The Best Photography Books of 2015
Despite the great innovations in photographic technology there doesn’t seem to have been concomitant progress to a better or more perfect art form. In fact, digitization, smart phones, selfies and social media have devalued the photographic image by the great populist tidal wave of pixels flying willy-nilly through the ether— more pictures, less meaning. Have a look at the republications of Sebastião Salgado’s first book, Other Americas, or Mary Ellen Mark’s seminal Tiny, Streetwise Revisited, or arguably, the greatest photo exhibit ever, MOMA’s The Family of Man: 60th Anniversary Edition monograph or Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now and consider whether much photography in the last generation is as vital and potent. Which is not to say that photography as art is breathing its last. But if this year’s crop of photo books is any indication, publishers will and ought to continue to limn the rich photo archives of the last century.
The books listed here are culled from a large offering of excellent real paper-and-ink books, most carefully reproduced and excellently designed and presented. Great pleasures were encountered while difficult decisions (of exclusion) were made. But be assured that the chosen are tomes of visual excitement and engagement.
Photographer Edward Curtis’s study of 80 distinct tribal groups, begun in 1900, was published in 1930, in what has been widely considered to be his magnum opus, The North American Indian. Curtis scholar Christopher Cardozo has assembled a masterful monograph tapping a private archive of “rare and unique Curtis original, vintage photographs.” One Hundred Masterworks is a powerful representation and vivid documentation of Native American life, well reproduced and printed. Additionally, illuminating essays by photo scholar AD Coleman and others round out this handsome volume. An exhibition of Curtis’s photos resides at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, until Jan. 17, 2016.
The publication 30 years ago of A Vanished World , a book of photos of prewar Eastern European Jewish life by Vishniac, has fixed that work as as his singular accomplishment. International Center of Photography curator Maya Benton, who is establishing the Roman Vishniac Archive there, has assembled an exhibition and this first retrospective monograph that displays Vishiniac as a gifted and scrupulous documentarian (he was also a biologist and a photo microscoper ). Roman Vishniac Rediscovered includes his pre-Holocaust Jewry photos as well as previously unpublished photographs spanning more than six decades.These include newly discovered images of prewar Berlin, rare film footage from rural Jewish communities, documentation of postwar ruins and Displaced Persons’ camps, and vital coverage of Jewish life in America in the 1940s and ’50s. There are 475 black-and-white photos in all—as well as 23 explicatory essays.
Since first coming to prominence at the age of 25 with a solo exhibition at the Whitney, collecting accolades such as “Young Photographer of the Year” by the International Center of Photography, Ryan McGinley has continued to examine and survey the nude human figure contextualized in extraordinary American landscapes and habitats. Art Forum editor David Rimanelli provides the text for McGinley’s newest opus, Ryan McGinley: Way Far, a collection of his most recent work. As in his previously published volume You and I (which I recommended in this space in 2011), these photos are an ongoing series of images shot during his regular summer-long, cross-country road trips. The juxtaposition of the nude figures, imaginatively located in wild, unpopulated locales, produces evocative reveries of a kind of unbridled deliverance and grace. Or in a word, freedom.
You wouldn’t think of it today but back in the mid 20th century, color photography was a poor and poorly regarded cousin to the high art of black-and-white imagery. Award-winning photographerJoel Meyerowitz, along with a few others, represented the New Color Photography movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This retrospective monograph covers the entirety of Meyerowitz’s body of work—street photos, his famous Cape Cod photos, his post 9/11 New York photos, and his early black-and-white photos, even as he was adopting color in his work. Though an admirer of such great photojournalists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, Meyerowitz’s images are less direct and concise than those masters—“I find it strangely beautiful that the camera with its inherent clarity of object and detail can produce images that in spite of themselves offer possibilities to be more than they are … a photograph of nothing very important at all, nothing but an intuition, a response, a twitch from the photographer’s experience.”
German geologist turned photographer Bernhard Edmaier founded a photographic agency, Geophot—Pictures of the Earth, in the main because geology profoundly informs his photography and is the prism through which he looks at our planet. With these 220 brilliant four-color photographs, Edmaier, via aerial photography, presents water in manifold settings and forms, on every continent and the very few remaining untouched places on the planet—rivers and streams, deltas and floodplains, surging on coasts, glaciers, sketchy clouds floating over erupting volcanoes. It’s a gorgeous and mesmerizing array of images in an oversized volume with the images divided into four categories —Liquid, Solid Gas, Destructive, and Transporting and Constructive.
When it first appeared in 1988 Ken Schles’s Invisible City was lauded and awarded, included in exhibitions and various photo book histories. It accounted for the 10 years Schles spent documenting his life in New York City’s East Village/Lower East Side neighborhood. As the publisher points out, what has become a cult classic “… stands alongside Brassai’s Paris de Nuit and van der Elsken’s Love On The Left Bank as one of the twentieth century’s great depictions of nocturnal bohemian experience.” Invisible City sold out almost immediately and has long been out of print. This new edition was scanned from Schles’s original negatives and printed in five colors, matching if not surpassing, the original Twin Palms edition. Additionally it includes relevant textual citations by Lewis Mumford, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Jean Baudrillard.
This volume, dedicated to the non pareil Eve Arnold, inaugurates a new series of illustrated biographies of Magnum (so named because reportedly the founding members always drank a bottle of champagne during the first meetings) Agency, (Gary Winogrand is next up) members of the celebrated photographer’s cooperative founded by photographers Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert in 1947. Arnold was the first woman to join Magnum Photos and, eventually, one of the most accomplished photojournalists of her time. In telling her story this biography make use of her diaries and letters and includes her well-known photos of Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Queen Elizabeth as well previously unpublished archival materials. Arnold was equally as facile with intimate portraits of celebrities as she was documenting social issues, including a series on Malcolm X and another on the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. She traveled extensively and many of those farflung images are included, especially those from Russia, China, and Afghanistan.
British documentary photographer Paul Graham produced three bodies of work in the United States between 1998 and 2011— American Night, a shimmer of possibility, and The Present. Ironically titled from the dramatic section of the Melville’s magnum opus, The Whiteness of the Whale, (which accompanies a solo exhibition of the same name at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco) features nearly 60 works, ranging from singular large-scale photographs to sequences of over 20 images) is a condensed version of his American trilogy in a cardboard presentation case. Graham’s deceptively uncomplicated photographs which are meant to function in series, have a different feel and look and yet succeed, exhibiting great photographic themes. American Night (2003) is an examination of the great economic inequality, rendered in oblique images contrasting the barely visible with vivid color images of California. The award winning a shimmer of possibility (2007) is a sequence of 12 photographic visions exhibiting the ordinary of American life—people waiting for a bus, cutting the grass, or smoking a cigarette. The Present (2011) is set in New York streets, presenting dual images of the same scene distinguished by a brief instant of time suggesting the study of fugal movement of time and its binary qualities.
Last summer the Hague Museum of Photography hosted 1-2-3-4, a retrospective exhibit of four decades of Dutch photographer/director Anton Corbijn’s photos. Corbin, known for portraiture of internationally prominent rock celebrities, forced himself to comb through his vast archives to arrive at 350 images. Of that experience, he wrote to an interviewer, “These evenings were sometimes a little depressing sifting through rubbish at times but the elation when you find a forgotten wonderful image is enormous and made it worth going through the motions.” The substantial catalogue accompanying this exhibition was the work of the museum curator, Wim Van Sinderen. For the music fan, idiosyncratic black-and-white images of Nick Cave, Nirvana, R.E.M., and the Rolling Stones to Siouxie and the Banshees, (previously unpublished photos) of Joe Cocker, Depeche Mode, Bono, John Lydon, Tom Waits, and Mick Jagger—you get the idea. For the devotee of photography this tome presents gritty yet ephemeral grainy pictures, with strong contrasts. As Keith Richards says, “All great photographers have a third eye. Anton Corbijn has three third eyes.”
Though it would seem obvious that White Americans might do well to understand the history of their black fellow citizens, perhaps the events of recent times makes that an imperative act of citizenship. And Still I Rise: Black America Since MLK, the illustrated chronology and companion book to the PBS series of the same name, was assembled by Harvard historian Henry Lewis Gates and Kevin M. Burke, director of research at Harvard University’s Hutchinson Center for African and African American Research, and anthologizes hundreds of images, some obvious (if you are old enough, and have a memory), some iconic, such as Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of black lawyer Ted Landsmark being attacked by a American flag-wielding young white thug). Interestingly, the narrative opens and closes with two Selmas—the 1965 site of Martin Luther King’s’s first post-Nobel Peace Prize direct-action campaign and Ava DuVernay’s important and evocative 2014 film. Gates and Burke also acknowledge the import of pop culture and the growing popularity of black music, and especially hip-hop, and pay tribute to TV producer/writer Shonda Rhimes and ground-breaking television like Scandal, Empire, and the inimitable Key & Peele, as well as crossover musicians such as Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, and Beyoncé. Additionally relevant is Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings: 1947-1959 with its 44 audio recordings, and 77 rare photographs and essays by famed ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax, who wrote of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, “… there was no Delta black who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire…. These songs are a vivid reminder of a system of social control and forced labor that has endured in the South for centuries, and I do not believe that the pattern of Southern life can be fundamentally reshaped until what lies behind these roaring, ironic choruses is understood.”
Facing Change Documenting America
by Leah Bendavid-Val
Facing Change is not only a riveting photographic compendium but an ongoing project that got its start at the Inauguration Day, 2009, when a group of photographers, ostensibly covering the ceremony and festivities, met to form a nonprofit collective whose mission was to create a national portrait of America. Well-regarded photojournalists David Burnett, Alan Chin, Donna Ferrato, Danny Wilcox Frazier, Stanley Greene, Andrew Lichtenstein, Carlos Javier Ortiz, Darcy Padilla, Lucian Perkins, Anthony Suau, and Maggie Stebern were inspired by the Farm Security Administration’s Depression-era project —which yielded iconic photographs by some of this country’s greatest artists. This initial volume, edited by by Leah Bendavid-Val, the former director of photography publishing for National Geographic books, includes 200 photos (some from the original FSA project), interviews with Library of Congress photography experts, and introductory essays on each of the participating photojournalists. It’s a compelling chronicle of Americans facing the challenges of the foreclosure crisis, the impact of criminal justice policies on poor cities, rural poverty, race in the American South, returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-industrial cities, unemployment in the Latino community in small-town California, and the effects of violence on inner-city youth, Katrina, and the great recession and the U.S.’s huge economic divide. As it was for the FSA participants, the FCDA mission is simple: “Bear witness to America. Go. See. Tell afterward.” Stay tuned.
by Elisabeth Sussman, Roger Ballen
Outland, originally published in 2001 and named Best Photographic Book of the Year at PhotoEspaña 2001, is another classic photo book that is being republished/re-released in an expanded edition with more than 30 never-before-seen images (thus totaling 80 black-and-white photos) from Roger Ballen’s archive and includes a thoughtful and incisive essay by the curator of photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Elisabeth Sussman. The book documents the 20 years Ballen spent photographing the small ‘dorps’ or villages of rural South Africa, moving on in the late 1980s and early 1990s to their inhabitants: isolated rural whites, for whom life was being radically transformed by the end of apartheid. Then in the 1990s and into 2000, while continuing to focus on those marginalized whites, the photos began to blur the notion of documentary photography, with the subjects acting out gloomy and conflicted gestures. Ballen recounts, “I have been shooting black and white film for nearly fifty years now. I believe I am part of the last generation that will grow up with this media. Black and White is a very minimalist art form and unlike color photographs does not pretend to mimic the world in a manner similar to the way the human eye might perceive. Black and White is essentially an abstract way to interpret and transform what one might refer to as reality…”