PHOTOGRAPHY : Picture This

McKenna contributes regularly to the Times, writing about art, music and film.

With the holiday season looming on the horizon like a crashing blimp, the deluge of coffee table gift books has begun; and, none of the arts is better suited to the oversized book format than photography. The most intimate of mediums, it's the only artform that lends itself to being cradled in one's lap and examined with a magnifying glass; moreover, photo books are the most affordable and convenient means of having a direct art experience.

One bit of carping before we get to the books; the text in art photo books tends to be hyperbolic, fawning critical blather. Biographical information about the artists is usually skimpy at best, and the critical essays usually discuss a given photographer's work solely within the context of developments in the field of photography and world events; they rarely connect a photographer's choices in regards to his work to events in his personal life.

Topping the list of new books is Sebastiao Salgado's An Uncertain Grace (Aperture: $60; 155 pp.) A Brazilian photographer whose work is in the tradition of the great photojournalist Eugene Smith, Salgado has covered major news events around the world since 1973, and this brutally frank visual essay on the grotesque imbalance of life in the 20th Century is not for the faint hearted. Salgado spent 15 months in the famine stricken Sahel region of Africa (these pictures are extremely difficult to look at), and a good deal of time in the Serra Pelada gold mines of Brazil. The shots from Serra Pelada are Salgado's best known work; we see thousands of semi-nude men covered with mud, swarming on rickety ladders up and down the precarious earthen walls of a gold mine. Published to accompany an exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that opens at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery on December 16, "An Uncertain Grace" is an epic work that raises profoundly disturbing questions about our attitudes and responses to suffering.

In a much lighter vein is William Wegman: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, Videotapes (Abrams: $39.95; 216 pp.) The catalogue for a major retrospective traveling Europe and the U.S. through 1991, this is the first comprehensive study of Wegman's work in four mediums. Unique in that he's had a big impact on the avant garde while winning a popular following, Wegman is best known for his photographs of his two Weimaraners, Man Ray and Fay Ray, and a good portion of the book is given over to his dog pictures (many of them previously unpublished). These pictures are incredibly winning; Wegman's sense of whimsy combined with the lovable silliness of dogs is irresistible. The book also includes an excellent essay on Wegman's paintings by critic Peter Schjeldahl, as well as a short essay by Wegman that's written with great clarity and wit. Wegman's short autobiography is in fact imminently more readable than the three critical essays in the book.

New York Times photography critic Andy Grundberg offers a crash course in the ground breaking work of the Starn Twins in Doug and Mike Starn (Abrams: $40; 144 pp.). The most controversial artists currently working in photography, these young twin brothers from New Jersy create massive photo-collages involving up to 50 prints. Creased and crudely taped together, casually tacked to the wall or presented on industrial clamps that stretch the prints like drum heads, the Starns' unorthodox work has a large faction of the photography world fuming. However, as can be seen in this comprehensive survey of their work of the past five years, their rapturously romantic pictures may break all the rules but they're very easy to like.

Keeping the flame of tradition burning brightly are Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Alfred Eisenstadt, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Robert Mapplethorpe--all of whom have new books out.

Likely to be the last oversized Adams book published (or so say his publishers), Ansel Adams: The American Wilderness (Bulfinch: $100; 146 pp.) was conceived shortly before Adams' death in 1984 and is the summation of his legacy to the environmental movement. Including 107 photos (one third previously unpublished or rarely seen) along with exerpts from Adams' writings on the need to preserve the wilderness, this huge book is a glorious symphony of heroic landscapes splashed across two page spreads. Sad to say, the book feels a bit like a eulogy for the American wilderness--the human race has undeniably botched things badly in the 50 years since most of these pictures were shot. One also has to say that despite Adams' admirable intentions, this book is a symphony of one note; his pictures feel bombastic, a little too perfect and more than a pinch sanctimonious. Nonetheless, this is sure to be a widely loved book.

Similarly high minded was Paul Strand. The subject of an exhibition on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through Nov. 25, Strand is also the subject of Paul Strand (Aperture in Association with the National Gallery of Art: $100; 170 pp.). The catalogue for an exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art marking the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth, this book includes several previously unpublished images, a rambling critical discourse by Sarah Greenough and a selection of Strand's letters. The most painterly of photographers, Strand created pictures that glowed with a lustrous, creamy quality--even his shots of abject poverty and squalor feel rich. Strand had an unerring feeling for composition, and his pictures--portraits, landscapes, formal nature studies--are infused with tremendous poise. Graceful though they are, there's nothing remotely candid about these solemn pictures and his work occasionally feels a bit too polite.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo's style had much in common with Strand's--they even photographed many of the same places at roughly the same time. But, whereas Strand's work has a classical formality, Bravo's pulsates with the messy vitality of real life. Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego: $75, cloth; $19.95, paper; 134 pp.), is the catalogue for an exhibition recently presented by the Museum of Photographic Arts, (it left there for a seven-city tour on Sept. 9) and it includes images spanning 66 years in the life of this great Mexican photographer.

Bravo had a keen eye for the magic that dances just below the surface of everyday life, and his pictures--of domestic interiors, nudes, landscapes, portraits and religious icons--hum with a hallucinatory edge evocative of Borges. Too bad the essay by Nissan N. Perez has none of that spark. Based on extensive meetings with Bravo over an eight year period, Perez's essay hardly quotes Bravo at all. It would be preferable to hear what the artist had to say about his work, rather than the dry, scholarly essay we're given. It would also be nice if the images in the book were in chronological order; it's difficult to see the evolution of Bravo's work with the works sequenced as they are.

Alfred Eisenstadt was one of the star photographers of Life Magazine, which elevated photo journalism to new heights during the 1940s. Eisenstadt's Life press pass gave him a front row seat for most of the great events of this century and Eisenstadt: Remembrances (Bulfinch: $40; 141 pp.) doubles as an encapsulated history of the modern era. Eisenstadt took the most widely reproduced image to ever appear in Life--a shot of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V.J. Day in 1945--and that enormously popular picture is here, as are insightful portraits of everyone from Thomas Mann to Marilyn Monroe. Designed to illustrate the breadth and variety of Eisenstadt's photographic career, this lovely book leaves one marveling at how exciting the 20th Century has been.

In the wake of the ruckus Robert Mapplethorpe's work has kicked up since his death in March of 1989 (a ruckus that no doubt would've delighted him), people approach his work expecting to be shocked. Mapplethorpe's Flowers (Bullfinch: $50; 49 pp.) will probably raise a few eyebrows--by virtue of the fact that it's an incredibly tame book. A series of color still life studies of flowers that was shot over a 12 year period beginning in 1977, "Flowers" (which includes a forward by Mapplethorpe's good friend Patti Smith) is a formal exercise in color and composition. Controlled to the point of asphyxiation, each shot involves one perfect flower at the very peak of its bloom in a vase selected to set off the flower, awash in dramatically elegant lighting. There's something cold and a bit cruel about this obsessively austere interpretation of beauty.

One of the most pleasant surprises among the current crop of books is Women Photographers (Abrams: $65; 264 pp.). One approaches the book with a groan--oh no, one thinks, a feminist reading of photography. Thankfully, the book makes no attempt to establish a feminine photographic sensibility; rather, it seeks to introduce worthy women photographers who've been overlooked by history, and to examine lesser known works by prominent women photographers. Among its wonderful discoveries are: pictures by Moholy Nagy's wife Lucia; Eudora Welty's photographs of southern blacks; Lee Miller's harrowing images of Dachau; and a broad sampling of women leading the field today (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Ess, Tina Barney and Nan Goldin, to name a few). Susan Meiselas, one of the most respected photojournalists presently working chronicles the obscene violence of the war in Nicaragua, while Debbie Fleming Cafferty distills David Lynch's aesthetic to a single beautiful image in "Enterprise Sugar Mill." If you buy just one photo book this year, "Woman Photographers" would be a good choice.

Peter Yung Wai-Chuen's Autumn Flood (Oxford University Press: $125) is a visual interpretation of a well known work by Taoist philosopher Chuang Tze. You need a small crane to handle this cumbersome book, but conceptually it's lighter than air and quite enchanting. The artist spent ten years traveling the world in search of landscapes that reflect Chuang Tze's pearls of wisdom, and the results--gloriously colorful photographs shot from the windows of commercial airliners--are as inspiring as the artist intended they be.

James Arkatov takes an intimate look at the leading lights of the world of classical music with Masters of Music: Great Artists at Work (Capra Press: $50; 200 pp.). As a first-desk cellist, Arkatov has been on the inside of this world for decades, and he's compiled an impressively comprehensive visual survey of the great musicians of this century. Arakatov is, however, a staunch traditionalist and the star composers of what's known as "New Music"--John Cage, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams--are conspicuously absent. Fleshed out with brief biographical sketches by critic Alan Rich and recollections of the photo sessions by Arkatov, this is a valuable historical record. However, the world of concert music is visually quite drab--all these people seem to dress identically and spend all their time in non-descript concert halls. That makes this book for music aficionados only.

Last in the pile is Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour (Aperture: $39.95). A highly poetic photojournalist who specializes in street photography, Plachy has been a contributor to the Village Voice since 1982. Plachy has clearly been influenced by her friend and mentor Andre Kertez, and there's a trace of Diane Arbus in her work as well; like Arbus, Plachy's work is perfumed with a bittersweet melancholy, and she underscores that mood with the fragments of text she's selected to accompany her pictures. The words of Rilke and Borges are the perfect accompaniment to Plachy's exquisitely moving pictures.

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