Photo Books: Compelling New Titles for Spring 2023
April 12, 2023
Three hundred meticulously reproduced images anchor Michael Chinnici’s new release, Vanishing Cuba. Each one showcases the story telling capabilities of photographs. (Scroll through for images from Chinnici's book and the other photo books in this review.)
An environmental portrait of an out-of-work Havana resident “chilling” in a land where, the photographer points out, “chilling is a national pastime…”
Ballerina Katherine Ochoa at home between performances as a first soloist of the Cuban National Ballet.
An aging pensioner, poised and dignified, as if defying the urban decay that surrounds him and plagues Cuban towns and cities.
The sleek compound bullet shapes of a patiently restored vintage American car—one of the colorful, if slightly melancholy staples of contemporary Cuba, where newly manufactured automobiles were inaccessible for 62 years.
In the midst of the restrictive pandemic, celebrated portraitist Mark Mann and dozens of world class professional dancers joined their creative talents in a Covid-safe setting, to create Mann’s historic monograph, Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance. The result: a gorgeous collection that mixes kinetic action imagery with revealing closeup portraits. In tandem, these two styles profile some of the world’s greatest contemporary dancers.
A major retrospective of imagery by a gifted editorial and advertising shooter is on bold display in Ernst Haas: The American West. A pioneer Magnum photographer, and a leading member of photojournalism’s glitterati during the heyday of picture magazines, Haas was smitten by the drama and the lore of the ‘”Wild West.”
Freshen up your coffee table this Spring with fresh photo books. Michael Chinnici’s Vanishing Cuba: Curated Photo Storytelling Collection is a rhapsody on the beauty, culture, and stories of Cuba. Movement at the Still Point is celebrity photographer Mark Mann’s pandemic project, where he captures images of dancers in motion and also captures their still portraits. Finally, Ernst Haas: The American West explores the Western works of one of the great photographers from America’s golden age of magazine photography.
Take a look into the images and stories that make these three photo books well worth your attention this Spring.
Vanishing Cuba: Curated Photo Storytelling Collection
By Michael Chinnici
Foreword by Leonor Anthony
Prologue by Rocío Montes Serrano
Red Octopus Publishing
$95.00 (Silver Edition)
A Photo Book Rhapsody to Cuba
This recently released monograph from New York-based photographer Michael Chinnici deserves all the superlatives that have been following it around. Its target audience seems to be largely a mix of epicurean photo book collectors and connoisseurs of fine art photography. But the powerful and original images on these pages are also relevant to another segment of the market—namely, Chinnici’s fellow documentary and portrait shooters. The operative theme for that audience is right up front in the subtitle, “storytelling.” The book acts as a sort of de facto masterclass for photographers in the art of the story.
Vanishing Cuba is, in fact a whole, ambitious compendium of stories. They celebrate Michael Chinnici’s passion for the people and the ethos of this complex island nation, bruised and battered by three generations of post-Cold War geopolitics.
Practically everyone knows the Cuba saga, how relentless hostility between America and the government of Fidel Castro dissolved all our diplomatic ties for sixty-two years, shut down travel between our respective shores, and suspended a once robust commercial and social intercourse between Cuba and the USA. By the time the embargo finally lifted, Cuba, under Castro’s revolutionary government, had come to resemble a bleak, Third World dystopia of peeling paint and rutted roads, soulless bureaucrats and crumbling, once glorious, colonial buildings. And everywhere, the curious sight of Cuba’s new icons, aging 1950’s-vintage American automobiles sporting a few coats of aftermarket paint jobs and stubbornly kept in service long beyond their expiration dates. New cars were only distant memories in post-revolutionary Cuba.
Underneath all these signs of distress, there was always, and still is, a stubborn, animated spirit among long suffering Cubans. It’s this energy that brought a phalanx of photographers, writers and filmmakers to this little country as soon as the barriers came down. Michael Chinnici was a part of that crowd, more ardent than most, determined to capture what he calls, the “soul of Cuba.”
Chinnici is a versatile shooter with an acute instinct for creating a big, impactful statement in a picture. In the more than twenty forays he made to Cuba, he brought an eclectic skillset—from dramatic landscapes and cityscapes to tight closeups and formally composed street scenes. But the really strong suit of Vanishing Cuba is the body of provocative environmental portraits that punctuate this collection.
Whether it’s ballet dancers, barbers, fishermen, simpatico family elders or impish barefoot street kids, Chinnici shows his virtuoso feel for the environmental portrait–storytelling by uniting a subject in a frame with places and objects, and often symbols, that make up their external reality. For Michael Chinnici the scenario can be a butcher in his shop, a family hanging out on their weathered pre-Castro front porch, someone curbside, leaning against a ’58 Edsel. Michael claims his ground game calls for him “blending into the environment and assimilating, making others feel comfortable in my presence.” But it’s also clear that many of his strongest portraits are thoughtfully stage-managed with cooperation from the subject.
In most cases his sessions go quickly, to keep a sitter’s interest from flagging, but the best of his environmental portraits are not fly-on-the-wall candids; they’re deliberate, carefully composed, and, as a result, often quite eloquent. Most importantly, for other members of this craft, they’re instructive. Just as valuable to the rest of us as these object lessons in communicative imagery, is Chinnici’s personal creative manifesto—his insistence that there are three crucial ingredients in every successful image: “authenticity, beauty and emotion.” When the first two are achieved, he says, the third will follow. His proof of that is the lavish selection of images throughout this photo book.
One final note: Beyond the business end of Vanishing Cuba, its visceral first impression is also worth a comment. Even in the world of painstakingly manufactured large format coffee table books, this one stands out as physically astonishing. It weighs in at around 10 lbs., measures 12 x 13 x 2 inches, and the content between its covers is printed on heavy, luminous coated paper stock, using a state-of-the-art 10-color printing process (and triple-blacks for monochrome images).
So, clearly, Michael Chinnici’s imposing, if somewhat ungainly, first monograph is not a photo book you can thumb through lying in bed. But you’ll surely want to keep it handy. Vanishing Cuba is a wealth of inspiration and ideas.
Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance
Photographs by Mark Mann
Foreword by Chita Rivera
A Photo Book Celebration of Dance
Our recent universally shared bout with Covid-19 upended a lot of lives and careers. But now, with the dust finally lifting, stories intermittently emerge of positive, often surprising outcomes of the pandemic. Someone rises from the ashes around them to discover a game-changing idea for a business startup, or some dormant skill lurking beneath what seemed all along like the demise of their entire world. It’s as if an unseen hand appeared and pressed their Refresh key.
One such scenario came about for UK photographer Mark Mann, who’s known worldwide for his distinctively edgy style of portrait. Fallout from the pandemic yielded a new creative outlet for Mann, and eventually, a fabulous new black and white collection in photo book form–Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance.
Mann forged his reputation photographing celebrities, mostly from motion pictures and television. He had never ventured into the rarefied world of professional dancers (unless you count the onstage antics of Iggy Pop) but was urged by renowned choreographer Loni Landon to take on something dance-related during the great pandemic slowdown.
Loni, by a lucky coincidence, is Mann’s sister-in-law. Since Covid arrived, she had seen the demoralizing effects of isolation and estrangement on her dancers, whose performance venues and opportunities were dramatically collapsing under the weight of this toxic virus. She also recognized like symptoms among other artists, Mark included, and she told him so. She clearly had it in mind to drum up something that would get everyone busy again until this global calamity had passed. So, not long after, encouraged by Landon’s prodding and no doubt by her seamless access to the elite of New York’s dance scene, Mark Mann launched an ambitious campaign, completely on spec, to photograph the star and the megastar dancers who appear in this book. It went on for nine months and would prove to be a healing experience for both photographer and subjects, who embraced it as a surprise chance to flex their creative muscles, despite the stifling disorientation that accompanied Covid.
The many dancers who appear in Movement At The Still Point represent nearly every subset of this profession–ballet, tap, modern, Broadway, ballroom, hip hop–and many are soloists from such troupes as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the New York City Ballet.
Mann chose to capture most of his subjects in two sessions, first, performing for the camera, and then sitting for a more intimate, tightly cropped portrait. The combined result, among the dozens of dramatic images that followed, is a fascinating counterpoint between two separate and distinct personas of each subject. One is the dancer in motion, unrestrained, pushed to the limits of their skill and imagination. The second is the introspective, self-aware, but no less complex subject in the framework of a portrait session.
At first, Mann was clearly more at home with the latter, having never photographed dancers in motion before. But he soon found it liberating to shift his own role from actively directing a portrait sitter to more passively serving as their one-person audience. In the book’s introduction he recalls how, “my whole life as a photographer was turned upside down. I was no longer . . . dictating the action but simply the voyeur of intense beauty and talent. . . I simply had to follow my intuition and press the shutter. It was absolute magic.”
Beyond the “magic,” of course, there were real world choices to make, some technical, others related to the risks of virus-borne interpersonal contact. A cavernous vacant warehouse Mann knew on Manhattan’s West Side, with fifty-foot ceilings and ventilation from huge industrial windows, was, he calculated, a safe enough venue for these shoots. Besides which, it was steeped in a kind of grunge atmosphere that contrasted beautifully with the supple bodies of dancers. So did the loose folds of a rough, Irving Penn-inspired and nicely wrinkled fabric drop. A moderate telephoto 120mm lens (on a medium format Leica S) allowed him to work hygienically enough about 30 feet distant from his subjects, and broad soft light coverage gave his subjects room to move freely around the shooting space.
We all know dance as a fertile ground for the photographer. Like other performance arts, the most vital ingredients in a dancer’s routine, those peak moments of plastic beauty, would only survive as fleeting memories in the minds of an audience, without a visual artist somewhere in the mix–a painter, an illustrator, a photographer–to capture and preserve them. They are the “still points” of this remarkable book’s title, a term borrowed from poet T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. He describes them as the very essence of the dancer’s art:
“Where past and future are gathered,” Eliot wrote, “Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.”
There, too, is Mark Mann and his dancers and their groundbreaking accomplishment, Movement at the Still Point. It is not only further proof of the great love between photographers and the dance. It’s a plucky collaboration against a historic, global enemy.
Ernst Haas: The American West
By Paul Lowe
A Photo Book Psalm to the American West
An important new photo book title you may have missed was released just at the end of last year. It requires a bit of historical context.
Most of us in this craft who are old enough to have personally experienced the transition from analog to digital imaging, can usually be counted on to draw our inspiration from a common source—the golden age of the big picture magazines in the middle of the last century. Actually, it was not so much the age, as the foot soldiers of that era who tweaked our imaginations. They were the independent, creative and sometimes daring photojournalists who every week unspooled miles of roll film to put images on the pages of Life Magazine, Look, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and hundreds of Sunday supplements. These were the go-to periodicals for two or three generations of image-hungry readers, and all those ambitious editors were in a perpetual rugby scrum to outdo each other with enticing photographs.
The roster of photographers in that period is so packed with names that would become legends of this medium—from Robert Capa and Bruce Davidson to Eugene Smith, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Burt Glinn, Inge Morath, and so many more–that it’s difficult to single out any one of them for special praise or scrutiny or both. The late Ernst Haas (March 2, 1921- September 12, 1986) earns that distinction in this particular edition of Rangefinder, based on a newly published posthumous collection, Ernst Haas: The American West.
Haas was a native of Austria, and, like so many Europeans, enthralled with the vast and complicated tract of North America that sweeps from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean–the American West. It seemed to encapsulate everything that was enticing about this country, with its rugged beauty, it’s fantastic lore and its uniquely American vibe that, perversely, mixes brutality with optimism.
Early in his career, Haas had acquired a reputation for creating powerful black-and-white photo essays, but after leaving the catastrophe of post-war Europe to pursue his career as one of the early members of New York-based Magnum photo agency, he acquired a passion for color imagery. For the rest of his career, he immersed himself in expanding and manipulating, in a score of creative ways, the potential of dramatic, highly saturated chroma as a narrative device in hundreds of magazine assignments. Like prominent colorists William Eggleston and Pete Turner, Haas’s chosen palette was Kodachrome, Eastman/Kodak’s specialized reversal film that would become legendary for its high acutance and rich color rendition.
[Read: Personal Imprints: Three Ranches]
Haas’s startling and meticulous use of Kodachrome quickly earned him the attention of magazine editors and art directors. He was the first photographer to merit a 24-page all color photo essay in the pages of Life. When he was tasked with hitchhiking barren roads through New Mexico for a travel piece that captured the moods of this fabled “Land of Enchantment” and its austere beauty, he reflexively turned the assignment into what this book’s text author Paul Lowe describes as “his search for “the mythical West that that had fascinated him as a child.”
“As a young man,” Haas remembered, “I feverishly read Jack London and Zane Grey, wondering what it would be like to follow in their footsteps.” And for decades, that’s what he did, documenting with his impressionistic, color-based vernacular, the Grand Canyon, the Dakota Badlands, the other-worldly vistas of Arizona and Utah, cattle drives and almost mythic cowboys, along with the Native American culture as it survived on barren deserts and in the confines of the reservation. He even photographed the gay, multi-colored kitsch that had overtaken a lot of the natural beauty of the West—billboards, and the neon glut of towns and cities along Route 66, and in downtown Las Vegas, and elsewhere.
In a way, those jarring, melancholy images were Haas’s dark coda on the steady commercialization of his precious wild west. He was quite obviously conflicted by the encroachment of all this so-called “civilization”. And it made sense when, in a completely ironic postscript, he gave the world, through a major outdoor ad campaign, the universally recognized cliché of the Marlboro Man–the apex predator of machismo.
[Read: Cowboy Confidence]
This suntanned, slim-hipped horse-wrangling character would eventually appear in billboard form beside every superhighway and in every urban shopping district across an entire world of—at the time—heavy smokers. He was a dying (literally: at least four of the models in this campaign actually succumbed from smoking-related causes) symbol of a vanishing American West, and perhaps a subliminal warning to us from a unique and complicated genius. Ernst Haas: The American West is a must photo book addition to your bookshelf.