An American Gallery
By David Evans
Parenthesis: The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Autumn 2009
In the age of a billion cell phone cameras simple enough to be casually operated by three-year-olds, an elegant hand-made volume of black-and-white photographs might seem quaint and anachronistic, but compared to the book's passionately crafted images, it is the digital age that seems faded and stale. Greenberg's selection of innovative works in An American Gallery is a reminder of just how powerful the medium can be in the hands of a gifted artist. We get that from looking at any of the twenty-six exquisitely printed plates, (one image for each year of exhibitions at the gallery plus a frontispiece by Edward Steichen). These are subtly stunning pictures. There is something irresistible about each one that challenges the descriptive certainty one expects a photograph to assert; they never look quite the same each time you see them. Each image becomes a contemplation of how the visual world might be experienced, how the ordinary can be seen in extraordinary ways. Many of the greats - Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Garry Winogrand - are represented by rare works, (an un--cropped version of Lange’s “Plantation Overseer,” for example, sheds new light on that famous work). Also included are some wonderful works by lesser-known artists: Hungarian Enrique Aznar's haunting image of a man ascending a ship's gangplank is a fabulous modernist composition of shadows and portholes. In the commentary accompanying a brilliant photograph by Ted Croner that breaks all the rules about lighting and focus, Greenberg mentions seminal photographer, designer, and instructor Alexey Brodovitch's legendary admonition to his students “Astonish me!” Without exception, these photographs astonish in ways that even Charles Baudelaire might enjoy: Consuelo Kanaga’s heart-stopping portrait, “Young Girl in Profile, 1948” makes it hard to turn the page; understandably Greenberg describes Dave Heath's stunningly lit “Hastings-on-Hudson, 1965” as “a heightened moment, an epiphany.”
Opposite each photo, (in a format similar to ]ohn Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs, the 1973 survey of the MoMA collection Greenberg often visited and where he “discovered the pure pleasure of great photographs”), he reminisces with captivating charm about some of the history of the print, how and why he came to own it and most engagingly how he feels about it. His eye is acute and his enthusiasm is dangerously contagious; we enter the world of dealers, collectors, and advocates whose passion for great art not only celebrates acknowledged masters, but also brings more obscure work into the light. Greenberg is teaching us not just how to see photo-graphs, but also how to experience them.
Lyie Rexer’s biographical essay is concise and captivating. His informed account of Greenberg's journey through one of the most creative and exciting periods in the history of photographic art is related with a New Yorker's flair. He describes the artists, mentors, associations, and movements, and as in a great photograph, we have the sense of being there. Rexer recounts how Greenberg evolved from an eager young photographer with a Pentax into a passionate collector and gallerist. It’s an engaging story of the young Brooklyn native's early inspiration within the energetic art photography community in New York, his subsequent move into the art colony environment upstate at Woodstock, his founding of a gallery and dealership there, and his subsequent return to New York where he eventually opened The Howard Greenberg Gallery, gaining the reputation as one of the world's finest galleries of classic photography.
The reproductions of the images themselves are spectacular. The use of state-of-the-art printing technology ten-micron stochastic four-colour offset lithography - allows the images to resemble the original print as closely as possible. This is vital because, as Ansel Adams is quoted as saying, “the negative [is] the score, the print the performance.” Photographic printmaking is no less skilled an art than is painting on canvas. The quality of the reproduction draws our attention to the quality of the original print, hand crafted by the artist through the alchemy of the darkroom.
If the photography is the prima donna of this piece, the book design is the finest of accompanists. The layout and type are both gorgeous and functional, and as with other Lumiere Press publications, the look and feel of the printed pages are nourishing to the soul. The cover is a fascinating collage created from a detail of an exquisitely strange image by Frantisek Drtikol exemplifying the nature of the book as an enthusiastic blend of tradition and innovation, combining old technologies with new and adding an exclamation point to the joyful appreciation of the art of photography and of fine book publishing.
The problem in thinking about books and photographs as infinitely reproducible, identical, machine-made commodities is that we lose the sense of the object itself - we see only the illusion, the conceptualization, and in so doing lose its essence. The scale and quality of this book remind us that while a digitally perfected image, backlit and huge in a museum's cultured context, can be undeniably impressive, small images can work their magic just as powerfully on an intimate, personal level. Apart from the advantage of accessibility, pulling a book from the shelf allows us the experience of becoming completely absorbed in the work, free from the distractions of public spaces. These photographs are to be gazed at, meditations to be transformed by. There are qualities of light and form and suggestion that go beyond analysis; finely detailed recordings of specific events can be engaging but more thrilling are the intangible circumstances of the moment, and the subsequent homage paid to them by the artists craft and vision.
In spite of its modest physical dimensions, the scope of this book is vast, spanning a uniquely transformational period in the development and appreciation of photography as an art form. Apart from the photographs and the introduction and commentaries by Greenberg, and the essay by Lyie Rexer, there is a short introduction by Michael Torosian and a complete exhibition chronology. Moreover, An American Gallery is an erudite work of reference valuable to the connoisseur and amateur alike. The quality of the hand-tipped reproductions of original prints is stunning, the texts are informative and concise, the design is sumptuous without being overbearing, and the whole thing is deliciously entertaining.