by Brian Sholis. Cincinnati Art Museum; Yale University Press, October 2016. 192 p. ill. ISBN 9780300218985 (cl.), $45.00.
Reviewed January 2017
This title is the catalog of an exhibition organized by Brian Sholis, curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It acquaints readers with a diverse circle of photographers and writers associated with the Lexington, Kentucky, Camera Club, founded in 1936 and in existence through the 1970s. The most prominent photographer among them was Ralph Eugene Meatyard (others included Cranston Ritchie, Zygmunt Gierlach, and Robert C. May). Of the writers, perhaps the most prominent were Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry. The book offers a concise introduction to a topic not well known beyond its immediate region, and the last significant publication on the topic was the 1989 exhibition catalog The Lexington Camera Club, 1936-1972.
Although the author states that every member “contributed to what made the Lexington Camera Club…important for us to study,” the book is less about the club itself than about a “club-within-a-club” of individuals who were more creatively advanced than the average member.
The author makes a strong argument that Meatyard has been separated from the context where his work developed, and thus misunderstood, while the efforts of his colleagues have gone unrecognized beyond the Lexington area. The brevity of critical discussion renders the book less successful in arguing that the other photographers should be considered as more than minor, although interesting, figures. The style of writing favors storytelling over sustained critique, and the author is at his best when helping the reader understand the network of friendships and mentorships within the tight-knit artistic community that sustained the creative practices of this circle.
There are 120 excellent quality black and white and color illustrations, printed on heavy, glossy stock. The book is wrapped in a handsome cloth over board format, without a dust jacket.
A chronology lists significant events in the life of the Club. Although there are endnotes, the book lacks an index and bibliography, which is puzzling given the numerous writers discussed. A list of exhibitions by key figures would have been helpful, although some are mentioned in the endnotes. The Camera Club had a wide circle of members and friends, but unfortunately an appendix listing them, and including salient biographical details, was not included.
The accessible narrative voice makes the book appropriate for general readers, however students and scholars will appreciate the coverage of a topic that has gone relatively unexplored. The title is recommended for purchase by libraries, for the insights it offers in placing figures like Meatyard within the context in which they worked, for its recognition of an arts community that has been underexplored, and for its exploration of collaborations between writers and artists.