"The Black Photo Album -- Look at Me: 1890-1950"
By Santu Mofokeng Steidl
(San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)"
By Leo Rubinfien,
Sarah Greenough, Erin O’Toole
and Tod Papageorge
BRATTLEBORO -- Brooks Memorial Library has acquired two new photography books of great but disparate interest: "The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950" and "Garry Winogrand."
"The Black Photo Album" (The Walther Collection and Steidl), edited by Santu Mofokeng, presents about 40 studio portraits that "illustrate the neglected history of the urban black working-class individual" of South Africa in the years of growing oppression leading to apartheid. As the excellent essay by James T. Campbell tells us, these pictures were not anthropological studies or "generic specimens" of supposedly undeveloped people viewed from the white man’s perspective, but personal documents of distinct individuals, commissioned by themselves for their own family use. They were collected, in some cases rescued, by Mofokeng, who was therefore more than an editor.
But this is not to say that their meaning is apparent. Campbell reminds us of the current opinion that photographs in general are "enigmatic" in that we often cannot be certain of the motives of the subjects or the photographer. The subjects here are dressed and posed in the fashion of white Victorian and Edwardian photographs. The puzzle, Campbell suggests, is whether this resulted from a proud assertion of individual and family respectability (they were not the "natives" of common opinion) or whether in adopting the garb and props of their oppressors they were victims of "mental colonisation."
"Garry Winogrand" (San Francisco Museum of Art and Yale University Press), edited by Leo Rubinfien, is as fat and exuberant as the first album is spare and restrained. Its 464 pages include essays by several hands and some 400 black-and-white photographs, and it must be handled with care not to strain one’s back. But it’s a rich selection of the work of one of the 20th-century’s most prominent photographers. Working in the general tradition of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Winogrand (1928-1984) established a distinct place for himself with his vast collection of American scenes, captured on the run and usually close up with his wide-angle lenses.
Here are or were our dress, cars, streets, buildings, even occasionally our animals, including the famous inquisitive monkey looking straight at the camera. But here, too, are the human faces and postures that are just as enigmatic in their own way as the South African subjects, causing us to wonder whether this is the vigorous variety of American life or glimpses of an emptiness in the midst of abundance. We may also be challenged to find the formal composition that Winogrand claimed for his pictures. Less obvious than, say, Cartier-Bresson’s, it is, he said, really there.
These books are the gift of the Brattleboro Camera Club, donated in memory of Jeff Barry, one of Brattleboro’s best-known and most prolific photographers.
Charles Fish is secretary of the Brattleboro Camera Club. The BCC meets in the Brooks Memorial Library meeting room each month. For scheduled meetings, visit brookslibraryvt.org.