NABOKV-L post 0010936, Mon, 17 Jan 2005 13:20:56 -0800


Year's best photo books earn coffee table space
San Jose Mercury News (subscription) - San Jose,CA,USA
... With its reprinting of an essay on butterflies by Vladimir Nabokov and dreamy presentation, the book makes clear the metaphoric intent of being ``drawn to the ...

Posted on Sun, Jan. 16, 2005

Year's best photo books earn coffee table space

By Jack Fischer
Mercury News

You may wonder how, in this kinetic, all-media-all-the-time world, a mere book of photographs still could compel anyone's attention.

The answer is that televisions and computer screens still can't deliver close to enough information, pixel-wise, to approach the visual fidelity of a finely printed book of photographs -- not to mention that the transience of images on TV and online means you can't study them at your leisure. A book, on the other hand, is like having a little art gallery right there in your lap.


If it were possible to see into the nooks and crannies of Friedlander's buildings, you just might find the comic domestic scenes in Catherine Chalmers' new book, ``American Cockroach'' ($29.95, Aperture, 96 pages).

The much-loathed but never permanently bested Periplaneta americana is the protagonist of Chalmers' tales, which feature close-up photographs of the insects disguised as less loathed cousins, such as bumble bees, or taking over the world and occupying insect-sized but human-style quarters. (I'm particularly fond of the larval specimen lounging on a Danish modern couch under a reproduction of abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell's ``Elegy to the Spanish Republic.'')

It's creepy and funny. Chalmers begins staging human-style executions, strapping one roach into a tiny electric chair and hoisting another up on a cross. The artist assures us that carcasses were used and no cockroaches were killed in the making of these tableaux, which actually plumb the depths of our loathing for these insects. They also raise a question or two about the artist.


It seemed to be Insect Year in photographic circles, another noteworthy production being Mike and Doug Starn's ``Attracted to the Light'' ($85, powerHouse Books, 120 pages). The Starns, who have been making conceptual use of photography since the 1980s, turned on the lights on the porches of their homes in upstate New York and photographed what came to visit.

But unlike Chalmers' work, this is an elegy to entomology -- delicately and warmly reproduced specimens, sometimes in grids, sometimes like 19th-century scientific investigations. With its reprinting of an essay on butterflies by Vladimir Nabokov and dreamy presentation, the book makes clear the metaphoric intent of being ``drawn to the light,'' whether it's the human pursuit of knowledge, power or, perhaps, the spiritual. Also clear is that beauty can reside in the most unlikely places, even in these ugly ducklings of bugdom.

Probably the most opulently produced book of photographs in 2004 is the Lodima Press' ``Edward Weston, Life Work'' ($150, 252 pages). Lodima is a small publisher in Pennsylvania that spares no expense crafting relatively small runs of exquisite books with French folded jackets, state-of-the-art 600-line-screen quadtone reproductions and heavy paper stock.

Here Lodima turned its attention to a private collection of Weston's prints that ranges across the master's career -- the soft-focus pictorialist work and portraits from the early years, his time in Mexico in the 1920s, the totemic still-lifes of peppers and shells, the sculptural nudes, the time on Point Lobos, and on and on -- 110 images in all.

Selections from the collection, assembled by Judith Hochberg and Michael Mattis, a husband-and-wife team of theoretical physicists, currently are part of a multi-year, national traveling exhibit.

Lodima lovingly has reproduced the vintage prints actual size, respecting Weston's preference for contact prints of his negatives, and has used different inks and paper stocks to accommodate the artist's changing aesthetic.

Weston not only was the greatest photographer California ever produced, but also a towering modernist whose work spans a significant swath of the medium's evolution. With a press run of 2,900 copies, the Lodima book is not just a treat to peruse, but one to hang on to.

Six recommendations

``Sleeping by the Mississippi'': by Alex Soth

``The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtan'': by Brian Rose

``Sticks & Stones: Architectural America'': by Lee Friedlander

``American Cockroach'': by Catherine Chalmers

``Attracted to the Light'': by Mike and Doug Starn

``Edward Weston: Life Work'' by Lodima Press


Contact Jack Fischer at or (408) 920-5440.