Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review | Taliesin Diary

Cover of Taliesin Diary (2012)

Priscilla J. Henken, Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright. New York, Norton, 2012. 272 pp., illus. 30 b&w photographs. Trade, $34.95. ISBN 978-0-393-73380-8.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens

IN 1934, AMERICAN expatriate author Gertrude Stein returned to the US for the first time since moving to Paris in 1905. Accompanied by her companion, Alice B. Toklas (whom she had secretly married in 1908), she toured the country giving talks to promote her new (and perhaps most enduring) book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

When she spoke at the University of Wisconsin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was in the audience (she said he looked familiar, but could not remember why). Apparently, Frank and Gertrude and Alice had met earlier in Paris, at which time (as this diary notes) his impression was that Stein was “the most unattractive, uninteresting and dull person he had ever spoken to.” She dominated the conversation, he recalled, while the mute compliance of Alice gave new significance to her name—she was of course, reported Wright, “Alice be talkless.” In Madison, Wright invited the pair to return with him to Taliesin, his famous home and school nearby, en route to their next engagement. But they demurred (exchanging nudge-nudge glances) for the reason, they said, that they liked to travel by airplane. “We want to fly to Milwaukee,” they said.

This book is called Taliesin Diary because its primary text is the diary of an American Jewish woman who lived (along with her husband) with Wright and his wife Oglivanna, their family, and student apprentices for nearly a year at Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The diarist was Priscilla Henken, a New York-born high school English teacher, who traveled to Taliesin in October 1942 with her husband, research engineer David Henken. Together, they “slaved” as apprentices in Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship until she left (apparently rather abruptly) in August 1943, to return to teaching in New York, while her husband stayed on until later.

I have read dozens of published diaries from which I have concluded that not all diaries are worth reading. But this one is fascinating, largely because it is candid (albeit often painfully so) and well written. It is especially honest about the corrosive influence of Wright’s third wife Oglivanna (they had married in 1928), who, by more than one account, was the Rasputin of Taliesin. In page after page, don’t be surprised to be taken aback by the abrupt and usually damaging ways in which Mrs. Wright (“La Dame”) jostled to assert control over the apprentices, her aging husband (he was in his seventies then, and incapable of standing up to her), and others who were living and/or on the staff at Taliesin. more>>>

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).   

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review | Faking It Before Photoshop

Cover of Faking It, with photomontage by Wanda Wulz (1932)
Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. Distributed by Yale University Press. 288 pp, illus (278 color & b&w). Hardcover, $60.00. ISBN 9780300185010.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens

THE TITLE of this book is well-chosen. But another appropriate title would be "Protoshop" (which is in fact the title of one of its chapters). Even more helpful is the subtitle—Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop—in the sense that its readers are forewarned about the thorny concerns and discussions inside. Better yet, inside is a bushel of visual delights since it turns out that this is the catalog for an ongoing exhibition that premiered in October 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, during 2013, will also be exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Not surprisingly, a major sponsor for all of this was the Adobe Corporation, whose Photoshop 1.0 was released in January 1990. Since then, as an essay in the catalog states, that now-famous software is commonly blamed for having undermined “photographic truthfulness” because of the widespread assumption “that photographs shot before 1990 captured the unvarnished truth and that the manipulations made possible by Photoshop compromised the truth.”

Anon, photomontage (photo collage rephotographed), c1930

After reading this book, you will probably reach the conclusion that image alteration tricks attributed to Photoshop are nothing new, and that equivalent techniques have been commonly practiced since 1840 and before. Photoshop’s main contribution has been to make photo manipulation less time staking and far less dependent on manual skills. It has provided the greatest variety of people with access to the tricks long used by photographers, despite our na├»ve assumption that a photograph is “a mirror with a memory,” and, to follow, that the camera is an “innocent eye,” a “pencil of nature,” or an objective observation device that “never lies.” Surely, that was never the case, as this book shows persuasively. At best, as Picasso once said of all guises of art, a photograph is “a lie that [sometimes] tells the truth.”

In the process of showing the history of pre-Photoshop manipulation from about 1835 through 1990, this volume inevitably also becomes a history of photography. Admittedly, it doesn’t cover everything. For example, it lacks the time and space to say very much about “faking it” by other means, like setting up a “factual” scene and claiming it was found that way, or purposely posing ones subjects to look unposed, or providing exotic subjects with culturally inappropriate props to make them more compliant with ethnic stereotypes. more>>>

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Envisioning Design | 2013 Conference

Designed by Kimberly Breuer, UNI graphic design student

Recently announced is ENVISIONING DESIGN: Education, Culture, Practice, a two-day series of events for design professionals, design educators, students and alumni. Events are scheduled to take place on late Friday afternoon and evening, April 26, and throughout the day until 4:00 pm on Saturday, April 27, 2013. Everything will be held in the Kamerick Art Building on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls. This is open to the public. Everyone is invited, and there is no charge for attendance. For complete information click here.