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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Who By Fire Photographs by Justin Kimball Reviewed by Brian Arnold "The first time I met photographer and printmaker Richard Benson was at Anderson Ranch in Colorado. He taught a 3-day seminar on the history of photography in print, so really a workshop about his MoMA retrospective The Printed Picture..."

Who By Fire. By Justin Kimball.
Who By Fire
Photographs by Justin Kimball
Radius Books, Santa Fe, NM, USA, 2022. 156 pp., 80 color illustrations, 13¼x10¾".

The first time I met photographer and printmaker Richard Benson was at Anderson Ranch in Colorado. He taught a 3-day seminar on the history of photography in print, so really a workshop about his MoMA retrospective The Printed Picture. Each day Chip gave a 6-hour lecture over boxes of prints, simply telling stories and anecdotes about each of them. Six hours a day, and everyone in the class was riveted, wanting more in fact. We’d leave the classroom and enter out into some of the most alluring vistas of the Rocky Mountains. All of us were there with view cameras, so we would leave class and photograph the landscapes before meeting again for beer and more conversation about photographs and printing. On one of these days, he spent an hour or two talking about Paul Strand, Benson walking us through the making of Time in New England and the Mexican Portfolio (really his best works).

When I look at the books by photographer Justin Kimball, it’s easy for me to see that he sat through these same lectures from Benson — Kimball was a student of his at Yale and is included in the lovely new Aperture book about Benson, Object Lessons. Chip convinced us that the most important schism advancing photography in the 20th century evolved from Paul Strand leaving Lewis Hine to team up with Alfred Stieglitz. Strand’s best work, Chip maintained, balanced the social realism he developed with Hine while also embracing the erudite pictorialism of Stieglitz. It’s been 30 years since I took this seminar with Chip, but these words are still with me, and I believe he was correct about Strand as a pioneering photographer who was able to aestheticize social realism in a way missing from the cold and clinical vision of a photographer like Walker Evans. In Kimball’s work, I see similar tendencies, balancing honest social realism with technical, heartfelt poetics.

My first reading of Who by Fire got me thinking about Time in New England, the body of photographs Paul Strand made in rural New England during World War II. Kimball’s book is a collection of photographs, landscapes, and environmental portraits, all classically rendered and made in the Northeastern United States during the height of the COVID-19. Throughout its pages, he pictures cities, towns, and hillsides with an eye towards some of the most pressing issues of our days — rural v. urban class divides, environmental and social erosion, poverty and race — all the while composing pictures with perfectly balanced frames, a sensitive understanding of light, and a playful use of color, rendered exquisitely in print like Strand’s gravures from Mexico. I want to say these were photographed with a view camera, but you do see his shadow a couple of times with something handheld; I can say with certainty that they feel like view camera pictures, made with the patience and precision required of such a tool that can help execute a deep painterly vision.

This kind of look at American identity, an artist’s documentary of America today, is a deeply populated genre but Kimball does it with a sophistication that makes it convincing. Page after page, Kimball shows richly composed and active photographs, every part of the frame utilizing color, light, or supporting the social content of the picture. Poet Eileen Myles provides a meditation on the pictures; in a sort of poem-essay hybrid, Myles writes about her most visceral response to the pictures. She claims to know nothing about Kimball or how, when, or where the pictures were made, and is reading the photographs simply as they are, descriptive and analytical data full of rich histories and metaphorical possibilities (or like Hines+Steiglitz). The essay is fun to read — charming, self-deprecating, playful, and insightful, just like the photographs she animates.

Whenever I write about books published by Radius, I like to address the design. David Chickey and his team are known for bold and innovative design and have made many richly produced books. Who by Fire keeps things simple, just as it should, using the most basic strategies to make sure the pictures speak for themselves, one after another, syncopating these with an occasional double spread or full bleed. The prints are of the highest standards, colorful and clear, and bountiful with important questions about who we are today as Americans.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.