Review by Douglas Stockdale •
I believe a photobook based on a body of work that explores the nude form has some high esthetical and contemporary hurdles to overcome; a genre of art that predates photography itself. The nude and semi-nude, both male and female, are frequently subjects for photographers for a wide variety of reasons, from the strictly artistic exploring the lines, mass and textures to the more obvious exploitive extremes. Thus, the genre of the nude is fraught with potential artistic danger as to be seen as trite and a cliché. For that reason, for the many submissions we receive for books based this subject, few rises above the need to be reviewed.
With the temporary lull in obtaining review copies for consideration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been going through my stacks and realized that when I obtained Jon Ortner’s Peak of Perfection, I was at a personal transition in writing book reviews. Prior, my reviews were probably a bit too lengthy and I was feeling that a really brief book summary in conjunction with supportive interior book illustrations were all that readers really wanted at that time. Observing the change in my reviews, Ortner had asked that a more detailed review be considered and so his book sat next to my desk since. The pendulum has swung back to more detailed reviews and Ortner recently poked me if it was now time to review his book. I had to agree.
The nude that Ortner investigates has characteristics of many young models with strong muscular and articulated lines as a result of being professional athletes or dancers. Therein the tie to the book’s title. Ortner also investigates the interplay of men and women to create more complex lines and flow of mass. Due to the nature of his subject and the history of this genre, some of his combinations and studies work appear more visually interesting than others, which do border on cliché.
Rendering his body of work in Black & White leans into a bit more abstraction of the visual elements and appears to be good choice for this subject matter. I tend to think of photographing the nude to be a daunting challenge, as it seems that rarely is something new or visually interesting to add to the history of this genre. Thus I still applaud those who take the artistic risk to venture into these turbulent and relatively unforgiving waters.
I think that Ortner has created a really solid body of work but his book does not push me much beyond my expectations with his careful and detailed rendered photographs. These are solid masterpieces of lighting, set design, model placement, composition and interesting interactions, created with film and a large format camera. The large size of the book, 11-1/2 x 15″ in conjunction with the tri-tone printing, creates large beautiful rendered photographs.
His subjects are revealed as sculptural objects, some even oiled as to reveal the intricate muscular lines in the studio and natural lighting, and hint of being documentary studies of the natural form. A bit unsettling is the frequent eye contact by the models with the photographer, staring into the lens, as though in the process of taking direction for some of the more complex combinations, that creates a bit of stiffness to the composition.
There just are no unanswered questions, a narrative thread, or metaphors that are triggered in the reading. Nevertheless, a really detailed study of the nude form that is a testimony to the skill, balance, athleticism and fortitude of his models that are photographed with a strong element of sensitivity.
Peak of Perfection, Jon Ortner
Photographer: Jon Ortner, born Great Neck, NY and currently residing in NYC.
Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, USA, copyright 2014
Essay: Jon Ortner, Introduction
Hard cover with dust jacket and linen slipcover, 11-1/2″ x 15″, with three gatefolds, line-art, sewn binding, tri-tone inks, printed in Hong Kong, China.
Photobook Designer: Martha McGuire
Thank you for this review. I’m intrigued by the implications of your stance on this title. I’m also grateful to you for giving proper space and time for more expansive consideration of the book’s characteristics.
What I see in Ortner’s photography (illustrated here and previously unfamiliar to me) strikes me as Instagram-friendly coyness and concision. The bodies are staged as provocative forms that are nonetheless legible on palm-sized screens. There are many couplings in which the partners astonish me with their acrobatic poise, while at the same time making me feel as though everything has been tucked away and sanitized to sidestep censorship.
How large is the book? Knowing the rough size of the real object would help me appreciate what kind of statement the photographer and his publisher are making with these clearly accomplished images. A larger book, pointing toward a recognition of sculptural significance, could offset my quibbles with the tidiness I mention.
I’m curious, too, about the quotes and graphics designed into white spaces of certain spreads, and the syntheses they create with the sylvan or mottled backdrops of many of the images. How do you read these elements? I think there are lots of interesting questions that are prompted by what I see of the book.
Like you, I appreciate how quarantine has reconfigured my sense of time. I want to make use some of that gift (unfortunate as it is) to engage in consideration of, among so many topics that had been temporarily shelved, photobooks and related discourse. Please take my comments in earnest and as supportive of the thoughtfulness both this book–indeed, photobooks in general–and your review deserve.
Thanks for your thoughtful response. Agree, I did select the sanitized book spreads to keep this review more PG and for the most part, so did Jon. In retrospect, I do need to include the book’s size, as it is large (11-1/2 x 15) and also found out about the printing (try-tone), while there is some line-art, I am not sure that it adds to the reading of the photographs, rather attempting to make the book appear more “artistic”. I plan to revised the review to include some of these items.
Cheers & stay safe!