Monday, 26 March 2012

Elliott Erwitt - Sequentially Yours: Part 1

A copy of Sequentially Yours, Elliott Erwitt's new book, arrived here from Amazon last week. It took a diversion on its way, ending up with a neighbour, before landing with me several days after. That seems fitting for a book comprising photographs that work together in steps to achieve an end goal, rather than single images that contain all the information you need and jump straight to the end line.

I've had time to digest the book, and it's raised quite a number of thoughts in me. So many that it's best to split the review of the book into two parts. One about the book itself; the second about the issues it raises about documentary photography.

This part is about the book itself.


Fresh out of the cellophane wrapping, the book smells gorgeous. That's an odd thing to say, I know, but it's rare that I get a book of photography so fresh off the press. I'm not used to that smell. I like it, though.

The glimmer of the silver print on the cover suggests that once the book is cracked open rich delights await the photographic connoisseur. Even more so if you are a die-in-the-wool, card-carrying, it's-a-shame-my-daughter-isn't-a-boy-so-that-I-could-name-him-Elliott aficionado. The tingle of anticipation as the book lies in front of you. What treasures will it contain?

Sometimes, anticipation isn't rewarded.

Two dozen pages into Sequentially Yours, you start to get a little concerned. It's a bit uneven. Some of the photographs don't hit the mark. Still, it's early doors.

Halfway through, it's still hit and miss. You're reckoning that the editors must, surely, have weighted all the really good stuff in the second half, which is kicked off by a seemingly endless, yet hugely engrossing, series of photographs culminating in a formal group shot from the set of The Misfits.

Unfortunately, the incline after that is only marginal, though the final few sequences are fabulous, even laugh-out-loud funny in one instance.

If the book were an aeroplane, you'd say it just doesn't get very high off the runway after takeoff. A mildly ambitious tree would cause it concern.


There are a number of reasons for this.

First, I have to say that the reproduction just doesn't do it. The photographs lack depth. They look dense and dull. With only a rare exception, they are lifeless.

Lifeless. That bears repeating.

Lifeless isn't adjective you associate with a photographer of Elliott Erwitt's remarkable ability to show us life as it is lived.

The alternative is just too terrible to contemplate. Could it be that the reproduction is the best that could be achieved from Elliott Erwitt's negatives and prints? Surely not?

Last year, in Arles, I saw prints of photographs by SebastiĆ£o Salgado. They were exceptional. I'd never seen black and white prints of such three dimensional, luscious, almost tangible quality. I don't know for sure who printed them (Dominique Granier?), but it would be interesting to see what that person could do with Elliott Erwitt's negatives.

Even then, would they reproduce well using the same printing process used for this book?

I don't know. I have no answers really. I just feel the print quality isn't as good as it should be.


Then again, perhaps inadequate reproduction it is all that some of the photographs in the book deserve. While it does contain some absolutely wonderful photographs, the book also contains [Oh heavens, how do I put this and still get out of here without my car tyres being slashed?] less wonderful photographs.

If you were shown some of these photographs and weren't told who had taken them, you'd be searching for nice things to say about them at best. At worst, you'd be looking for a nice way to say bad things about them.

Also, some of the sequences don't work. They lack a point or a reason. Sometimes they are constructed around a single image that would shine much brighter if it weren't surrounded by dimmer companions.

There is good work here. Just not enough of it. [Where's the exit?]

In the end

Giving a verdict on this book is really hard. I want to like it. Elliott Erwitt is a man I look up to. It's just that the book falls short.

The quality of the photography is uneven.

While some of the sequences work so well and lift your spirits so high, you want to find someone immediately to share the photographs with, others don't.

The reproduction is, I think, second rate - certainly compared to the print quality of a book of landscapes by Icelandic landscape and nature photographer Daniel Bergman shown to my by a friend late last year. It took my breath away and I couldn't stop talking about it. My friend had to leave the room to quieten me.

There is another consideration to be given to a book of documentary photographs. Does it succeed in enlightening the reader about the human condition and the world in which we live? In the case of Sequentially Yours, I'd have to say that the answer is: "Mostly." From that perspective at least, there is a lot to cherish. More about that in part two of the review.

I have a sense that the genesis for the book stems from the notion that Elliott Erwitt's archive must contain many more sequences in addition to the ones already known and marvelled at by the public at large. Maybe it does. But someone will have to go and have another look.

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