Best Photo Books of 2013: Part 1

The editors of PDN present a collection of some of the most intriguing photography books we've seen this year. Check out Part 2 of our list here.

The Plight of the Torpedo PeopleThe Plight of the Torpedo People
By Chris Burkard, Keith Malloy, et al.
Woodshed Films/T. Adler Books
100 pages; 87 color and duotone images
$45; www.torpedopeople.com

Anyone who has paddled out into the ocean to bodysurf probably knows the feeling of realizing you are about to get pummeled. I first had that feeling in Laguna Beach, California, during a storm surf, when a wave grabbed hold of my swim fins and bent my body with such force that one of my heels hit me in the back of my head. Fortunately I was young and pliant then, and I escaped scared and humbled but otherwise unscathed. I’m reminded of that moment looking through the images in The Plight of the Torpedo People, a book of photos that are exhilarating in their depiction of far superior bodysurfers than I.

The book was created as a companion for the documentary film Come Hell or High Water by Keith Malloy, which has received critical acclaim and film festival awards. The majority of the images in the book were made by surf photographer Chris Burkard, with additional images and frame grabs contributed by Malloy and other cast and crew members.

The photographs in the book could be seen as environmental portraits of a bunch of lunatics. Maybe the bodysurfers in the images are dropping smoothly down the faces of waves to get barreled. Maybe they will pop up grinning and paddle back into the lineup. But because of the camera’s ability to freeze the action, in a lot of these frames we see bodysurfers in what appear to be fairly precarious situations: with their torsos shooting out into the air from the face of a wave, or their submerged bodies twisted between a coral reef and a wash of whitewater. In one image we see a bare-chested man coming nearly vertically down the face of a large blue-green wave with one arm in front of him. Can it possibly end well? In one of the texts for the book, Malloy quotes a well-known bodysurfer’s description of what the sport’s best athletes live for: “…to put yourself in the path of the bull so it rips your clothes off but doesn’t kill you.”

For all the harrowing images, there are plenty that exemplify the beauty of the sport and the seascapes in which it’s practiced. The cover photo shows a bodysurfer shooting headfirst out of the water with arms at his side, silhouetted by the sunlight behind he and the wave. A pair of black-and-white images shot below the surface shows waves crashing with human heads and shoulders bursting through the whitewater.

Particularly touching are a series of photographs of bodysurfer Don King and his son Beau, who is autistic. Malloy tells the story of their shared passion for the sport, and the book includes a letter from a couple whose own autistic son saw the film and was inspired to get in the water.

“To the outside world bodysurfing might be seen as eccentric behavior,” writes Burkard in his text for the book, “but as a photographer I was grounded by the experience of creating these images. It reminded me of what’s important in life and why I love to be in the ocean.” Huzzah. —Conor Risch

World Without MenWorld Without Men
By Helmut Newton
188 pages
$60; www.taschen.com

“The right girl at the right moment has always been my inspiration; it’s a matter of timing. Not that I ever consider what will excite the public. If I were to do that, I would never take a picture. No, I just please myself.”

This is one of many anecdotes in the new edition of Helmut Newton’s World Without Men, which incorporates journal entries written by the photographer about some of the work included in his 1984 book of the same name. Both editions of the book feature a selection of Newton’s editorial fashion images from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s.

The journal entries give insight into Newton’s approach to photography. A constant innovator and experimenter, we learn about his fascination with new photographic technology, like the ring flash and “La Machine de Newton,” and his propensity to take risks that are fueled solely by his instinct, whether that means photographing an untrained model or committing to shooting at night—despite never having shot test frames.

There is also a beguiling charm in the way Newton is constantly inspired by beauty—whether it is a man, a woman or a place—and how he eventually incorporates those elements into his work. One entry is a rather amusing tale of how he cons his way into Jane Russell’s apartment just so he can photograph the actress, whom he had been admiring from afar. This is the early 1970s and he hasn’t photographed many celebrities yet, so it’s endearing to read how his hands trembled the entire time, resulting in blurry images.

A lot of the entries talk about locations that will later serve as backdrops for his images. Newton is endlessly fascinated with places near his home in Paris, and finds the mystery of the everyday more interesting than any exotic locale. He also notes that he dislikes shooting in the studio because “when I’m faced with a white paper background, I seize up completely and don’t know what to do.”

Newton’s World Without Men is filled to the brim with fashion photography that is sometimes lush, always thought provoking and occasionally risqué. It is a bounty for the eyes. The depictions of models vary greatly: they are dressed as men, posed in couture gowns on beaches, astride horses or situated amongst animals; they are in tunnels, around swimming pools and in various public parks; they are posed with other models, random officers, half-naked beach goers or alone in train stations. Yet there is always movement and nothing is ever dull.

While the journal entries are in chronological order, the images are not. At first this is confusing: Why include a journal entry on page 36 that references an image on page 110? But then, flipping back and forth through the book becomes part of the fun. You can read about a photo, flip ahead in the book to see the photo, then come across the photo again as you naturally progress through the book. The second time you see the photo, it’s often in a new light, having seen more of Newton’s work and read more of his entries. Or conversely, you sometimes see a photo and then later on in the book read about it. In your mind’s eye, you think you know which image he’s referring to, and then you flip back to the page to find out if you are right.

Whichever way you come across the photography in this book, reading Newton’s thoughts on what went into an image makes it all the more interesting. —Meghan Ahearn

Gregory Crewdson photo book 2013Gregory Crewdson

By Gregory Crewdson
Text by Melissa Harris, Jonathan Lethem and Nancy Spector
Rizzoli New York
400 pages; 250 color and black-and-white images
$150; www.rizzoliusa.com

Rizzoli’s new retrospective of Gregory Crewdson oeuvre is a rich trove of images and information. It begins with work he made as a student at Yale University School of Art that presages both his esthetic and narrative concerns. As he said at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph last June, “I firmly believe that you tell the same story in different versions and different parameters, over and over again. If you look at the pictures that were made when I was in my early 20s, they are essentially the same pictures that I’m making now.”

But oh, how a good photographer re-imagines the story and grows over a career. This book is a show-and-tell of his evolution as an artist. Crewdson is known for his cinematic tableaux, as well as the awe-inspiring complexity of his productions (at least until he finished his well-known “Beneath the Roses” series in 2008).

Crewdson has said his interest is in “trying to tell a story through color and light.” Of course he’s using a medium that has a limited capacity to tell a story, but Crewdson takes advantage of that like few others do. His are images of an unstable present—“moments between moments,” as he has called them—where something disruptive but unknown has just happened, and resolution still awaits.     

Crewdson constructs entirely fictional scenes of suburban and small-town life, and fills them with emotional unease just below the surface. The viewer, whom Crewdson puts in the often-uncomfortable role of a voyeur, is left to imagine what’s going on. There is anxiety, mystery, alienation, foreboding, loneliness, sadness and decay—but also beauty and wonder, hope and possibility.

He began exploring those tensions with his early work. Beauty and decay and the sinister forces of nature right outside the door are the subjects of his first series, called “Natural Wonder,” for which Crewdson constructed fantastic, colorful (and grotesque) dioramas in his studio.

For his second series, “Hover,” Crewdson takes a bird’s-eye view (from a crane) to explore the tension between alienation and connection in suburbia. He intended the images to look and feel like establishing shots of a movie, giving viewers the sense of “being there and not being there” at the same time.

For his “Twilight” series, Crewdson began using elaborate cinematic lighting setups (combined with the fading light of day) to play with the ideas of normality and paranormality, and create evocative, mysterious moments. Crewdson’s “Dream House” and “Beneath the Roses” projects continued to explore those themes using intimate domestic scenes, from interior and exterior perspectives.

For those interested in Crewdson’s background, motivations and creative process, Aperture Editor-in-Chief of Special Projects Melissa Harris contributes an informative essay at the end of the book. She conducted a series of interviews with Crewdson last year. She also interviewed Richard Sands, who does Crewdson’s lighting; Daniel Karp, his camera operator; Saskia Rifkin, his producer; and others. Harris’s essay is illustrated with a number of detailed set sketches and production stills.

The book also includes a 1996 project called “Fireflies,” which are abstract time exposures of fireflies. That work was a departure for Crewdson, who seems (at best) ambivalent about the work. Also included is his most recent project called “Sanctuary,” a series of black-and-white documentary images of dilapidated movie lots he photographed in Italy in 2009. —David Walker

The Non-Conformists by Martin ParrThe Non-Conformists
By Martin Parr
Text by Susie Parr    
168 pages; 90 duotone images
$45; www.aperture.org

Beginning in 1975, when he was just out of art school, Martin Parr started a five-year documentary study of a fast-disappearing culture in the Yorkshire mill town of Hebden Bridge, England, and the surrounding areas. He was soon joined by Susie Mitchell, an aspiring writer he’d met as a student in Manchester, and who eventually became his wife. As she explains in the introduction to the book, “We started tentatively to document things that seemed to be deeply traditional, or in decline, or both.”

Nearly 40 years later, Martin Parr has finally compiled the images in a book. His photographs of farmers, mill workers, coal miners, game keepers, shop owners, henpecked husbands and other subjects are interspersed with stories Susie Parr wrote at the time about some of those same people.

The book’s title refers to the local religious identity. Many in the community were Methodists and Baptists who had rejected the Church of England. Martin Parr was no stranger to the area: His grandfather was a Methodist lay preacher, and he had often visited and attended chapel.

“Yorkshire was in his blood. Perhaps that is one reason why these pictures have a wistful, nostalgic feel,” Susie Parr writes of her husband’s photographs in the book’s introduction.

Wistfulness and nostalgia are not Martin Parr’s usual milieu, nor is traditional black-and-white documentary photography. He has experimented with a variety of approaches throughout his career, and this early work is something of a portrait of an artist as a young man. There are distinctive hints throughout the book of the photographer we’ve come to know.

Of course, Martin Parr has always been interested in British national character and the eccentricities of his fellow countrymen. And he has a mischievous sense of humor, which is plenty evident in The Non-Conformists. That’s a good thing, because an earnestly nostalgic take on Hebden Bridge might be too much to bear.

For all its chill and dreariness, the place looks perpetually stuck in the month of March. Clothes hang out to dry in the drizzle. Plaster and paint peel off the walls inside, while the dim gas lamps flicker in the drafts. The churches are mostly empty, as are the seats at the local movie theater. The locals complain and carry on in true British fashion.

These are admirable people with a lot of grit, and Martin Parr’s images do the community a fair measure of justice. The book is, on one level, like opening a time capsule.

But Martin Parr doesn’t romanticize Hebden Bridge. He presents its humanity, warts and all. The cover photo shows middle-aged Brits at a mayor’s very modest inaugural banquet, pushing and shoving at the buffet table, and you can almost hear them muttering, “Pardon me” to one another. At a harvest produce auction in a chapel, of all places, an auctioneer holds up a cabbage with an uncanny resemblance to his own head. At their annual meeting, the Ancient Order of Henpecked Husbands sit crowded like sheep in a dim, smoke-filled garret. One can’t help but think they’re victims of their own fecklessness and self-pity.

As part of their project, the Parrs spent a year documenting the congregation of one particular Methodist chapel. They got so involved that one of the church elders began to think of the youthful Parrs as the chapel’s hope for the future. “He seemed to realize his misunderstanding when he saw the exhibition of Martin’s photographs” in Hebden Bridge, Susie Parr writes. “Hopes dashed, he expressed his disappointment with some bitterness.”

Locals may not have been amused by these images. But I am. —David Walker

Unsettled: Children in a World of Gangs by Donna De Cesare Unsettled: Children in a World of Gangs
By Donna De Cesare

Foreword by Fred Ritchin; translation by Javier Auyero
University of Texas Press
184 pages; 105 duotone images
$65; utpress.utexas.edu

This rich and emotionally powerful book is the result of the three decades Donna De Cesare has been documenting the effects of gang and political violence on youths, both in Central America and in refugee communities in the U.S. It’s a sign of how much material De Cesare has amassed over the years that of the 105 photos she’s chosen to include, there is no frame that isn’t fully realized and affecting. As layered and striking as her images are, the photos make up only half the story in Unsettled. A clear and thoughtful writer, De Cesare shares the sometimes-complex stories of the children she has gotten to know over the years. Her text is informed by her research into violence, anti-crime measures, incarceration rates, and the psychological and physiological effects of trauma.

She begins the first of her three chapters in the late 1980s, when she went to El Salvador to cover the war, and began documenting the toll the violence was taking on local kids. In the 1990s, she decided to follow the lives of Central American diaspora youth in the U.S., and photographed many Central American immigrants who were involved in a variety of gangs, as well as victims of violence and the terror in their neighborhoods. When some of the kids she had met returned south of the border—some to flee the danger on the street, others because they were deported—she followed them, and saw how the violence continued, perpetuating the cycle of trauma. She also taught multimedia workshops in El Salvador with both barrio kids and university students.

Her photos humanize the stories behind statistics. Some of her sweetest photos tell the most shocking stories. One photo shows a teenage couple lying on a bed with their baby between them, smiling; the caption explains that they keep binoculars nearby so they can check the street for rival gang members or police before they bring their baby outside. Another photo shows a woman bathing a baby while a little boy plays nearby. The woman’s husband was murdered by Salvadoran army troops during the civil war, and she has since lost two of her sons to gang violence; the baby girl and little boy are her grandchildren.

In his foreword, author and critic Fred Ritchin notes that in contrast to the typical “image equivalent of fast food” that’s presented without context and consumed in haste, the photos and text in Unsettled demand and reward full immersion. Unsettled is a work of excellent journalism as well as photojournalism; it makes us care about a story with no simple answer. —Holly Stuart Hughes

Rasen Kaigan by Lieko ShigaRasen Kaigan
By Lieko Shiga

280 pages; 186 color images
$135; www.photoeye.com

In 2009, Japanese photographer Lieko Shiga moved to Kitakama in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, and went to work as the city’s official photographer. Collaborating with the local population, Shiga produced a series of images that depict the residents and the landscape in a manner that recalls magical realism.

Shiga’s works are captivating, at least partially because it’s seldom possible to read them at a glance. Through her use of light and color, she renders what might seem familiar impossible. Certain elements of her images always confound our understanding. What appear to be tire tracks on a beach at second glance look like something else—the circle is closed neatly and is too perfectly round, and the color looks off, the beach tinted pink and green. A kind-looking old woman sits peacefully, except she has four arms. In an image of an adult couple, a tree trunk sticks through the midsection of the man, and its dead root structure, covered in a spray of red light, extends up above his head, as if the thing had been plunged through him by a giant. Yet he seems at peace. A human hand, floating in darkness, holds a lit-up ring or orb. A woman stands next to what may be a pine tree, except it’s glowing white. Light often seems to be bursting through objects or figures in Shiga’s images, as if penetrating this world from another dimension.

Shiga seems to be showing us a series of smaller stories that make up a larger history of a people and place, but whether the images reference actual Kitakama history or legend, or are fabrications is unclear and ultimately inconsequential—there is more than enough here for viewers to imagine and find their own understanding.

We do know Kitakama was severely damaged in 2011 by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, and that these images were created after that natural disaster, because Shiga’s work up to that point was destroyed. Once we know that, some of Shiga’s images seem to reference the disaster more directly. Still, we look at the image of the uprooted tree stuck through the man, or of the animal laying dead and covered on the beach, or of the person holding a figure emanating blue light, and wonder if we are seeing a representation of recent history, a reference to some legend, or a new, pure fabrication built through the magic of photography and light. —Conor Risch

Related Article:

Best Photo Books of 2013: Part 2

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