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December 15, 2004

My Favorite Photobooks of 2004


I haven't been able to post as much as I'd like lately, but I've never stopped looking at photographs and photo books, and always figured I'd get around to a discussion of my favorite photobooks this year. 

A month ago, I was feeling that it really wasn't as good a year as the last couple of years in terms of truly landmark monographs -- books like A Storybook Life or What Remains or Family Business which, apart from the understated beauty of their images and the assured quality of their reproduction, have an elliptical yet seductive and epic sense of narrative that rewards repeated viewings.  It's easy to pick up many photography books these days and be wowed by a number of dazzling images, but the best photobooks have an almost organic quality to them -- even the most physically imposing coffee table tomes seem to float in one's hands when blessed with the magic of a photographic master with a story to tell.

But though photography books continue to grow in popularity, they don't exactly represent an industry like music or film where products get cranked out and hyped for the annual holiday rush...much of the best work is developed over many years of photographing, after a significant amount of judicious editing and reflection.  So one year may not yield as much in terms of true classics at first blush, but then again, maybe I'm being unfair and not giving time its due -- the best ones this year may prove themselves to be classics with more time and distance. 

In the meantime, I enjoyed a lot of reissues and a few recently released labors of love, like Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi, and Lee Friedlander's Sticks and Stones: Architectural America.  The standout reissues were those of several '80s landmarks: Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places, Joel Sternfeld's American Prospects, and Bruce Davidson's Subway, all reprinted more lavishly and with new material, along with thoughtful retrospective essays.


The work of the trio of Soth, Shore and Sternfeld, along with more modest but enjoyable monographs like Mike Smith's You're Not From Around Here and Brian Rose's The Lost Border, all reflect a deliberate but poetically abstract sense of place, and a subtle and sophisticated use of color and composition to document transitions and (in the case of Soth) dreams and dreamers. All these photographers use large format cameras (with the exception of Smith, who uses 6x7 medium format)  to achieve what Shore calls a "conscious casualness", which gives their photographs their unsettlingly studied quality and enables them (even 20+ years later in the case of Shore and Sternfeld) to transcend time and nostalgia and still speak for the curious quality of American places and life. 

It was certainly instructive for me, as I learned to look through the ground glass of an 8x10 this year and work more extensively in color, to view the work of these five photographers, and Shore and Sternfeld are cited consistently (along with Eggleston) as major influences on the current generation of contemporary commercial and fine art photographers.

In the case of Rose, his obsessive yet distanced (by necessity) documentation of the Iron Curtain, moving chronologically toward the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reconstruction of Berlin, is the most time bound of these monographs, but again the use of perspective, color, light and distance move the images beyond their documentary function into a meditation on the impact of borders and the communities that exist around them, and the banal face of repression.  His book is a nice success story, given his difficulties in getting his project published for a number of years; his photographs gain much more resonance in their reproduction and in their presentation in book form than they did (to my eye) on the web, though his efforts to keep the project going on the web while seeking a publisher were well-intentioned and appreciated by many.


Brian Rose image, from The Lost Border

In general, the photography book is the ideal medium to view all these photographers, certainly more than the web and arguably even more than the gallery -- large format might dictate that their work would really resonate at billboard sizes in cavernous gallery spaces, but apart from a few images, the work gains the most from the sequencing and quiet but jewel-like presentation of detail on the printed page. (Soth's work, in particular, actually seemed too big in galleries when I first saw it earlier in the year -- his compositions and color sense are elegant enough to make the images sparkle even on the web).  The work of Stephen Shore and Mike Smith positively falls on its face on the web, and while the photographs are still rather subtle on the printed page (Smith takes pains to note that he uses the least saturated of color films and quiet light to provide his take on Appalachia), there's definitely a sophistication in the employment of color and space that jumps to life when presented in book form.


Mike Smith image, from You're Not From Around Here

As a side note, it's fascinating to see how people are documented in most of these monographs -- they're captured almost abstractly, as an extension of their surroundings, as another element in the meditation on place that many of these photographers deliver.  When I first encountered Shore and Sternfeld's work, I assumed it was just the nature of large format photography that resulted in such curious portraits, but a photographer like William Eggleston with a small format camera represents people very similarly in his images, which reinforces the point that these are not really portraits, but pictures of people in an environment. 

(The exception here is Soth, given that his exploration of the Mississippi is a "dream trip" as Patricia Hampl implies in her introductory essay, and the individuals Soth photographs represent dreamers -- even with these dreamers, there is detachment in the lighting and framing, though the distance is never extreme and the viewer is permitted a quiet and gentle affection for the subjects).

A little more on the other books I've enjoyed a great deal this year (at least the ones I could fit in my budget):

* Sticks and Stones: Architectural America -- This might be the most challenging of all the books I've mentioned here. Lee Friedlander's crazy, vernacular look at American places and architecture from the vantage point of numerous chainlink fences, telephone poles, and car windows. Superficially, there's a lot of rhyming going on in the images that splash across each two page layout, but there's sophistication beyond the ostensibly common elements in the way these wide angle black and white shots are composed that requires (and rewards) concentration. The distorted verticals, hard light, and weird framing are uniquely Friedlander and can make for some difficult viewing at first, but it's clear he has the same affection for American places that Shore and Sternfeld and all the other photographers do, but a more wickedly crooked way of depicting them that's far from sloppy.

* Ed Ruscha and Photography, which approaches the same questions about photography and place that the above mentioned color photographers do, with equal intelligence but a different sense of artfulness (or is it "lack" of artfulness) and a unique wit.  Despite being a volume accompanying a museum exhibition (and loaded with a fair amount of text), it's incredible fun to go through and read (I hauled it around to many a coffee shop as easily as I would a trashy paperback), because of Ruscha's sense of humor and the interesting arc of his career with photographs.   

* Todd Hido's lyrical Roaming, a collection of photographs taken across various barren landscapes, often through a car windshield in inclement weather. It's beautifully sequenced and is a bit more romantic than his previous work. The plastic camera crowd should love the grungy, dreamy quality of these photographs.


Todd Hido image, from Roaming

* Fashioning Fiction in Photography, a flawed but nevertheless entertaining and necessary starting look at the connections between narrative strategies in fashion photography and art photography.

* Evidence, a reissue of the groundbreaking collection of found "documentary" photographs assembled by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel in 1977, whose odd and evasive internal logic proved to be a forerunner for many of the postmodern conceptual photography projects of the following decades. Quite a few people would consider this a bad, bad thing, but what's impressive about this reissue (which came out last year) is how elegant its murky and mysterious commentary on contemporary society is, compared to the glut of clumsier and more overtly political and conceptual projects that followed it.

The grand prize this year, though, and a book I've just started to really dig into, is Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's The Photobook: A History, Volume I, a huge attempt at a comprehensive telling of the story of photography through the history of the photobook.  The enjoyable Book of 101 Books, which was released two years ago, establishes a fundamental canon of books released in the 20th century; Parr and Badger's book goes back to the beginnings of photography, and focuses less on historically influential individuals and more on photobooks that are successful in following their theme with "intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection" (a set of standards they quote from Lincoln Kerstein). 

In Parr and Badger's survey, this means that photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston are not represented at all, while folks like Friedlander and Eikoe Hosoe are represented by more than one entry because of their unique facility with the photobook medium.  The entries for all the photobooks that are included are thoughtfully written, and the reproductions of pages from them are crisp (and in the case of some of the rarer ones, revelatory).


Even in my early wade through this ambitious volume, one thing I can truly appreciate is how it attempts to go beyond "the usual European-American axis" (in Parr's words), and is generous to Japanese photographers in particular.  My own list here is highly US and Euro-centric because there hasn't been as much Japanese photography covered and represented in the references that I've encountered since I started developing an addiction to photography books.  I've made modest attempts to learn more and go beyond the usual channels, and of course I dote on the few Japanese photographers that get significant play in the Western press (Daido Moriyama, Naoya Hatakeyama, Shomei Tomatsu, Miwa Yanagi, Rinko Kawauchi, etc).

And thankfully, the very active blogging community plays a big part here, too, most notably Stacy Oborn's extensive and lyrical ruminations on Japanese photographers (one of my favorite pickups this year, thanks to something Stacy wrote, was Seiichi Furuya's "Christine Furuya Gossler: Memoires, 1978-1985", all 544 odd pages of it), and many other intelligent bloggers, such as Ferdinand's Japanphoto.  I'm going to have to find a well-stocked library to start appreciating all these riches that Parr, other critics, and other bloggers are alerting me to, or else I'm going to run out of money very, very quickly.

(NOTE: Two-thirds of the way through writing this post, I found out that Vince Aletti at the Village Voice has just published his short list of his favorite books this year, and a number of our choices overlap.  But of course, he knows a lot more than I do and looks at a lot more, so go check out what he has to say.  Now I have to put the Frank and Penn volumes on my list...)

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» The best photo books of 2004 from Conscientious
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