Picks and Pans Review: On the Art of Fixing a Shadow

updated 08/21/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Edited by Sarah Greenough, Joel Snyder, David Travis and Colin Westerbeck

In their prospectus for the exhibition on 150 years of photography that inspired this book, Greenough, Travis and Westerbeck, curators at the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, and Snyder, a University of Chicago humanities professor, promised to "celebrate photography as a mature and successful art." They acknowledged that "there is now a widening circle of those who look on the history of photography not as an insular study, but a complex interchange of art, culture and science."

As this book attests, they succeeded roundly in organizing a panoramic history of photography and confirming its place among the art forms. Their examples range from crude early photos to modern use of the camera in generating abstract art. Mathew Brady, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugène Atget, Brassaï Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Weegee, David Hockney—they're all among the 220 photographers represented in the book's 450 photographs.

Omitted are such clichés as the 1952 J. R. Eyerman LIFE picture of a movie audience wearing 3-D glasses. Absent too are many other familiar images; there are no photographs of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb or of Vietnam. But then, not every art show includes the Mona Lisa.

The book's text—which is more detailed than most people need—traces photography from 1839, when Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot and Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, working separately, were inventing processes that would become photography. The book's oldest photo, a now-faded 1839 shot of two windmills by Frenchman Hippolyte Bayard, was printed on ordinary letter paper. The early shots, including some of the Civil War, convey the revolutionary nature of photography: Here was a changing world whose changes were being perceived and documented as never before.

The book beautifully traces the growth of photojournalism from the early 1900s. Look at Lewis Hine's picture of a child in a glass factory, or Dorothea Lange's moving work on migrants in California.

People might quarrel with the selection of work by contemporary artists. To cite two: Cindy Sherman's self-portrait seems mainly devoted to ego gratification, while Sherrie Levine merely takes photographs of other photographers' work.

The book's impact is scarcely lessened. Eastman Kodak (sponsor of the show, which will be at the Art Institute of Chicago Sept. 16-Nov. 26 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Dec. 21-Feb. 25, 1990) predicts that 50 billion pictures will be taken in 1989. The best of them, like those in this book, will not only serve as a confirmation of what the eye sees but also become part of a larger collective vision that helps define us as human beings. (Bulfinch/Little, Brown,$75)

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