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Book Review: Looking at Photography by Stephen Frailey

© Tim Davis, Profile (from permanent collection), 2003

Stephen Frailey’s book, Looking at Photography, was inspired by John Szarkowski’s influential book Looking at Photographs, published in 1973. While paying homage to the concept of one hundred images and one page of text for each image, Frailey takes the baton from Szarkowski and starts running his own race, albeit in the same direction.

Frailey’s essays feel alive and relevant to now. In his introduction, he describes Szarkowsi’s writing as lively and unpredictable, concise and anecdotal; fitting descriptions for such an important book and influencer. Much like Szarkowski, Frailey shares what he is thinking, he shows people what they should look at, and how to look. But by comparison, Szarkowski’s essays and his selected works from MOMA’s collection feel like they are from the protected past, and we have that afforded comfort and safety of relating to the work. Frailey’s approach feels more like active photo criticism versus photo history. By discussing the significance of the individual works, Frailey articulates the themes and sensibilities of contemporary photography. This makes Looking at Photography a book worthy of wanting not just because the selected images selected are from contemporary photography icons, but due to the draw of smart insights and opinion.

In his essay on the work of Alex Prager, Frailey writes, “The series ‘Face in the Crowd’ engages some of the pleasures of speculation while watching a crowd. Filled with extras: typecast character actors as archetypes of middle century generalizations, social typology as rendered in popular culture – in a costume drama, without plot activation. Prager’s mise en scéne is not based on individual experience but of an immersion in collective fiction, a nostalgia for an idealized past, the stock image.”

This is six pages into the book, and I’m already hooked. Forty pages further, and I’m hanging on every word.

Frailey gives socio political insight into Leibovitz’s privileged portraits of the bourgeois, waxes poetic in a description of the Bruce Davidson’s subway work, immediately followed by the sexually charged work of Bruce Weber and how its “shrewd function in the avarice of the market place would have profound effect on culture”, immediately followed by an image by Carrie Mae Weems which pivots nicely into the influence and tour de force which she fiercely established as an artist of color, a woman, and a storyteller who explores the narrative of African-Americans in an unflinching manner. Timely? Pertinent? Alive? Yes to all.

Frailey takes a somber tone in speaking about the image by Dawoud Bey, ‘Untitled #2 (Trees and Farmhouse)’, 2017. Rather than primarily critiquing the image itself, Frailey speaks to the concept behind what he surmises as the photographers intent. The mood of the image and the technical choices in either shooting or printing the image are the driving force behind its meaning. “The mood can be inherent, or to result from the deliberate decisions of the photographer and the use of photographic tools. Light may be considered as one of the most frequent components of photographic tonality in the same way that it can influence one’s temperament in daily life,” Frailey writes.

In addition to the aforementioned artists, the book is illustrated with major works by acclaimed artists (presented in alphabetical order within the book) such as Dawoud Bey, Tina Barney, Jeff Wall, Steven Meisel, Nan Goldin, Helmut Newton, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Martin Parr, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Tim Walker, Wolfgang Tillmans, among others. It is worth noting that the book feels like an attempt was made touch on work by artists across a range of different genders, race, and ethnicities without feeling heavy handed. It is also worth noting that may of the artists are both Western and male – a byproduct of the historically privileged art world, and the gatekeepers at the doorway to the club.

The tone and approach of the book reminds me of something Robert Adams wrote in ‘Beauty in Photography, 1981’. He says, “William Carlos Williams said that poets write for a single reason – to give witness to splendor. It is a useful word, especially for a photographer, because it implies light – light of overwhelming intensity.” In a similar way, Frailey’s essays and curated images speak to the illuminating aspect photography gives to our collective lives; its splendor is revealed when its many facets are shone upon.

© Alex Prager, Crowd #4, New Haven, 2013


© Nick Knight, Pink Powder, Lily Donaldson wearing John Galliano, 2008


© Joel Sternfeld, After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, 1979


© Zanele Muholi, Bester V, Mayotte, 2015


Spread from ‘Looking at Photography’ by Stephen Frailey


Spread from ‘Looking at Photography’ by Stephen Frailey


Spread from ‘Looking at Photography’ by Stephen Frailey


© Larry Sultan, Dad on Bed, 1984


© Cindy Sherman, Untitled #167, 1986


© Dawoud Bey, Untitled #2 (Trees and Farmhouse) 2017


Looking at Photography by Stephen Frailey
Published March 2020
204 pages
Published by Damiani SRL

Stephen Frailey, the Chair of the Photography and Video Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1998 to 2018, is now Chair Emeritus. In 2012 he co-founded the Graduate MPS Fashion Photography program at SVA, and is currently the Director of Education for Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn. He has had solo exhibitions at 303 Gallery and the Julie Saul Gallery and group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; International Center for Photography, New York; and the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC. His work has been widely reviewed in the ‘New York Times’, ‘Arts Magazine’, ‘ARTnews’, ‘Artforum’, the ‘Village Voice’, and the ‘New Yorker’.

About Cary Benbow

Photographer, Writer, Publisher of Wobneb Magazine

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