Book Review: Goodman & Hoffmann’s The Power of Pictures

Early Soviet photography was an explosive and short-lived burst of creativity released by the sudden removal of czarist restrictions and the violence of the revolution. That the early years of the Soviet Union coincided with the rise of 35mm photography was mere happenstance, but the availability of these new, compact cameras allowed their users to capture the rise of the new communist state and society in ways that provided as clear a visual break with the traditional artistic perspective as the Bolsheviks had with traditional government.

IMG_20200311_090510_1024

The 1920s saw tremendous experimentation, influenced by the surrealist movement then active in the West. Armed with their Leicas, Soviet photographers set out not only to document the new state, but to try to shape its vision of a Socialist future with their work. Radical angles skewed reality, extreme close-ups filled the frame, and photo montages filled with energy seemed ready to spring off the pages of new magazines dedicated to Soviet photography. This level of dynamism was nothing short of remarkable for a nation so recently considered one of the most traditional and conservative in Europe.

It was not to last. With Lenin’s death in 1924 and the rise of Stalin, every aspect of life in the Soviet Union began to fall under ever-closer state supervision. By the mid-1930s the avant-garde photographers were increasingly forcefully pushed to work in the sole officially acceptable style – Socialist realism – to promote the accomplishments of the state. Failure to do so in the eyes of powers that be would result in severe sanctions. Several were executed. Even though some stylistic elements of the earlier period had been integrated into the mainstream, the time for experimentation was at an end.

IMG_20200311_090815_1024

Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Jens Hoffmann’s The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film provides a useful set of examples of work from this era in a nicely printed cloth-bound volume. The photos are organized in small sets representing the various officially-sanctioned themes, as well as examples of film stills and magazine covers. Essays by the authors, and another by Alexander Lavrentiev, provide helpful explanation and context; all are properly and thoroughly cited, which is particularly useful for those seeking further information on this not particularly well-documented subject.

One thing compromises the overall presentation of the book. The sections pertaining to film, both the essay and the stills, are very brief and feel distinctly out of place. This is not to say that Soviet film does not deserve to be mentioned; certainly the influence of people like Sergei Eisenstein was wide-ranging and important. But in this volume, one that dedicates a mere twenty out of two hundred and forty pages to film, the discussion feels like an afterthought, something stuck in at the last minute. The space would have been better used expanding the selection of photographs.

IMG_20200311_090759_1024

Taken as a whole, in spite of the perhaps ill-advised inclusion of the film sections, this is a good book for those unfamiliar with this important era of Soviet photography. It is a high quality volume with a variety of photos from the period, and certainly worth adding to a collection of photo books.

 

Book Review: Fred Herzog’s Modern Color

This is a feature I’ve been contemplating for some time and, well, the time has come. In spite of my seeming inability to stop myself from purchasing cameras, I’ve offset that tendency somewhat by putting funds into photo books. I think that at this point in my photographic evolution, books are frankly a better and more valuable asset than additional gear. I have all the camera equipment I need and then some; I have not even scratched the surface on the quality photography books that have been published.

Looking at other people’s work can be inspiring, or educational, or a waste of time. But not looking at it places anyone who aspires to any sort of quality and self-improvement in the unenviable position of trying to do so without any sort of point of reference. How do you know if your work is any good if you don’t have good work to compare it to? Put another way, everything is original and brilliant if you’re only comparing it to your own work.

Why books instead of various internet outlets? One word: editing. To get a book published (by a real publisher and put up for commercial sale in major retail outlets, not something you printed four copies of to give your relatives) you have to work with an editor, and that means someone else – hopefully someone with a good, critical eye for photography – has to weigh in on the quality of the work. Any jackass can put his own photographs up on some self-aggrandizing website (I mean, look what you’re reading…), but published photographers are few and far between.

So I will occasionally write up a brief review of a book that I’ve acquired (I bought the book discussed here, and have no interest in its commercial success or failure. If some publisher decides to start throwing books at me, I’ll let you know.). I’m fairly picky in my selections, and as such I suspect there will be more positive reviews than negative, but they will all be careful and critical evaluations, not fluff pieces. If they help to introduce a few people to a few books of photography, great.

***

I’m kicking this off with my most recent book purchase, Fred Herzog’s Modern Color. The title is a bit misleading, as most of the photos were taken around fifty years ago, but there is something nonetheless modern about Herzog’s use of color. A German immigrant to Canada, he was an early adopter of Kodachrome and apparently shot it for decades, working mostly with a Leica and 50mm and 135mm lenses.

_DSF3626_Crop_1024

The book begins with three essays introducing the photographer and providing some context for his work. The second of these appears to have been translated from German and would have benefited from a more elegant translation. The third, Jeff Wall’s brief lament for the bygone world Herzog shows us, is particularly strong. Collectively, they do a solid job of placing us into the world Fred Herzog inhabited and photographed.

The core of any photography book must, of course, be the photographs, and here they are nicely presented, well-printed, and carefully chosen. Most are printed in facing single plates, though there are some spread across two pages, as well as the occasional blank facing page. Obviously most are color images, but there are a few black and whites included; they are fine photos, but they do feel a little out of place.

_DSF3627_Crop_1024

The organization is fluid and thematic, moving easily from his early work in the late 1950s to occasional forays as late as the early 2000s and back again. But it’s clear that Herzog was at his most prolific in the 50s and 60s, and in his home city of Vancouver. Many subjects are revisited: streets awash in neon, ships and docks, cars, small run-down houses, storefronts. The palette of the time suited his tastes, the way he saw his world, and the way the Kodachrome portrayed it.

This is what makes Herzog’s work exceptional: the synergy of the technical elements and his vision shows how a photographer can make the best of what’s available. In a sense, it’s a skill that modern photographers may never develop to the degree that Herzog did. The tools available now are so capable of altering the raw material of the negative as shot that there’s simply no need to master more restrictive, more limited equipment. Sure, it’s entirely possible to create great work with digital editing tools, but it’s post-facto, with the luxury of time.

_DSF3628_Crop_1024

Modern Color is an excellent book, particularly for any photographer who thinks about color as a primary element of their photography. Herzog’s work deserves to be more well-known than it is, and this book is a very good way to become acquainted with it.