Monday, October 8, 2012

Jack London, Photographer by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, et al.

Long overdue and exceedingly well done
This excellent book provides the first comprehensive study of Jack London’s work as a photographer. London, of course, is most famous as one of America’s greatest authors, the writer of such celebrated works as The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf. Despite being an incredibly prolific author and a world wide celebrity, London also managed to take over 12,000 photographs during his all-too-brief lifetime. While that number may not seem outrageous by today’s standards, a century ago when cameras were bulky and complex and photography was a difficult and labor intensive craft, that’s quite an achievement. For all intents and purposes, London was a professional photojournalist, and this is the first book to treat him as such.

Though London is most famous for his stories of the Klondike Gold Rush, unfortunately he did not carry a camera when he ventured up to Alaska and the Yukon. The photos in this book are divided into six chapters, each a photojournalistic journey. The first chapter contains pictures he took in the slums of the East End of London in 1903, while researching and writing The People of the Abyss. The second set of photos covers his period as a war correspondent in Korea in 1904, covering the Russo-Japanese War. Next there is a chapter on London’s photos of the destruction caused by the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. This is followed by a long chapter devoted to photos taken while London and his wife Charmian attempted to sail around the world in their yacht, a journey immortalized in the book The Cruise of the Snark. This group of photos, taken in 1907 and 1908, depicts their travels in Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Solomon Islands. In 1912, Mr. and Mrs. London sailed from Baltimore to Seattle, around Cape Horn, on a four-masted sailing ship, a voyage which provided the inspiration for his novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore. The photos from this trip are presented in chapter five. The book finishes off with a chapter of photos from 1914, when London worked as a war correspondent covering the Mexican Revolution in Veracruz and Tampico.

Readers of London’s works may have seen a few of these photos before, but usually in small and murky reproductions. Never before has his photographic work been reproduced so big and so beautifully. To a contemporary audience, London’s photos, though black and white, are reminiscent of the sort of photojournalism one finds today in National Geographic magazine, yet for their time they were quite ground breaking. London depicts people of other cultures, such as the islanders of the South Pacific or the revolutionaries of Mexico, with a candor and dignity that was unusual for his day. He treats his subjects not as representatives of their race or objects for some scientific study, but as individual human beings living their lives. The text is a worthy accompaniment to these remarkable photos. The pictures are ably supported by explanatory captions and excerpts from London’s writings. For those well-versed in London’s life and work, there’s still plenty new to learn here. Much of the text concentrates on London’s place in the history of photography and photojournalism, a subject which has never before been examined to such a thorough extent.

Jack London, Photographer is a beautiful coffee table book and an enlightening scholarly examination of this artist’s life and work. More than just a supplement to his writings, it is a work of art in and of itself and well deserves a spot on the shelf alongside the hallowed works of the classic London canon.

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