by Russell Ferguson. Hammer Museum; Prestel, August 2015. 128 p. ill. ISBN 9783791353197 (cl.), $49.95.
Reviewed January 2016
Russell Ferguson's new catalog for the Hammer Museum's exhibition of the same title, on view from June 20 through September 13, 2015, explores the topic of composition in contemporary photography. Ferguson is a professor at UCLA and an adjunct curator at the Hammer Museum. As he demonstrates, views and opinions on composition have changed considerably over the past decades. Ferguson gives a brief history of the field of photography from its inception, focusing throughout on the changes in photographers' approaches to composition. Two major camps and time periods emerge: those who, from the 1920s to the 1970s, rebelled against overly photogenic and perfect composition, focusing instead on the mechanics of photography, and those since the 1970s who have embraced and explored composition as a means of controlling representation and revealing the subject. Ferguson views the artists' in this latter group in the role of a director, writing that, "by stepping back from the mechanics of picture taking, the artist can concentrate instead on picture making" (98). His essay thoughtfully considers several artists, among them Jeff Wall, Barbara Probst, and Thomas Demand, to name just a few, and situates their work within this narrative.
This exhibition catalog is intended for a scholarly audience, but the reproductions will make it at least visually accessible to anyone wanting to casually flip through. Ferguson's writing style is clear and engaging, but his essay is long enough that it could have benefited from chapter breaks or section titles. Lorraine Wild and Marina Mills Kitchen did the design, and care has been given not to overwhelm pages with either text or image. The result is a pleasant balance between text, image, and white space through the majority of the work.
There is a robust appendix on the featured photographers' information, including a list of solo exhibitions and a bibliography for each artist. An exhibition checklist is also provided. There is no index, although an illustration checklist does help to navigate the text. Citations are provided as footnotes at the end of each page. This is a handsome publication, sturdily bound with cloth covered boards. The paper is of good quality and the offset printing does justice to the full color photographic reproductions. The catalog is illustrated with eighty full, half, and quarter page reproductions. In addition to documenting the Hammer Museum's exhibition, this catalog provides a thoughtful consideration of approaches to composition in contemporary photography, and the artists' biographies make this a worthwhile resource.