Vladimir Nabokov

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December 7, 2003, Sunday

By Andy Grundberg
There's a theological bent to this season's books of and about photographs, as some of the titles reviewed below attest: ''Revelation'' (singular), ''Revelations'' (plural), ''The Passions,'' ''The Devil's Playground.'' But big biblical themes like temptation, renunciation, redemption and grace can also be found in unexpected places, like ''One Big Self,'' a startling collection of portraits of convicted felons in a Louisiana prison, and ''What Remains,'' Sally Mann's new book of freighted landscapes and portraits of the dead. (These, too, are reviewed below.) Another sign of the times is a wealth of photographic literature, from collections of essays by the curator David Travis (''At the Edge of the Light,'' published by David R. Godine) and the critic David Levi Strauss (''Between the Eyes,'' published by Aperture) to attempts to write the recent history of photography as an art (David Campany's ''Art and Photography,'' from Phaidon, and the Tate Modern's catalog to last summer's mega-show, ''Cruel and Tender''). Equally literary, though less easy to pigeonhole, is ''The Montesi Scandal'' (University of Chicago), Karen Pinkus's captivating account -- in quasi-screenplay form -- of the moment in postwar Italy when politics, cinema and paparazzi photography coalesced into a single culture. Could moths, too, be a trend? Two books take the unassuming creatures as their subject: Mike and Doug Starn's ''Attracted to Light,'' reviewed below, and Joseph Scheer's ''Night Visions: The Secret Designs of Moths,'' published by Prestel (Scheer makes his color pictures by placing moths directly on a high-resolution scanner). And for those whose photography libraries lack a classic heft, there are major collections of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames and Hudson), Jacques Henri Lartigue (Abrams) and Julia Margaret Cameron (Getty).

ATTRACTED TO LIGHT. Photographs by Mike Starn and Doug Starn. Texts by Victor Pelevin, Demetrio Paparoni and Vladimir Nabokov. (Blind Spot/PowerHouse, $85.) The Starns, twin brothers who were the art stars of the moment in the late 80's, have been out of the limelight of late, but their interest in light of a non-lime sort has intensified over the years. ''Attracted to Light,'' which will be published next month, is evidence that this fascination with photography's sine qua non is more than theoretical; it consists of photographs and multiprint photomontages of moths that have been drawn to a globe lamp left on for that purpose. While moths may not be everyone's idea of beauty -- conventionally, butterflies have the edge in that department -- there is something remarkable about their appearance that the Starns, using ultra-close-up lenses, have magnified and embellished. The symbolic aspect of light, including its spiritual significance as the source of life, is also part of the photographs' equation, as the book's texts suggest.

Andy Grundberg is a critic and a curator and chairman of the photography department of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington.

Published: 12 - 07 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 36

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