December 30, 2008

Best New Books | 2008

1. Pretend You’re Actually Alive by Leigh Ledare

Pretend You’re Actually Alive is a book about redemption, about inter-relational transaction, representation negotiated as a continuous working through. It evokes the work of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark in how it documents the ambivalent territory of the photographer-subject relationship, but with curious detachment Leigh Ledare goes where few dare to go.

A truly seismographic book of intense and disturbing raw photographs that depicts a specific social scenario on the margins of society with genuine talent and establishes an interesting link to and transition out of the tradition of the documentary photo book.

2. A New History of Photography by Ken Schles

Throughout 30 years, photojournalist and documentary photographer Ken Schles – author of the brilliant and influential book Invisible City (1988) - consciously and unconsciously replicated iconic images of photography’s history since its creation days.

Appropriately sub-titled The World Outside and The Pictures in Our Heads, this limited edition book, published by Schaden’s White Press label, works like a sort of puzzle that forces the viewer to identify the photographer whom Schles is “citing”. One of the most original and challenging books published this year.

3. 101 Billionaires by Rob Hornstra

With several books to his name, all self-published and almost self-distributed, Rob Hornstra is the example of the artist who refuses to cope with the system. If you then look at the nature of his socially engaged documentary work, as well as his role in helping to create and develop Fotodok, you get the perfect equation.

101 Billionaires documents real life in Russia after the decline of the communism era. It looks at the old, who still believe in the past, and it looks more deeply at the so-called «youth-crisis» that keeps on growing like a huge dark cloud in an often lawless country. This book is a disturbing insight into the plight of young people in Russia who insist on looking west. Hornstra's photographs do not share opinions, they simply try to potray young russians views of the past, preoccupations of the present and aspirations for the future.

4. A Road Trip Journal by Stephen Shore

The early 1970’s represented a decisive period of time in Stephen Shore’s carreer as a photographer. Not only did he travel extensively across the United States – and occasionally Canada - absorbing all that the country had to offer, he also gradually shifted from 35mm to an 8x10 format.

Years later, Uncommon Places and American Surfaces would majestically document that relatively short period of time in which, for a few months during 1973, Shore kept a journal. A Road Trip Journal includes a lot of the photographs shown in those legendary books, but it certainly isn't more-of-the-same , as it offers us the rare possibility of entering the photographer's mind in a way that none of his other books have allowed us before.

5. Invaze 68: Anonymní Ceský Fotograf by Josef Koudelka

Having just given up a profession in aeronautical engineering and returning from a stint photographing the gypsies in Romania, Koudelka took more than 10.000 photographs in Prague, consumed by a desire to capture the event in film while seriously risking his life.

Invaze 68 documents the turmoil and destruction caused by the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in Prague in a year of shock events around the world. It narrates the rising unified protest and its subsequent tense repression, and offers a much broader sampling of Koudelka's work. Best historical book of the year.

6. Beaufort West by Mikhael Subotzky

With an homicide rate higher than New York, Beaufort West was the town chosen by Magnum nominee Mikhael Subotzky to portray – with striking clarity - the general criminal chaos in which post-apartheid South Africa has drowned.

This introspective and direct book about common post-colonial issues such as racial segregation, white domination and black dispossession, social injustice and human marginalization, will stand as one of the most graceful photographic objects on fear of recent times.

7. South East by Mark Steinmetz

Mark Steinmetz photographs people with a deep concern for formal composition, light and symbolism. His portraits are majestic and simple, agressive and tender, fascinating and disturbing, haunting and beautiful - a set of apparent contradictions that lends his images a unique vitality.

A silent masterpiece, South East illustrates the socioeconomic condition of this region with sombre and absorbing black & white photographs and is the perfect companion to his previously acclaimed book South Central.

8. Oxbow Archive by Joel Sternfeld

Joel Sternfeld helped to establish color photography as an art form, even more than Keld Helmer-Petersen, Stephen Shore or William Eggleston did. His studied observation of color, attention for crisp details and masterly use of light, all combined, strongely approximates his photography with painting.

By documenting the environmental changes though seasonal progression along the Oxbow of the Connecticut River, Sternfeld looks at the possible implications of climate change on the seasons as well as on this area, just like Thomas Cole warned us about the danger of progress in the form of farms and factories.

9. Frederick Law Olmsted Landscapes by Lee Friedlander

In the early 1980’s Lee Friedlander began photographing Frederick Law Olmsted’s pastoral and conceptual creation Central Park, a work later developed into photographing other parks conceived by that great late landscape designer around the United States and Canada.

This beautiful book shows Friedlander photographing nature as living works of art, a study of landscape portraiture that reveals a particular way of looking at the American dream possibly shared by Olmsted himself.

10. New Mexico by Lee Friedlander

“New Mexico” is probably the best book published so far by Darius Himes’s Radius Books.

It compiles photographs taken since 1996 in northern New Mexico with the same medium-format Hasselblad Superwide Friedlander has been using since the early 1990’s that produces square pictures extremely clear and translucent, perfect for these remarkable geometric shapes of the vernacular landscape bisected by sunlight and shadow.

11. Baghdad Suite by Andrew Phelps

This self-published book-on-demand of photographs recreating stage sets of post-war scenarios stripped from life in an imaginary Baghdad, works like a lucid metaphor for the consequences of a plot of suspicious substance and fabricated truths that originated – as it happens with so many wars - the war in Iraq.

There is no fantasy to ruins, ruins fantasize us. The significance of such kind of real and fantastical images, courses trough time, cultures, nations. It knows no place because it thrives anyplace. These images silently represent the aftermath of a brutality and depict a wasteland removed from reality.

12. Peru by Robert Frank

This body of work was of extreme significance to the swiss photographer’s career as an artist in how it liberated and allowed him the possibility to work free of compromises soon after arriving in New York.

In the vast landscapes of Peru and Bolivia, Robert Frank photographed with as much spontaneity as possible. The elegant and daring sequencing of images that made the book he later offered his mother, is here at last. Finally available, Peru is one of the most powerful books published by Steidl within the so-called Robert Frank Project.

13. In History by Susan Meiselas

Freelance photographer and Magnum member, Susan Meiselas has spent most of her career covering decisive political events around the world, most notably in Central America. Her heartfelt depiction of the lives of striptease dancers in her seminal book Carnival Strippers and her most recent portrayal of a New York S & M club in Pandora’s Box, may have represented radical variations, but both reflected on a recurrent theme that may resume this photographer’s work: the struggle for identity.

In History deals with memory. It meditates on the importance of ethics in documentary photography and photojournalism in general, and more specifically in the circulation of Meiselas own images. All carefully conceived and beautifully presented.

14. Baghdad Calling by Geert Van Kesteren

While Why Mister, Why? depicted the social-political situation in Iraq during the war in a more conservative way, Baghdad Calling explores new territory by focusing upon the stories of local families. Van Kesteren asked some of these people to document their daily lives with cell-phones and digital cameras, while he photographed refugees trying to survive outside the chaos in which Iraq immersed.

The book successfully alternates those images with reports written by locals. The end result is a sometimes brutal illustration of the humiliations that ordinary people are forced to endure in such a terrible scenario, done in an original and very informative way.

15. Secrets of Real Estate by John Gossage

Paging through any of John Gossage's books is always guaranteed pleasure and unfinished business. His photographs are poetic reflections on the simple things that each of us rarely think about the way his eyes do. He is also perfectly attuned to the construction of a book, and in each new project manages to develop new possibilities and in doing so, always creates new concepts.

Compared to his recent books, Secrets of Real Estate does not match the same care invested in book craft, but the end result is still masterfully characteristic of what John Gossage usually delivers.

16. As Far As I Could Get by John Divola

Marten Lange is the editor of Farewell Books, an independent publishing house from Sweden
that has produced six little and very affordable books since 2007, creating a much deserved and justified buzz. The elegance and austere beauty of his «Woodland» monograph, with its 40 square black-and-white photographs of chaotic forest landscapes, set the record for subsequent editions.

«As Far As I Could Get» places John Divola’s work again between photography and performance, where elements of nature and meditation on time are recurrently incorporated. By running as fast as he could from his camera’s self-timer, he created intriguing images that tickle one’s perception.

18. Intersections Intersected by David Goldblatt

The end of the apartheid regime proved deeply unsettling for David Goldblatt. The people and places he had photographed in black and white, especially the still images of structures that led to those events, gave place to a short stint without photographing. When he finally picked up his camera again he turned to color, photographing the landscapes of his country that showed marks of the post-apartheid society.

Intersections Intersected, published for a major exhibition by this great living photographer, contains pairings that juxtapose black and white images taken under apartheid with color images from the period after, sometimes showing the same place 20 years apart. Complemented with two well informed critical essays, this book is probably the most intelligent retrospective of the year.

18. Berenice Abbott by Berenice Abbott

The two-volume slipcase set published by Steidl later this year is, for lack of better words, a monumental retrospective from the woman who helped Eugène Atget’s name gain international recognition from the moment Photographe de Paris was published.

Anarchist and poet, Berenice Abbott would soon become an accidental photographer when she met Man Ray and became interested in the medium. Although she started out doing portraits in his studio in Paris, it was the New York landscape that helped shape her as probably the most important modernist photographer of the century – although highly neglected by some of her contemporaries. Her no less relevant contribution to scientific photography is also undeniable, as shown in this comprehensive edition.

19. Light Lines by Ray Metzker

Born in 1931 Ray Metzker is one of photography’s true innovators and a master interpreter of light. He continuously explored the formal potentials of black-and-white photography by using a multitude of techniques while always staying true to his medium, and challenged our definitions of both documentary and landscape photography.

Light Lines presents a chronologic view through his life work including the recent and excellent “Composites” series, assembled through vintage prints made in the mid-60’s. One the most accomplished Steidl releases of 2008.

20. Malick Sidibe by Malick Sidibe

From February until May 2008, Malick Sidibe exhibited part of his oeuvre at Fondation Zinsou in Benin’s major city Cotonou. For those who did not have the chance to fly to that remote West-African republic, this book manages to present a substantial body of work from the highly regarded Malian photographer in an elegant and somewhat striking way.

The contrast between the glossy varnish of the bigger images and the matte paper used in small booklets sewed in results in a daring design that invites repeated leafing through the book. The downside though is that it requires very careful handling. Nevertheless, a great retrospective.