Spagnoli and history


Jerry Spagnoli, The Last Great Dageurrian Survey of the Twentieth Century

Jerry Spagnoli is probably the world expert on the arcane Dageurreotype process. This was the first public form of photography, announced in January 1839. But Spagnoli makes larger and better Dageurreotypes than were possible at that time, an impressive achievement considering considering millions where made all over the world, 90,000 in the colony of NSW alone. Dageurreotypes were small enough to fit into a locket, but Spagnoli’s are huge, his latest series are 11×14 inches.

Dageurreotypes were very popular in the US and the process is closely tied to the nation’s 19th century history so it’s fascinating to see it recording US history in the 21st century. The image above captures the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001. A mid-19th century process aimed at a 21st century event involving inventions that were not even thought of then – the skyscraper, the airplane and terrorism. That is a strange time warp.


Bert Stern


Bert Stern, Smirnoff, Great Pyramid of Giza, 1955

Bert Stern, the great US advertising photographer, has died at age 83. Stern was a leading member of the Mad Men generation and a cast a giant shadow in his field.  There’s even a doco on him called Bert Stern: the original Mad Man.

If you google his name you will mainly find his sexy Marilyn Monroe shoot called The Last Sitting (she wasn’t sitting!) but he was much more than that. Stern was a prominent commercial photographer whose work appeared in all the magazines during the great Madison Avenue era of the fifties and sixties. This was the time of the advertising notion of “the big idea” – the single compelling concept in an ad campaign – the DDB Volkswagen Beetle ads are the timeless example.

The image above was a Smirnoff vodka ad, shot on location in Egypt. Can you think of anything more Mad Men than a vodka Martini? It’s a clever photograph, shot during the ‘magic hour’ at dusk, using the lens effect of the liquid to reverse the shape of the pyramid – two opposing triangles. But why didn’t he use a triangular Martini glass?


60 Hudson Street


60 Hudson Street, New York

This fine photograph of New York Deco is by the architectural photographer Irving Underhill. It appeared recently in Shorpy.

Underhill was a successful New York photographer in the first half of the 20th century. You can see more of his handsome, well-crafted photographs at the Museum of the City of New York website.

The immense scale of the building against the tiny train reminds me of the 1927 film Metropolis. In fact, its director Fritz Lang was supposed to have had the inspiration for that film upon seeing the New York skyline from a ship. He wouldn’t have seen this building yet but he only missed it by a few years, it went up in 1931.

It turns out the old building is still standing and has a very modern purpose, it’s one of the main internet hubs in New York. Because of its earlier incarnation as the Western Union Telegraph Building it contained all the conduits and infrastructure to be adapted to internet cabling and switching. There’s an interesting short documentary about the building here:  Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors


Thomas Roma

Thomas Roma 2

Thomas Roma, Found in Brooklyn

Look at these curious images by Thomas Roma. They seem to bend the subject through the picture-plane. That sad-looking tree on the right has lost a branch, but it seems to miraculously arise again as a shadow on the building. The small miracles you find in the suburbs!

Thomas Roma

Thomas Roma, Found in Brooklyn

In this image Roma has made a collage without using scissors. The tree divides the picture which seems to be made up of other pictures.The photographs are from his book Found in Brooklyn.

Roma is a busy U.S. photographer. He is professor of photography at Columbia University, has published twelve books and in his spare time (spare time?) he builds his own cameras. These include the Pannaroma – not the Panorama –  named after his wife Anna. Despite his own surname, his camera-building operation is called the Siciliano Camera Works. Check it out.

There’s an amusing fragment on You-Tube where he talks about the emptiness he feels after finishing a project. He says that if you give the project everything you’ve got, you should feel nothing.


Atget then and now


Eugene Atget, Maison Chenier 97, rue de Clery, 1907

Why does the past look so good? Is it just the burgundy bloom of the albumen emulsions, the tones of orthochromatic films, the softness of uncoated lenses, the abstraction of monochrome, the absence of cars, the presence of cobblestones? This lovely Atget, made 106 years ago, seems enchanting and evocative, and describes Paris the way we want it to be – charmant.

The corner building was the home of André Chenier, a poet during the French Revolution – you can see a plaque to him above the first floor window. But why isn’t there a plaque to Atget himself, the greatest photographer of all time?  (I make that claim with the backing of Joel Meyerowitz who named him “our Mozart”)

By contrast, look at this serviceable but uninteresting photograph of the same place, made only a few years ago. Why does the present look so drab?


Palagret, Chenier 97, rue de Clery , 2009


On the street with Balthus

balthus-The Street 33

Balthus, The Street, 1933

This strange painting is an example of what used to be called magic realism, depictions of everyday life given a dreamlike twist. Balthus was a famous and controversial artist who had a knack for attracting other artists (both Cartier-Bresson and Bono attended his funeral). One who was drawn into friendship was Duane Michals, the great photographer of mysterious narratives.

Michals paid hommage to the artist by recreating the strange mood of his painting The Street. He arranged some characters in fixed poses (Michals himself on the left), all occupying the same space but without being connected or aware of each other. The photograph is half-successful. On its own it might seem an intriguing composition, but if you really want photographs of the street with strange encounters, you should be looking at Garry Winogrand.

Michals After Balthus 62

Duane Michals, After Balthus, 1962


Recently, another photographer has tried the same idea. Julie Blackmon is what used to be called a ‘tableaux’ photographer (a 1980s term), someone who stages  photographs using props and actors. Blackmon also uses Photoshop to combine elements – see the conflicting shadows here?

Julie Blackmon 2

Julie Blackmon, Homegrown Food, 2012

Blackmon is a US photographer who works in both the art and commercial fields. Her imagery has a nice luminosity although sometimes the poses seem a little arch to this viewer. Her subject is domestic disorder in the comfortable suburbs. You can see her website here.

Julie Blackmon 1

Julie Blackmon, Olive and Market St, 2012