Way Street,
There is an audio recording of the NYPL evening posted through a link on this page:
http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/pep/pepdesc.cfm?id=3638

I hope I can listen to it soon. Only have dialup at home. Sounds like an interesting discussion. I might even jump in on Danny's side. We'll see.

As to Anonymous above, There are foreign pictures in almost every one of Winogrand's books. There are at least five in 'Women Are Beautiful.' There are pictures made in England, Denmark, and France that I know about. Does anyone know if he worked in other countries too?

Mr. Whiskets said...

Amy,

Well he (Bridges)is a photographer too you know. But if the title was referencing a Jeff Bridges movie I would like to think it was The Last Unicorn.

Mr. Whiskets said...

Stuart,

Help Danny out, he needs all the help he can get.

Tod Papageorge said...

Stuart,

As it happened, I rough-printed Garry's work from his only European trip. (It was also the only time I ever printed for him.)

He had gone to London and the British Isles in '67 or'68 on an advertising assignment to photograph some brand of Scotch whiskey nestled into various glowering landscapes (imagine those in Hitchcock's "39 Steps") and, after, photographed on his own back in London and Paris. Now it may well be that he made a separate trip later to Denmark, but I don't remember it that way (though most likely I'm wrong about that because I don't recall printing any Danish pictures).

In any event, I'll be very surprised if you find yourself able even to listen to the 'discussion' about Garry and sundry other 'heroes' of 30-40 years ago (!) that took place at the NYPL, never mind decide to jump onto Danny Lyon's side of it. The bee in his bonnet has clearly been driving a stinger into his brain matter for a long time.

Perhaps I'LL try to listen to it, though; nothing quite as soothing as the sound of one's own voice.

Tod