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Entertainment News Monday, December 6, 2004
Uncommon pictures

Top Stories

December 5, 2004

Get an eyeful of art and photography, take a tour of the natural world and catch a glimpse of Earth from high above the clouds in our annual roundup of holiday gift books.

In his introduction to "Anonymous: Enigmatic Images From Unknown Photographers," collector Robert Flynn Johnson confesses to a kind of exhaustion. He has "visually, intellectually and emotionally used up many of the great photographic images of the past." Overexposure has stripped them of their power. Please, no more posters of Ansel Adams' moonrise over the New Mexico desert! Box up Karsh's portrait of Winston Churchill for the next 50 years!

Like many collectors, Johnson combats this burnout by sifting through albums and boxes at flea markets, discovering family snapshots, photo postcards and daguerreotypes that, in many cases, rival works by the masters of the art form. "Their presence there" - they have presumably been lost or intentionally discarded - "is both heart-breaking and mesmerizing."

Some of the photographs Johnson has collected in "Anonymous" - most are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries - capture people or animals in eccentric poses or juxtapositions. A Victorian baby stands beside a wood saw; a group of dogs assumes a chorus line formation. But for most of these pictures, the enigma is in the context: Who took these evocative Paris streetscapes? These men and women in Sunday clothes have gathered to watch what city billow mountains of smoke? Who is this man with a beautiful face, dressed as a swami? Because there are no dates or place names, no back stories, these images leave us happily disoriented.

The photographers whose work is collected in "Picture Machine: The Rise of American Newspictures" also are, with a few exceptions, anonymous. They were employed by wire services, their photos disseminated by telegraph to newspapers around the country. Nearly all of the pictures here, taken between 1914 and 1965, have not been reproduced since their original headline printings. The usual suspects and subjects - Hollywood starlets, crime scenes, society swells and boxing ring triumphs - are seen from fresh angles. But when these cameramen trained their eyes on the everyday, the results could be incredibly moving. Witness a woman and two children - Belgian refugees - who brace against the wind at Ellis Island, facing their new country with apprehension and anticipated delight.

There's very little joy in the portraits of anonymous city dwellers that Walker Evans took on the New York subway. With his hidden camera peeking out from between his coat buttons, Evans caught his fellow commuters in deep meditation. Their faces register wariness, boredom, dreaminess, fatigue, worry, cogitation, melancholy and blankness. The photographs were shot in the late '30s and early '40s while Evans and writer James Agee were collaborating on their historic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." But the resulting "Many Are Called," with an introduction by Agee, wasn't published until 1966. To mark the centennial of the New York subway, a new edition has been released with precise digital reproductions.

If Evans captured New York's subterranean musings, no one quite grasped the city's above-ground aspirations like Berenice Abbott. Through the 1930s, she took the pristine photos of skyscrapers, storefronts and streetscapes that make up her classic "Changing New York." Recently, Douglas Levere stood in the same spots Abbott did, at the same time of day and year and with the same type of camera, to photograph New York at the turn of the 21st century, creating new versions of Abbott's work. In "New York Changing," Levere's remarkable re-photographings are placed side by side with Abbott's originals.

Comely Gilded Age buildings have been dwarfed or replaced by the glass-and-steel monstrosities of the '60s and '70s - no surprise there. In most cases, blessings are mixed. Take the row of 19th century commercial buildings, as ornate as wedding cakes, along Union Square West that Abbott photographed in 1938. Sixty years later, four of the six look almost as fresh as they did then, give or take a missing cornice. But one has been transformed into a modernist cage, another replaced by a grubby little McDonald's.

In the latter half of the 20th century, before its triumphant restoration in the 1990s, Grand Central Station fell into sad and seedy disrepair. But imagine that it's an afternoon in the late 1950s, and you're rushing through the gray flannel suits of the terminal to catch a train. You hastily look up to take in the majestic Beaux-Arts ceiling, and you see ... an enormous photograph of teenagers having a waffles-and-milk party in a suburban kitchen.

The Kodak Colorama illuminated billboard hung on Grand Central's east wall, shining through the station's waning years and boasting "the world's largest photographs" - at 18 feet by 60 feet, that claim was likely true. In a Colorama photo, handsome, smiling (and largely Caucasian) nuclear families engage in excruciatingly wholesome activities - Little League games, Christmas caroling, traveling to it's-a-small-world vacation spots. (In almost every photo someone is using a Kodak camera; these were advertisements, after all.) "Colorama" collects 50 of these super-sized photos in a book that is, oddly, small enough to fit in your hand. While it's likely to send your kitsch-o-meter into the red, it's hard not to be stirred by so much optimism, the wish for security and lots of leisure time that fueled those postwar years.

Stephen Shore's "Uncommon Places: The Complete Works" is an antidote to so much Kodak - corn. Shore was a teenage regular at Andy Warhol's Factory, and the pop artist became a lifelong influence. In 1973, after the early death of his parents, Shore set off on the first of many car trips around the country to document the in-between spaces - the intersections, parking lots and run-down drive-in theaters you wouldn't pay attention to if you were driving by. The streets are emptied of people; the few Hopperesque figures that do appear look like they have no particular place to go. "I was interested ... in the ordinary," Shore says, "of things not happening in your life."

Born in Chicago in 1911, Edmund Teske also used the Midwestern vernacular landscape as a starting point - "Spirit Into Matter" begins with delicate portraits of tram riders and store windows overdressed with gabby signs. But a move to Los Angeles in 1943 brought him into contact with Hollywood's avant-garde and gay bohemians, and he experimented with the darkroom process of solarization. The resulting images were stormy, streaky and haunting: In a series of three photos, a reclining male nude is superimposed over some worn envelopes, a snowscape and a rust-colored, electrified desert lake. "Spirit Into Matter" presents the little-known work of an artist who was the visual heir to Walt Whitman.

Hanging out with The Doors, his white hair flowing over his shoulders, Teske was in some ways the antithesis of another gay photographer working over the same period - the phenomenally snobbish and impeccably stylish Cecil Beaton. For a certain kind of high-culture obsessive - literary, Anglophilic - "Beaton: Portraits" will be pure candy. Here are the last century's legendary writers (rakish Albert Camus, goofy Edith Sitwell); artists (boyish George Platt Lynes, hunted Frances Bacon); and performers (wily Grace Kelly, Twiggy scaling the furniture). One of Beaton's favorite compositions contrasts artist and muse: Lucian Freud stands tall and cocky before Lady Caroline Blackwood, who smolders, folded up on the floor; Alice B. Toklas is an unfocused smudge in Gertrude Stein's wake. Oh, 20th century, how we miss you!

Another cultural hero, Muhammad Ali, got a walloping art book treatment earlier this year with "GOAT" - an acronym for "Greatest of All Time" - priced at the mortgage-your-house sum of $3,000. The budget-minded consumer may be more comfortable paying a hundredth of that cost for "Muhammad Ali," by the Magnum cooperative of photojournalists. In many of these pictures, Ali is surrounded by fans and trainers, and one can imagine the pack of photographers dogging his every step. But he's a walking dynamo, punching and feinting for the crowds and camera. (In my favorite photo here, a frightened Ali ducks a bumble bee.) The final images, taken in 1997, show the lion in winter; his face has been smoothed out by Parkinson's, but he still musters a jab for the lens.

One of the frustrating things about photo books is how quickly they go out of print - snap up the above titles before they fetch astronomical prices on eBay. Depending on your acquisitive urges, British photographer Martin Parr's "The Photobook: A History" will either be an interesting tour of the genre or will drive you to despair - so many rare editions! so few for your own library! Parr draws from his own massive collection of both rare and in-print titles for this first of two planned volumes, with text by writer Garry Badger. Some of the books featured - Eadweard Muybridge's "Animal Locomotion," Edward S. Curtis' "The North American Indian" - have changed the way we see the world. But "The Photobook" is most enjoyable for its unearthing of obscurities. Who wouldn't love a copy of "The Book of Bread," a 1903 guide to the making of the foodstuff, with crisp black-and-white still lifes of "Milk Loaf" and "Scottish Plain Loaf"?


ANONYMOUS: Enigmatic Images From Unknown Photographers, by Robert Flynn Johnson. Thames & Hudson, 208 pp., $45.

PICTURE MACHINE: The Rise of American Newspictures, by William Hannigan and Ken Johnston. Abrams, 287 pp., $40.

MANY ARE CALLED, by Walker Evans. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 207 pp., $40.

NEW YORK CHANGING: Revisiting Berenice Abbott's New York. Photographs by Douglas Levere; text by Bonnie Yochelson. Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pp., $40.

COLORAMA: The World's Largest Photographs, From Kodak and the George Eastman House Collection. Aperture, 80 pp., $19.95.

UNCOMMON PLACES: The Complete Works, by Stephen Shore. Aperture, 188 pp., $50.

SPIRIT INTO MATTER: The Photographs of Edmund Teske, by Julian Cox. Getty Publications, 154 pp., $70; $40 paper.

BEATON: PORTRAITS, by Terence Pepper. Yale University Press, 240 pp., $50.

MUHAMMAD ALI, by Magnum Photographers. Abrams, 160 pp., $29.95.

THE PHOTOBOOK: A History, Volume 1, by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Phaidon, 320 pp., $75.

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