Like the ocean itself, Hoare’s book is a scintillating mix of wonders and surprises. At one level it’s a rich study of the life, work, and times of the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). At another it’s a survey of cetaceans, charting the economic and cultural roles whales have played in a wide range of nations and periods. At yet another it’s a virtuoso performance of associative writing as Hoare expands on the eponymous topics with extended looks at the writing of Herman Melville, Marianne Moore, and Thomas Mann, delves into Dürer’s influence on Goethe and Nietzsche, traces various iterations of the Faust legend, and eulogizes some of the many creatures humans have hunted into extinction. Whether celebrating or lamenting—and the many descriptions of whale slaughters make for painful reading—Hoare’s writing is unfailingly buoyant, his enthusiasm and deep learning lending a certain bioluminescence to the prose; no less than Dürer himself (whose “unity of perception, art, science, and natural history” could describe his own method), Hoare, too, “looks so we can see.”
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.
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.