‘Observations’ doesn’t have the lineage of Frank’s ‘The Americans’, but we had some very positive feedback on including other books by Robert Frank and so have compiled the following resource for Richard Avedon:
Were still looking Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’ throughout April but a heads up:
Next month for the first user suggested month, we will be looking at Eugene Richards ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ put forward by Jags Parbha.
Do you have a copy?
More to follow at the beginning of May
Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue
Text from publisher Aperture books
This is a compelling portrait of three communities blighted by drugs and isolation: East New York, North Philadelphia, and the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn, New York. With a chilling and informative afterword by Dr. Stephen W. Nicholas, a pediatric AIDS physician in Harlem, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue reveals how first steps toward solutions to overcome the drug trade have actually contributed to public denial and further isolation of the trapped communities. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue is a history of our times, a terrifying document that will educate us and promote dialogue.
“Eugene Richards’s wrenching photographic study of the culture of cocaine in three inner-city neighborhoods gives faces to some of the victims of addiction. It provides a shocking and heartrending picture of the damage inflicted by the drug.”
–Charles Hagen, The New York Times
“Eugene Richards’s seventh book, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, reaffirms his position as the premier chronicler of the dark side of American life ˜ he is the true heir to the mantle of the legendary W. Eugene Smith.”
When we started looking at Avedon’s ‘Observations’ we mentioned that we would produce a video for those who could not get hold of a copy themselves. A video to show Avedon’s images, their layout, sequencing and so on. You can see the video embedded below, and as always we look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions.
Note: Due to a family emergency our video producer has been unable to create this video, and so for now a rather dogeared copy that is my own (including absence of p84-5) has been photographed this morning. Our apologies. Matt
Erik Palmer, creative director of Vico Collective and teacher of communication theory at Portland State, offered this great comment to Wayne Ford’s synopsis yesterday that we thought was deserving of it’s own post.
I own a battered copy of Observations, but had not looked at it in a couple of years. So, coming to it with fresh eyes, I think the first thing about the book, which we mostly take for granted, with our contemporary sensibility, is its very magazine-like architecture.
Viewing Observations from 2011, it’s hard to see how provocative it must have been to try to synthesize pop culture and high culture in a formal publication like a book, and in the way that Avedon and Alexey Brodovitch attempted here. Unlike a whole, unified, complete book, we have the joining of a number of not obviously related chapters, like magazine features: The Actors, The Singers, The Swans, The Couples, and so on. And then we have an even greater stylistic and thematic jump to Italy popped into the middle of this book.
I don’t find the approach completely satisfying or successful. By comparison, I much prefer later Avedon books where he pursued a consistent formal approach, including the American West and Richard Avedon Portraits. These are the books where Avedon most clearly and successfully gives us what I want from him: the sense of confrontation that defined his white background portraiture.
Another important formal element that we see in Observations is the development of Avedon’s strategies of montage: his use of two images on facing pages to make implied claims of similarity or difference between the people pictured. Again, it seems obvious to our 21st-century media-saturated eyes that we should do this as photographic designers, but look for comparison at the techniques of sequencing and montage in The Americans.
Avedon’s pictures speak to each other and create higher orders of metaphorical meaning in a way distinct from Frank’s sequencing. Consider, for example, page 146, where Avedon joins photographs of Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Darcy in a similar stance, and that helps to inspire Capote’s analysis of appearance and virtue.
This month’s book ‘Observations’ is not easily accessible in your local library, nor is it affordable to most. But we consider it to be more than worthy of a Photo Book Club discussion, and so next week we will post a video looking through the book, making sure this incredible book is available to view by as many fans as possible!
Author Richard Avedon, with comments by Truman Capote
Publisher Simon & Schuster, 1959
Like Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ which we discussed last month in the Photo Book Club, American photographer Richard Avedon’s first book, ‘Observations,’ was published in 1959. And, like ‘The Americans’ it was included in Andrew Roth’s ‘The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the 20th Century (PPP Editions, 2001), now itself a seminal work on the history of the photographic book.
Having begun to take photographs during the Second World War, where he served in the Merchant Marine, Avedon became chief photographer of ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ in the late 1940s, where he helped redefine and elevate fashion photography to an art form, frequently taking his models out of the studio.
But Avedon’s first book did not focus on his fashion work, but on his iconic and penetrating portraits. In the 150 pages that form ‘Observations,’ with comments by the great American writer Truman Capote, we encounter the likes of Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Arthur Miller, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Judy Garland, Igor Stravinsky, Katherine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Buster Keaton, and many others.
Reflecting upon Avedon’s oeuvre, Maria Morris Hambourg recently wrote ‘By dint of progressive challenges to himself, Richard Avedon has not only distilled photographic portraiture to its irreducible core, but has also produced an extended meditation on life, death, art, and identity. Laureate of the invisible reflected in physiognomy, Avedon has become our poet of portraiture.’
Let us know your thoughts by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.
Next week we will post a video, showing the book in all it’s glory to those who do not own, or have access to a copy (which is most of us!)
A huge thank you to all who have dropped by and especially those who have contributed in the first month of the Photo Book Club, looking at Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.
Below is a short introduction and trailer to Philippe Séclier’s film ‘An American Journey’ which follows in the footsteps of Frank’s own journey. We are keen to hear from any who have seen the film and could offer their comments? The DVD is available here.
UPDATE: A excerpt of Rich Beaubien’s review for the film is shown below. His full review can be seen in the comments section. Big thanks to Rich for this!
In contemporary photography, everybody agrees there is a “before” and an “after” The Americans, Robert Frank’s 1958 photographic manifesto.
Half a century later, French director Philippe Séclier decided to follow in Robert Frank’s footsteps to explore the spirit of the “Beat Generation” and the impact of his book, The Americans, not only on the art of photography, but also on american culture.
From Texas to Montana, from Nebraska to Louisiana, from New York to San Francisco, An American Journey is a 15,000 miles odyssey through contemporary America, moving between past and present, photography and cinema, and two Americas, separated by time.
Though I’ve picked up many ideas about visual structure from cinematographers and films I’m just not a regular movie-goer so my not having seen this film is both typical and true but seeing a Twitter message come across my screen from the folks here at The Photo Book Club piqued my interest.
Philippe Séclier’s engaging, one hour long, documentary starts out as a film about the making of a book. Séclier spent two years (2005-2007) retracing the Frank travels around the United States interweaving interviews with attempts to revisit a handful of the book’s most famous photos.
San Francisco-area photographer Wayne Morris describes how Frank made a ‘first cut’ by actually cutting individual frames from strips of negatives and skipped making contact sheets. Anne Tucker the curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas thumbs through the dummy of the book made by Robert Frank in 1957.
Sarah Greenough, a curator at the National Gallery of Art and curator of the exhibition Looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans and editor of the catalogue, is seen thumbing through some beautiful photographs that Frank did not to include in his book. “He could have made an even more negative view of America,” she says.
Stuart Alexander speaks of the initial critical reception of The Americans that the photos were not about “all” Americans and maybe “Some Americans” was more appropriate.But the film isn’t really about Robert Frank or The Americans it’s about Séclier’s view of America and as Ed Ruscha acknowledges in the film, “It takes an outsider, really, to show us what’s it all about. We don’t know ourselves.”
I recommend the film for those you haven’t seen it. It’s only an hour and if you are familiar with Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ it will be a well spent enjoyable hour.
This post, looking at ‘The Americans in Context’ has been written by John Edwin Mason is a writer and photographer who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. You can read his fantastic blog here and follow John on twitter here. A big thank you to John for this contribution, if anyone else would like to write on the Photo Book Club, pop us an email.
Wayne Ford’s perceptive comments about the ways in which The Americans was received, when it appeared in the United States, have got me thinking about the historical context within which Frank made and published his photographs. That context — riddled as it is with complexities and contradictions — can itself suggest a series of commentaries about both the photographs and the ways in which people responded to them.
Wayne is quite right when he says that, on the whole, that American reactions to the book were initially hostile. While the New York Times was ambivalent (conceding that Frank had talent), most reviews were unambiguously negative. J. Hoberman has summed it up nicely: “…[most] Americans took The Americans personally. The book was characterized as ‘sick,’ ‘warped,’ ‘joyless,’ ‘dishonest,’ ‘sad,’ ‘neurotic,’ ‘marred by spite, bitterness, and narrow prejudice.’ Coming from a foreigner, the title was an insult. Why not ‘Some Americans?’”
It’s not hard to understand where this hostility was coming from. The nation that confronted people, when they opened the pages of The Americans, was anything but the “Shining City on the Hill” that so many have so often imagined it to be. Instead, the country was a dystopia, its citizens alternately menacing, menaced, or estranged. The photos often reveal racial hierarchies and class stratification. In many of them, fear, anger, and suppressed rage — sometimes masked by a boisterous bravado — seem to linger just below the surface. Frank wasn’t making any of this up, and people knew it. They hated him for showing it to them.
If Frank’s Americans seemed to be beset with both tangible and existential anxieties, we can understand why. Early victories in the African-American civil rights movement destabilized the old certainties of white supremacy. Suburbanization disrupted established communities and broke families apart. Cars choked the highways. Post-war prosperity failed to eliminate poverty. Always present, but largely unseen were the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation.
No one who had read The Americans would have been surprised by what was to come a few short years later — the assassinations (the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X), the urban rebellions of African-American youth, and the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.
Then as now, however, there were many Americas and many sorts of Americans. Frank didn’t capture them all and couldn’t have, even if he had tried. As a result, people had a point when they said that the book was actually about “some Americans.”
Frank saw the darkness in the American soul, but he rarely captured the light. The years during which he shot, edited, and published The Americans — 1955 to 1959 — belonged as much to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry as to anyone else. They were the commercial avatars of a cultural revolution that was leaving few aspects of American life untouched. This was the decade of rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights, abstract expressionism, and the Beats. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin, Jackson Pollack and Jasper Johns, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe could all lay a claim to it. Coincidentally, if not ironically, Disneyland opened in a Los Angeles suburb just a few months before Frank passed through town.
The ’50s were as exuberant as they were bleak, but we rarely see this in Frank’s photos. (Interestingly, Jack Kerouac, who wrote an introduction for the US edition of The Americans, managed to capture some of both qualities in his early novels.) Nobody relying on The Americans for their knowledge of the US would have anticipated much of what was to come next — the successes of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the emergence of women’s and environmental (Green) movements, not to mention hippies, Woodstock, and bell bottom jeans. Frank’s America hadn’t disappeared, as Richard Nixon’s victory in the 1972 presidential election made perfectly clear. It was, however, one America among many.
It does nothing to diminish Frank’s achievement to say that the truths he captured in The Americans are partial and contingent, rather than comprehensive and absolute. The insights are powerful, the photographs are beautiful, and we cannot plausibly ask for anything more. The book remains essential reading and viewing for anyone who wants to understand the history of photography or the nature of American society in the 1950s.