New York

John Phillips

French Cultural Services

John Phillips is another photographer who has had quite a life, though in his case you could never tell that from the photographs being shown. As a child, Phillips played among the tables of the Café du Dome while Man Ray and Leo Stein chatted with his father, who was also a photographer. Barely in his 20s, Phillips was hired to take pictures for the first issue of a magazine to be known as Life. He became its sole staff photographer in Europe until the war, when he was one of its combat correspondents in the Middle East. There he also photographed Churchill’s meeting with Stalin and Roosevelt at the Teheran Conference. Then he was transferred to Italy, where he struck up a friendship with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and on to Yugoslavia, where he went behind German lines to report on Tito’s partisans. After the war he was behind the Iron Curtain for a year, had an exclusive on the guerrillas in the Greek Civil War, covered the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, and did a tour with the Foreign Legion during the Algerian War.

In short, he went everywhere, saw everything. If cameras really were prosthetic devices, automatic extensions of the senses, as some people believe, Phillips’ pictures would be incredible. Even if there’s no truth in that idea, there still must be some Phillips pictures somewhere that are better than the ones in this show. Part of the difficulty was that the show contained only photographs made in France, which was not Phillips’ beat. But the pictures still ought to contain some glimmer of importance. They don’t. It’s curious, in fact. Here was this man who as a correspondent was literally where the action was. But when he went home, he often photographed the dullest, most overgrown walks of French life. Many photographs, for instance, are of provincial aristocrats or their servants. And all the pictures are as dead as these subjects. I ended up wondering how a man who has had such an exciting life ever could have taken, let alone exhibited, such uninspired pictures.

Colin L. Westerbeck Jr.