New England in Focus: The Arthur Griffin Story by Arthur Griffin, with Herbert A. Kenny and Damon Reed; intro by Jon Updike - Reviewed by Daniel S. Burnstein
Reviewed by Daniel S. Burnstein
Rating: 10 / 10New England In Focus provides a wonderful retrospective on "New England's Photographer Laureate" Arthur Griffin.
Arthur Griffin, with co-authors Kenny and Reed, produced this 128-page, 250-image retrospective of the photographer’s 60-year career in photojournalism on the heels of the Arthur Griffin Center for Photographic Art’s 1992 opening in Winchester, Mass. The center displays some of the 75,000 pictures left behind by a pioneer in photojournalism and “New England’s Photographer Laureate.” It also exhibits the work of famous, established and emerging artists, offering scholarships, talks and workshops. Its mission—the true Arthur Griffin Story—is to advance appreciation and understanding of the medium, in his words, “a profession that beats the outright pursuit of pleasure and is rewarding physically, mentally and spiritually, and can even be profitable.”
Arthur Griffin was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1903. A paperboy for the Lawrence Tribune and Boston Globe, he would attend design school on a paperboy scholarship, studying drawing and later commercial art. The Globe would hire him as an illustrator in 1929, before photography had even entered the commercial mainstream. On a hiatus from that job, Griffin toured Europe in 1932, shooting pictures from which he believed he would create drawings upon his return. The book underscores Griffin’s progression, indeed that of representation itself, with a section on his experimentation with an intermediate medium called the bromoil print. Using shots from the 1932 tour, he laboriously combined painting and photography to produce such soft, romantic images as that of the Hemingwayesque old Frenchman reproduced in the book’s third chapter.
But Griffin would quickly realize the possibilities of the newer, more efficient medium and by 1935 help launch the Globe’s picture-heavy Rotogravure Section. The rotograv process made high-volume photo reproduction practical, thus initiating the field of photojournalism.
Soon Griffin would be the first photojournalist to shoot black and white exclusively in 35mm. The format would allow pictures to be taken in rapid succession, by which Griffin experimented with action shots. In July 1938 the Globe ran a composite of 12 of Griffin’s shots of Red Sox legend Jimmy Foxx hitting and running to first base. At the behest of Kodak, for whom he would experiment with new products, Griffin also shot Foxx in color, capturing the slugger in mid swing at a time when color film was slow and good action shots almost impossible.
A year later, again with experimental film, Griffin would capture the first color images of a 19-year-old Ted Williams, a playful rookie as yet unsoured to the press. As the Globe required only black and white at the time, these were set aside and lost for 50 years until the Griffin Center opened, also gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated when “The Kid” died in 2002. Griffin’s images of Williams comprise eight pages of New England in Focus, alongside an account reprinted from The New Yorker of “The Splendid Splinter’s” final at bat written by John Updike. The writer, a longtime friend and golf partner of the photographer, perhaps comparing golf and photography, remarks in his introduction that Griffin “takes a lot of shots to get to the green.”
That formula would reemerge continually throughout Griffin’s career: combining pictures with top-notch writing (often by writers he knew well) and New England subject matter. Taking note of Griffin’s work at the Globe, as early as 1938 Life magazine had offered him a job in New York. But he refused to leave his beloved New England, opting instead to contribute from there to Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Yankee, Life and other publications, many of which used Griffin for their first foray into color.
Griffin observed: “New England offers more for artists, photographers and lovers of beauty than any other section of its size in the world.” As The Arthur Griffin Story illustrates, the region presented Griffin with such favored subjects as boats and winter landscapes. These would also figure heavily over the years (1946-1995) into six books of Griffin’s New England scenes, this the last before his death in 2001 at age 97.
Arthur Griffin’s sea and landscapes are without question romantic and beautiful. To remark that many of them look like they belong in a calendar probably would not have fazed him. (After all, it was Griffin’s idea for his images to grace the covers of New England telephone directories throughout the 70s and 80s). But it would be to lose sight of the fact that he helped set the standard for what have become ubiquitous images of snowy barns and fall colors, which never even existed in photographs before pioneers like Griffin.
A section of New England in Focus juxtaposes photos of Boston that Griffin shot in the 40s with the same locations shot in the 90s. Highlighting the city’s obvious development, Griffin raises questions about how technology—clearly increasing capacity—contributes to quality.