Icons Of Photography: The 20Th Century

by Matt Damsker


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Edited by Peter Stepan. Paperback; published by Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London, New York; 2005 (hardback version originally published in 1999); ISBN No. 3-7913-3336-4. 200 pages; approximately 100 plates. Prestel Publishing, 900 Broadway, Suite 603, New York, NY 10003; Phone: +1-212-995-2720; fax: +1-212-995-2733. www.prestel.com .

Peter Stepan's lovingly collected volume of iconic modern photography is something of an icon itself, familiar to photo-book browsers and collectors since its hardback debut some six years ago. Reissued now in paperback, it remains an indispensable tome--much more than a coffee-table book, yet in many ways the ultimate coffee-table book, with its crisp reproductions on lustrous paper stock, and its helpful thumbnail biographies and scholarly explications of each photograph.

Stepan's approach is to chronologically present an iconic photo for very nearly each year of the 20th century, and the result is wonderful, stocked with images that define art photography even as they document their days. From Eugene Atget's immortal image of "The Organ Grinder and the Singing Girl," which captures Paris in all its grit and fin-de-siecle innocence, to Martin Parr's garish postmodern glimpse of an English matron in a vulgar dress, her head obscured by a Union Jack at some hopelessly mundane lawn party, these photos are hard to argue with, though any effort at summing up a century of great work invites argument.

For the record, then, the only omission that sticks in my craw is the absence of anything by Ragubir Singh, whose intensely hued landscapes and decisive-moment street shots of his native India are nothing if not iconic in their modernist distance from classical Indian photography. Otherwise, Stepan misses none of the century's masters, over-familiar as some of these choices may seem. Steiglitz's 1907 "Steerage," documenting the class division on an ocean liner, is certainly a breakthrough piece of visual reportage, while Steichen's 1904 portrait of a gloomy Richard Strauss, or Lewis Hine's 1909 line-up of newsboys returning Sunday papers, announce the new century in their own ways.

Soon, we are confronted with such masterworks of fine-art photography as Andre Kertesz's 1928 study of a fork on the edge of a plate, or the surreal eroticism of Walter Peterhans' object arrangement, "Portrait of the Beloved." Ellen Auerbach's scintillating 1930 image of actress Klare Eckstein applying lipstick to herself in a mirror seems to push us through the looking glass, literally, to the era of casual glamor and the stirrings of modern romanticism. These would be codified by Brassai's immortal 1932 shot of lovers in a Paris café, and by Robert Doisneau's 1950 uber-iconic "Kiss in front of the Hotel de Ville, Paris", while the Goya-esqe shock and pity of war is deathlessly documented by Robert Capa's 1936 "Death of a Loyalist Soldier".

These, and others, may be the stars of this collection, but not surprisingly it is often the photos with less flourish that strike us more powerfully. Paul Strand's 1953 portrait of a family in Luzzara, Italy, is absolutely worthy of Rembrandt in its emotional, textural, and tonal range, its six figures--all fathers and sons, with the gray matriarch appraising us proudly from a deeply shadowed doorway--in various states of contemplation and self-consciousness. And then there is Walker Evans' 1936 image of another family, the Depression-era Alabamans whose grime and tatters don't diminish their hardscrabble dignity.

Edward Weston is superbly represented by the extraordinary play of dark and light that define his 1936 sand dunes, "Oceano", while Arnold Newman's 1942 portrait of painter Max Ernst, his head haloed by a swirl of cigarette smoke, while objects and artworks surround him, is painterly in the best sense. And Irving Penn's stunning 1957 portrait of Picasso--his face and head half-hidden by hat and cloak, with that glittering, soul-deep left eye fixing us from the center of the frame--is pure personality as only photography can render it. So is Alberto Korda's shot of Che Guevara--the Cuban revolutionary photographed from slightly below, an image of regal self-possession and perhaps the most widely reproduced, if not the most iconic, photograph in this book. And Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still #78," from 1978, holds its ground very well as a postmodern suggestion of the anxiety of influence that defines pop artistry.

Indeed, such artifacts are more than iconic photographs--they stand as the very emblems of their fleeting eras, as potently, if not as formally, as the greatest history paintings. By resonating so deeply and enduringly, they remind us that the most democratic of our art forms is also the most liberating. Stepan notes in his essay, for example, "Photography has made the names of many women famous--more than any other branch of art." This book certainly does justice to them.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.