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Editorial

Modernbook Gallery: Monographs and Fine Art Photography

by Sura Wood

Geary Street gallery offers photographic exhibitions and publishes monographs by its artists as a tool to reach a wider audience

College friends Bryan Yedinak and Mark Pinsukanjana, owners of Modernbook Gallery at 49 Geary, first became business partners 15 years ago when they opened a bookstore—Modernbook—in Palo Alto.

The store emphasized art, architecture, design and photography; it quickly became a popular gathering spot, and the pair soon began hosting book signings by artists, some of whose work they displayed in a makeshift gallery at the back of the store. According to Yedinak, their big break came when they exhibited and sold a selection of photos by well-know L.A. photographer Greg Gorman, whom they’d invited to the Palo Alto store to promote his book. “We became a gallery overnight,” recalls Yedinak. “After that, many other artists approached us to represent them.”

In 2010, the pair moved the business to San Francisco and shifted its emphasis from bookstore to gallery. What distinguishes Modernbook from other galleries is that in addition to mounting exhibitions, primarily of photography, it also publishes high-quality, limited-edition monographs of work by the artists the gallery represents.

“We quickly recognized that the medium of photography and monographs [complement each other] and that they’re a wonderful tool to reach a wider audience,” says Yedinak.

“There’s no one else who does what we do in the hands-on way we do it,” adds Pinsukanjana.

In 2006, Modernbook published its first monograph, “Hong Kong Yesterday,” by photographer Fan Ho. The book offers a street-level view of post-war Hong Kong, at that time a city undergoing a dramatic transformation. The run of 1,000 copies sold out in six months. The gallery, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, has come full circle with its recent publication of “A Hong Kong Memoir,” the final volume in Ho’s trilogy. Its release is accompanied by an exhibition of 50 of the artist’s works, drawn from the book, in which he has created new montages, layering, superimposing and manipulating some images from old negatives that were never printed.

“My belief in the act of creation [entails] finding new ways of seeing things, new perspectives,” says Ho, who’s now in his 80s. “I don’t want to repeat my old style.” The show includes pictures emblematic of his signature artistry, such as “Trio,” 2000, a spare, poetic scene where a lone boatman punts down a river enveloped in mist; a bare tree branch hangs in the foreground and a huge harvest moon lights the way.

Ho couples his painterly, exquisitely composed, high-contrast black and white images, reminiscent of traditional Chinese landscapes, with striking use of geometric shapes as seen in one of his best-known photographs, “Approaching Shadow,” 1954. In this photo, the precipitous angles of a pair of white walled buildings, one of them in shadow, form two triangles that evoke the majesty of the Egyptian pyramids and dwarf the figure of a woman standing between them.

Born in Shanghai, Ho, who has lived in San Jose for 20 years, has been called “the Ansel Adams of Hong Kong.” A Renaissance man who cites Shakespeare, Brahms, Fellini and Charlie Chaplin as pivotal influences, he has received 280 awards for his photographic work while also working as a successful Hong Kong movie director and actor.

French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson inspired Ho, but, while Cartier-Bresson strived for the “decisive moment” and grabbed his pictures on the run, Ho’s approach is characterized by deliberation, serenity and patience. The process involves “waiting and waiting, for a few minutes, a few hours, or even a few days for the suitable subject, the perfect angle and optimal lighting,” explains Ho. “You must feel something in your heart before you press the shutter if you want to move the viewer.”

In the past eight years, Modernbook has published 15 books by an array of remarkable emerging and mid-career artists. A number of them, like Tom Chambers, are storytellers who incorporate magical realism, narrative and subtext into their work. A Vietnam vet and a trained graphic designer, Chambers shoots in digital, producing luminous, color-saturated photomontages. With composites of eight to ten images, he conjures the golden light of Renaissance art, Andrew Wyeth’s rural landscapes, Old Europe and Grimm’s fairy tales. Through Chambers’ magic portal, viewers venture into the enchanted, untamed world of children and animals, whose interactions he observed first-hand growing up on a Pennsylvania farm. In his feral imagery, there are intimations of the apocalyptic and the sublime: a pack of wild black dogs charges through a russet field; a white stallion gallops down a shaded, cobblestone street in a deserted town; twin girls, standing beneath a stone archway in matching white dresses, have hoops of fire on their hips. Assembling the sacred and the beautiful, the dangerous and the sexual, Chambers provides enough reality to anchor viewers in the known world and enough fantasy to carry them to another realm. The book, “Entropic Kingdom,” which is available in the gallery, surveys five of Chambers’ series; an exhibition of his work is slated for early next year.

Modernbook gave 25-year-old French photographer Maia Flore, one of several younger talents the gallery is cultivating, her first U.S. show, and a monograph is in the offing. Like Chambers, she works from dreams, memories and imaginary stories. Her series “Sleep Elevations” presents a seductive fantasy—young girls floating above the earth, asleep in flight, free of gravity, school cliques and nagging parents. But Flore, who’s a regular contributor to “Le Monde,” is actually spinning a more sinister narrative. A quote from Edgar Allan Poe in her artist statement hints at the series’ origins: a terrifying childhood nightmare in which Flore is ferried against her will by a mysterious man closer and closer to a vast open ocean. Perilously suspended above the watery surface, she awakens just before she is to be swallowed by the sea. These nighttime reveries are fodder for Flore’s ethereal photographs in which an airborne pre-teen girl with lank, carrot-red hair personifies her. She’s carried up and away by precarious modes of air travel, tenuously attached to a rack of antlers or with balloons tied to her hands and feet, a sleepy passenger voyaging through the subconscious.

Photographer Jamie Baldridge, a quasi-theologian from the Deep South who, consigned to a childhood of “Catholic tedium,” retreated into his feverish imagination, reveals a subversive sensibility. Transfixed by fairy tales from an early age, he has filtered those loaded fables, tempering them with dystopia, assorted fetishes and scholarly Latin references and emerged with a surrealistic vision contained in his monograph “Almost Fiction.” In images, accompanied by text, some of his subjects have Rube Goldberg-like contraptions fixed on their heads. Others appear to be trapped in a garret engaged in futile tasks while awaiting rescue; a girl in a white frock and knee socks naps in a chair, apparently resigned to the ball and chain attached to her ankle. Ceremonial pope’s miters and pointy dunce caps, recurring motifs, represent a history of religious repression rewritten by a mischievous boy who was sent to the corner one time too many.

“Fan Ho: A Hong Kong Memoir” is on display through January 31. Books and prints of other artists’ work are available for viewing.

Modernbook Gallery

49 Geary St., San Francisco

415/732-0300

modernbook.com