Art and Photography Books Picture This!

by Margaret Moser

Holidays and art books go together like rum and eggnog -- the combination is just not for everybody. Still, the impact of a single painting or photograph can linger long after the book is closed and put away. These are images burned in our minds, images of power and beauty and grace and the odd human garishness.

Kelly Klein is a collector with a practiced eye. For Under World by Kelly Klein (Knopf, $65 hard), she gathered 154 black-and-white photographs of the human body taken from the 1880s to the present from photographers like Man Ray, Eve Arnold, Helmut Newton, Imogen Cunningham, Stephen Meisel, and others. Klein's curating of these photos seems to be with an eye towards not so much the body as how it is bedecked. Her collection bares all -- a Greek bodybuilder posed on a rock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers in women's underwear, and anonymous lingerie ads. Nudes are lovely but Klein definitely seems to be of the less-is-more school of thought. Provocative.

If a collector has the practiced eye, then it must be the artist's responsibility to train it. Evidence 1944-1994 by Richard Avedon (Random House, $65 hard) is everything its title suggests: Undeniable art in black-and-white. Avedon's career has taken him from Harper's Bazaar through the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam into high society and a position as one of the most respected photographers in the world. Over 600 photographs live up to the title; the collection accompanies his retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. The photographs themselves are startling: sharp and sometimes unkind but never false. Avedon's Evidence is irrefutable.

In contrast, posit the work of the famous Life photographer Eve Arnold: In Retrospect (Knopf, $50 hard) to Avedon. These are not diametrical opposites, they are two sides of the same lens. Eve Arnold was unschooled though not unskilled. Without formal training and in a male-dominated field, she blazed away fearlessly. Her candid portrait of Harlem model "Fabulous" Charlotte Stribling is so memorable. I paused when I saw it -- was that taken recently? No, in 1952. I picked this book only vaguely aware of Arnold's work; I keep it now among my favorites.

It is sheer coincidence that the bulk of the photography books I have are by women; it would be comforting to think of that as an indicator of some sort of balance (it certainly wouldn't be true in the graphic art world). The Last of the Nuba by Leni Riefenstahl (St. Martin's Press, $40 hard) is an assemblage of her color as well as b&w images from her time spent intermittently in Africa's Nuba (not Nubian) tribe in Central Sudan from 1962-69. Riefenstahl has feathered this series with extensive text, revealing and fascinating. The photographs are rich and textured. So much black skin pictured so many different ways... I began moving through this book just to look at all the ways she had seen the flesh -- shiny, matte, decorated, nude, sweaty, scarred, taut, and always unforgettable.

PhotoDiary by Lynn Goldsmith (Rizzoli, $50 hard) begins with an interesting note: This book is dedicated to the person who told me getting married and having children was not for every girl. She said, "Travel, meet people, and live, live, live!" Thanks, Mom. Okay, so a lot of people dedicate their books to Mom, it's just that there is something so innocent and guileless about a daughter wanting mother's approval. Mom should be proud; like Annie Leibowitz, Goldsmith is one of the pre-eminent photographers of rock & roll. Her playful approach to capturing the essence of musicians off-camera is as revealing as the over 250 photographs themselves: Andy Gibb in polyester glory, the golden glow of Wynton Marsalis, Tanya Tucker lying in a field of wildflowers, the rivulets of age on Keith Richards' face, the B-52s cavorting in ocean waves.... PhotoDiary is fun, sometimes irreverent, a sweeping lens-view of rock & roll that is as much celebration as it is document.

Geisha by Jodi Cobb (Knopf, $45 hard) looks at a long-misunderstood aspect of Japanese culture. In a slim but richly illustrated volume, Cobb uses 95 full-color photographs to capture the lives as starkly as the contrast of crimson rouge in white painted lips. Here, too, are the stories of women pressed into service because there were too many mouths to feed or because it was simply pre-destined by family. There's an elegance, if somewhat unsettling, to the geishas' acceptance of their lives and tradition, even if it's not at home in Western society.

Turning from paper to canvas, the mind instinctively translates the textures from smooth to rough. That's okay for tactile impressions, but the stroke of a paintbrush or inkpen can be every bit as finely detailed as a photograph. Masterpieces: Best Loved Painting from America's Museums by David Frankel (Simon & Schuster, $35 hard) chooses over 200 images that almost seem to be a part of our collective background. Here are Georgia O'Keeffe and El Greco, Edward Hopper and Pablo Picasso, with die-cut pages to emphasize detail, accompanying text, visuals, and gatefolds. It's not just an assemblage of familiar scenes, it's a way of looking at them again in the context of art history as that which inspires us to create.

Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 edited by Patricia Trenton (University of California Press, $29.95 paper) uses O'Keeffe as a reference point for springing dozens of other distaff painters from the first half of this century, and makes a compelling case for their inclusion. These are unusual, sometimes disturbing but always riveting pieces -- over 250 in all. The names are not nearly as well-known as, say, Mary Cassatt, but will leave behind a sense of warm femininity. They also leave a sense of loss, that these artists are so overlooked they must be swept up in one volume to be remembered. Sara Shewell Hayden's quiet elegance in her 1899 Girl in Green or the freeze-frame sense of Fra Dana's Breakfast, are things I would buy and frame for my home. Independent Spirits deserves to be treasured.

Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway by Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto, and Teddy Varndell (Hardy Marks, $40 hard) is a lurching thrill ride to the dark side of the circus. The three authors delved into an area considered too kitschy to be real art, and made it legit. But it's not just banners, there are the photographs also, focused into the skewed vision of those anonymous artists whose images were readily burned into brains of impressionable children. The images leap off the page with all the authority of a circus barker: "The Only 3-legged Football Player in the World!" "Torture of India," "Albino Girl," "Turkey Boy," "Sweet Marie -- 643 lbs." Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls is a keeper.

Art be art, and each to his own, sez I. That's why in the face of classic images and startling photographs, the power of the pen comes through God's Bosom and Other Stories: The Historical Strips of Jack Jackson by Jack Jackson (Fantagraphic, $14.95 paper) is a kind of "best of" collection of the artist's beginning in underground comix and follows his career through his current projects, the graphic novelization of Texas history and pre-history. (Jackson also has a spectacular limited edition book of Texas map history out.) One of the most striking aspects of his jaundiced eye and scritch-scratch style is the irony and humor he imbues in his strips. There are seven strips that compromise Part One of God's Bosom, titled "Old Tejas." No revisionism here -- Jackson never bought the "cowboys good/Indians bad" theory. These are outrageous, sometimes disturbing sketches of Texas' growth. Part Two is "Modern Times," an equally pointed and unflinching look at trends and times. (Some readers may recognize his name better as "Jaxon" in this context. Many point to his God Nose comic as having been the precursor to the underground comix revolution of the Sixties.) Hippies, Willie Nelson's picnics, Rip Off Press, cosmic cowboys -- they're all targeted for his poison parody. Local clubgoers may want to pay special attention to "Great Moments in Austin Music at Houston Prices" -- and that was drawn over 10 years ago! Wicked, incisive, and a must for every Texas bookshelf.

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