Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Age of Silver

I recently bought John Loengard’s book "Age of Silver: encounters with great photographers". It is a collection of portraits that he encountered during his long career as a photo editor for the weekly Life magazine and later for People magazine. Each portrait is a company by a short essay either about the photographer or the circumstances in which they met. The portraits of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, VanderZee, Lartique and others are each worth the price of the book.

That said: I'm not completely satisfied either with the format or the content of this book. The reproductions are good but I would gladly have paid a few dollars more for excellent. I also recently bought the new book of Vivian Meier’s photographs. It, about the same size and only a few dollars more expensive, has reproductions that are dazzling.

If you read the old weekly life magazine the layout of this book will be very familiar. The size of the photographs vary widely; some pages are full bleed; some photographs are printed across the gutter (an immoral act in my opinion); the text is sometimes presented in columns and sometimes as an extended caption for a photograph. This layout works well for the extended photo-essays that Life did so well but I've never been a big fan of it for other purposes.

What really bothers me about this book is Loengard’s presentation of it as sort of an epitaph for silver photography. In the introduction Loengard states:

Today it is easier than ever to take pictures using digital cameras, and it is a pleasure to do so. Digital photographs are formed electronically and do not use the chemistry of silver. There is no negative. Critic and photographer, William Myers points out, "The film camera is becoming a harpsichord, a wonderful instrument if you know how to play it, but obsolete".

Wrong and wrong in that order. Neither the harpsichord nor the film camera are obsolete. True, you do not see many harpsichords being played in a cabaret and you do not see many silver film cameras in the hands of photojournalists. If your goal is the printed page than you would have to be out of your mind not to use digital photography as your chosen medium. If you are called upon to play a Shostakovich piano concerto you will choose a concert grand rather than a harpsichord. Given Loengard’s background is easy to understand how he could view the entire world of photography through the blinders of photojournalism but that is no more the entire world of photography than Shostakovich is the entire world of music.