Thursday, November 01, 2012

Book Review: Two Photography Books

Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography by John Comazzi
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012
Hardcover, 192 pages

Construction by Brian Finke
Decode Books, 2012
Hardcover, 80 pages

At first glance the title to this biography of Balthazar Korab is a bit confusing, but learning that Korab considers himself "an architect who makes pictures rather than a photographer who is knowledgeable about architecture," it makes perfect sense. Comazzi traces Korab's life from Budapest to Paris (École des Beaux-Arts) to Michigan (Eero Saarinen's office and independent practice), where he still resides. Three visual sections follow the biography: Case studies of Saarinen projects that Korab documented (TWA Flight Center in New York and Miller House in Indiana); "Inflected Modernism" and "Beyond Modernism," which include more Saarinen projects but also buildings by other modern architects (Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Minoru Yamasaki, Louis Kahn, etc.) and later architects (Steven Holl, Frank Gehry, Williams Tsien, etc.); and "Additional Portfolios" of photos taken on trips (Florence, Rome) and places in and around his Michigan home (vernacular buildings, "car culture," etc.). An emphasis on Midwestern buildings and places prevails throughout the whole book, which arises both from circumstance and an appreciation of what he grew to understand. The portfolio that ends the book is the "Presidential Portfolio," a selection of photos he took when upon request of the U.S. State Department. The images capture some familiar landmarks, but as a whole they paint a complex portrait of the country and reflect a person able to find beauty in life's contradictions.

Brian Finke's Construction is the photographer's third book, following Flight Attendants (2008) and 2-4-6-8: American Cheerleaders and Football Players (2003). Like the first two books, the most recent one focuses on a group of people distinguished by a profession/activity. As the cover makes abundantly clear, the construction worker's place of work—the job site—is probably the profession's most defining characteristic. The photographs veer between two extremes: long shots of buildings and sites under construction, and close-ups of construction workers, with some gradients in between. Many of the former do not include humans within their frames, yet they clearly convey the effects of people—excavations, erections of structures (like the cover), or even something as mundane as stacks of construction materials. The latter, in a similar vein, are often removed from the job site, yet they are clearly portraits of construction workers—men sitting in their wood-grain-panel trailers, a man sitting in his van, or a man cracking open a can of beer in front of a backhoe. Only one woman is photographed in the book, but given Finke's documentarian eye, this is a fact of the construction industry rather than a commentary on things. What is perhaps most fascinating is the way Finke has documented job sites without making it clear where they are: One photograph near the middle of the book has the Empire State Building as a backdrop, but most backgrounds are occupied by skies and generic buildings that reveal how construction takes place anywhere and everywhere.