Photofile Series: Henri-Cartier Bresson, Helmut Newton, Man Ray, Sebastiao Salgado

by Matt Damsker


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Robert Delpire, Managing Editor of the series. Each paperback volume contains approximately 60 photographs, most in duotone. Price: $15.95. Published by Thames & Hudson, 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110. Information: .

Elegantly compact, this Photofile series of classic modern photography is the original English-language edition of the Photo Poche collection from the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris. Given such a pedigree, it's no surprise that many of the most admired works of these great artists are here, beautifully reproduced in duotone and neatly bound with helpful essays. Ideal for students or casual photo buffs, these small troves are also wonderfully affordable at only $15.95.

As for their collective journey, the Photofile series moves from the surrealism and experimental modernism of Man Ray in the 1920s to the latter-day humanism of Sebastiao Salgado, with his images of famine and his great, third-world Workers project. In between these 20th-century polarities, the photo-journalistic supremacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the fetishistic fashion images of Helmut Newton round out the modern era. For collectors, of course, there may not be very much in the way of revelation here: Man Ray's solarizations, his nudes, or his portraits of artists from Duchamp to Ernst to Giacometti, Antonin Artaud and Tristan Tzara, are familiar touchstones, as are Cartier-Bresson's shots of Matisse with his dove, gray primal landscapes, countless street moments across the world, and so on.

Still, one never tires of these black-and-white treasures, and inevitably, there are discoveries that one had not been aware of--such as a Cartier-Bresson shot of entangled lovers in Mexico (1934) that is gritty in its eroticism. And the searing work of Salgado demands that attention be paid: while the Western world was awash in the prosperity of the 1980s and '90s, this Brazilian, trained as an economist, focused an unblinking eye on starvation in the remote deserts of Ethiopia, the Sudan, Mali, on the chaos of Mid-East warfare in Kuwait, and on the brutal conditions faced by Brazilian miners and Cambodian landmine victims. Salgado finds photographic beauty--or, more accurately, graphic drama--in his urgent subject matter, and his exposures are astonishingly detailed, most of them in burnished depths of sun and shadow that pit his frail humanity against unforgiving landscapes. Indeed, his master image of Brazil's Serra Pelada coal mine achieves a truly Biblical dimension: seen from a high angle, the ant-like army of burden-shouldering men, ladders and shafts suggest what it must have been like to build the Great Pyramids.

By comparison, Helmut Newtown's photographs of high-fashion indolence, spike-heeled nudity, and kinky, bondage-flavored scenarios are very much a decadent record of the 1970s, when taboos were falling away and fashion photography took on a more liberated narrative quality. Newton, as Karl Lagerfeld's essay asserts, is obsessed with "Nordfleisch"--Northern flesh, in all its Nordic whiteness--and if that links him in some crypto-Fascist way to Aryan ideals of womanhood, he also evokes the decadence of Weimar Germany and Berlin cabaret, especially in his androgynous images of models mannishly outfitted. At the end of the day, however, Newton wasn't about racial types or cultural deconstruction; he loved form, the female form, mainly, and context--often bizarre, somewhat shocking, touched with humor--as a means of activating form in a still photograph. Like those of all the photographers in this series, his pictures seem only to be getting better as they age.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.