Category Archives: Book reviews

Photography books

Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau

By a master of the landscape.

Jack Dykinga has been featured here a decade ago and his work in the American west continues to define the standard for landscape photography.

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Dykinga works with film in 4″ x 5″ field cameras using the finest Schneider lenses, and it shows. While film in small sizes is largely the province of cranks and those who place little value on their time – not to mention the quality of the results – the use of large format sheet film is thoroughly justified in this case. High pixel count digital sensors may be the thing for landscape snappers today, but it’s hard to beat the sheer plasticity of Dykinga’s results. Add an expert’s eye and you have a book to wonder at. There is absolutely nothing dated about the images on display here.

Long discontinued, it’s abundantly available from Amazon and resellers like Abe Books.

Traveling in style

On the great liners.

In an age where (mostly white) trash pervades the news cycle, and one in which such human detritus is headed for the Oval Office regardless of one’s vote, it’s a pleasure to contemplate an earlier age of paparazzi which saw the rich and famous photographed crossing the Atlantic in the luxury liners of the inter-war years.

Fred and Adele Astaire on the S.S. Majestic, 1927.

The New York Times reminds us of that age in a splendid piece with many period images, which you can see by clicking the picture above.

For those interested in the great liners I recommend ‘The Only Way to Cross’ by John Maxtone-Graham, available used through Abe Books. The book looks exhaustively at these floating palaces, from the Mauretania and Titanic through the QE2, in both aesthetic and technical detail and is highly recommended. It includes many period photographs.

If you are seeking to get a sense of just how special these great ships were, you can stay on the Queen Mary in Long Beach which is now a floating hotel.

Photography books – 10 years

10 years of inspiration.

When I write ‘Photography books’ I am not referring to tomes dealing with the dry arcana of Photoshop. Rather, I mean books of photographs by great photographers, books meant to inspire and improve one’s own vision.

On that basis very little of substance has been published during the decade I have been writing this journal and one might go further and say that very little of substance has been published since Henry Fox Talbot was knee high to a grasshopper. The same goes in most fields of endeavor. There are only a few great, memorable buildings in the world. A few great leaders. A few cars. A few scientists. A few artists. A few great composers. You name it and Pareto’s principle is not 80/20 but rather 99/1. 99% of most every genre is garbage.

And so it is with photography books.

Click here and you can see the contents of my library of photography books, some three hundred all told. They lie merrily around the abode in absolutely no sort of order, an approach based in the simple belief that a good photography book should always come as a surprise. A long lost friend made new again when savored after a long absence.

And while reading devices like tablets and cell phones have obsoleted most books the one genre which remains untouched by this technological upheaval is the art book. Can you imagine enjoying Raphael’s frescoes or Cartier-Bresson’s masterpieces on a poncy 11″ display? No.

What are the qualities which makes a photography book great? The one which must surely take first place is repeatability, by which I mean that every time you return to it you see something new. Your pulse rises and you ask “How did he see that?”. So if forced to name just five favorites for the proverbial desert island, a location devoid of the culturally arid expanse that is Facebook, the choice is surpassingly simple.

1 – Steam, Steel and Stars by O. Winston Link.

‘Breathtaking’, like ‘gay’, is a once charming word which has lost all meaning, overuse and abuse having confined both to the status of grammatical detritus. Yet used in the traditional sense, the one in which maybe a Spitfire pilot might have used it about his machine when battling the Hun in the skies over London in 1940, Steam, Steel and Stars is so obviously the greatest chronicle of a bygone age that this photographer has seen. It is breathtaking.

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More than documentary, it’s a passionate memoir of the last days of steam seen through the eyes of a photographer who spared no effort in lighting his subjects – be they trains or the people charged with their care and nurture – invariably at night. And it’s literally breathtaking when you realize that as often as not his miles of cabling for the complex flash apparatus used would be severed by the very subject illuminated, as the train thundered over the wires. An absolute masterpiece and you cannot call yourself a photographer if it’s not in your library.

2 – Henri Cartier-Bresson – The Man, the Image and the World.

Realistically, just about any HC-B book will do. It’s the images which matter not the invariably blathering, pseudo-psychological texts which accompany them.

Those lucky enough to own his first – Images à la Sauvette – probably have the finest précis of the man’s oeuvre, and if you want the early HC-B, still mightily influenced by his painting teacher, the surrealist André Lhote, that’s a fine place to go. Sadly, it’s rare and costly, so the choice here – more comprehensive in its coverage – is a suitable alternative.

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When negotiating with the prickly Charles de Gaulle, France’s greatest post war leader, Churchill once remarked “I have the cross of Lorraine to bear”. But even WSC knew that a world without the French, a world without Paris, without Parisian culture and gastronomy and clothing and light and sheer style, would be a worse place. And complain as one might about the cowardice of the French in the face of the Germans in 1940, of their Vichy government and its collaborationist ways, if you do not love France and its culture you simply do not get it. We have their weakness to thank for the fact that Paris, that most perfect of cities, survived unscathed. Krupp’s guns were directed at the land of my parents and then on the land of my upbringing, but mercifully not at Paris.

And it’s hardly a wonder that the greatest slice-of-life snapper ever was French. Arguably he could not have originated anywhere else.

3 – Paris by Night – Brassaï.

And speaking of Paris, never was that wonderful city done greater justice than in Brassaï’s – yes, breathtaking – slim tome of night pictures. More than breathtaking, it’s magic and is likely the only book I own where you can smell the city. In Paris de Nuit the Hungarian émigré, to use modern vernacular, absolutely nailed it, in that most welcoming of cities for artists and revolutionaries.

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I confess to being so fond of this book that it’s within arm’s reach, as often as not.

4 – Horst, His Work and His World.

Another émigré who was to leave his definitive stamp on the world of photography is Horst P. Horst. The young German had wisely changed his name from Horst Bohrmann when immigrating to New York, where his talent was immediately noticed – first as a model then as a photographer at American Vogue. American Vogue may not have had the style of it’s French counterpart but it had great couturiers galore in Horst’s time and, of course, Americans were rich and willing to support them. (British Vogue can be largely dismissed as English women of the period were clueless about clothes sense. Horses and tweeds may go together but it’s not a pastime supportive of haute couture).

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Horst is the master of the formal, carefully staged, studio portrait, his work putting the efforts of the likes of Cecil Beaton to shame. The famous corset image, above, is of none other than Lee Miller who went on to becone a great photographer (and lover of Man Ray, no less) in her own right. Her experience of seeing the Nazis’ death camps almost destroyed her as it would many a man.

In much the same way that Brassaï’s images of Paris at night will never be surpassed, one can comfortably place Horst’s studio work in the same category of excellence.

5 – Nature’s Chaos by Eliot Porter.

This lovely book was a 1990 Christmas gift from a great American capitalist and his playwright wife with the charming inscription “These photographs remind us of your work”. Roy and Carol had always made their magnificent Venice Beach home open to me with its expansive displays of art and sculpture and their generosity in turn inculcated in me that great American spirit of philanthropy.

Their inscription was more politeness than accuracy, as I am generally completely clueless about nature photography, but the book is special. Porter has published many books of his images, and this one is as fine as any. There is nothing remotely picture postcard about his work which tends to abstraction and thoughtfulness.

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So there you have it. My five most favorite photography books, ones from which I have learned much and continue to learn more. And ten years earlier I very much doubt that short list would be any different.

Click here for an index of all my book reviews.

Wall Street – Financial Capital

Book review.

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Nearly a decade ago I made mention of Gambee’s other Wall Street book, Wall Street Christmas.

The book in this review is every bit as good, replete with magnificent photographs of the grand facades of Wall Street buildings and many of their interiors. The finance industry has long known that if you are to accrue great wealth at the expense of your customer base, you have to present an image of carefully crafted respectability, meaning marble and mahogany. The execution of this belief is abundantly on display in Gambee’s work.

Even if you are no great fan of the banksters who every so often bring the global financial system to its knees, you will enjoy the photography in this splendid book. Mine came from Amazon but took some three months between order and arrival, so be prepared to wait. It’s worth it.

Hollywood in Kodachrome


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An outstanding book with some 300 gorgeously reproduced images of the stars of the golden age of Hollywood. The care and attention to detail evident in the making of these images are really special.

Personal favorites? Why Lauren Bacall of course (on the cover, aged just 21) and Loretta Young, two of the most sohisticated beauties of the era. Today only one actress remotely has comparable presence – Angelina Jolie. Be sure to catch her in Maleficent, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale by none other than Disney, of all studios. She deserves to be in this splendid book.

Kodachrome of the time came in roll and sheet film, the latter as large as 11″ x 14″ and in ISO speeds of just 8 (daylight) and 10 (tungsten), meaning lots of very bright and very hot lights to make the stars look just so. We have it easier today, but with fewer truly glamorous stars.