Friday, October 17, 2008

Display Case 14 (Riefenstahl, Davidson, Sisikind)

  A swan dive is a swan dive; if perfectly excecuted, each dive should, in theory, look just like all the others.

  That said, Rob Clifford's cover photo for The Last Girls is so strikingly similar to Leni Riefenstahl's image from the 1936 Berlin Olympics that one can almost hear the scratchy voice-over from Triumph of the Will. Of course, the content of Lee Smith's novel, described by Publisher's Weekly as "The Big Chill meets Huckleberry Finn", has nothing to do with the Nazis or Riefenstahl's brilliant cinematic propaganda. Did Clifford have the Riefenstahl photo stored somewhere in his subconscious, or is this just the best angle from which to shoot a swan dive?

Title: The Last Girls

Author: Lee Smith

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2002

Designer / Illustrator: Anne Winslow

Photographer: Rob Clifford / Photonica

  Theories about imitation and influence get a bit slippery when it comes to documentary photography, chiefly because it requires the presence of the 'real world', which is constantly in flux and often reluctant to cooperate.

  That being said, it is hard to imagine that Jonathan Blair did not have Bruce Davidson's bittersweet 1958 portrait of Jimmy Armstrong, a dwarf who worked as a clown for the Beatty-Cole-Hamid Circus, somewhere in his mind when he made this cover photo for The Circus in Winter. Not only is the content comparable, but the compositional balance of figure and striped tent call Davidson's image immediately to mind.

Title: The Circus In Winter

Author: Cathy Day

Publisher: Harcourt 2004

Designer / Illustrator: Vaughn Andrews

Photographer: Jonathan Blair/CORBIS

  Cracked, peeling paint probably made its debut as a photographic subject somewhere in the 1930s or 1940s, roughly simultaneous to the evolution of abstract painting itself. High modernist photographers like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Minor White revealed new worlds when they trained their large-format cameras on a few square feet of weathered wall or fencing (at the very least, they brought the subject to our attention as something worthy of a photograph).

  Aaron Siskind, whose circle of friends and influences included many Abstract Expressionist painters (Franz Kleine in particular), may have given this subject the most thorough investigation to date. Certainly his images of old walls are some of the more widely circulated and better known examples of his work, so much so that they may have helped inspire hoards of photographers, amateurs and professionals alike, to turn the subject into a cliché.

  We don't know whether Tanya Gillman, who took the cover photograph for Taking the Names Down from the Hill, was influenced by, or has even heard of, Aaron Siskind. In either case, it is difficult to look at the cover of Philip Kevin Paul's book of poems without being reminded of Siskind's 1949 image, Jerome, Arizona 21.

Title: Taking The Names Down From The Hill

Author: Phillip Kevin Paul

Publisher: Nightwood Editions 2003

Designer / Illustrator: Silas White

Photographer: Tanya Gillman

1 comment:

TG said...

Hi Karl,
Tanya, the photographer here. It was merely coincidental, although thank you for introducing me to some cool photographers. I love arbutus trees and I liked the texture the black and white offered. It was a tree on Kevin's (Philip Kevin) property. Cheers!