One-Minute Book Reviews

November 4, 2008

Jessica Todd Harper – A Photographer of Manners Observes Her Patrician Family’s Christmas, Easter, Wedding and Other Customs

[If you can’t see the cover of this book, please click here]

Interior Exposure. By Jessica Todd Harper. Foreword by Larry Fink. Damiani, 112 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Jessica Todd Harper’s photographs of her family are what Ralph Lauren ads might be like if they were real. This is a compliment. Unlike Polo ads, Harper’s pictures of her patrician family are warm, engaging and at times witty. They tell — or at least suggest — rich and multilayered stories.

Interior Exposure is the photographic equivalent of a good novel of manners, an art form that shows a well-defined social group at a particular time and place. Its pictures would provide wonderful visual data for anthropologists studying Eastern upper-class kinship rituals in the early 21st century. Harper’s relatives sport clownish paper hats, just extracted from poppers, at a Christmas Eve dinner. Her sister Becky wears an ill-fitting wedding dress in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ house, where the furnishings might have stayed the same for a century. In an amusing self-portrait with her future in-laws, Harper stands at attention as though trying to pass a military inspection.

Part of the charm of Interior Exposure is that it shows how a gifted photographer can bring fresh life to many elements of the high classical tradition in painting. Harper draws on techniques of the Dutch Golden Age: the artful use of natural light, subjects framed by doors and windows, paintings-within-paintings (represented by ancestral portraits within photographs) and domestic objects are that are at once ordinary and freighted with symbolic meaning. But like all good artists, she brings her own sensibility to tradition. Some of her pictures are almost an updated index to the symbols used in vanitas, those treatises-in-oil that comment on the transience of time and earthly life: clocks, flickering candles, half-empty wine goblets. At times you sense that Harper would have loved to include a skull or two, and you wonder what her work will look like when her children are old enough to go trick-or-treating.

But the pictures in Interior Exposure don’t moralize as vanitas do. They raise questions: Is Becky the diva she appears to be in Harper’s photos, or does she upstage other people by force of her beauty, not her personality? What is Harper saying by giving her such a prominent role? You could return to Interior Exposure again and again and keep seeing new things in it, just as you can with a great novel.

Best picture: No. 1: “Becky in the Dining Room, 2005.” Harper’s sister wears an ill-fitting wedding gown — possibly their mother’s — and stands next to an ancestral portrait in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If you saw this photo out of context, you might mistake it for a movie still from an elegant new film version of a Henry James novel. The picture would show the moment just before the doomed American heiress weds the callow European who, though she doesn’t know it yet, is marrying her only for her money. Everything in the Harpers’ dining room might have existed a century ago except for — a wonderful touch — a plastic bag on the table. Looking at the photo, you wonder how the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny ever got so discredited, because this picture seems to illustrate perfectly a Brahmin version of it. No. 2: “Self Portrait With Christopher and my Future In-Laws, 2001.”

Worst picture: “Self Portrait with Christopher (Rochester), 2000.” In this photo Christopher lies on a four-poster bed and gazes at his naked wife, whom we see from behind. Harper positioned the camera in a spot that allows a wood poster to rise majestically from her husband’s crotch. Christopher is going to take some ribbing about this one.

Consider reading also: Patrick De Rynck’s How to Read a Painting (Abrams, 2004), a good introduction to the use of symbols in Old Masters, including those of the Dutch Golden Age.

If you like this book, you might also like … Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989).

Published: March 2008 and

Furthermore: This book includes an interview with the author by Sarah Anne McNear in English and an Italian translation. Harper teaches at Swarthmore College and has won many awards for her work.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


November 5, 2007

A Closer Look at a Florentine Treasure, Ghiberti’s Glorious Baptistery Doors — In a New Book and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Filed under: Art,Coffee Table Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 pm
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A great exhibit comes with a handsome companion volume

By Janice Harayda

On, joy and rapture unforeseen! On Saturday I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new show of bronze reliefs from the doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti over a 27-year period in the mid-15th century. And when I’m counting my cultural blessings for the year, I can stop right there with a profit.

The exhibit displays only 3 of the 10 bronze reliefs from the doors that depict Old Testament scenes, a jewel of the Renaissance. But the show is so rich — in beauty and interpretation — that it might change your view of one or two of the subjects of the reliefs: Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. Did you remember that David beheaded Goliath after he smote him with his slingshot? You’re unlike to forget it if you view the panel about them. The New York Times‘s critic was right when she said in a recent review that this show almost makes you feel sorry for Goliath.

One of the remarkable aspects of the exhibit is that Ghiberti’s craftsmanship is so precise, you can see the use of high, middle and low relief in the same panel — a technique I haven’t seen shown as clearly anywhere else. You may be able to get a sense of this if you enlarge the book cover at right, which shows a detail from the Adam and Eve panel. At the bottom center you see God (looking like many artistic representations of Jesus) creating Eve from Adam’s rib in middle relief. At the top center you see another image of God — in a hat, looking down on Creation — surrounded by angels in low relief. Another scene in the Adam and Eve panel, which you can’t see, shows God in high relief.

I couldn’t afford the handsome companion volume to the show that the Met was selling, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece/High Museum of Art Series (Yale University Press, 184 pp., $45), edited by Gary M. Radke, a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. But this is a book to check out at your local bookstore or an online retailer if your holiday gift list includes a lover of art, architecture, Italy or the Renaissance. Better still, go to the Met and take a look at the book after you’ve seen the show, also called “The Gates of Paradise.” You have until January 13.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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