Photo Icons

Quite a few posts ago, I mentioned that I had been out shopping for photography books with some money I got for my birthday. I might well have ended up with more how-to books, if my eye hadn’t been caught by the two-volume Photo Icons set.

They are small (14×19.5cm) neat hardback books  by Hans-Michael Koetzle, and published by Taschen. Subtitled, The Story Behind the Pictures, the two attractive little volumes were begging me to take them down off the shelf, and have a look.

I discovered that Photo Icons I covers the period between 1827 and 1926, and includes examples of photographs taken by 20 photographers.  Each is introduced by a double-page spread showing the picture Koetzle has chosen as that photographer’s iconic work. He then goes on to say how the photographer and chosen photograph fits into the grand photographic scheme of things, and backs that up with smaller reproductions of the photographer’s other work.

Included are Nicephore Niepce and his View from the Study Window (1827), which is the first photograph ever taken. The story of Niepce’s invention and how the photograph was so nearly lost to history, is fascinating.

Equally fascinating is the story of Max Priester & Willy Wilcke’s picture of the dead Otto von Bismarck. The enterprising pair, hearing that Bismarck had died, managed to gain access to his room and take a picture of the body. And we thought that the paparazzi were a new phenomenon! Anyhow, they unleashed a storm about their heads and both earned themselves prison sentences. The picture was eventually only published after WWII.

I had seen some of the pictures and heard of some of the photographers featured in Photo Icons I, but there were many that I had not. There is a lot of very interesting stuff in the book, and Volume II is no different. That covers the era from 1928 to 1991 and includes photographs by such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado.

The cover of the second volume is graced by a black and white nude of Marilyn Monroe with an orange cross through it. In the book, it is explained that the Bert Stern photograph, from the Marilyn’s last sitting, was taken a few weeks before her death. Poignantly, the cross had been made  by Marilyn herself, on the contact sheet, to show she did not like that picture.

I am very glad to have bought Photo Icons I & II and have derived a lot of inspiration, information, and enjoyment from them.

On the minus side:

The books contain quite a lot of the photographic version of Art-Speak which is a thing that really riles me. Art-speak, to me, is Gobbledygook and I hate it, because I love clear and concise communication. I’m afraid that Koetzle is guilty of extensive Art-Speak.

The following is a quote from page 40 in Volume II, where he is talking about the photographer Horst P. Horst:

“He seized the artistic tendencies of those years, amalgamated them into a new aesthetic rooted in traditional ideals, and thereby provided an orientation in taste for an age that was flagrantly questioning tradition across national borders.”

I have read many, many millions of words in my time, and written a million or two of my own, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what the sentence means. There are examples through the two volumes and there are some pictures I’m still almost totally in the dark about. Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage is an example, and I still have no idea what he meant (or didn’t mean) by the picture.

Art-Speak is one of the main reasons why the arts are so spectacularly unable to attract the interest of ordinary people. Another major reason, and I’m entering a potential minefield here, is the nature of the artistic work on offer. Cows in formaldehyde; that sort of thing. That’s another story, however.

** A visit to the Taschen site was interesting and uncovered a lot interesting titles including a limited edition of Helmut Newton’s Sumo at a mere £9000 per copy. Fortunately for me, perhaps, it had sold out so I couldn’t be tempted.



1 thought on “Photo Icons

  1. Yes, the Taschen books are an excellent series. Everything to do with Art, Architecture, Photography, Cartography, and Aphrodesia (Erotica). Beautifully produced on good quality paper, and quite affordable.

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