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Book Review: Twenty Years


Book Review Twenty Years By Jason Langer Reviewed by George Slade How does someone come to have assembled twenty years worth of quality photographs and mostly escape notice? (It’s twenty-seven years, based on the captions. But who’s counting?) More to the point, how does someone make a book’s worth of images echoing the work of David Heath, Roy DeCarava, Jerome Liebling, and other humanists of the 1950s and 1960s despite having been born in 1967?

Twenty YearsBy Jason Langer
Radius Books, 2015.
 
Twenty Years 
Reviewed by George Slade

Twenty Years 
Photographs by Jason Langer.
Radius Books, 2015. 172 pp., 100 color illustrations, 12x11½".


How does someone come to have assembled twenty years worth of quality photographs and mostly escape notice? (It’s twenty-seven years, based on the captions. But who’s counting?) More to the point, how does someone make a book’s worth of images echoing the work of David Heath, Roy DeCarava, Jerome Liebling, and other humanists of the 1950s and 1960s despite having been born in 1967? Not only are there no mobile phones or cell towers, no web URLs or video screens, and no apparent post-Modernist architecture to be found in the subject matter, there seems to be a distinct absence of irony, cynicism, or Gen-X pessimism to be found in the execution of the work. Even Times Square, photographed during the evening rush-to-theater on a fall or winter day (when darkness falls before the curtains rise), appears dressed in clothes from a distinctly pre-digital — heck, pre-Carter — era. And, to top it all off, a fine set of reproductions notwithstanding, Langer’s gallerist insists in an afterword that we cannot judge the work until we’ve seen it in print form.

Twenty YearsBy Jason LangerRadius Books, 2015.

What world does Langer occupy? What environs has he summoned for our viewing? Is this the Limelight Gallery? The Museum of Modern Art? W. Eugene Smith’s jazz-and-smoke-filled loft in lower Manhattan? Some Greenwich Village coffee shop full of Beat Generation phantoms? Aperture’s offices dancing to the beat of Minor White?

To put my reactions in one word: Bravo. To add a few more words and references, I’d say that Langer inherited the economical symbolism of a Ralph Gibson or Nathan Lyons crossed with the direct, sensual purity of an Edouard Boubat, Ed Van der Elsken, or Christer Strömholm.

Twenty YearsBy Jason LangerRadius Books, 2015.

I’ve left female influences out of Langer’s image antecedents; not because there aren’t any, but because there’s a particular longing in these photographs that feels very male, at least to this male. Women’s hands reaching around a man’s neck or laying on his shoulder, lithe lower legs drawing their flowing lines against pavement, a perfectly casual bow of a waitress’ apron, white and black at the base of her spine, and the arranged, partially-clad beauties that constitute a numbered series of “Figure” studies sprinkled throughout the book.

Twenty YearsBy Jason LangerRadius Books, 2015.

In a decision that may be the only tipping of a generational hat, the only clue that the photographer might live in the world and time of Ryan McGinley and Alec Soth, Langer gives comparable exposure to unclad male figures in his photography. No coy subtitles, no differentiation between female and male in the numbered series. And, best of all, no hesitancy to allow men’s bodies an expressiveness that has little to do with sexuality or massively scaled musculature. The figure studies of both genders echo a sensibility receptive to universal timbres of desire for touch and alienation resulting from its absence. Numerous images reflect well-rendered versions of the city’s inhumanity to man, the solo human form apparently stable but practically swallowed up in the enormity of the built environment.

Twenty YearsBy Jason LangerRadius Books, 2015.

The book’s edit, which one unfamiliar with Langer’s work must take as a core sample of the photographer’s oeuvre, favors anonymity, at least among the living, and gesture as human quintessence. There are several haunting images of simulacra — body parts on the wall of St. Roch’s shrine in New Orleans, religious and medical sculptures of bodies, a mudra (a hand gesture familiar in Buddhist and Hindu statuary, ceremonies, and dance) photographically extracted from a marble statue in the Louvre, and, on adjoining pages, skulls in a catacomb and an ominous, skulking, damaged parade float addressing the eternal moment. In a beautiful about face, an exception graciously affirming the rule, a photo titled Mudra shows a woman’s face and head thrown back in full rapture, hands out of sight somewhere near her midsection, gesturing in what we must imagine to be at least a physical, if not spiritual, moment of transcendence.

There are many outstanding images in this collection, and I am pleased to have encountered them. Langer’s name should be better known. This book should help accomplish that.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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