Wednesday, August 15, 2012

American Portraits- Leon A. Borensztein

I saw quite a few books on my recent trip to NYC at Strand, Dashwood and MOMA, a good half dozen that I wanted to buy (more on each later), and of the whole lot, two that I actually bought (thank you Amex)- the two that affected me most viscerally, both of which must someday be added to a revised and expanded Best Photo Book of All Time listing.

American Portraits- Leon A. Borensztein

When I look at American Portraits, I immediately think Milton Rogovin meets Awkward Family Photos. And despite that seemingly incongruous hybrid analogy, the book cries classic from the moment you open it, that rare combination of art that effectively combines melancholy with humor in a package made from the heart.

This is what masterful, evocative portraiture is all about- modest in presentation, complex in the range of emotions and aesthetics that it both challenges and commands. Leon Borensztein knew he was in the presence of some particularly potent subject matter as he went about making commercial studio portraits of every day working class subjects in their homes. Upon completing the standard commercial fare, he then switched to B&W, and got serious, often going wide to reveal modest details of the subject's home life that the backdrop would obscure, and asking his subjects to dispense with the smiles (to which they often complied)- once "they removed their proverbial mask," the photographs came to life. I'm certainly not going to get into what portraits do and don't reveal- we should all be familiar with that territory by now. What is not that familiar (despite the billions of photos taken daily and the hundreds if not thousands of star photographers), are portraits of this calibre and presence.

Truth be told, when I first saw this book online, I was not all that impressed- this is not essentially new or revolutionary technique or subject matter we're talking about. Good, somewhat interesting, but... Most of us have by now hopefully learned not to judge the quality of a photograph by an online jpeg- and yet, it is only dawning on me that the same pertains exponentially to photographic books. Clearly, this is not the medium to see or appreciate the gorgeous reproductions this book presents- or the love it exudes.

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