A Varied Collection

Photo:Box edited by Roberto Koch

Woman with Long Hair by Man Raid

Man Ray: Woman with Long Hair, 1929. Copyright Man Ray Trust.

I’m not exactly sure what to say about Photo: Box (Abrams, 2009). Certainly it is an interesting and eclectic collection, well-printed and nicely designed.

It is laid out with an image on the right side of each two page spread and on the other side, a brief description/discussion of the photograph, followed by a brief biography of the photographer.

Among the images are icons by masters such as W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, Man Ray, Dorthea Lange, Ansel Adams, etc.

But, the classic images and master photographers are outnumbered by far too many images which might best be described as merely appealing examples of commercial and fashion photography. Certainly, some of these images are strikingly beautiful and graphically appealing, but too many of the choices seem arbitrary and interchangeable with dozens of similar images that can be found in today’s fashion magazines — or for that matter, on America’s Top Model.

Priest and Nun Kissing

Priest and Nun, 1991, copyright by Oliviero Toscani. One of too many images in this collection that could have been omitted.

One example — Oliviero Toscani’s 1991 photograph of two models (one costumed as a priest and one costumed as a nun) kissing. Only mildly provocative even in 1991, any edge it once had has long since been lost. But more to the point, there is nothing about the photograph to make it stand out from other well-executed fashion shots.

Now, Toscani’s United Colors of Bennetton campaign might justifiably be cited in a text on fashion marketing for his strategy of advertising values rather than products. But, in terms of photography, the image broke no new grounds and, in fact, is quite traditional and conservative. There is no comparing Toscani to photographers like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Les Krims, Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus and Arthur Tress (among many others) who really understood how to smash ordinary sensibilities.

And, that, I think is the problem with this book. There are some really good iconic images, but there is too much graphic eye-candy that distracts from and devalues the collection.

The book divides the images into various categories, such as Portraits, Reportage, Travel, Still Life and Art. Among the categories, “art” is probably the most perplexing. Certainly it is difficult to define what kind of photograph should fit into a category called “art,” but the images selected by the editors would leave almost anyone scratching their head.

Looking over the images in the book, one gets the feeling that the publisher and editor decided that they needed to throw in commercially appealing images of very attractive people, photographed in very attractive ways, without their clothes on, in order to boost sales and allow the book to be marketed to a broader audience than just photography enthusiasts.

Still, despite its flaws, the book contains many high quality images, the reproductions are excellent and the commentary is well-done and informative. At $30 retail (I paid much less online), you could do worse. But then, you could do much better as well.

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