How best to give meaning to the word “presence” in a discussion of photography, a word layered with implication and underlying tension? In the case of a dictionary definition, presence is “something felt or thought to be present,” a perception not unlike the photographs in Presence — The Photography Collection by Judy Glickman Lauder, a book recently published by Aperture is.
Lauder’s new book is a dynamic collection of iconic photographs that showcases a ferocious, take-the-bull-by-the-horns determination by a woman with a keen eye and the savvy to grab vintage prints by ‘ a who’s who of classic photography.
When seen in context with the title, certain images jump off the page as their presence is quickly revealed. For example, in Yousuf Karsh’s searing portrait of Winston Churchill, the inherent sense of power in the subject and in the composition takes only a moment to declare its presence in a loud and confident voice. In the crystal clarity of a large-format photograph, Churchill glowers at the camera, intimidating the viewer with his posture, demeanor and implied impatience.
What is not known to the reader, however, is that since Karsh is not getting his subject’s cooperation, he walks up to Churchill and rips the ever-present cigar from his mouth. Seconds later, when Karsh returned to his position behind the camera, Churchill presented him with a gift more precious than gold – a pure, unstudied response full of the towering figure’s frustration that could be described as a display of ‘ an undeniably emphatic presence.
But then what about another use of the word presence, namely Karsh’s own presence of mind? His split-second decision to enhance decorum and invade his subject’s space is in many ways clearly the modus operandi in Presence.
Calling the book by that name confers a double sense of meaning: first, as a visual cris de coeur where these images stake their claim on the world by being singular examples of the medium’s power; and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, by giving credence to Lauder’s tried and generous eye, which declares its presence through what it chooses to hone in on. Lauder felt that in the more than two years she spent putting together the book and exhibition, what she finally revealed was something the collection told her about herself.
In a compilation that spans nearly a century (and includes pantheon names such as Hurrel, Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, Salgado, Parks and Capa) Lauder, Chris Boot and the team at Aperture, and countless others have embraced nuanced and confident curation to declare that these 160+ out of 680+ images deserve to be singled out. Through Lauder’s generosity and desire to share this mini-history of 20st century photography, the book is published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, the institution endowed with this nonpareil collection.
Beautifully printed by EBS in Verona, several photographs in the book live at the pinnacle of the art and define greatness through the indisputable presence that classic photography achieves. Just a few of the photographs in Presence that exhibit this quality are Edward Weston’s Charis, 1936Horst P. Horst’s Mainbocher Corset, Paris, 1939Alfred Stieglitz’s The Hand of Man, 1902 and The Steerage, 1907W. Eugene Smith’s Welsh miners, 1950 and Spanish Wake, 1951Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Madrid, 1939and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936.
But at this moment – with an alarming increase in anti-black rhetoric coming at us from various directions – photos like Gordon Parks’ American Gothic (Portrait of Ella Watson), Washington, DC, 1942 speaks volumes about how photography alone can comment on social mores. Parks’ relationship with Ms. Watson was unique for his time as they collaborated on an 80+ series of photographs in which the great photographer captured her at home, at work, at worship and with family, culminating in the classic image in front of the American flag.
The presence of a strong black American woman with a stern face sharing the foreground with a broom and a mop while the flag of the contiguous United States is in the background calls for immediate confrontation. Historically, it works to powerfully bring the past into the present. We cannot look away comfortably, knowing how the representational nature of this image creates burdens that we carry every day.
Other prominent images show their presence by evoking different elements of life: joy in Mario Giacomelli’s dreamlike display of priests frolicking in the snow; young passion in Leon Levinstein’s Coney Island, c.1952; and the thin line between celebrity and fashion in Richard Avedon’s image of Audrey Hepburn, Art Buchwald and others at Maxim’s in Paris in 1959.
But two photos almost scream their presence in markedly different ways: Lisette Model’s Reflections, Rockefeller Center, New York, c.1945 is a beautiful translation of one of the silent gifts of photography, namely the implied presence of human spirits as reflected in windows; and the powerful gaze of a proud young woman in Edouard Boubat’s Lella in Brittany, 1947an image that combines an almost painterly composition with someone declaring their presence through an aura of defiance.
Roland Barthes’ quote “Every photograph is a certificate of presence” (as included in an essay by Anjuli Lebowitz that opens the book) is a confirmation of the obvious, but nevertheless a necessary and fundamental fact that is irrefutable as a one wants to define presence as “something felt or believed to be present.”
But for this viewer, creating a visceral, organic response, images like Susan Meiselas’s are Lena on the Bally Box, Essex Junction, Vermont, 1973where the presence of seven souls in motion outside a strip club is at the service of the defiant gaze of the strip dancer who almost shouts “I am present, I am here!”, or Mick and Bianca Jagger after their wedding, Saint-Tropez, France, 12 May 1971 by Patrick Lichfield, which demands our attention due to the implied and hyper-charged presence of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. With an in-your-face vantage point, we share in the glorious spectacle of a great rock star and his new bride thanks to the presence of a gifted photographer.
The photographer in Lauder relates to the beautiful eye exhibited in so many of these images; she is comfortable being surrounded by great talent because she is one of them. Meanwhile, the collector in Lauder relates to the shared respect for humanity that almost all of this work offers.
Her collection – like her book – contains a finite world. A collection can be a fluid, malleable thing that bobs and weaves and grows or contracts based on the market or the budgetary constraints of the collector. A book, however, stops its forward trajectory as soon as the ink hits the paper at the printing press, but has an endurance peculiar to its nature that places it squarely on the side of history.
No matter how many times we may have seen certain images in the collection, or how much we know about some of the subjects, the sheer depth embedded in many of these deceptively simple photographs can help carry the weight of an entire generation. to carry
Presence: The Photography Collection of Judy Glickman Lauderpublished by Aperture and available for $50