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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 2 (September-October 1950)

Book Reviews

page 53

Book Reviews

The Man Behind the Camera

When you pick up an overseas magazine about houses and gardens — not the superbly illustrated kind like the Architectural Review or Forum but the run of the mill variety — you seldom stop to think how very good the photographs in it are. There are the rooms shown in depth and detail, clear and well hit; there are the gardens and the houses, almost as stereoscopic as life. Each photograph vividly but unobtrusively clarifies an editorial point, or rescues from banality an editorial remark. Photographic journalism abroad seems to be honest and competent and intelligent. When the photography is good, as it usually is, you take it for granted; it is only when it is bad that you notice it.

Now, since a magazine like Design Review is almost entirely concerned with the ‘visual’ arts, its very life depends on the quality of its photographs; and it can hardly be a secret to readers of the Review that architectural photography in New Zealand is, on the whole, careless, lazy, unimaginative, technically incompetent, and extremely expensive.

It would be worth knowing why this kind of photography in New Zealand is so poor. One can only guess: there is not enough demand for architectural work for anyone to specialize in it; possibly photographers haven't proper equipment. (They certainly don't take enough pains to use properly what they have.) Or is the reason simply that photographers haven't the knowledge or the experience to do more than point the camera, click the shutter, and hope for the best?

Let us be generous and assume that lack of knowledge is the answer. If so, ignorance is no longer an excuse. For here is a book* which will not only teach the photographer his technical business, but will give him some idea of what his responsibilities towards his art should be: and which, if he is not too hardened by habit, will increase his sensibility.

The plates in the book show the author to be one of the great architectural photographers of the world. The text reveals him as a serious artist who writes with wit, modesty and style. Mr Gernsheim addresses himself, of course, to the professional photographer, but even the layman will discover as he reads, that his solemn, accepting stare is being tweaked into a comprehending, analytical vision of the things about him.

Planning, says Mr Gernsheim, is half the success of a photograph. Nothing must be left to chance. Luck should not enter into the photographer's work at all. And clearly, the pains and the planning and the patience that produced the magnificent photographs in this book must have been inexhaustible. He tells of a commission for a shipping company which required new publicity photographs for its Mediterranean cruises. He knew that he would have only a few hours in each town. So he collected, weeks before he sailed, as many brochures and maps as he could. From these he worked out the aspect of every important building, planned in which order he should photograph them, and saved himself the trouble of dashing from place to place only to find the light wrong. One or two of the Mediterranean photographs are shown, and the result you may judge for yourself.

There is much more one could say about this book: for instance, that although it gives a great deal of new and practical advice, it page 54 is infinitely more than a book of photographic tips. It creates a modest aesthetic of its own.

It only remains for every photographer who sees this notice to read the book. If he profits by it, he will help us all to see: if he does not, the blind will go on leading the blind. G.L.G.

Designers in Britain
Volume 2

A biennial review of Graphic and Industrial Design compiled by the Society of Industrial Artists (Allan Wingate. London).

Designers in Britain, Volume 1 (1947), seemed to be almost too good to be true, and even the most optimistic readers must have wondered whether it would be possible to continue the series. Volume 2 Sets all doubt at rest and Volume 3 is well under way. The present volume covers everything from ‘trade marks to posters, from book-jackets to exhibitions, from carpets to leather goods, from furniture to ironmongery’ and is a fine piece of printing and typography.

A brief foreword and four and a-half pages of nicely set indexes and table of contents and the book launches into some 250 pages of illustrations ending with a stimulating and well chosen section by student members of the Society of Industrial Artists. It is a most difficult book to write about because you are tempted from page to page and each perusal reveals something not previously noticed — gay and sensible nursery furniture, really interesting school furniture, clean-cut electrical fittings, tempting pottery and glass (decoration becoming richer), something new in hemp cord rugs, shapely leather goods and so on to the pictorial sections, posters, illustration and advertising. The advertisements at the end are worthy of the book and might easily be considered as a section illustrating good design in action.

The book is valuable to designers not only as a comprehensive review of contemporary work in many fields, but also as an excellent means of interesting and educating manu-facturers and publishers and of fostering appropriate contacts. Such a book must go a long way towards making good design fashionable.

Which are You?

The American press defines high-brows as people who are addicted to garlic, ballet, constructivist sculpture, Bach and Schoenberg (with nothing in between), starkly functional furniture, cheap red wine, tweeds (no hats), avant-garde literature, Tittle magazines' and criticism of criticism. The upper middle-brows, it says, go in for theatre, salads, regimental ties, Empire furniture and ornate lamp-stands, initialled silver cigarette-boxes, dry Martinis, Maillol, Beethoven and Brahms, solid non-fiction and Causes. The lower middle-brows like gadgets of all kinds, musical comedy, mass-produced-salad-dressing, loud neck-ties and double-breasted suits, bridge, garden sculpture, book-club selections and whisky. The lowbrows love beer, check sports-shirts, over-stutted furniture, Westerns, corned beef and cabbage, ‘comics,’ mantel-piece sculpture, jukebox music, dice and the Lodge.

* Focus on Architecture and Sculpture by Helmut Gernsheim, London: The Fountain Press, 1949. 25s.