Murakami Sale
 
 

Find Books


Read the City


Win Free Books!


PowellsBooks.news


Original Essays | August 21, 2014

Richard Bausch: IMG Why Literature Can Save Us



Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
  1. $18.87 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Before, During, After

    Richard Bausch 9780307266262

spacer

Customer Comments

Alexander Craghead has commented on (14) products.

Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs by Jeff Brouws
Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs

Alexander Craghead, June 4, 2013

The act of collecting was once a particularly strong trait in Anglo-American culture. Much of my childhood was spent in the 1980s, before the Internet era, when kids--and especially boys--were still expected to busy themselves with hobbies that generally involved some form of collecting. I never traded baseball cards--mine was a football household, poor benighted fans of the Seattle Seahawks--but there were other milieus: coins, stamps, agates. And then there were the adults. My grandfather, for example, seemed to be a magnet for early Pacific Northwest mountaineering memorabilia, though this was not his most unusual collection. That prize went to rocks. As in pure, genuine, plain rocks. If he travelled anywhere interesting--Mount Hood, the Olympic Mountains, Canada, the Oregon Coast--a humble rock would get tossed into the trunk. Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton’s new book, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs, is about the obsession of such collection, in this case of the amateur photographs of railroads.

The railroad has had a profound influence on American culture, and is a subject of much veneration in popular history. The chase of The General across the battlefields of the U.S Civil War, the joining of the transcontinental railroad with a gold spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869, and the tragic 1900 death of locomotive engineer Casey Jones in a collision in Mississippi are all well known pieces of American folklore. More than a half century after the last mainline steam railroad laid low its coal fires and converted to economical, unromantic diesel power, the steam locomotive remains so evocative that it is the chief avatar of railroads in the public consciousness. Railroads help define the nation’s identity as much as do those apocryphal stories about Ben Franklin catching lightning in a jar or George Washington chopping down cherry trees.

It should then come as no surprise that the American railroad--like the U.S. Civil War, or Route 66, or the All American Game of baseball--has a cult following, with its own genre of writing, photography, and art. For many years, Brouws and Burton have been chronicling the photographic output of this American rail enthusiast subculture, primarily concentrating on prolific and accomplished photographers whose work rose beyond the norm in technical and artistic merit.

Yet even as this talented pair helped shepherd monographs of railroad photography’s “high art” achievements towards publication, Brouws found his interests were also being drawn towards photographs made for purposes other than artistic expression, and yet which sometimes bent towards visual lyricism in spite of themselves. These were, to misapply a bit of T. S. Elliot, “the useful presents,” workaday photos of railroad facilities made for assessing property and equipment value, or documentary images of accidents and wrecks, or sometimes random vacation snapshots. Hi mom, I’m at the Grand Canyon, and oh look, we saw a train by the motel! The bulk of the images that appealed to Brouws, however, were the images made by railway enthusiasts. These images typically placed the locomotive, with billowing steam and smoke, front and center, and were usually printed on small stock, often two-by three inches, about the size of a business card or--and the parallel should not be overlooked here--baseball cards.

In the introduction to the book, Brouws describes the budding of this new obsession, at a 2002 visit to a railroad memorabilia swap meet in Springfield, Massachusetts. There, he wandered the aisles with “a crowd of wide-eyed rail buffs jammed into the space,” not quite knowing why he was there. Then came the fateful moment, when he happened upon stacks and stacks of photographs. Brouws “became hooked,” and soon began to sort through them looking for images that appealed to him the most. The images were largely anonymous, with few bearing a signature or photographer name, though more than one held an accidental poetry of data: “notations, inscribed on their versos in an elegant script, delineated the arcane language of locomotive wheel arrangements” or “concise histories of moribund railroads….”

Best of all was a happy coincidence of counter-purpose taste and sheer volume. Most of the crowd at the show were model railroaders, and as such sought out images that showed the details of the subjects in the clearest lighting conditions. Brouws, however, was drawn towards the “artful” images in the mix, those with strong compositions, unusual moody atmospheres, or broader context. These images, while pleasing, made poor reference material, and so were in abundance among the stacks. Meanwhile the sheer quantity of such images made resulted in prices often shockingly low: five dollars, one dollar, many times even fifty cents! “In this age of online auctioning,” writes Brouws, “where every material object known to man… [is a] ‘collectable’--bringing with it the fact that nothing is cheap anymore…. it was a collector’s dream come true…..” So began ten years of image collecting.

Brouws and Burton’s book represents the fruit, though not the cessation, of this collection. The volume, with its unusual squat format, fits in the hand like a hardback novel, inviting a fireside consultation in a fat, overstuffed chair. It is filled with a diverse range of imagery from the attics of America, a scrapbook of the everyday railroad, with a subtle and pensive layout and sequencing that is owed to the visual talents of Burton, who designed the book. Images like William Rittase’s bird’s eye view of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s yards in Philadelphia (plate 147) are mesmerizing, with a sea of boxcars and a gritty sky that looks like the work of a monochromatic alter ego of J. M. W.Turner. Other images show a kind of spontaneity that imparts life: the image of Southern Pacific Railroad employees riding atop boxcars in Los Angeles (plate 131), photographer unknown, is almost certainly a quick snapshot taken by a railroad tower operator out his window, a random slice of happenstance that speaks to us across the untold years. All of the photographs have an uncooked, unstudied honesty. How many of them have been passed by in all those railroad swap meets, discarded for their subtle blurs, their clipped off portions of equipment, their flaws that make them so delightful?

While the bulk of the book may be a testament to the compulsion to collect such images, it also provides insight into the development of railroad photography, with a perspective that may never have been adequately addressed before. Brouws notes in his introduction that many of the enthusiast photos were distributed via clubs formed, in part, for that purpose, organizations such as the International Engine Picture Club, the National Railway Historical Society, and others. These were “analogous to contemporary social networking, with the United States Postal Service rather than the Internet acting as the delivery mechanism.” Today, railroad photography, as well as photography in general, is rapidly being redefined by Internet-based outlets and tools. Within the subculture, Railpictures.net has changed how the average railfan thinks of “publishing” and what to do with photographs once made, just as sites such as Flickr and 500px and mobile photo sharing tools like Instagram are completely changing how the general public uses photographs, as well as how we collectively define “good” photography.Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs offers a glimpse into another, earlier era of populism in photography, and shows the spectacular output as well as the sadly neglected present-day value of a truly massive body of photographic material. Pause and consider a moment: of the unnumbered bulk of amateur railroad photographs made over the first half of the 20th Century, the average image is easily found at a swap meet, with no record of its time, place, subject, or photographer, and offered for purchase at less than you can buy a cup of coffee. Or a candy bar. Or, really, less than you can buy anything anymore. Populism in photography exploded the amount of railroad material available to be seen, but it also resulted in poorly archived material and a general lack of social value. What parallels this may hold for our present, Instagram era of populist photography is a question worth pondering.

With no regional focus and no narrowing of subject matter, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs is ultimately art history, not railroad history. Among railroad enthusiasts, whose tastes bend notoriously towards the esoteric and the specific, I fear too many will pass the volume by. This would be a sad loss. Even taken merely as a book of general Americana and railroadiana, this volume stands out head and shoulders above the vapid output of mass-market picture book makers and in-house bookstore presses. More than that, for those who care about making images of railroads, its introduction is probably one of the greatest contributions to the history of railroad photography published in the last decade, and the images that support it are delightful, surprising, charming. Those who make acquaintance with this book will ultimately come to appreciate that charm. Those who don’t? They will pass by, sadly blind to these agates among the beach stones.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No



Steam: An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen by Joel Jensen
Steam: An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen

Alexander Craghead, October 17, 2011

The railroad, and especially the steam locomotive, has been profound to the American culture. Especially in the Western regions of the U.S., where the railroad was integral to the development of modern civilization, the steam locomotive’s memory lives on in the collective imagination, despite the fact that the such machines ceased to be a meaningful force in the region’s economy more than half a century ago. Their endurance has something to do with their now foreign technological nature -- they are devices with their workings on the outside, crude yet elegant mechanical marvels that seem to breathe, seem to have a pulse, seem to be alive. Across the country, dozens upon dozens of steam locomotives survive in working order, cared for by loving and often unpaid crews, and run on numerous tourist and museum railroads. Many photo books on this subjects have been published -- the steam locomotive with its built-in special effects is a sort-of camera magnet, after all -- but few manage to rise beyond being overwrought photo albums. There is always something slightly treacly, slightly forced about these books, possibly because there is often something of the same nature in their subjects, a feeling of canned history. Yet somehow, Joel Jensen has created a work that surpasses these, a book that shows us preserved steam as merely a continuation of an unbroken tradition going back to the workaday, pre-digital world. In Steam: An Enduring Legacy, Jensen gives us not only a glimpse into a harder, grittier, sweatier side of preserved steam, but also a work of excellent photography that stands as an artistic achievement in its own right.

The book is not a guidebook but an extended photographic journey through the survivors of the steam era. It begins with an essay by writer-photographer Scott Lothes, who provides a brief introduction to the cultural importance of the steam locomotive. The essay tells us the basics, but to anyone with knowledge of railroad history it will provide little new; clearly this is meant as a primer for the uninitiated, and it serves this job well. Following this, the bulk of the photographs appear in a gallery section. There is no set sequence, with the subjects bouncing back and forth through time and geography. Most of these images are displayed one-per-page, with healthy white margins at all sides. After the photograph section of the book is another essay, this time by John Gruber, founder and president of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art. Gruber relates an overview of preservation and the steam locomotive, including some interesting tidbits about early, 19th century preservation movements and an able survey of contemporary efforts. He completes his essay with an overview of photography’s relationship with the preserved steam locomotive. An afterword penned by photographer Jeff Brouws follows, with an apt assessment of Jensen’s photographic style. A page of acknowledgements from Jensen complete the work.

I am intimately familiar with the tourist and heritage railway world, and so, despite my respect for the photographer and the authors, I was not anticipating this book to be particularly impressive. Aiding me in this pre-judgement was my familiarity with other works on this subject, as described above. I could not, in the end, have been more wrong. This work is a success that it transcends subject matter interest, and would serve to appeal even to the least nostalgic of railroad enthusiasts, if only they can be convinced to pick it up and look through it past its opening pages.

For these first few pages in, it is all billowing steam and dramatic light, and one might begin to fear that this will be yet one more album in the tradition of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, pleasant in a strawberry milkshake sort of way but not particularly memorable in its own right. It’s not that these dramatic images are bad: they are neither technically nor artistically flawed, but they are also of a genre that is not unfamiliar. But then, on page 22, it all changes in a characteristic Jensen fashion. The photo here, of two large steam locomotives and their long train of passenger cars silhoutted against a damp sky, is one of my favorites from this photographer, and I am disappointed at how small that the image runs in this book; nevertheless it breaks through the romantic bombast and begins a pattern of complex variety that marks this book as something special. Opposite this image is another fine stand-out, an image showing the roughshod nature of narrow gauge railroads, with a wandering pair of steel rails, barely any ties showing, splayed out through a ramshackle landscape, a tiny locomotive working hard to traverse the route. All darks and midtones, with barely a fleck of highlight anywhere, the image is teeth-gnashing and evocative.

The human aspect of these survivors is not neglected, and may in fact be one of the volume’s chief strengths. The careful inclusion of crewmen and other workers is a key aspect of this book’s DNA. From trackworkers hammering in spikes, to groundlings passing hand signals, to roundhouse monkeys wrestling with the oversize parts of these steel behemoths, people are a subtle but integral part to the visual story Jensen lays out for us. Sometimes they are ghostly figures, caught at work amidst the steam, while at other times, such as with a Durango and Silverton crew shown in a photo on page 57, they are cocky, defensive, weary, and proud, staring straight at the camera for a portrait the likes of which is as old as the relationship between the steam locomotive and cameras. Other similarly successful images include a portrait of a crewman for the ATSF 3751 on page 81, a Mount Rainier Scenic engineer on page 124, and mechanical workers from the Durango on 134 and 159. In some cases, these people wear the clothes of railroaders and shop workers for a century, bibs and long-sleeved work shirts and hard steel-toed boots, but in others they sport plastic hard hats and, in the case of the last of these images, modern wrap-around sunglasses. Often, photographers of contemporary steam seek to exclude such modern details, to try and recreate some sense of what they think the past was like, favoring costumes and playacting. Jensen here rejects this, and comes out with material that is intensely modern yet intensely authentic in ways that those seeking the Colonial Williamsburg of steam railroading always fail to achieve. These men look like the railroaders of the past because they are the railroaders of the past, and things like modern sunglasses don’t break the effect because such little trappings cannot contradict authenticity.

Failings? Few. One minor quibble is that the book is exclusively western material, but the book does not anywhere openly acknowledge this regional focus. This said, the book is subtitled as “the railroad photographs of Joel Jensen,” and Joel is a creature of the West, a photographer who is constantly roaming, constantly alone, and who sees the world through different eyes. And in the end, the artistic achievement of the photographer’s work makes complaints about his geographic biases seem trivial.

Overall production values are high, as one would expect in a book from a leading publisher such as Norton. That said, there are a few minor quibbles. The paper seems a tad thinner than I am used to expecting in such a book, so that when darker images are followed by a large white space on the next page, a very faint ghost can be read through the paper. It is, however, barely perceptible, and did not significantly detract from my enjoyment of the book. As for the photos themselves, reproduction is generally of high quality. There are times when I expected more shadow detail, but this is a common failing of black-and-white reproduction in printed matter, and overall Norton has done a great job with this. My only significant quibble with reproduction is with some of the larger images displayed across the gutter; a few, such as the image of an ATSF steam engine passing behind a graveyard on pages 70 and 71, appear rather soft, as if the prints had been scanned and then displayed larger than their original size.

This book at the end of the day is not at all about what it will be labelled as: it is not a photography book about tourist and heritage steam railroads. Instead, it is a book about undying tradition. No work has ever made contemporary steam more noble, more enviable, or harder work. The contradictions and anachronisms of these surviving steam locomotives and the crew that care for them are captured nakedly in Jensen’s photos, showing us something precious, something that is not at all playacting, but instead an unbroken thread to the relationship between man and steam that began on this continent in Antebellum times. This book will be of especial interest to those who appreciate steam locomotives, the interplay of railroads and geography, and the photography of railroads.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)



Discovering Main Street: Travel Adventures in Small Towns of the Northwest by Foster Church
Discovering Main Street: Travel Adventures in Small Towns of the Northwest

Alexander Craghead, September 13, 2010

Although the Northwest boasts three major metropolitan regions -- Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland -- it is the small town that most defines the character of the region. With sparse populations, vast agricultural regions, and a legacy of resource based economics, the town (and sometimes, failed town) dots the landscape with regularity. In the post-industrial world, many of these towns have replaced their old ways of life with tourism, and few now would ever remember that a place such as Seaside, Oregon, for example, was once a timber town instead of a taffy town. Yet for every milltown turned tourist trap, there's a half dozen that remain truer to their heritages, and it is these more authentic and less famous towns of the Northwest that Foster Church has packed into his guidebook, Discovering Main Street: Travel Adventures in Small Towns of the Northwest.

Church intends the book as a true guidebook, as with the dozens and dozens seen in the travel or regional sections of our area bookstores. Unlike many of these contemporaries, however, Church's volume aims at something more akin to authenticity. Explicit in the beginning is the admonition to treat visiting small towns differently, as the author exhorts the virtues of visiting the local Chamber of Commerce, reading the local paper, and eating breakfast in the local diner as ways to learn the local culture. A requirement of any town he has included is the provision of lodging; Church argues that a town that seems at first sleepy and passed-by will reveal itself better to a traveller the next morning.

Following a brief introduction in which the author lays out these arguments, the book is divided into five chapters, each corresponding to a specific region of the Northwest: the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Coast, Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Washington. The bulk of Washington and the entirety of Idaho are excluded from the book, much less other states (or provinces) that have traditionally been described as Northwestern. This is perhaps understandable given that Church was a staff writer at the Portland Oregonian for over twenty years and is likely most familiar with Oregon towns or towns within a short drive of Portland, but the lack is noticeable and unfortunate, at a minimum bringing the choice of title into question. Within each chapter is an entry on a small town. In railroad fashion, the town name is followed by its elevation. Next comes a brief paragraph describing the road to the town; perhaps reflecting the author's interest in off-beat locations, all of the towns in the book but one (White Salmon, WA) are reachable only by road, although the presence of transit options is an unspoken likelihood. The bulk of the entry then consists of a short, generally narrative text describing a typical visit. The entry is then bookended by a single paragraph describing what Church terms "the basics" of lodging and dining. In all, 48 towns are covered. Following the entries is a brief epilogue and an index.

The author has walked a very fine line with this book. Although organized and promoted as a guidebook, Church gives us more a collection of small narratives, like a journalist encyclopedia of place. The writing is solid, verging on poetic at times with an occasional turn of phrase flashing through like agates on a sandy beach. Read as narrative, the book can almost be frustrating, as you want to read more, to learn more, and instead are given a short paragraph on where and how to visit and then rushed off to the next entry. There is something vaster here, something that Church should seriously consider, the potential for a book that is equal parts John Berendt and Stewart Holbrook. Yet, is this sense of "not quite enough" exactly the point? In some ways, by leaving the reader wanting more, the reader is also left wanting to fill in the missing pieces themselves by visiting. In that, we can almost forgive the missed opportunities of a straight prose work.

As a guidebook, however, the work is equally difficult to peg down. Church isn't going for comprehensive, but instead for the ways of visiting towns that he views as most authentic to place. In Mount Angel, for example, the bulk of the entry involves the experience of staying at the Benedictine Abbey in town. There's nothing wrong with this, except that it places the book more into the tradition of travel writing than of a guidebook. Further, there's a deeper issue revolving around the author's methodology of finding authentic rather than touristy small towns. His advice for knowing a small town partly relies on the same questionable mechanism as tourist towns do, like the visitor's center. Other staples of local place that Church advocates are the local diner's bulletin board or attending a local school sports function. There may have been a time when these suggestions would reveal a fully realized small town community, but if so it hasn't been in this reviewer's admittedly young life.

The book is a standard trade paperback guidebook, well executed and business-like with an attractive color cover. It feels fine to flip through, and will likely not begin to fall apart until many years past it becoming obsolete. With no photographs and only a few maps, there's little to complain about.

Overall, Discovering Main Street is a solid book with interesting stories and useful information for the traveller seeking something other than the usual over-advertised tourist traps. Although not a fully realized guidebook nor a true work of prose, Foster Church's writing is eloquent and occasionally beautiful in its own right, and the ways that he recommends visiting these towns are refreshing. The book will prove interesting to anyone who remembers the invaluable works of Thomas Friedman and is seeking a more contemporary offering.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(8 of 9 readers found this comment helpful)



VIS Major: Railroad Men, an 'Act of God'-White Death at Wellington by Burwash Martin Burwash
VIS Major: Railroad Men, an 'Act of God'-White Death at Wellington

Alexander Craghead, January 10, 2010

In the late Winter of 1910, the largest avalanche disaster in the history of North America struck the tiny railroad town of Wellington, Washington, perched in the Cascade Range. One hundred people died, and the tragedy remains unsurpassed to this day. The cause, according to an inquest held later that year, was determined to be "vis major", an act of God. Afterwards, the Great Northern Railway abolished the station name of Wellington from its timetable, hoping to eliminate the memory of the disaster from the minds of passengers on the line. The story, however, lived on, becoming a source of legend about the power and danger of the high Cascades. Photographer Martin Burwash is not the first person to write about these events of 1910 -- guidebooks to the region often contain thumbnail accounts of the tragedy, while more recently Gary Krist dedicated an entire volume to it -- but he may be the author who comes closest to bringing a reader to understand the experience. To do this, Burwash worked within the tradition of Jeff Shaara and Patrick O'Brien, and delivered to the world his life's work, the historical novel Vis Major.

The book starts with a brief author's note, discussing the actual event and noting that this novel is the author's attempt to tell the story of the men who lived through or died in the snow slide. After this short note, the novel begins. The book is organized into a series of chapters, each following one character for the duration of the chapter. Overall it is an effective device, allowing the reader to gain an understanding of the events from multiple perspectives without sacrificing the human point-of-view. The subject matter -- an obscure event in the insular context of a railroad from the often forgotten past -- is in great danger of being difficult to access. Burwash largely succeeds in avoiding this problem, restraining from overuse of insider technical terms as well as staying away from lengthy esoteric descriptions. Instead, the author strikes a good balance of minimal terminology and the use of context to orient the reader.

The book has a lengthy narrative pace, and this seems to be a deliberate choice made by the author. Although we get only a few key days in the Fall of 1909, once the fateful storm of 1910 strikes the mountains, we follow nearly every move made by the men, day by day, step by step. Burwash has made many public comments about his dedication to doing justice to the men who endured and in some cases lost their lives in this tragic event, and it is no doubt this historian side of the author that is manifested in this narrative choice. Much of the events of the story were pieced together through research and the records of the inquest that took place in 1910. Although the dialogue in the novel is imagined, the movement and actions of the characters are as accurate as the author was able to piece together from the records, as stated in the author's note at the book's beginning. The result is generally positive. While the book feels too long both figuratively and literally -- it weighs over a pound and a half! -- the pace of the narrative is a bit like a horse galloping, and is difficult to resist.

Although Burwash's first novel, Vis Major shows little signs of it. The biggest weakness of the novel is likely it's length, as mentioned above. This said, the reader never feels their time is wasted, and the overall effect is to become accustomed to the characters. There are, perhaps, a few too many instances of Burwash trying to put us in the thoughts of the characters, (invariably indicated by italics,) thus using exposition when description might have proven more effective. This said, by placing us on the shoulders of the men (and women) of Wellington, the reader gets a highly sensory ride. We get to know the isolated community of Wellington, the passengers of two stranded passenger trains, and the workers of the Great Northern Railway. Most of all, we get to experience as if firsthand the valiant, frustrating, and ultimately futile battle of the rotary snowplows and their crews as they attempt to keep Wellington connected to the outside world. When the reader finally reaches the penultimate tragedy, the hairs will very nearly stand on the back of their neck.

Following the novel, Burwash provides an epilogue discussing what became of the main survivors, and then includes a list of the GN's men who were caught in it, noting who lived, who were injured, and who died. Given that the novel is based around a true story, the book would have benefited from a slightly longer epilogue with a bit more detail. Finally, a brief statement of acknowledgements closes out the book.

The fit and finish of Vis Major is very professional. The book is quite hefty but it feels good to hold when reading. Cover stock and paper quality feel standard for a trade paperback, and the typesetting and layout is professional. Considering that iUniverse is a print-on-demand publisher, this is far more than I would expect to see. The biggest question might be, is it worth the price? Even for such a hefty book, thirty dollars seems a bit steep. In the end, however, what you pay a premium for is not the physicality of the book, but the content. (Would Vis Major have seen print through traditional publishing houses? In these days of increasingly thin margins on published material, it is an unknown.) For me, the question was simple: it was worth an extra $5 or so to have a book with rare and interesting content and production values that felt professional. [Note: a hardbound version is also available. The paperback version was used for this review.]

Overall, Vis Major is an effective vehicle for telling the story of the Wellington disaster. Burwash's passion for the human aspects of this story ring through in the text, in some cases making the novel feel more like creative nonfiction in the tradition of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe. The book will prove of interest to readers of historical fiction, as well as those interested in the Great Northern Railway, the history of the North Cascades, or the futility of attempting to fight nature.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)



Oaks Park Pentimento: Portland's Lost and Found Carousel Art by Jim Lommasson
Oaks Park Pentimento: Portland's Lost and Found Carousel Art

Alexander Craghead, January 10, 2010

The transitory nature of art has always been fascinating. Photographs can fade, negatives can stiffen and crack and slides can succumb to color shifts and mildew. Sculptures fair little better; it has been suggested that the features on the statues of St. Mark's Square in Venice have softened over the years, eroding away from acidic rainfall. And paintings? Even in the care of the greatest museums, many of the masters of the Renaissance onwards have developed crackled surfaces. The resulting revealed lower layers of paint are known as pentimento, but they are not confined to great canvases in the museum halls of Europe. In Oaks Park Pentimento: Portland's Lost and Found Carousel Art, photographer Jim Lommasson explores an example of this effect on a Portland landmark, the carousel at the Oaks Park amusement park. The results, far from trivial, create a fascinating juxtaposition of Edwardian and Mid-Century cultures, as well as provide a unique encapsulation of the temporal nature of the arts.

Lommasson's book is almost the result of an accident. During an assignment from a photography class in 1970, the photographer noted that the paintings on the central pillar of the carousel at the Oaks were peeling away, the victim of age, exposure to elements, and occasional flood waters. Lommasson only shot a single frame in black-and-white, but he returned to the Oaks over a decade later and recorded all the central panels, this time in color. It was a prescient decision: a few short years later, the panels were "restored" to their scenes of northwest scenery by a local painting club, covering over the Edwardian imagery that had been bleeding through in the pentimento.

The slim volume opens up with an introduction by journalist Inara Verzemnieks, who writes lyrically about the nature of time and art. She describes the roots of the park as a competitor to the Lewis & Clark Exposition of 1905, a place of excitement and perhaps moral danger, where young women would cozy up to young men in the darkness and be frowned upon by the local clergy for so doing. The original paintings on the carousel mimic this somewhat naive sense of adventure, with Arabian sheiks on camels, befeathered Indian chiefs, and beautiful women exhibiting a range of behaviors from stately and elegant (strolling under a parasol) to scandalous (can-can- dancing). By the 1940s, such images were dated and old fashioned, and the park had them covered over with scenic vistas of the Columbia Gorge and other northwest scenes, all far more family friendly and far more in keeping with the highway-centric provincial boosterism notions of the era. Yet, as the surface images degraded, they began to merge with the lower layers, almost as if they were interacting with each other, a process that Verzemnieks relates in a haunting way.

Following the excellent introduction, Lommasson provides a short text describing how and why he shot the images of the carousel's central riding panels, and then come the 18 large color plates. The most striking image is perhaps that of the woman with a parasol, with the Columbia Gorge Highway circling about her legs leading to the Vista House located rather provocatively between her thighs. It is such a strange image, almost like an intentional double-exposure on film, and yet, there was no artist for these images. Yes, there were the artists who painted the original panel of the woman, and also two later artists -- the eccentric Chase brothers -- who painted the scene of the highway and river. But who painted this image, this amalgamation? Time, nature, God? No human hand with intent created this image. For that matter, is the art in question here the painted panels themselves, or Lommasson's photographs? Who is the artist, and what is the art? The lines all blur here in ways that are similar to graffiti art. Everything about the panels is provocative.

The book wraps up with an afterword by art historian Prudence Roberts. Roberts tells the story of the panels, from their creation by anonymous immigrant artistis at the carousel factor in 1912 to their repainting by off-beat brothers Waldo Spore and William Corbin Chase. The Chases were painters and wood-block printers, part of the larger arts-and-crafts movement. They were also highly unconventional, living for a time in a teepee in the woods of Western Washington State. The text is accompanied by images of the park and works of the talented Chase brothers.

Overall, the book succeeds in placing the carousel panels in a much larger context of art and regional culture. The texts are rich, and the images largely thought provoking. If I had any critical comments, it would be that there is not enough. I would have welcomed more information on the chases, as well as on the original anonymous painters who created the Edwardian imagery. Then again, in the words of circus promoter P. T. Barnum, who would no doubt have felt at home at a place like the Oaks, "always leave them wanting more."

The book is the typically shelf-awkward size that photography and art books assume, and it also feels rather slim. This makes it seem, at first glance, a bit pricey for its size. Although time spent pouring over the work ought to dismiss those concerns, it does remain slim enough that it just doesn't feel good to hold in your lap and flip through. I always felt like the book was awkward and wanting to slip from my hands or lose its dust jacket. It is far easier to view set on a table top, and while that's probably the recommended way to view any book of art or photography, I really like to relax in a nice chair with my books, and with Pentimento you just can't do that. The images themselves are all crisp and the entire book is printed on a thick, high quality paper with a satin sheen to it.

Pentimento is a volume that explores history, artistic philosophy, and Pacific Northwest culture through a unique lens. It is far more than a book about an amusement park ride. It should prove valuable to those interested in the esoterica of Portland history, as well as those with a passion for documentary photography and painting in general.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(3 of 5 readers found this comment helpful)



1-5 of 14next
spacer
spacer
  • back to top
Follow us on...




Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.