“Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear,” on view at MoMA, Reimagines the Traditional Museum Retrospective

Wolfgang Tillmans’s highly anticipated MoMA retrospective is overwhelming in the best possible way.

Curator Roxana Marcoci has collaborated with Tillmans to create a labyrinthine arrangement that builds on his earlier gallery shows. It is far removed from a traditional or even a chronological presentation of work. Over 400 images of various sizes, some as small as 4×6”, are arranged dynamically on each wall, creating a kinetic ebb and flow. A handful of the photos are framed, many are affixed with binder clips, and many others are held up with Scotch tape. Long tables fill several rooms with yet more works to explore. Every space in the 6th floor galleries is fair game—even the emergency exit doors.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Aaron M. Cohen

Tillmans’s work spans different genres, both straightforward and conceptual, and includes magazine tearsheets, photocopies, video projections, cameraless works, and appropriated images. Each wall, each room is a meticulously organized explosion of imagery and an immersive experience. Compared to more traditional, linear layouts, it’s dynamic, playful, and innovative. The experience of viewing the work is almost as memorable as the work itself.

At the press preview, Marcoci described each wall as a musical partition with different rhythms and intensities, each constituting a “perfect pop song.” That’s an apt metaphor, given Tillmans’s musicality. To extend it slightly, the entire show could be construed as a concept album. Individual pieces combine to create variations on themes as the works simultaneously echo off of and segue into each other.

Even in the rarified air of the fine art world, Tillmans’s work feel immediate, accessible, and direct. As a photographer, he has the power to conjure emotions difficult to put in words. He also endows in viewers a sense of not just connection but also belonging.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Emile Askey

In his most successful images, Tillmans effectively harnesses the language of vernacular photos and builds on that foundation to add layers of meaning and emotion. Take, for instance, his borderline-iconic photograph of two young men kissing outside of a gay nightclub, caught in the flash. The image is at once provocative and celebratory. It’s a sexually charged picture with a social conscience that’s intimate and inclusive. It’s practically a visceral experience, and the more you look, the more you feel like you’re a part of the moment.

The Cock (kiss) (2002). Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

Viewing Tillmans’s work in MoMA, it’s tempting to make a connection to William Eggleston’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition there. To be sure, Tillmans’s work constitutes a democratic forest of sorts in a number of ways. The two photographers also share an uncanny ability to harness the vernacular language of photography in order to cut to the heart of something profound. Additionally, for much of his career, Tillmans, like Eggleston, preferred 35mm over medium- and large-format cameras, steering clear of the type of ornate equipment that typically signifies the “serious” art photographer. Tillmans shoots mainly with a digital SLR these days.

One of his strongest works, “Lüneburg (self),” is a digital image made during the early days of the quarantine. At first glance, it might come across as mundane, but there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface.

For starters, there’s a playful quality to the image. One’s eye is drawn to the accidental phallic-ness of the iPhone/water bottle arrangement before noticing Tillman’s face in the phone app’s tiny frame, engulfed by his digital camera lens. There is also an unsettling quality as well as a profound sense of isolation and disconnect. Nobody is on the other end of the video chat. Instead the screen radiates back empty bedcovers. There’s an institutional feel to the surroundings, as if taken from a hospital bed. Nevertheless, there is also a sense of anticipation and the hope that somebody will appear.

Lüneburg (self) (2020). Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

“There’s more that connects us than divides us,” Tillmans sings on the opening track to his 2021 album Moon in Earthlight. His work in general—and his bold, honest, and intimate pictures of gay life in particular—emphasize human connection and the value of personal relationships. While there is a strong component of social awareness and political idealism permeating his images, they rarely come across as polemical. Rather, they are empathetic, humane, and sincere.

I highly recommend walking through the entire exhibit twice. You’ll be amazed at just how much you overlooked the first time around.

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, September 12 2022 through Jan 1 2023.

((2 revisions & 3 end P’s))

Book Review: Speedway 1972 by Henry Horenstein

When Henry Horenstein revisited a series of old black-and-white photos dating back to his grad school days, what he found was more interesting than he remembered. Centered around the sport of modified stock car racing, the collection of images captured the sparks of a fascinating subculture as it existed half a century ago. Now, those photographs have been assembled into the book Speedway 1972, published by Stanley/Barker.

The catalyst for the series was Horenstein’s brother-in-law, an amateur stock car racer who helped him land a part-time gig shooting for Illustrated Speedway News, New England racetrack Thompson Speedway’s weekly program. For a “historian-with-a-camera in training,” Horenstein writes in his preface, “what better than an old-school sport that would certainly be extinct one day?” He then notes with some irony that Thompson Speedway is still in operation—and their operations have grown substantially.

Nevertheless, Horenstein’s images tap into the unique car culture of the era and evoke a way of life portrayed in classic 1970s movies like Two-Lane Blacktop. Horenstein places the greatest emphasis on the people, whether on the racetrack or in the stands. The various portraits of racers reveal a heavily male-dominated recreational pursuit, while those of the spectators feature a more balanced mix of men and women. There are families, teenage couples, old timers, and young children. Their enthusiasm is contagious, the rough-around-the-edges ethos is alluring, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the daredevil bravado of the participants.

The mechanics’ engineering expertise is also impressive, but thankfully, Horenstein avoids becoming overly preoccupied with the more technical side of things. His square-format photographs provide just enough of a glimpse under the hood to give viewers the gist of how these machines are rebuilt and augmented for racing, while keeping the focus on the more human elements.

One of the most effective images offers a nice view of a racer sitting in a modified open-wheel stock car. There’s not much else, aside from a steering wheel, a gearshift, and a driver’s seat. Large dirt-encrusted tires, a primitive roll frame mounted to a rebuilt chassis, and a large number 28 posted on the side round out the image. Yet, the viewer’s attention quickly gravitates toward the driver: His tense but focused expression, his hand on the gear shift, a bandage on one finger, his goggles resting on his forehead as he gazes out to the left, ready to let loose.

man in racecar
From “Speedway 72” © Henry Horenstein

A portrait of a mechanic standing in front of a wrecked husk of an automobile similarly draws the viewer in. The vehicle’s wear-and-tear gives a sense of the intensity of the races and the risks involved – as well as the skill needed to rebuild these machines into racing shape. Still, the emphasis is on the individual standing front and center, first and foremost.

Many of the strongest images were taken at night. Horenstein’s use of flash is highly skilled and helps provide an aesthetic consistency to the work. (Even early in his career, he exhibits a great deal of technical aptitude.)

The sequencing is another strong point. Generally, each two-page spread features one photo that showcases drivers and crew members, and one that focuses on the spectators and fans, in ways that enable them to complement each other.

One such spread presents, on the left side, a photo of two young boys in the stands, clad mostly in denim, an illicit cigarette in hand. On the right, two men that could be their older doppelgangers tool around the track in a banged-up racecar.

two boys at a racetrack
From “Speedway 72” © Henry Horenstein
two men in racecar
From “Speedway 72” © Henry Horenstein

Similarly, a portrait of a racer posing confidently, one hand on his hip and the other on his racecar’s windowsill, pairs nicely with one of two young female spectators, both of whom are awkwardly figuring out where to place their hands as they try to project a similar confidence.

An abundance of comparable portraits causes the work to sag a little in the middle. Still, there are inherently interesting elements even in the images that don’t quite “get there”—whether it’s something as simple and graphic as a checkered racing flag, an expression, or an article of clothing.

There are no captions, nor are they really necessary. The book’s title provides enough information: what year the images were made—and, generally speaking, where. After reading the preface, if I was a betting man, I’d guess that the opening photo is a portrait of Horenstein’s brother-in-law, the guy who introduced him to this world. Unlike the others, it has a snapshot-like quality to it, and one can sense a close kinship between photographer and subject. What follows is a mix of people and machines, racers and fans, metal, dirt, and exhaust fumes. It’s nice to get lost in the cacophony of it all and just immerse oneself in the scene.

Recently, it seems that a number of established photographers in the later stages of their careers have been reassessing their early work and finding greater value in it than they did initially. Speedway 1972 represents one of the more successful examples of this. It’s a work imbued with nostalgia and a celebration of a specific time and place, photographed with an eye towards history and memory.

Speedway 1972 by Henry Horenstein. Stanley/Barker, 2022. 88 pages. Hardcover.

Announcing The Official TPR Tote Bag

We’re excited to announce the launch of our inaugural fundraising campaign! Now you can show your support for the site by rocking this sleek, stylish, always-in-fashion tote bag! In all seriousness, your support will go a long way towards helping to sustain the site and fuel its growth. All proceeds will be used to maintain and upgrade the site.

And while we’d love it if you purchase a tote bag (more incentives coming soon), first and foremost we’re grateful to have your readership. Visiting the site and spreading the word about it is the best way to support The Parallax Review.

In the Galleries: August 2022

Four women at Chicken Bone Beach, ca. 1960s, by John W. Mosley (Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection)

In The Galleries highlights photography shows and photo-related happening in the Philadelphia area.

On view through August 30 on the first floor of Temple University’s Charles Library, “Chicken Bone Beach: The Photography of John W. Mosley and the African-American Experience in Atlantic City,” curated by Leslie Willis-Lowry, showcases photographs of a historic segregated beach that catered to an emerging African American middle class during the mid-Twentieth Century.

Mosley’s images provide an insider’s look at a stretch of sand near Missouri Avenue in Atlantic City that became a popular destination for vacationing Black families. Since the nearby White-owned restaurants refused to serve Black customers, people brought picnic baskets to the beach, which earned it the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Chicken Bone Beach.” The photos on display cover a roughly three-decade timespan, starting in the 1930s.

In his casual and convivial portraits of African American beachgoers, Mosley provides a window into a specific place and time. The images also serve as a reminder that socially-concerned photography can—and should—show people experiencing joy.

To be sure, there are a lot of posed group shots. People clearly enjoyed the experience of being photographed by Mosley. In turn, he photographed them as if they were celebrities–which, occasionally, they were.

Based in Philadelphia, Mosley enjoyed a lengthy career as a photojournalist, documenting Black society for a variety of publications. These prints were expertly selected from Mosley’s extensive archive, which totals over 250,000 negatives and prints, housed in Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

The several dozen images chosen for display are presented in simple black frames with captions affixed at the bottom. Together, they comprise a celebratory montage of Black life and culture during a more racially divided era. And they further the case for a greater appreciation of Mosley’s work.

The exhibit falters a little when it comes to the second half of the title—“the African-American Experience in Atlantic City.” That’s a topic of tremendous depth and breadth, and a one-room show can only begin to scratch the surface of it. But when the focus is on Mosley’s visual documentation of Chicken Bone Beach, it’s captivating.

Book Review: Recreation by Mitch Epstein

At first glance, there’s little in the way of actual recreation to be found in Recreation. Instead of producing a more conventional survey of the different types of pastimes that Americans engage in, as might be expected from the title, Mitch Epstein brings focus to life’s in-between moments. This newly-published re-edited and expanded edition builds on the previous version originally published by Steidl in 2005.  

The book opens with a classic decisive-moment street photograph of a cluster of stylish women on Madison Avenue searching for something on the ground. The metaphor is clear—the photographer also seeks something elusive. The ambiguity and mystery of the photo helps set the tone for the book.

About halfway through, the viewer is presented with another remarkable, enigmatic photograph. A middle-aged man naps on a small fold-out cot beside his Cadillac, just off the West Side Highway, Twin Towers standing tall in the background. It may not convey the concept of “recreation” the same way that the sunbathers on beach blankets on the next page do. However, the sequencing enables the viewer to make a clear connection.

man sleeping beside car near the Twin Towers
West Side Highway, New York 1977 © Mitch Epstein

Recreation really hits its stride around this point, with several particularly strong runs centered around photos from Martha’s Vineyard and New Orleans respectively. Epstein has created a highly thoughtful edit of the work in collaboration with his wife Susan Bell and photographer Ryan Spencer. But it’s best not to flip through the pages too quickly. The photographs quietly demand closer inspection and further interpretation, revealing new meanings slowly over time.

 Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts III 1983 © Mitch Epstein

The book is laid out in a very conventional format: Each two-page spread features one photo on the right-hand page, printed large with a white border. A basic caption delineating the place and the year that the photo was taken appears on the left-hand page. Beyond that, there is little supplementary text aside from a brief acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

For straight photography, something so traditional tends to work well, and in my opinion, the addition of white space, more often reserved for black-and-white work, is an improvement upon the 2005 edition’s full-bleed printing. Still, re-editing and re-sequencing a project is a tricky business. I know from experience that when you revisit work that you’ve published, you can’t stop obsessing over its shortcomings, however few or many, whether real or perceived, and you can’t stop thinking about how you would do it differently given another chance.

Fortunately, Epstein was granted that opportunity. So, how does the new edition compare to the original? That particular compare-and-contrast exercise is worthy of its own think piece, but the short answer is: Overall, it’s an improvement. It’s a more assured statement by a photographer who has a better sense of what he wants to say and how he wants to communicate it.

One significant revision occurs at the end. Originally, the final photograph (Buena Vista, Colorado 1988) featured two men showing off their elaborate model train set, popping out of the scenery like genial demigods. It’s a wonderfully playful image, but not an ending photograph, per se.

Now it’s the penultimate image. Turn the page and you’ll see an equally playful depiction of an older couple at Glacier National Park peering through separate sets of binoculars. The mountains in the distance nicely echo the painted backdrop of the model train set. And this picture brings the project full circle—like the women in the opening photo, the sightseers are also searching for something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

It’s worth noting that Epstein studied photography with Garry Winogrand at Cooper Union in the 1970s. In terms of content and technique, Winogrand’s influence is undeniable in the images from that decade, and Epstein has never been shy about acknowledging that. There are tilted horizon lines, the occasional use of on-camera flash, and an uncanny ability to make order out of the chaos of the streets. Epstein has since branched out to medium and large format photography, but he made these images using a Leica with a wide-angle lens, the classic street photographer’s setup.

Epstein started shooting color while studying with Winogrand, and he helped pioneer the use of color in fine-art photography, along with William Eggleston and others. Epstein uses color in ways that adds depth and meaning, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of making color the overwhelmingly central aspect of his photos. Take, for instance, an image of two dancers in New Orleans. The picture would work just fine in black-and-white. It would be fascinating even without the serendipitous fact that both revelers are wearing pink shirts. However, the bright pink colors create a visual connection between the two and further pique the viewer’s curiosity about the couple and the event.

New Orleans, Louisiana I 1974 © Mitch Epstein

Starting around the mid-1980s, Epstein’s photos become more carefully composed and more polished compared to his earlier work. That’s to be expected, of course. Styles and techniques evolve, and skills improve. Still, it’s exciting to witness this evolution of style occurring within a single body of work.

And while he may not be quite as prolific as Winogrand (could anyone ever be?), a second monograph, Silver + Chrome, is due out from Steidl in September. It pinpoints the moment in Epstein’s career when he made the leap from Tri-X to Kodachrome. This time around, the title is both poetic and descriptive, and it captures the book’s central conceit succinctly. But whatever cavils I might have with Recreation’s less catchy, more generic title, the dynamic and inspired photographs speak for themselves, and the sequencing brings everything together.

Recreation by Mitch Epstein. Edited by Susan Bell and Ryan Spencer. Steidl, 2022. 176 pages, 84 images. Hardcover.

Binge-Worthy #8: Stranded In Canton (William Eggleston, 1974/2005)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I am at war with the obvious.” – William Eggleston

Stranded in Canton, William Eggleston’s lone foray into filmmaking, somehow manages the neat trick of being both strikingly similar to and completely different from his still photography. Assembled from video footage shot in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi throughout 1974, it’s a non-narrative, quasi-home video that grabs your attention immediately and never lets go. It’s rough, intimate, sublime, disturbing, occasionally profound, determinedly weird, and endlessly fascinating. And, like several of Eggleston’s classic photobooks, it’s an understated, unassuming masterpiece.

Shot on black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape, Stranded is comprised of short vignettes featuring a number of eccentric personalities. Eggleston’s approach could almost be described as ethnographic. However, it’s far more personal. (After all, this was his world as well at the time.) He mainly focuses on a coterie of garrulous and gregarious drunks and eccentrics living on the margins, channeling their creativity, and acquiescing to various transgressive urges. Glimpses of Eggleston’s immediate family and close relatives add some balance to the proceedings.

Eggleston has described his photographs as excerpts from an unfinished novel, and that could sum up the various strands in Stranded as well. An inebriated small-town dentist waxes poetic. A mercurial artist performs a borderline-unspeakable act involving a beer bottle. A tightly coiled country singer brandishes a firearm. Passions erupt and tempers flare. These are cinema verité sketches with a distinctly Southern Gothic flavor.

The film opens with a sustained video portrait of Eggleston’s two children that’s reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s work. There are a number of instances throughout where individuals mug for the camera or otherwise interact with “Egg” (as they call him). Yet, just as often, he is able to record unobtrusively, even when his camera is only inches away from someone. His video camera restlessly winds its way through the various proceedings, searching for the right angle, or perhaps for a different way to capture the scenes that are unfolding around him.

While it’s clear that Eggleston prefers intimate moments over spectacle, it’s also clear that he’s drawn to the performative, whether it be a fantastic blues harmonica riff or an inebriated drag queen’s wobbly attempt at cabaret singing. Late in the movie, there’s a “shockumentary” mondo-style scene that involves a circus geek biting the head off of a live chicken to the drunken jeers of a rowdy audience. How does one seek out a genuine moment in the midst of such a violent and garish performance? I would argue that in the close-up of the geek’s cruelly self-satisfied mouth after completing his act, two gold front teeth gleaming, a stray feather stuck to his chin, Eggleston finds it.

man with sunglasses and hat holding a gun
Country singer Jerry McGill appears in William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Similar to Robert Frank, Morris Engel, and other photographers in this series, Eggleston was shooting fast and loose with minimal equipment and working more or less on his own, employing a largely photographic approach to the new medium. He was also taking advantage of new and innovative technology—in this case, the first video camera manufactured for the consumer market, the Sony Portapak. The Portapak was relatively lightweight, unobtrusive, and easy to use. It featured synchronous sound and decent motion reduction that made it conducive to handheld shooting.

Eggleston saw the video camera as a radical invention comparable to the 35mm camera in terms of its potential game-changing significance. He retrofitted his Portapak with a 16mm film camera lens and an infrared picture tube for low light conditions. The lens gave increased clarity, enabled shooting from a closer distance, and resulted in a shallower depth of field. The heat-sensing vacuum tube resolved tricky lighting issues while giving everything an otherworldly sheen.

A major drawback to using reel-to-reel videotape was that there was no easy way to edit it, so the footage languished unseen for decades. However, a 2001 digital restoration enabled the dozens of hours that Eggleston shot to be cleanly edited into a tight 80-minute film. It was released on DVD in 2005, alongside a book comprised of hauntingly ethereal stills pulled from the finished version.

The editing is as fluid as the camerawork. There isn’t anything that one would deem extraneous—it’s taut and fierce, no small accomplishment. Given the sheer amount of footage, Stranded could have easily would up sprawling and unshapen. A great deal of credit goes to film editor Robert Gordon for giving shape and rhythm to the film. It unfolds like a jazz composition, with variations on themes and recurring motifs. And given Eggleston’s musicality, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

woman with eyes closed
A video still from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Like many, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at Eggleston’s photographs, trying to untangle the mysteries in them and struggling to put into words the rationale behind why I think they’re so incredibly good. As curator and art historian Phillip Prodger writes in Portraits, they have a fundamental inscrutability about them: “Their meaning is open-ended, and their emotional impact is uncontrived. In terms of narrative, they offer provocation without resolution.” The same could be said about practically every moment in Stranded. (Heck, the same could be said just about the title itself.) It’s a significant work from a legendary photographer–and one of the greatest chroniclers of the American South–defiantly following his own muse.

Stranded In Canton (directed by William Eggleston). Video (B/W), 77 min., 1974/2005.

Binge-Worthy Interlude: Alec Soth – On Filmmaking and Photography

Lately, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Magnum photographer Alec Soth’s YouTube talks. This past month, he posted a two-part series entitled “On filmmaking and photography.” Since I’m currently working on the next Binge-Worthy column, I was eager to gain his perspective.

As it turns out, Soth is trying his hand at filmmaking, which prompted reflection on the similarities and differences between motion pictures and still photography. In the first video, Soth looks at several photography books published by filmmakers and others in the industry (which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad idea for a companion series to Binge-Worthy). In the second, he delineates the differences between editing a film and editing a series of photographs via Helen Levitt’s classic book A Way of Seeing.

He also talks about how, as a filmmaker, he found himself in a situation where he needed to hire a casting director and a cinematographer, pointing out the cognitive dissonance of watching the action unfold on a monitor instead of through the camera’s viewfinder.

Soth is perhaps the embodiment of a photographer’s photographer, and he’s extremely open when it comes to giving insight into his process. Similarly, in his video talks, he focuses a great deal on the process of making photos and photobooks, rather than simply analyzing the end results. He tackles complex questions that many photographers wrestle with (I certainly do), and his experiences and insights, personal as they may be, tap into something universal.

So watch the YouTube videos! And stay tuned for the next Binge-Worthy entry, which focuses on a video project with a strong cult following made by one of the great chroniclers of the American South.

Book Review: The Way It Was by Thomas Hoepker

At first glance, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker’s new monograph, The Way It Was: Road Trips USA, is a look at America in the 1960s, as compared to now. On closer inspection, it’s also a portrait of a young photographer finding his voice—and of a master photographer rediscovering a body of work from his formative years and using it as the inspiration for one last journey.

In his 20s, prior to joining Magnum Photos, Hoepker was an up-and-coming staff photographer at a German magazine called Kristall. In 1963, he was given a dream assignment to spend several months road tripping across America and documenting the country, alongside a staff writer (Rolf Winter). Almost 60 years later, in 2020, Hoepker made a return trip down those same blue highways, looking for America in the age of Trump and the midst of the pandemic.

Hoepker’s earlier black-and-white work is the main focus of the book. The color digital photos from his recent travels mainly serve to help break up the different sections. There are no captions and not much text aside from editor Freddy Langer’s excellent introduction. We are simply presented with an abundance of images, all of which are beautifully reproduced by Steidl—indeed, it would be almost impossible to improve on the black-and-white printing.  

Looking at the 1963 photos, one almost instantly senses the specter of Robert Frank’s landmark work The Americans. Frank’s influence can be felt not only thematically but also stylistically, with regard to Hoepker’s similarly fast-and-loose approach to shooting.

I would also note another similarity, although this may be slightly controversial to say: Both books’ main strength lies in the editing and sequencing—how the individual images come together to tell a story. In Hoepker’s book, there can be up to a dozen or so black-and-white images laid out across a two-page spread. In essence, the individual photos are treated as fragments of a much larger picture. As a viewer, I often found myself studying the intricacies of these spreads.

Parade. San Francisco, CA, 1963 © Thomas Hoepker

Presented side by side, without editorializing, are subway commuters, churchgoers, strippers, motels, shanties, roadside diners, billboards, jukeboxes, cowboy hats, and quite a few American flags. By sheer coincidence, the Kennedy assassination took place during his visit, and its impact is captured in newspaper headlines that people are reading as they go about their everyday lives. Like Frank, Hoepker was also a European and an outsider – and the way some of the people in the photos look distrustfully or nervously at the camera sometimes makes the viewer feel like an outsider too.

2020 was also an extremely politically charged year, with Covid, BLM, and the Trump presidency at the forefront of people’s consciousnesses. Hoepker chose the place where he took his iconic and controversial 9/11 photo as the starting point for his recent journey. As Langer points out in his introduction, that space, now devoid of people, has taken on a new significance, denoting the emptiness that was emblematic of the early days of the pandemic.

East River waterfront in Williamsburg, 2020 © Thomas Hoepker

The photographer lets this image, which opens the book, speak for itself. In fact, the only words by Hoepker are found in the brief acknowledgements section at the end, to which he adds a quick flash of humor: “I hope you all like the yellow cover, it was totally my idea,” he writes. (For the record, I approve of the yellow cover.)

Langer ‘s introduction, on the other hand, is highly illuminating and covers a great deal of ground. At one point, he pauses to consider a fly in the ointment with regard to the initial photography endeavor. Unbeknownst to Kristall’s staffers, their editor, Horst Mahnke, had been a Nazi propagandist during World War II. Langer wonders, “Were perhaps the pictures published in Kristall – depicting the downsides of the country– intended to diminish America’s function as a role model; was this a candid form of anti-Americanism in the midst of a Nazi environment that included reports by Paul Carell glorifying war which sent shockwaves through the editorial team?” Whatever Mahnke’s intentions may have been, ultimately, Hoepker was able to make the work that he wanted to make.  

A film crew accompanied him on his 2020 journey, and a documentary film that covers the making of this project will be released soon. Sadly, in recent years, Hoepker has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has been experiencing memory loss. He didn’t recall seeing many of the images before, much less taking them. But he has stayed committed to photography despite this tragic turn of events.

Ultimately, The Way It Was is a testament to the photographer’s spirit and dedication to the medium. Within these pages, one gets a sense of reminiscing and even perhaps a touch of nostalgia. The title serves as a reminder that our current era will, soon enough, become a part of the historical record as well. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

The Way It Was: Road Trips USA by Thomas Hoepker. Edited by Freddy Langer. Steidl, 2022. 192 pages, 436 photographs. Hardback.

Book Review: Nudism in a Cold Climate by Annebella Pollen

In Nudism in a Cold Climate, Annebella Pollen writes with clarity and insight about a fascinating niche subject: the history of recreational nudism in 20th Century England. In the process, she takes an in-depth look at the idiosyncratic photographs that sprang up around this often misunderstood and rather idyllic subculture.

The book tracks the social nudist or “naturist” movement over five decades, starting in the 1920s when the practice was widely deemed scandalous and immoral, and following it through the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, when it was dismissed by the young generation as being too uptight and old-fashioned. Naturism originated as a health-conscious pursuit that, along with its staunch anti-clothing stance, incorporated a range of healthy living practices such as vegetarianism. From the beginning, British naturists generally embraced the progressive politics of the era, although in the mid-20th Century, those views did not take fully into account racism, sexism, classism, and other such -isms. (Pollen points out that homophobia and body-shaming practices were commonplace back then as well.)

Adherents joined nudist social clubs and resorts, and they also contributed and subscribed to magazines dedicated to promoting the lifestyle. The author surveys these different publications, which boasted names such as Sun Bathing Review and regularly solicited amateur photographic contributions. Quite a few of the images were taken by professionals as well, ranging from high society portraitists to retired newspaper photographers.

Pollen reports that, while there were some attempts to visually preserve and celebrate naturist culture, straight photography was generally frowned upon. The photographs that appeared in the nudist press were mainly intended to serve as propaganda for the movement—a way to attract new (and hopefully younger) members.

As a result, they tended to depict smiling, able-bodied young men and women enthusiastically engaging in calisthenic exercise and recreational activities in pastoral settings. Notably, professional models were often pictured, rather than actual nudists, who tended to be middle-aged and not as conventionally photogenic.

from Nudism in a Cold Climate by Annebella Pollen (Atelier Editions)

Contrived as they are, these photos are fun, kitschy curiosities, and the nudity adds a slightly surrealistic touch to them. There is plenty of joie de vivre and esprit de corps on display, and the models’ sunny dispositions further enhances the images’ artificial sheen.

Obscenity laws required the genital regions to be covered or obscured, which gives a demure quality to many of the photographs. In the case of females, this could involve clumsily airbrushing over the offending area, resulting in a kind of Barbie-doll effect. Photographers were forced to work within strict parameters, and Pollen details several notable, high-profile legal battles. She also traces how the naturist photographers’ struggles to categorize their work as art, rather than pornography, inadvertently helped open the door for pornographers as well, despite their best intentions.

As for the thorny question of whether naturist imagery shared any commonalities with pornographic photographs…well, that’s where things get a little complicated. Quite a few photographers and models worked in both genres. In a side-by-side comparison, Pollen presents two photos of Pamela Green, one of the most famous pin-up girls of the era. (Green was also a member of Spielplatz, one of the most well-established nudist resorts.) Both were taken by a photographer named George Harrison Marks. A naturist photo appears on the left and a pin-up photo on the right.  

Stylistically, they are vastly different, and if you didn’t know, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that two different photographers had photographed two different women. In the first image, Green’s short-cropped hair is purposefully unstyled and she’s not wearing makeup or jewelry. To give the appearance of outdoor work, in line with a healthy, natural lifestyle, she is standing in a field and holding some hay.

In the latter, a studio portrait, Green has transformed herself into the embodiment of male desire via a wig, makeup, and lingerie that covers very little. She poses erotically in a way that emphasizes a stockinged leg and flashes a come-hither look at the camera.

Not surprisingly, the most prolific and successful naturist photographers, such as Marks, who worked extensively with Pamela Green, tended to be male. Yet, there were also prominent female photographers. Among them for several decades was Edith Tudor-Hart an Austrian-Jewish refugee, socially concerned photojournalist, and, intriguingly, a Soviet spy for many years. She, too, posed her models in idealized ways, in stark contrast to her social documentary work. Pollen writes, “While not as political in message as her other campaigning photographs, they communicate her interest and participation in radical, experimental lifestyles.”

On a similar note, Pollen’s study connects two personal interests of mine: experimental Utopian communities and vernacular photography. People might be inclined to shy away from Nudism in a Cold Climate due to the title and subject matter, but it would be a shame if this book doesn’t find an audience within the photo world. It’s a rare critical look at a type of photography that hasn’t really been researched or written about before. In that sense, in its own unassuming way, it’s a landmark study.

As for the state of the movement today, a decent number of British “sun clubs” still exist, although their numbers have continued to dwindle. “The nude pursuit, as a formal membership activity, is a minority interest even as nude visual culture attracts endless attention,” Pollen writes. Twas ever thus.

Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain by Annebella Pollen. Atelier Editions, 2022. 272 pages. Paperback.

In the Galleries: April 2022

Highlighting photography exhibits and photo-related happening in the Philadelphia area.

It’s been a few months since the last installment of “In the Galleries.” While the pandemic continues to keep options somewhat limited, there are nevertheless several excellent exhibits here in Philly at the moment. Both are well worth seeking out.

Gravy Studio‘s current exhibit, on view in the lobby of 2424 Studios, spotlights Philadelphia-based photographer Martin Buday‘s Prophetic Kingdom. In his debut project, Buday seeks out the surreal in the mundane, exploring offbeat places and creating thoughtful images that range from satirical to sublime. The photographs (mostly in color, with several notable exceptions) generally tend to be devoid of people, but the human presence is keenly felt in each. Prophetic Kingdom was recently published as a monograph by Daylight and the book has been receiving a good deal of critical acclaim. Highly recommended.

The Halide Project’s Pop-Up Pinhole Photography Exhibition celebrates the alternative photographic process in spectacular fashion. The gallery put out an open call to anyone who wanted to participate, free of charge. In response, artists submitted a wide variety of works that feature a range of pinhole processes and run the gamut from landscapes to street photography. There isn’t a weak image in the show–all the more impressive, considering it was non-juried–and the arrangement of the pieces on the walls provides a nice sense of cohesion. The exhibit is only up for several more days, so don’t sleep on this one! The closing reception is timed to coincide with Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, on Sunday April 24th from 4-7pm.