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Book Review: Sight Seeing


Book Review Sight Seeing By Paul McDonough Reviewed by Blake Andrews You can take the street photographer out of the city, but can you take the city out of the street photographer? That's the question posed by Paul McDonough's recent book Sight Seeing. To date McDonough's reputation has rested largely on urban work. His classic black and white candids of 1970s New York pedestrians fall firmly in the street photography tradition.

Sight Seeing. By Paul McDonough.
Sasha Wolf Gallery, 2014.
 
Sight Seeing
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Sight Seeing
By Paul McDonough
Sasha Wolf Gallery, 2014. 48 pp., 20 duotone illustrations, 9¾x8¼".


You can take the street photographer out of the city, but can you take the city out of the street photographer?

That's the question posed by Paul McDonough's recent book Sight Seeing. To date McDonough's reputation has rested largely on urban work. His classic black and white candids of 1970s New York pedestrians fall firmly in the street photography tradition. Many of these were collected in 2010's knockout monograph New York Photographs 1968-1978, which established him somewhat belatedly as a leading practitioner of the craft.

McDonough spent much of the seventies pounding the pavement of New York. But when time allowed during those same summers he sought refuge in a series of cross country journeys. Sometimes they involved hitching, sometimes his own car, and always a camera. He had a brother in Oregon, friends in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and scattered locations, but the main destination was simply new photography. The photos piled up, but it's taken decades to sort them into a public edit. Now twenty have been curated by Sasha Wolf Gallery under the nondescript title Sight Seeing. If the title is bland it's also fitting, for it casts McDonough in the role of wandering outsider, just another tourist exploring the West with a camera. But McDonough's eye was far keener than a typical sightseer’s.

Sight Seeing. By Paul McDonoughSasha Wolf Gallery, 2014.

The road trip is both a time honored photographic tradition and an emblem of the peripatetic seventies. It's unclear which pull captivated McDonough, or perhaps it was both. Whatever the case his photographic approach remained relatively constant whether in city or country. Even though the settings in Sight Seeing are generally non-urban — rife with parking lots, cars, and open recessive backgrounds — familiar street tropes abound. A gas station photograph pins figures across the frame in perfect formal timing. A New Orleans image of windsurfers has just the right combination of whimsy, weirdness, and improbable juxtaposition. A photograph of kids on a slide employs the old monochrome saw of confused layering. A talent show photograph stands documentary photography on its head by imposing an unnatural narrative.

Sight Seeing. By Paul McDonoughSasha Wolf Gallery, 2014.

The results in Sight Seeing are visually distinct from his New York street photos — generally more sweeping, distant, and dry — but that difference seems largely imposed by circumstances, not personal aesthetic. If his first book pays homage to Winogrand, this one seems inspired by Henry Wessel. But essentially it's McDonough the street shooter at work. He had all the tricks in his quiver and he knew when to use them. But essentially it came down to the old standby: stake out a gathering of people and wait for something unusual to develop.

Sight Seeing. By Paul McDonoughSasha Wolf Gallery, 2014.

Back to the original question. Can you take the city out of the street photographer? In this case, perhaps not. And thank goodness, because McDonough has some wonderful photographs to show for his wanderings. For a relatively small publication (just 20 photographs), this book has an outsized number of outright winners. And also a few duds, which we won't dwell on.

Sight Seeing. By Paul McDonoughSasha Wolf Gallery, 2014.


If I have one complaint, it's that the strength of the individual shots works against the book's cohesiveness. Sight Seeing feels more like a greatest hits collection than an artistic statement. Which I suppose is fine, but it casts the book as throwback. The main movement in photo books now is to conceive them as art pieces, with emphasis as much on editing, layout, and overall feel as on the photographs. In contrast this is basically a stream of similarly sized photos, one to a page, in sequence. It's like looking at photos on a wall, and in fact this is the straight translation of last year's Sight Seeing show at Sasha Wolf Gallery. A few of the photos have been switched out, then the lot published simply in blue cloth binding without frills or text. As a testament to McDonough's shooting skill it's a great document, but I sense a missed opportunity. An essay by McDonough might have turned this into a travelogue or tied the photos together as a road trip story. Instead it's a flipbook of 20 pictures. They are very well done, but the project might have been taken further.

Still, I'd give it two thumbs up on the strength of the photos alone. If you like McDonough, Friedlander, Wessel, or classic 1970s street work in that vein, you will enjoy Sight Seeing.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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