"Real music is not for wealth, not for honors or
even for the joys of the mind . . . but as
a path for realization and salvation."
-Ali Akbar Khan
I'm a used book junkie. There's an additional quality to every story read from a used book. Though the plot remains unchanged, used books have that added value of the ghosts of their prior owners. Ghosts that come out in dog-eared pages, inside front cover inscriptions, notes in margins and on tucked away bookmarks, sometimes even in the smells and damage inflicted at the hands of previous readers. They're qualities which - like ghosts - are hard to pin down, but they make their presence felt.
On a recent trip to Southern California I "inherited" a few used books. I'd accompanied a friend who was tasked with helping her mother downsize in anticipation of moving into a retirement home. No easy assignment, reducing a home - a life - to fit into a one bedroom apartment. Tough choices had to be made, and I was instructed to take anything her mother wanted to give me, whether it be a dried gourd (shoe polish makes a nice finish), 1970's Liberace program (a catalog of bad taste), or books. I acquiesced and came home with (among other things) three books of photography: Ansel Adams by Barry Pritzker (Crescent Books), In The Beginning by Hans Samsom and Laura Rous (Derbibooks), and Laughing Camera II, by Hanns Reich (Hill and Wang).
Pritzker's book on Ansel Adams' work is a classic. With 69 photographs, it covers Adams' major assignments with the Department of the Interior. As part of the New Deal, Adams was tasked with photographing national parks and monuments under the Mural Project, an ambitious program of documenting properties under the control of the DOI. The vision of the Secretary of the Interior at the time was to take Adams' photographs and turn them into murals which would be hung in the Interior Department building in Washington, DC. The reproductions in the book reflect the process of photography at the time. Photographs were made on glass plates, susceptible to dust and scratching. In 1941 many of the properties Adams was charged with photographing didn't have roads into them, so the equipment had to be packed in on foot by the photographer, and more often than not the resulting image had tell-tale signs of the odyssey. Scratches abound on the published photographs, though their majestic subjects are no less awe-inspiring. The images represent Adams' best, and most well-known work.
The surprise for the reader of Ansel Adams are the photographer's subjects beyond the DOI. We're all familiar with his landscapes, but portraiture and still lifes? Not so much. For this reason - though few in number - they seem to leap off the page at us. He didn't reserve his portrait work for just the famous either (Georgia O'Keefe, President Carter), but applied it to subjects credited only as "Navajo Woman and Infant" or "Navajo Girl", part of a series on the vanishing Native American culture.
Though Adams stands out as untouchable in his field, he was not without influences. The early American photographer Timothy O'Sullivan - seventy years his senior - played a role. A nature photographer himself, there is a direct correlation between his eye and that of Adams'. Other, more oblique influences were Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. Neither being nature photographers, the genius of Adams was in applying their theories of light and composition to the natural subjects he predominantly sought out for photographing.
over-population which in turn dishonors and destroys God's creation.
The hope lies in us loving God and future generations
. . . enough to turn things around.
In The Beginning opens with the first two chapters of Genesis super-imposed on an indescript image of a surface of water. Instinctively we understand it represents an infant earth.
The last dozen pages contain images of various religious traditions. The photos point out the hypocrisy of mankind while at the same time offering a ray of hope. The hypocrisy lies in religious tenets that ultimately result in over-population which in turn dishonors and destroys God's creation. The hope lies in us loving God and future generations (the final photo is of a child praying) enough to turn things around.
Today, In The Beginning feels antiquated, although global destruction of the environment is at an all-time high. We live in a tech-savvy world with technical solutions for addressing over-population, yet population growth marches on unabated. Would this book - this tome of inconvenient truths - have flown in a devout Catholic household in 1974? Probably not any better than it would today, which is why my friend's mother had it. You see, her daughter gave it to her one Christmas in a rebellious effort to punch a hole in her faith. Not a nice (or effective) gesture to be sure, but it got the environmental conversation started. Perhaps we could use more antiquated voices today.
The third book I returned from California with is by a man who sees the silly in everyday things. Hanns Reich collected photographs from over four dozen photographers for inclusion in Laughing Camera II that celebrate the silly. It can be thought of as the Candid Camera of publishing. Beginning with the cover photo by Erik Parbst of a seal winking at the camera, the tone is set for silliness. Some photos have been chosen for their strange juxtaposition of things (e.g., a man charming a coil of hose with his flute playing, by Rene Maltete) or for the humor in something you might see everyday (e.g., the reflection of reeds on a pond in the shape of a Picasso-esque fish, by Georges Joniaux) but not notice. While other photos are less subtle (e.g., an index finger held up to the mouth of a statue, by Karl Schumacher), some are sublime (e.g., two horses shot in silhouette to look as one six-legged headless horse, by Ronald Bell, Press Association).
While Reich brings all these clever photos together, it's the individual photographers who deserve credit. My favorite thing about Laughing Camera II isn't the photographic lyricism, though. My favorite thing is the handwritten inscription inside the front cover of my copy: "dad - remember how you liked 'candid camera'. merry christmas! christine & gang, '72". The ghosts are coming in loud and clear.