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Book Review: Camera Era


Book Review Camera Era By Barbara Levine and Martin Venezky Reviewed by Sarah Bradley The image following the essay in Barbara Levine’s Camera Era sticks in my mind. A man lies on his side on a beach, a camera in one hand, reaching up to a man in a suit. The second man’s head is cropped out of the shot, but he meets the outstretched arm with an indiscernible object in one hand, a large bottle of something in the other.

Camera Era. By Barbara Levine and Martin Venezky.
Project B, 2014.
 
Camera Era
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley

Camera Era
By Barbara Levine and Martin Venezky
Project B, 2014. 96 pp., color illustrations, 4x5¾".


The image following the essay in Barbara Levine’s Camera Era sticks in my mind. A man lies on his side on a beach, a camera in one hand, reaching up to a man in a suit. The second man’s head is cropped out of the shot, but he meets the outstretched arm with an indiscernible object in one hand, a large bottle of something in the other. Shot from the sand, the foreground is out of focus: a muddled mess of sand and blankets and emulsion. In the background stands a man in a sweater and swim shorts, one of a number of blurry beach goers. Slightly tilted with nothing quite in focus, the shot is marked by elements of a “bad” photograph, yet it is carried by spontaneity, strong composition and the mystery captured in the frame. I don’t know why I respond to this photograph, but its pull is direct. For those of us compelled by vernacular photography, that strange unknowable connection can be very strong, at times profound. In her introduction, Levine explains that she feels rescued by these images. The intensity of her love is woven into every page of Camera Era, a selection of photographs from her personal collection that is described as a “meditation on the camera and its complicated hold on our lives.” It is as much a celebration of these images as an exploration of our response to them.

Camera Era. By Barbara Levine and Martin VenezkyProject B, 2014.

Levine clearly has a knack for picking images. Cameras and photographs within photographs frequently appear; people interact with photographers and pose for cameras, unexpected moments are trapped by the swiftness of a shutter; it brims with images describing the diversity of reasons we choose to document a moment. There’s a lot to fall in love with here — the spectacularly unaware child determinedly dragging the doll of nearly his own size by the ankle across the lawn with the muzzle of a Western-style cap gun clutched in his little fist; the braceleted wrist with hand placed tenderly on a portrait of a man in uniform, a sign of love and devotion, caught inexpertly, blurry, but perhaps more moving in its lack of focus.

Camera Era. By Barbara Levine and Martin VenezkyProject B, 2014.

Parts of the book have the feeling of a collage or scrapbook; some images are reproduced in their entirety while others are enlarged and cropped, distilling them to the elements worthy of notice. This technique works well in some places, (like the distinctly 80s photo of a couple kissing on the couch and the plaintive expression of the woman sitting next to them), but on occasion gave me the feeling of being too close to the image to see it. Camera Era is an interpretive work rather than catalogue, and it took me a bit of time to fall into the rhythm of the patchwork of appropriated images. Still, some of those mash-ups remain as memorable as the photos themselves: the swooping script and the curve of colorless aurora in a black and white photo; the couple attempting to take a portrait in the reflection of a dressing table mirror, obscured by the flash, facing the image of a woman lying coyly on a lawn, her hand in front of her face as if shielding her eyes from the offending glare of her page companions.

Camera Era. By Barbara Levine and Martin VenezkyProject B, 2014.

Measuring 4x5 3/4”, the scale of the pocket-sized volume is well conceived. It’s an approachable book, giving the impression that it can be touched, handled, absorbed, consumed, and put back worn but none the worse for wear. Actually, its sudden wear should be expected — the perfect binding has not held up well to my frequent perusal. Still, this can be forgiven; it, too, speaks to the ephemeral nature of what is being celebrated, what is being created.

Camera Era. By Barbara Levine and Martin VenezkyProject B, 2014.

Camera Era is a love letter to the vernacular image and the capacity of these often-anonymous objects to… draw out or kindle or – what is it, exactly? I’m not sure, but I think it may boil down to empathy. Through these images we are able to time travel by mere virtue of that human need to connect, developing kinship with people we never knew, in places we’ve never been, during times before we existed. Are they transmitting something? Or is it what they bring out in us? Whatever it is, Camera Era is a fine start to what I imagine will be an intriguing on-going series. Beautifully ephemeral and imperfect, like the images themselves.—SARAH BRADLEY

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Selected as one of the Best Books of 2014 by:
Andy Adams

SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. Some of her work can be found on her website sebradley.com.

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