Observations – A Closer Look

At the age of 17, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) joined the merchant marineʼs photographic section in 1940, where he would spend much of his time producing personnel identification photographs, and occasionally document shipwrecks. Following his discharge from service in 1944, Avedon found a job as a photographer in a New York department store, before Alexey Brodovitch — who Avedon had studied under in his Design Laboratory at the New School of Social Research — hired the 22 year-old as a staff photographer at Harperʼs Bazaar in 1945, where he would be the youngest member of the Russian emigres team.

This appointment would mark the beginning of the creative collaboration between the
inspirational art director, who did much to introduce modern graphic design aesthetics, and modernist European photography to the United States, and the photographer, that
culminated in the publication of ʻObservationsʼ in 1959.


One of the characteristicʼs of Brodovitchʼs design style, was his use of white space on the
editorial pages of Harperʼs Bazaar and his other projects, including ʻPortfolio,ʼ and this
influence is seen in Avedonʼs photography when he adopted the seamless white background in his fashion photography, for which he first became known, and latterly his
portrait work to.

Throughout his career, Avedon was a restless chronicler of our time, that led John Lahr to
write in ʻThe Times,ʼ ʻNo one has given a nation a more wide-ranging, disciplined
photographic document of itself,ʼ which is well reflected in the 150 pages that make up
ʻObservationsʼ which includes portraits of Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Arthur Miller, Picasso, Jacques Cousteau, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Judy Garland, Igor Stravinsky, Katherine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Gloria Swanson, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Buster Keaton, Georgia OʼKeefe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Truman Capote, amongst many other key people of the 20th century.

Katherine Hepburn, 1955 and Bridget Bardot, 1959 ©RICHARD AVEDON

A remark made by Avedon in the 1970s reflects this restless nature, ʻIf a day goes by
without my doing something related to photography, itʼs as though Iʼve neglected
something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.ʼ

For a photographer to produce during their career more than one exceptional book — a
volume that sets new standards — is a rarity, Avedon is one of those exceptions. In 1964,
he collaborated with the writer James Baldwin, to create ʻNothing Personalʼ (Atheneum),
which was designed by art director Marvin Israel (a good friend of Diane Arbus), and whilst ʻNothing Personalʼ isnʼt quite of the standard of ʻObservations,ʼ it signalled Avedonʼs commitment to the book format, and in 1985, he published his sixth book, ʻIn the American West 1979-1984,ʼ (Harry N. Abrams) designed by Elizabeth Avedon, who also produced ʻPortraitsʼ (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976) and ʻPhotographs 1947-1977ʼ (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978).

ʻObservationsʼ is unquestionably a beautifully conceived work of great importance, and as I mentioned earlier in the month, is included in Andrew Rothʼs superb reference ʻThe Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the 20th Century (PPP Editions, 2001), but ʻIn the American West 1979-1984,ʼ is Avedonʼs second great masterpiece.

Wayne Ford

The Photo Book Club World Map: An Update

We started the Photo Book Club World Map last Tuesday in an aim to create a comprehensive list of the best places to get your photobook fix – in physical stores.

Since then we have received hundreds of suggestions creating a map that currently comprises over 110 of the best stores, galleries and museum bookshops to browse and by photobooks and zines.

The Photo Book Club World Map

A huge thank you to all who have emailed, tweeted and posted their suggestions to this crowd-sourced resource as well as the PDN, Conscientious, Hey Mammoth and FlakPhoto who mentioned the project to their own followers. It was also great being able to utilise Andy Adams’ Flak Photo Network for the first time to get feedback from a 1700+ strong group of engaging photographers, educators and writers. To be able to tap into such a valuable community resulted in a much more complete picture of photobook stores around the world.

As mentioned above, the map currently stands at over 110 stores, but i’m sure there are many more: so please keep sending suggestions via email, twitter or in the comments section and they shall be added with a credit.
I have color coded stores in different parts of the world as well as using pins to represent highly concentrated areas, if you have any ideas on how we can improve usability – just let me know.

Now all that is left is for someone  generous  to send me on a world tour – stopping off at each store and buying a different photobook! I’ll even buy the books myself.

Matt Johnston

May’s book is… Eugene Richard’s ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

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

Eugene Richards
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.”

American Photo

Copies of this book are still fairly easy to get hold of online and in some good shops (Abe Books link, Amazon link)

Video: Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’

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.

Richard Avedon – Observations from Photo Book Club on Vimeo.

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

Synopsis: Richard Avedon – Observations (With comments by Truman Capote)

A note…

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!

Title
Observations

Author
Richard Avedon, with comments by Truman Capote

Publisher
Simon & Schuster, 1959

IMAGE ©RICHARDAVEDON.COM

Overview

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.’

Wayne Ford

Get involved

Let us know your thoughts by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.

Coming next…

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!)

The Americans – Your Personal Reminiscence?


©ROBERT FRANK

At The Photo Book Club we are really keen to hear your stories about Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. After hearing Rich Beaubien’s personal reminiscence last week (link) it got us thinking about how others first came across the book, what it has meant to them, how it has inspired people and even whether people have traveled to some of the sites in the book to recreate images?

As always you can get involved by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter, or use the comments section below.

Matt Johnston

I first read The Americans in my first year at University, as my fascination with American photography began. It sat in between Lange’s ‘An American Exodus’ and Clark’s ‘Tulsa’ on my reading list and was exactly what i had, unknowingly, been looking for. Through 83 images Frank showed a nation in birth, death, rest and work, captured a time in history, and for me, captured a picture that stretched far beyond its own decade.

There are very few books that keep me as interested and intrigued as The Americans, which I must have read The Americans in part or in full, at least 8 times that same week. I loved noticing different images each time, spotting the humorous touches i had missed previously and analysing the expressions on Frank’s characters and extras, which is how i saw it at the time – as a film of a time passed. I had no reference to America or the 70’s.

As my understanding of the context in which The Americans was produced grew, I lingered longer on images previously ignored. I read more into the sequencing of the images, took note of the locations and developed a better understanding of what Frank had captured. I stopped seeing the America i wanted to see and started to see the America that Frank saw, as a photographer and outsider.

Yet, like Niall commented, I like my first view of the book best. Where I skipped through the cocktail parties, commencement speeches and political rallies (falling in love with the elevator girl on the way) to spend my time looking at the cowboy hats, cigarettes, jukebox’s and endless roads.

Niall McDiarmid

My first copy of this, was a free give away with a subscription to the glossy Condé Nast magazine, Vanity Fair. I still have the battered paperback copy and although I have bought the hardback and the expanded version since, I prefer my first view of the book. Not surprisingly those Vanity Fair’s have long since hit the recycling bin.

The book, to me, transcends the idea of it being a photobook, mostly because it’s so important, it’s not about photography any more. It’s called The Americans and that’s what it is – a book about America and the American people in the 1950s. To me there is no complicated story behind the images, there’s no nuanced discussions on photography techniques or colour reproduction, yet it seems to sum up a whole decade in 83 pictures.

I love the idea that is was considered controversial and derogatory at the time yet today it’s considered a great documentary of America’s most important time. Nice work Robert, your can take your place up there with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in my book!

Rich Beaubien

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.

Wayne Ford

I first encountered Robert Frankʼs ʻThe Americansʼ as a young graphic design student in
the early 1980s. It wasnʼt a book I had been encouraged to seek out by my photography
lecturer — although he did point me in the direction of many wonderful photographers,
such as Bill Brandt, who continue to inspire me to this day — but a book I discovered by
chance as I browsed the small photography section in the art school library.

As a 16 year-old student my knowledge of America was based upon what I had seen and
read in the newspaper colour supplements, documentaries, and through stereo-typical
television series, but here in this small format book, was a series of gritty black-and-white
photographs that offered me a very different, and unique perspective of America that I had
nor seen encountered before.

Having spent the day looking at the book in the library, and seeking more information on
this unknown (to me at least) Swiss photographer called Robert Frank, I checked the book
out of the library for the maximum period allowed, two brief weeks, which just flew by.

I was rarely without the book, picking it up and browsing the pages as often as I could, and
after two weeks I returned the book to library, only to check it straight out again, a pattern
that I repeated over the next year, each time I returned to the library hoping, no one else
had asked to look at the book.

A year after I first encountered the work of Robert Frank and ʻThe Americansʼ I found a
secondhand copy in a local bookstore, and parted with a not insubstantial amount of my
small student grant, it wasnʼt the first photobook I purchased, but it was the first book of
photography that I purchased whose energy continues to excite me to this day.

Editions and History: Robert Frank – Les Américains/The Americans

The History

In June, 1955, Robert Frank purchased a five year-old Ford Business Coupe in New York, this purchase would signal the start of a road trip, that would first see the Swiss-born photographer drive alone to Detroit, then in late Summer south to Savannah and Miami Beach, before heading to St. Petersburg, and New Orleans, an then on to Houston, for a rendezvous with his wife Mary, and their two children, Pablo and Andrea. Together, they would drive west arriving in Los Angeles shortly before Christmas. They remained on the Pacific coast until May 1956, when Mary and the children returned to New York, leaving Frank to continue his 10,000 mile trip alone. His route took him via Reno to Salt Lake City, before joining U.S. 91 to Butte, Montana, then through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa, before arriving in Chicago, where he turned south, arriving back in New York in July.

In just over a year, Frank exposed more than 760 rolls of film, producing some 27,000 photographs, and on his return to New York, he began the mammoth task of editing his work. Over the next few months he selected and printed 1000 work prints, which he pinned to the wall of his Third Avenue apartment, or laid on the floor, slowly editing these prints to just 100, and then the 83 that would make up the final sequence of Les Américains (Robert Delpire, 1958).

Frank received an advance of $200 for The Americans (by the end of the year the was book out of print, and this sum had risen to $817), the road trip itself had been financed by a Guggenheim  Fellowship. His application to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in the autumn of 1954 listed five supporters, including the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), who had hired Frank as an assistant photographer, when he first arrived in New York from Switzerland in 1947, and the great photographers Walker Evans (1903-1975) and Edward Steichen (1879-1973).

Frank’s application stated his aim was to record ‘what one naturalised American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilisation born here and spreading elsewhere.’ It is worth remember that at this point Frank was not yet a naturalised citizen of the United States (he was awarded US citizenship in 1963, to which he remarked ‘Ich bin ein Amerikaner’), and Evans had a hand a significant hand in drafting the written application.

Like many great works, the initial reaction to The Americans was scathing, with condemnation coming think and fast, ‘A Degradation of a Nation!’; ‘a sad poem for sick people,’ the editors of Popular Photography where so incensed they published no fewer than seven reviews in the May 1959 issue, with just one proving ‘unreservedly admiring,’ in short The Americans, was viewed as un-American. But this was short lived, with more editions and reprints of this book being published than possibly any other photobook, reflecting the significance and influence of Frank’s seminal work.

Key Editions

•    Les Américains, Robert Delpire, 1958
•    Gli Americani, Il Saggiatore, 1959 (Italian edition)
•    The Americans, Grove, 1959 (Introduction by Jack Kerouac)
•    The Americans, Aperture, 1968
•    The Americans, Aperture, 1969
•    The Americans, Aperture, 1978
•    Les Américains, Robert Delpire, 1985 (French translation of Kerouac’s introduction)
•    The Americans, Pantheon, 1986
•    Die Amerikaner, Christian Verlag, 1986 (German edition)
•    Amerikanzu: Robato Furanku shashinshu, Takara-jimasha, 1993 (Japanese edition)
•    The Americans, Cornerhouse, 1993
•    The Americans, Scalo, 1993
•    The Americans, Scalo, 1998
•    The Americans, Steidl, 2008 (50th anniversary edition)
•    Die Amerikaner, Steidl, 2008 (German edition)
•    The Americans, Steidl, 2008 (First Mandarin edition)

Other books by Robert Frank

Where possible, Amazon links have been provided

•    Hold Still – Keep Going, Steidl, 2011
•    Tal uf Tal Ab, Steidl, 2010
•    Portfolio: 40 Photos 1941/1946,  Steidl, 2009
•    Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, Steidl, 2009
•    Seven Stories, Steidl, 2009
•    Black White and Things, Steidl, 2009 (re-issue)
•    Paris, Steidl, 2008
•    Zero Mostel Reads a Book, Steidl, 2008
•    Pull My Daisy, Steidl, 2008
•    Peru, Steidl, 2008
•    Me and My Brother, Steidl, 2007
•    One Hour, Steidl, 2007
•    Come Again, Steidl, 2006
•    New York to Nova Scotia, Steidl, 2005
•    Storylines, Steidl, 2004
•    Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank, Scalo, 2004
•    London/Wales, Scalo, 2003
•    Hold Still – Keep Going, Scalo, 2001
•    One Hour, Hanuman Books, 1998
•    Flamingo, Scalo, 1997
•    Thank You, Scalo, 1996
•    Black White and Things, Scalo, 1995 (Facsimilie of 1952 edition)
•    Robert Frank: Moving Out, Scalo, 1995
•    The Lines of My Hand, Distributed Art Partners, 1995
•    Black White and Things, 3Nishen Publishing, 1991
•    The Lines of My Hand, Parkett/Der Alltag, 1989 (revised edition)
•    The Lines of My Hand, Random House, 1989
•    Flower is…, Yugensha, Kazuhiko Motomura (Tokyo, limited edition of 500)
•    Thats Life, self-published, 1980
•    The Lines of My Hand, Lustrum Press, 1972 (condensed edition)
•    The Lines of My Hand, Yugensha, Kazuhiko Motomura, 1972 (Tokyo)
•    Me and My Brother, a handmade/promotional book for film of same name, 1965
•    Zero Mostel Reads a Book, New York Times, 1963
•    Pull My Daisy, Grove Press, 1961

Wayne Ford

Further reading

Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Expanded Edition, Steidl, 2008.

Synopsis: Robert Frank – Les Américains/The Americans

Title
Les Américains/The Americans

Author
Robert Frank

Publisher
Robert Delpire, 1958/Grove Press, 1959

Overview

Robert Frank’s (1924-) Les Américains, was first published by Robert Delpire on 15 May 1958, the 83 black-and-white photographs had been taken by the Swiss born photographer on a road trip across America he took between 1955 and 1956, and where accompanied by a text on the social and political history of America by Alain Bosquet. Each of Frank’s photographs is placed on a right-hand page, with Bosquet’s text on the left, with the edition forming part of the Encyclopédie essentielle series, which aimed to present foreign countries to a French audience.

In 1959, the first English edition of The Americans was published by Grove Press, New York (released in January 1960), it retained the same visual sequence as the Delpire edition, but replaced Bosquet’s text with an introduction by the poet and novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whilst the right-hand opposite Frank’s photographs had captions by the photographer, which describe the location of the image.

Although widely criticised when the book was launched in the United States, this seminal work, has since 1959, been published in numerous editions and become, one could argue, the most influential photobook of all time.

Wayne Ford

Get involved

Let us know your thoughts by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.

Coming next…

Later this week Wayne will take a look at the key editions of ‘The Americans’ as well as the history of the initial project and subsequent books.

Get the book

The current English language version of Frank’s ‘The Americans’ published by Steidl is available from the Amazon link below or from many other book stores.

Welcome to The Photo Book Club

Announcing the launch of the Photo Book Club

The idea for the Photo Book Club which will launch on 28 February 2011, grew out of conversations between designer Wayne Ford and photographer Matt Johnston, with the encouragement of photographer and educator Jonathan Worth.

The premise for the Photo Book Club is a simple one, each month we will discuss one book that we consider to have made a significant contribution to the world of photography, this may be a well known volume, such as Robert Frank’s Les Américains/The Americans, (1958/1959), which will signal the launch of the Photo Book Club, or a lesser known, but no less important work.

At the beginning of each month we will post a brief introduction of our chosen book on the Photo Book Club website, followed by a more in-depth comment on the work, and through the comment section of the website we aim to create a platform through which we can discuss the impact of each body of work through, over the coming weeks.

Whilst Wayne and Matt, both have ideas for the books that we would like to feature, we want the Photo Book Club to be an open platform, for a community to evolve, so we actively encourage suggestions for books, and in other ways in which we can develop the conversation, we want to create a community where the photobook in its widest context can be discussed and appreciated.

Whilst we are initially launching the Photo Book Club as a blog, and as a Twitter feed, we are hoping that in the near future we can arrange the occasional physical meeting, and even some print content too.

The Photo Book Club