CAPTURING THE LIGHT: The Birth of Photography, a True Story of Genius and Rivalry
By Roger Watson
and Helen Rappaport
St. Martin’s, 306 pp., illustrated, $27.99
In 1839 the French press announced that artist and showman Louis Daguerre — previously known for his wildly popular painted dioramas and panoramas — had invented a new method of capturing images. The products of his process were quickly dubbed daguerreotypes; within weeks, they were all the rage in France. Daguerre’s revelation forced Henry Fox Talbot, a reserved English gentleman scientist who had been experimenting with a different photographic technique, to publish his own findings so that he wouldn’t be seen as a plagiarist of Daguerre’s innovations.
“The history of scientific breakthrough is often accompanied by intense debate over who got there first,” Rogert Watson and Helen Rappaport write in their chronicle of the race to invent photography; this book argues that Talbot has long been denied the full measure of credit he deserves. The authors’ obvious affection for the modest, self-effacing Talbot at times eclipses Daguerre’s story (it didn’t hurt that Talbot left behind an almost ludicrously complete archive of 10,000 letters and “more than 300 notebooks,” while Daguerre’s notes on his invention were lost). Still, the book tells a lively, sympathetic story of both men, along with others present at the birth of photography, an art form that owes so much to chemistry.
THE MINISTRY OF GUIDANCE INVITES YOU TO NOT STAY: An American Family in Iran
By Hooman Majd
Doubleday, 272 pp., $26.95
Born in Iran but raised abroad, journalist Hooman Majd decided to move, with his wife and infant son, from Brooklyn to Tehran; living there for a year would allow Majd to show something of his homeland to his little boy and his American wife. It also provided him with material for this book, a vibrant, witty account of their time there — not that he could reveal that plan to the frightening government heavies who questioned him about the purpose of their stay. It wasn’t just the political danger that alarmed the couple; there were also the terrifying local driving habits, the air pollution, the harsh constraints on appearance and behavior enforced by the Basij, a “volunteer ultrareligious militia” that upbraided women for being inadequately veiled.
Yet the family also experiences enormous kindness in Iran, a country whose citizens love to throw parties, where hospitality is a given, and where every baby — including Majd’s — is cuddled, kissed, and adored. Despite the “byzantine and even Orwellian political structure” that remains entrenched after its failed Green rebellion, Majd discovers, the Iran of his parents and grandparents retains its particular, contradictory charms.
27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse
By Howard Sounes
Da Capo, 384 pp. $26.99
“Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club,” Kurt Cobain’s mother said after her son committed suicide in 1994 at 27. The fact that so many gifted, tortured musicians died at the same age has long intrigued fans, the idea of a 27 club providing an almost magical explanation for a series of sad early deaths.
Understandably, the English Sounes focuses most closely on Brian Jones and Amy Winehouse — in the latter case, going into interminable detail about her father’s shady business dealings — but makes a strong case that “behind the coincidence is a common narrative” for all six of the most notable members of the club. All were as troubled as they were talented, supremely vulnerable to exploitation and addiction, too young to know how much time they should have had left.