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July 15, 2009

Picturing Minnesota

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 1:35 pm

ElevatorsBrown County Fair

This blog has at least one faithful reader. He comments on every entry but insists on privately leaving his criticism off the blog. So in order to protect his anonymity let’s refer to him pseudonymously as TO’S. TO’S noticed that the list was favoring the wordy over the graphic and suggested that the next ten selections have pictures in them. I at least agree that there needs to be more illustrated books on our list of the 150 greatest Minnesota books. So here are two books that no Minnesota library – hell, let’s say no Minnesotan – should be without:

John Szarkowski. The Face of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.

Bill Holm (essays) and Bob Firth (photography). Landscape of Ghosts. Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 1993.

The unusually accomplished artist/curator/critic Szarkowski began his professional career at the Walker Art Center after his service in World War II. As Minnesota approached its Centennial he was approached to commemorate the anniversary with this photo project. The result was a wondrous success capturing this place – these people – in a moment in time that words alone could never describe. If your heart doesn’t first swell with pride and then break from nostalgia while perusing this book then I’d say, “You’re not from around here are ya?” Szarkowski’s text is surprisingly interesting and, because the images are so compelling, too often over looked. He does an excellent job of summarizing mid-century understanding of the history and geography and geology of the state. He integrates text from postcards to government reports, one of which, a 1956 “Report of the Governor’s Committee on Higher Education” [see page 186] is as timely now as ever. His photos, shown here, are from Red Lake, pre-yuppified Grand Marais, Bloomington, and the Brown County Fair.

Father and Son, Red LakeGrand Marais, MNBloomington, MN

TO’S wisely suggested another book of photographs done 35 years after Szarkowski. Since I wholly agree, and could not say it nearly as well, here is his nomination in his words:

Take a look at Bill Holm and Bob Firth’s LANDSCAPE OF GHOSTS (Voyageur Press, 1993) for my candidate for best MN photo book: fine balance of text and image (not “illustrating” but echoing each other); real depth in Holm’s writing, with the expected humor and attitude and erudition; delicious color plus a slightly quirky sense of composition and subject matter in Firth’s photos that sets them apart from the scenery porn that’s common to photo books; crisp design and right size, good in the hand and on the lap; and a bonus in the poems that Holm sprinkles thru the text, a little anthology of MN prairie writers (Bly and Bly, Philip Dacey, Phoebe Hansen, Mark Vinz) and oh yeah, Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers and Willie Yeats to boot. If someone asked me what rural MN or the Midwestern prairie is all about, I’d send him a copy of this. How can you not love a book that starts, “Here is a book full of pictures of stuff nobody wants to look at and of essays on subjects no one  wants to read about”?

I prefer the peopled landscape of Szarkowski but this is not a competition so all I will add is that it is especially gratifying to see some themes and images that overlap in both books and encourage you to look at both works side by side.

Grave yards

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5 Responses to “Picturing Minnesota”

  1. Ulster Says:

    Good luck, if you are going to look at the millions of MN picture books, buddy. It seems that there are about three or four published every year around Christmas for grand kids to send to their grandparent’s coffee tables in Florida. Your mystery blogger’s term “scenery porn” is not far from the truth. Did you look at Jerome Liebling’s work? His 1966 “Face of Minneapolis”? Worthy of a 150 Best?

  2. George Slade Says:

    Liebling’s Face of Minneapolis is certainly among the 150 best Minnesota picture books, though as a “face” book it rates second to John Szarkowski’s in terms of photographic quality; Liebling himself disparages the selection and production of this title. The MN Historical Society Press published an excellent collection of Jerry’s Minnesota photographs that trumps Face of Mpls, though it is perhaps less pleasing on a “Chamber of Commerce” level.

    I think Holm/Firth belongs on the list. But let’s raise the bar to top 25 to really get the competitive/comparison juices flowing.

    Tom Arndt’s recent Home (UM Press, 2009) is certainly on my top 25, but I’m biased, since I wrote the essay for it, as I did for another candidate, Minnesota In Our Time: A Photographic Portrait (MHS Press, 2000).

    Be sure to consider several of the Prairie Documents Photographic Book Series, published during the 1990s by the Department of Mass Communications at MN State University Moorhead under the tutelage of Wayne Gudmundson.

    The Blacklock clan’s Our Minnesota may be the best and most personal exemplar of their scenic gen(i)us. Craig B’s Lake Superior Images is among the most beautiful of any Minnesota-centric publication. All accusations of scenery porn notwithstanding, there is beauty to this landscape that is unavoidably part of our photographic experience of the state.

    Alec Soth, Beth Dow, and Chris Faust were commissioned to photograph at Carleton College about ten years ago; the resulting book (and calendar) offers some fascinating expressions of photographic point-of-view on a uniquely lovely Minnesota campus. Chris’ book Nocturnes, while not expressly a Minnesota book, contains many memorable Minnesota scenes captured ’round midnight. Alec’s famous Sleeping by the Mississippi likewise reaches outside of state lines, but has some distinctive views within.

    I could go on, and will be happy to if there’s interest.


  3. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments George. Keeping in mind that this list is the 150 Best Minnesota Books it is hard for photography books to compete with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hennepin. In an earlier blog I suggested that supplemental lists could be created to enhance this one. How about coming up with a list of, say, the 10 Best Minnesota Photography Books? Pat

  4. Ray Says:

    I read “Landscape of Ghosts” when it came out and think it’s one of the best of its type (photography+essays) I’ve ever come across, about any landscape and culture (even a disappearing one), period – and I live in the Mountain West and Colorado Plateau country. I’m always recommending it to people for that reason. So if you want impact beyond your MN borders….

  5. Cool John Brown University images | AllOnlineCollege.com Says:

    [...] Brown County Fair Image by Minnesota Histor&#105&#99&#97l Society From: John Szarkowski. The Face of Minne&#115&#111&#116a. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 195&#56&#46&#10Featured on the MHS Collections Up Close Blog. [...]

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