Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Electa Editrice Portfolios

In the late seventies and early eighties, the Gruppo Editoriale Electa in Milano, Italy published a series of portfolios of some great photographers. These are known as the Electa Editrice portfolios.

In 1979 there were 6 portfolios published, one each on the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lewis Hine, Diane Arbus, Nadar, Tina Modotti and Robert Capa.

These six were published to correspond with the Photography: Venice ’79 (Venezia ’79) exhibition. The show and book (Photography: Venice ’79) provided a view of photographic trends from the past century.

In 1980 - 1982, they also published portfolios of Man Ray, Eadweard Muybridge, Henry Fox Talbot, Lewis Carroll, Erwin Blumenfeld, Cecil Beaton, Gianni Berengo Gardin, and Fulvio Roiter. In 1986, they published one portfolio by Francois Gillet.

I first encountered a few of these portfolios when they were selling at the Strand Bookstore here in New York City in 1987. I bought three of them. One Lewis Carroll, one Eadweard Muybridge, and one Henry Fox Talbot. They were $4.95 per portfolio. I think they also had a Lewis Hine portfolio for the same price but I passed it up because…well…I was young and stupid. There couldn’t possibly be any other explanation.

These portfolios were printed in editions of 1000 and are made up of 12 loose prints on 11.5 X 15.5 inch heavy weight paper with a sheet of protective tissue paper on each. Those 12 prints sit in a black four point enclosed paper envelope, and that envelope slips into a hard, glossy paper slipcase with the title printed in bright orange on the cover. Each portfolio comes with a folded information sheet that gives a short artist biography and an explanation of the work alongside thumbnails of each of the plates. Daniela Palazzoli was the editor for the three that I have (perhaps she was for the entire series) and she contributed an essay to the Eadweard Muybridge portfolio.

From her text: “Woman throwing shawl on her shoulders (plate 11) plays on the contrast between the linear nakedness of the body and the baroque folds and volutes of the cloth. Woman spanking a child (plate 12) is a delightful subject movingly executed. It seems to be the only plate in Animal Locomotion in which the action is feigned. The illusion of movement is here created by the slow rotation of the camera around the subject, but Muybridge refrained from getting the mother to spank the child really.”

These portfolios are additionally nice in that each print is removable and suitable for framing. I have seen these reproductions described as being Heliogravure but on further study, they cannot be. Heliogravure is an etched plate process where the ink left in the recesses of the plate transfer the image onto paper and upon close inspection, they do not reveal any dot or line pattern common to offset, letterpress or rotogravure. These images definitely have a halftone dot under inspection with a loupe. Besides, I have heard that the last major publication to use Heliogravure was Paul Strand’s Mexican Portfolio produced in 1932.

For the most part, the printing is good but the process tends to block up the lower range tones and the highlights are somewhat sacrificed. They have a nice feel for a framable object but they are definitely made for the consumer market. I would guess that they originally held a retail price of $20.00 to $25.00 when they were originally published. Online, the Henry Fox Talbot and Nadar portfolios can still be found cheaply at $65.00 - $125.00.

About eight years ago I saw the Diane Arbus portfolio at Caney Booksellers in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and I recall it being around $300.00 dollars. If my memory serves correctly it contained the Disneyland castle image, the Christmas tree image, The Vanderbuilt baby head image, Brooklyn family image, the grenade boy image and…I can’t remember the rest. If any one out there owns this Diane Arbus portfolio and wants to contribute the plate list to the comments section, I’d be interested and thankful. The same goes for the Robert Capa plate list as I have not ever seen that portfolio.

By the way, do you know who the Vanderbuilt baby is in the Diane Arbus photo?

Anderson Cooper from CNN.

A special thank you to Andrew Cahan for fielding some questions regarding these portfolios.