28 December 2010

Books in time

I love books of photographs. The book (not the wall) is, for me, the photograph's natural habitat.

Curiously, books which have most affected me are often not books of which I have ever owned a copy. This is often because they impacted my life very early on, when buying them would have been financially beyond my reach or, at the very least, would have financially inhibited making photographs of my own. I haunted libraries in those days, devouring book after book of both text and images. The same is true of individuals: photographers whose vision played a major rôle in shaping my own are not represented on my bookshelves. Now, of course, we have the web ... which is a wonderful thing in itself, but is not the same experience as a book.

Every now and then, the love of my life fills one of more of these gaps – this Christmas, in fact, three of them.

Bill Brandt wandered into my life when I was twelve, and I never saw the world in the same way again; only now do I have two books of his work. I was fourteen when I encountered John Szarkowski's The photographer's eye, and the library copy virtually lived in my house for the next year ... but ultimately wasn't mine. Library copies in widely various places have fed me since; now I have a copy of my own. It was another two years, and I was sixteen, before I encountered Paul Strand; I had, at that time, only just arrived in a new society and a new landscape, and Strand influenced the ways in which I saw both ... again, from the shelves of a library. Now, as of three days ago, I have two books of photographs by Brandt, one of Strand, and my own copy of The photographer's eye.

Looking through these books, I find myself explicitly comparing (for the first time, so far as I can recall) my view of them now with that of my younger selves who first encountered the images shown. The one shown here, in particular, Brandt's "Housewife, Bethnal Green, 1937" (double click for a larger view), makes me want to cry. When I was twelve I loved it for many reasons including its tonality and its documentarity, but didn't think very much about the woman portrayed; four and a half decades on, I see that she is not so very much older than I was myself when I first saw her.

  • Bill Brandt. 2007, London: Thames & Hudson. 9780500410882 or 0500410887 (pbk.)
  • Brandt icons. 2004, London: The Bill Brandt Archive. 1874111707 (pbk)
  • Mark Haworth-Booth, Paul Strand. 1987, New York: Aperture Foundation. 0893810770 (cased)
    0893812595 (pbk)
  • John Szarkowski, The photographer's eye. 2007, New York: Museum of Modern Art. 9780870705274 or 87070527X (pbk) [originally 1966]

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