In 1968 Swedish photographer Anders Petersen walked into Café Lehmitz, a bar located on the Reeperbahn, the red light district of Hamburg. Sitting down at a table with a beer, the photographer was soon engaged in conversation with a young man, his camera sitting on the table top, when he got up fro the table to use the menʼs room, Petersen left his camera on the table, and when he returned from he found the barʼs clientele
photographing one another.
Seizing the opportunity, Petersen asked if he too could photograph the bars clientele; a
mixture of sailors and dock workers, strippers, prostitutes and their pimps, along with poets and small time criminals; all of whom occupy the fringe of society, and signalling the beginning of a project that would occupy him on and off for the next two years.
In the raw and gritty black-and-white images, that have now become a signature of
Petersenʼs oeuvre, we experience in Café Lehmitz, not a voyeuristic view of this
atmospheric, smoke ﬁlled world, but a collaborative visual dairy. Petersen has fully
integrated himself into the Café Lehmitz family, with it becoming a new home.
Whilst this work is often graphic, even brutal at times, it is a very intimate and sensitive
work, with Kate Bush, curator of the Barbicanʼs ʻIn the Face of history: European
Photographers in the 20th Century,ʼ an exhibition which included the Petersenʼs series,
describing Café Lehmitz as a ʻZeigeist book,ʼ she continues, ‘It has a powerful identity and is totally of the moment. But Petersen is also important because he was very much a
participant in the social life he was documenting. His work has that integrity of engagement that great personal reportage requires.’
Term is coming to a close at Coventry University but the #fromthelibrary sessions run by the Photo Book Club have been a success with the first year students. We have discussed a whole host of books and many that I had never encountered before were brought along from the library shelves, which was great to see.
I am looking forward to runnig more of these session in conjunction with the Photo Book Club, if anyone is interested – send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org
Shortly after our first post on Avedon’s ‘Observations’, Katja Anderson got in touch to offer her own contribution to this months book, and we are really pleased she did: below is Katja’s piece which offers background, comment, deconstruction and a few ‘behind the scenes’ facts, a great read. (Don’t have a copy of ‘Observations’? – Take a look at our video)
Katja Anderson – Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’
In 1959, lovers of photography and popular fiction alike were eagerly awaiting the publication of Observations, a collaborative effort between Richard Avedon and Truman Capote. Avedon had taken the photographs, all portraits, an interesting departure for a man known primarily as a fashion photographer. Capote, an old friend, was asked to write the text, while Alexey Brodovitch, then the former art director of Harper’s Bazaar and the man who had made certain Avedon would work for the publication, was responsible for the layout and cover art. It was an interesting time for anyone associated with Harper’s Bazaar, which included Capote. While never a staff writer, he had written an article when in his early twenties, a relatively obscure writer of short stories. The fiction editor had sent him to New Orleans, accompanied by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Capote commented: “I’ve never worked so hard and I never want to again.”
Harper’s Bazaar had some of the most talented people in the business on the masthead, ranging from Brokovitch to the brilliant editor-In chief Carmel Snow; Avedon later claimed that everything he knew he had learned from her. She hired him, Brodovitch having sung his praises. Avedon was twenty-two, a high school dropout who served his country during World War II by working as a photographer, using his Rolleiflex (a going away present from his father) to take one I. D. photograph after another for two years. After returning to New York, he enrolled at the New School, where he was taught by Brodovitch. Brodovitch, struck by similarities between Avedon’s work and that of Martin Munkasci, an eminent photographer on the Harper’s Bazaar payroll. It was the real reason Carmel Snow hired him. Both men depicted models smiling, laughing, exceptionally energetic, constantly in motion (as Avedon himself was).
Diana Vreeland was another brilliant member of staff, a fact that understandably evaded Avedon when they first laid eyes on one another. As he recalled many years later: “Vreeland returned to her desk, looked up at me for the first time and said, ‘Aberdeen, Aberdeen, doesn’t it make you want to cry?” He continued with: “Well, it did. I went back to Carmel Snow and said, ‘I can’t work with that woman. She calls me Aberdeen.’ And Carmel Snow said, ‘You’re going to work with her.’” It was the beginning of a forty-year professional relationship, as well as a close friendship. Avedon and Vreeland inspired the Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, Dick Avedon hired as adviser, helping Fred Astaire portray his alter-ego Dick Avery.
That was in 1956; the film was released the following year. Avedon and Capote had been friends for years (“Dickiboo”). Near-exact contemporaries, both attained
fame early, Capote with his bestselling first novel, Avedon as a photographer, sufficiently well known for Life magazine to publish page after page of his portraits of Broadway stars, referring to him by surname. But the photographs were lacklustre. Good enough for a widely circulated magazine aimed at the average American, but not Avedon. By the early Fifties, his style had changed dramatically by eliminating every superfluous detail, as well as exploiting the Rolleiflex, capable of producing “a hallucinatory sharpness.”
Avedon was as driven, as intense as Capote was relaxed. He continued to work on portraiture, placing subjects against a background of medium or lighter hue. By 1957, if not earlier, he had become skilled at saying exactly the right thing to elicit an emotional response. Everyone, particularly celebrities, wore masks in public and Avedon was determined that the masks would, if not fall off completely, at least slip. His portrait of Marilyn Monroe exposed a lost, vulnerable woman, oblivious to her blonde beauty and highly sexual presence. Perhaps the expression was fleeting, perhaps not, but the challenge for Avedon was to capture it on film as quickly as possible, not to mention eliciting it; while Avedon sought to have good relationships with his models, even taking the trouble to discover the food and music they liked, a celebrity sitter was a very different matter. Usually, there was no relationship between celebrity and photographer, and while Avedon which buttons to press as far as the models were concerned (he tended to use the same models over and over) there was no such luxury with a stranger, no matter how famous. Sessions were brief, about ten minutes long, so Avedon would ask a provocative question. Or make a statement certain to elicit an emotional response. While photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he casually mentioned a taxi driver hitting a dog earlier. The masks slipped, if only for a moment; Avedon clicked away on the Rolleiflex and revealed the Windsors as the sad, tired couple they had become.
Brigitte Bardot was another matter, merely looking at the viewer, too characteristically languid to be surprised. Marella Agnelli was positively tranquil, serenely gazing into the camera, the only sign of life in her limpid, faintly glowing eyes. Including her portrait in Observations was surprising, as was that of American social figure Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley. Both Marella and Babe were best known to those who read fashion magazines and gossip columns. And there was little room to spare in the book; images fought for space. By 1959, Avedon had such an impressive body of work (in terms of quality as well as quantity) that rejection was rather more common than inclusion. As Brodovitch was responsible for the layout, one suspects he advised his former protege. One suspects, too, that Capote pressed for the portraits of Marella and Babe (two of his closest friends) to be chosen. A travel diary kept by a seventeen-year-old Grand Tourist inspired his text, likening the women to swans. A lovely, exceptionally graceful image, but one reads on. Thanks to a wealthy man, “…a husband, a father”, these women created an illusion of beauty, the ‘swan illusion’, a substitute for the real thing, so powerful, so convincing that everyone who lays eyes on the swans is convinced as well. A backhanded compliment if there ever was one, but one with more than a grain of truth, as is the case with many observations.
This first personal reflection is from Wayne Ford, we would love to hear yours, especially if you have seen Observations for the first time from our video. Feel free to add it in the comment section for it to be posted here, or email email@example.com
I first encountered the work of Richard Avedon through the art direction of Russian émigré Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), as a young graphic design student in the early 1980s. As my interest in editorial design grew, Brodovitch who was art director of ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ for almost a quarter of a century (1934-1958), became central to my studies.
Brodovitch was instrumental in introducing the ‘modern’ graphic design style that emerged through a number of art and design movements in Europe in the 1920s to the United States, in addition to which as Andy Grundberg writes, ‘Brodovitch is virtually the model for the modern magazine art director. he did not simply arrange photographs, illustrations and type on the page; he took an active role in conceiving and commissioning all forms of graphic art, and he specialised in discovering and showcasing young and unknown talent.’
Having arrived in New York in 1930, Brodovitch would regularly commission the likes of Bill Brandt, Brassai, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, his first design assistant was the young Irving Penn, and the list of photographers that he mentored in his long career, reads like a who’s who of twentieth century photography, Lillian Bassman, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, and of course Richard Avedon.
The copies of Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar that I own are well thumbed, the mix of unmatched design and art direction, continually draws me back, as does my copy of ‘Observations’ for Avedon’s immensely powerful portraits, and also because the book itself was designed by Brodovitch.
Note: A small piece of trivia, it is well known that Fred Astaire’s role as a photographer in the film ‘Funny Face’ (1957), is styled upon Avedon, but the films art director is called ‘Dovitch’ reflecting the pairs influence on the world of popular culture during the period.
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.
We thought it would be useful to have a place where all the great suggestions, comments and links can be seen easily. Below are the thoughts shared so far about Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. Keep them coming through thehashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.
There was a show of all 83 images at the Corcoran Gallery of art in DC a year or so ago. Just amazing.#photobc
Thing that sticks with me most about The Americans is contrast b/w how familiar the imagery looks but how foreign the images feel #photobc
I grew up in the US during the 1950’s and came of age during the tumultuous 60’s. Frank’s book documents the middle of the 1950’s and was released just prior to the explosive 1960’s decade. I found my first copy of The Americans in a second-hand bookstore sometime in the early 1970. It was Kerouac’s name on the cover that first enticed me (I was born and raised in Kerouac’s home town), in the end it was the photographs that captured me. I wasn’t sure what I had, but the evocative images struck me from the beginning. The careful sequencing (where I learned how story telling takes shape) and the format, with the blank facing pages, lends itself well to close inspection of each photo. There has always been, at least for me, both a subtleness and strong articulation in the images. Plus they all have some sort of interesting angle and often carry some humor. When looking at these images I often get transported as an observer back in time to the moment, becoming part of what is happening. These photographs captured the breadth this country as it entered a pivotal decade of the 20th century – the hope, difficulties, feelings, tension, and insecurities.
I guess this became more of a rambling personal reminiscence, than a review. Still, it was inspirational in my own development in that I realized for the first time of the possibilities capturing someone in public. I never saw a photograph the same way again.
John Edwin Mason
There’s a lot of good audio on the website of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, which mounted a major exhibition on The Americans (and including Frank’s entire career) in 2009.
You’ll find an hour-long conversation between Frank (in very good humor) and Sarah Greenough, plus other talks by Greenough, Stephen Brooke, Martin Gasser, Olivier Lugon, and Alan Trachtenberg, among others. Here’s the link:
My favorite edition of The Americans might be Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, which was the catalog for the National Gallery exhibition. It contains, besides the usual scholarly essays, reproductions of the contact sheets on which each of the photos in the book appears. And there are few things in the world more fascinating that a great photographer’s contact sheets.
Looking In also contains some of the photos that didn’t make it into the book. It’s wonderful to see what made the cut and what didn’t.
Thanks for putting this together, gents. Should be fun.
I would be interested to hear a discussion about the initial criticism for the book when it was published in the US and a discussion on how the sentiment changed to be lauded as such an influential book.
In Reply – Pete Brook I think Larissa’s wish to read criticism upon the release of ‘The Americans’ is tantalising. I’d like to see those reviews too.
Iain Sarjeant Congrats on the launch of @photobookclub – would love to see Keld Helmer-Petersen discussed in the future #photobc
Brian David Stevens Maybe a future discussion on what great photobooks are out of print and why that is….?
Its not photography but Colour by Derek Jarman is a brilliant book that should be read by anyone in visual arts.