Staff Pick

Starting with his mesmerizing recreation of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed hundreds of Watkins’s glass plate negatives, Green’s phenomenal rags-to-riches-to-rags life of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), once the nation’s most famous photographer, is full of stunning set pieces on topics as varied as the economics of the 19th-century butter business in Otsego County, the processes for quartz- and hydraulic-mining during the Gold Rush, and the fights over the Transcontinental Railroad. Green’s enthusiasm and authority make all of it fascinating. What little we know about Watkins himself comes from his thousand-plus photographs and from the records of famous friends such as Jesse Frémont, Frederick Law Olmstead, John Muir, and the many industrialists he worked for. Watkins left Central New York for San Francisco at age nineteen. There’s little information about how, why, where, or under whom he learned photography, but suddenly the photographs are there. From the late 1850s, when he was hired to take pictures as evidence in a mining dispute, through his truly pioneering picture-taking expeditions to Yosemite, Mendocino, and Mt. Shasta, to his last pictures of Phoebe Hearst’s estate in the 1890s when he was almost blind, Watkins was essential to how the rest of the country saw the West. Tyler is an excellent close reader of Watkins’s images, mining every detail for what it conveys about Watkins’s artistic vision as well as pointing out the physical challenges of these shots, which often required steep climbs, long hikes, and precarious cliff-edge perching—all while schlepping hundreds of pounds of fragile equipment. Green puts the work in several larger contexts as well, showing how Watkins’s focus on landscape for its own sake echoed Emerson’s thinking about nature and fostered evolving notions of conservation and national parks. Watkins also helped inform scientists about the botany and geology of the west, contributing information vital to the understanding of glaciers. Finally, Tyler makes Watkins key to the nation’s idea of itself; showing Easterners the West, he shaped popular ideas of what “America” was, wasn’t, and could be. To Watkins, all this was beside the point. He was first and foremost an artist, presenting his pictures framed, like paintings, something unheard of at the time.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American Cover Image
ISBN: 9780520287983
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: University of California Press - October 16th, 2018

Staff Pick

Among the few things known about Vivian Maier: she was a great photographer. She worked as a nanny. She was born in New York, lived in France from age six to twelve, grew up in a splintered family, spent the last fifty years of her life in Chicago, and left tens of thousands  of photos, negatives, slides, and undeveloped rolls of film in storage. Once these surfaced after being auctioned off, their new owners began the myth-making that Pamela Bannos, a professor of photography, both charts and refutes. Her Vivian Maier (Chicago, $35) is a kind of Emily Dickinson of photography; while she roamed the streets relentlessly, she let no one in. Her neighbors thought she was homeless because she spent so much time on a park bench. In lieu of friends to interview, Bannos turned to the photos for clues to Maier’s life. She has studied seemingly every image Maier recorded, and follows in her footsteps from Maier’s first forays with a camera in the early 1950s, in France, through her development as a prodigious street photographer in New York and Chicago, and her travels through Europe, South America, and Asia. Looking at what Maier looked at, Bannos reads these images beautifully, giving insight about Maier’s brilliant sense of composition, her experiments, and her ever-evolving technique. She identifies the cameras Maier used, points out angles, notes lighting and shadows, and traces recurrent themes. She brings the pictures to life so vividly, and is so convincing about what was in Maier’s mind at the moment she framed each shot, that this eloquent photographic interpretation itself becomes a masterful biography of Maier not as an eccentric but as a true artist and an uncommonly independent woman.

Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife Cover Image
ISBN: 9780226470757
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Published: University of Chicago Press - October 10th, 2017

Staff Pick

Following his award-winning profiles of Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein, Walter Isaacson continues his exploration of creative genius with this in-depth and insightful study of Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster, $35), the great Italian painter, architect, and engineer.  Isaacson keeps da Vinci in a dual focus, portraying him as both a great artist and a man of science and technology; in vivid tableaux, he shows us the quintessential Renaissance man in the act of dissecting cadavers to learn about human physiology, observing water and wind, and pursuing any and all ways to better understand his world. Isaacson also chronicles how da Vinci, because he was born out of wedlock, was prevented from attending Latin school, which spared him from the need to conform to many of his era’s social exigencies. Using the great treasure of da Vinci’s Notebooks, Isaacson mines the master’s work itself for insight into various periods of his subject’s life, analyzing paintings for both the history they convey and the invaluable glimpses they offer into da Vinci’s artistic techniques. The book is generous with illustrations, illuminating not just Isaacson’s portrait but also serving as an immediate reference to Leonardo’s brilliance.

Leonardo da Vinci Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501139154
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Simon & Schuster - October 17th, 2017