PHOTOBOOK REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND WRITE-UPS
ALONG WITH THE LATEST PHOTO-EYE NEWS

Social Media

Book Review: Jack London: The Paths Men Take.


Book Review Jack London: The Paths Men Take. By Jack London Reviewed by Blake Andrews He was quite proud of his photography, referring warmly to his images as "human documents". Over the course his last fourteen years, he managed to make roughly 12,000 photographs, a sizable amount for the time period.
Jack London: The Paths Men Take.
By  Jack London. Contrasto, 2016. 
 
Jack London: The Paths Men Take.
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Jack London: The Paths Men Take.
Photographs and text by Jack London. Text by Davide Sapienza. Edited by Alessia Tagliaventi.
Contrasto, Catania, Italy, 2016. In English. 196 pp., 69 black-and-white illustrations, 6½x9". 


Jack London needs no introduction for most people. A century after his death — he died at 40 on November 22, 1916, almost exactly 100 years ago — he's still widely remembered as one of America's finest writers. What's less commonly known is that London was also a prolific photographer — and not just a hobbyist. He was hired to document events photographically, usually in conjunction with written journalism assignments. In other words, he was a professional photographer of sorts, although it never fully supported him (his primary income was always writing). But he was quite proud of his photography, referring warmly to his images as "human documents". Over the course his last fourteen years, he managed to make roughly 12,000 photographs, a sizable amount for the time period.

Today the bulk of London's archive — roughly 10,000 photographs — is housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. A small portion of these were published during London's lifetime, usually in press reports, but until relatively recently most had not been widely seen. With support from the library they are now beginning to filter out into the world. The Paths Men Take: photographs, journals and reportages by Italian publisher Contrasto is the most recent collection. It combines London's photographs with his first-hand written accounts from four assignment/adventures: People of the Abyss (reporting on the British underclass), the Russo-Japanese War, the San Francisco Earthquake, and The Cruise of the Snark (London's Pacific sailing journey).

Jack London: The Paths Men Take. By  Jack London. Contrasto, 2016.

I should be clear that The Paths Men Take is not a standard photography monograph. Those seeking such a book should instead seek out Jack London, Photographer, published in 2010 by the University of Georgia Press, which, oddly enough, follows the same four adventures, London, Japan, San Francisco, and Pacific Island. But the emphasis, size, and production quality are geared toward photography. In contrast, The Paths Men Take is a multidisciplinary mutt, following the spirit of its subtitle, "photographs, journals and reportages". The meat of the book is a written travelogue, and this is generously supplemented with images — roughly seventy in all. But they are not the primary focus. The book is structured as an illustrated diary, not a sequence of images.

The book's character comes through strongly in its proportions and production quality. It is trade sized, roughly 9 x 6 inches, a volume generally better suited for writing than photographs. The production quality is also geared toward writing. The text looks great. But when printed to the same standard on rough matte paper, the accompanying photographs appear washed out, muddy, cramped, and generally unhappy. The irony is that, just as in London's lifetime, his photographs are overshadowed here by his writing. That is good news, because London wrote beautifully. He's a true pleasure to read.

Jack London: The Paths Men Take. By  Jack London. Contrasto, 2016.

But we already knew that. How is Jack London the photographer? In a word: Competent. With a reporter's instinct for stories, London was on the scene with his Kodak Brownie. He was opportunistic at gaining access and effective at conveying reality. He usually knew where to stand, he was curious about people, and he got the job done. His photographs of the San Francisco earthquake and turn of the century Korea, for example, effectively document strange, distant worlds. Their historical importance and exoticism make them naturally fascinating. Yet one can't help wondering if any reporter there with a camera might have made similar photos. His portraits are intimate and unflinching. But beyond the subject matter, his photography style was not particularly inspired. Without London's name attached, most would not stand alone as creative works.

Jack London: The Paths Men Take. By  Jack London. Contrasto, 2016.

That may be a harsh judgement to pass down 100 years later. Photography and the expectations surrounding images are much different now than in London's time. He was grappling with a brand new tool, The Brownie, in exotic situations, and under rough travel conditions. But one central facet remains unchanged: Good photographs, like good writing, generally express a point of view. They convey a sense of the author. Jack London's photographs generally don't.

This should come as no surprise. After all Jack London was a writer. He spent hours and days and years polishing his language until it shined like a diamond. The effort shows. I don't think his photographs received the same effort, and the results speak for themselves. Like any serious discipline, a mastery of photography requires years of diligent practice. The fallacy that photography is a democratic art open to any moonlighting artisan or passing news writer is exposed here. And that's fine. As long as the reader realizes this, he or she can come away from the book happy.

Jack London: The Paths Men Take. By  Jack London. Contrasto, 2016.

The Paths Men Take may fall short as a photography monograph. But as a loosely illustrated diary it's very entertaining. Jack London lived a rags-to-riches story, raised in San Francisco among meager means, forced by finances to drop out of college, eventually pulling himself up by sheer gumption to become a successful novelist, world traveler, social activist, and gentleman rancher. His life is a treasure trove of material and, as I've said, he was a brilliant writer. It's great fun to peak over London's shoulder as he embarks on one whirlwind adventure after another. Photographers in particular will enjoy the account of his arrest for photographing sensitive areas in Korea, an account which some may find uncomfortably familiar. The other essays are equally entertaining. All in all the book is a great read, and an interesting historical view. — Blake Andrews

Purchase Book

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

Read more book reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment