Best Photo Books of 2013: Part 2

The editors of PDN present a collection of some of the most intriguing photography books we've seen this year. Check out Part 1 of our list here. You can read Part 3 of our list here.

Sleep by Ted Spagna photo book 2013Sleep
By Ted Spagna

Foreword by Mary Ellen Mark; essays by Allan Hobson
Rizzoli New York
144 pages
$55; www.rizzoliusa.com

Starting in 1970, photographer Ted Spagna documented the mysterious tossing, turning, rolling, hunching and flailing humans do as they sleep. A student of architecture, Spagna was interested in filmmaking and directed one documentary before he began using time-lapse photography to develop sequences of images. He would place his camera near the ceiling over a bed to get what he called “a God’s-eye view” of his sleeping subjects. The results are both scientific and artistic. Spagna, who died in 1989, thought his work akin to that of Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies, such as his sequence of images of a horse cantering. Spagna shared his time-lapse images with sleep researchers like Dr. Allan Hobson, who writes in one of the introductory essays in Sleep that Spagna’s photos, which were published in National Geographic and The New York Times, “have done more than any other medium to make sleep science visible and, hence, directly understandable to the general public.”

Sleep includes dozens of Spagna’s sequences. It’s similar to recent typological studies, which, in displaying collections of similar objects, draw our attention to the subtle differences between each photo. Spagna’s subjects included infants and the elderly, couples and people who sleep alone, people in pajamas, people in their underwear, people who sleep naked, people who have flowered sheets and people whose sheets are striped. All the subjects look vulnerable and exposed, but the effect of the photos is often humorous. I particularly enjoyed the photos of people who share their beds with pets. In the sequence “Man & Dog, 1980,” the latter subject takes up about one-eighth of the bed, but confines himself to one corner. However in a series such as “Harry & Cat, circa 1980,” the cat will not be budged from the one spot on the bed where the human’s feet would naturally rest. —Holly Stuart Hughes

Wall 2013 photo book by Josef KoudelkaWALL: Israeli and Palestinian Landscape, 2008-2012
By Josef Koudelka

Text by Gilad Baram and Ray Dolphin
120 pages; 54 duotone images
$60; www.aperture.org

Josef Koudelka’s WALL is not a neutral assessment of Israel’s construction of a 430-mile barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. His panoramic, black-and-white photographs of the structure and other significant landmarks, made between 2008 and 2012, are disorienting and brutal, utilizing motion blur, angled horizons and perspectives—ranging from expansive to intensely close-up—to contemplate the barrier’s material and psychological effects. The captions for the images and other texts, written by researcher and writer Ray Dolphin, by and large focus on the questionable route of the wall and the hardships it’s imposed on West Bank Palestinians.

The separation barrier was conceived by Israeli authorities during the second Palestinian intifada in 2002, with the stated purpose of protecting Israelis from Palestinian terrorists. According to Dolphin’s text, the route of the under-construction barrier, has been revised several times amid criticism from the United Nations’s International Court of Justice. The barrier deviates heavily from the “Green Line,” the internationally recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank established in 1949, and according to the UN, it violates international law.

Koudelka’s view of the wall puts a snarled stack of razor wire between the viewer and an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem. We see Palestinian children sitting near stacked oilcans that form an urban barrier dividing two sections of Hebron. Koudelka’s panoramic camera takes in metal bars and concrete walls on either side of the claustrophobic Bethlehem checkpoint. In a view of the wall between the photographer and Pisgat Ze’ev settlement, dark-gray marks on the light-gray concrete walls look like sharp, jagged teeth. In an image of a highway near Bethlehem, tall, “specially designed concrete slabs” appear to bow over the roadway, protecting Israeli vehicles from the Palestinian areas on the overlooking hills. Viewers see the stumps of some of the “thousands of olive trees” that have been cut down in the West Bank because of the barrier, and look through metal gates at one of the points Palestinian farmers must pass through in order to access their land.

It’s interesting to consider that for some the separation barrier must inspire a sense of security—a visual reminder of the protective watch of the state of Israel. Koudelka’s images encourage viewers to consider the barrier as a manifestation of insecurity, repression and perhaps lesser human impulses. As we’ve all come to learn, however, the only people who matter in this debate are those on either side of the wall. —Conor Risch

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine photo book 2013The Photography of Modernist Cuisine
By Nathan Myhrvold

The Cooking Lab
312 pages; 399 color images
$120; http://modernistcuisine.com

When the six-volume cookbook Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking was released in 2011, its photography was as talked about as its recipes. The images were created as a way to celebrate modernist cooking and illustrate how the dishes were made through cutaway shots showing food being steamed, grilled and more. Now the brain behind Modernist Cuisine, Nathan Myhrvold, has published a book entirely dedicated to food imagery called The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.

The oversize book is arranged in five chapters: plants, animals, cutaways, cooking and phenomena. The images, many of which were never published in the original cookbook, are presented without captions, often as spreads and always in full color. (There is an index of all the photos in the back of the book.)

Some of the photos are macro shots of various ingredients, viewed so close they appear as if they are works of abstract art rather than a shot of a grapefruit peel or an onion skin. There are cutaways, of course, as well as images that attempt to capture the alchemy of cooking, like elemental flames.

The rich, colorful photos of ingredients and completed dishes are as “food porn-y” as it gets and Myhrvold addresses this “critique” in a short essay, called “The Cultural Phenomenon of Food Porn.” He notes: “If the charge is whether I deliberately try with some of these images to ‘arouse a desire to eat,’ then I enthusiastically plead guilty.”

But it’s not all about food in this book. The last section is dedicated to how the images in the book were made. It covers everything from the cameras and lenses used to the studio setups and how the cutaways were shot (hint: they often involve sawing things like blenders, ovens and pots in half, and then holding the food in place with pins and needles).

As a lover of photography, Myhrvold wanted to take the reader behind the curtain and show the technique behind the images; as a lover of cooking, he also wanted to celebrate the “art” of food photography in all its tempting glory. With The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, he’s achieved both of these goals. —Meghan Ahearn

Orchard Beach photo book 2013 Wayne LawrenceOrchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera
By Wayne Lawrence

Essay by David Gonzalez
152 page; 95 color images
$45; www.photoeye.com

When you move to a place as extreme as New York City, you often find yourself clinging to things that rarely registered in your life before. Despite the vast array of peoples who call the city home you may grow closest to those with whom you share a common life bond: maybe they too grew up without much money, or in the South, or in a single-parent home. There is also nostalgia for the things you once took for granted, like childhood friends, or road trips, or sweet tea. So when Wayne Lawrence writes in the introduction of his first book, Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera, that after moving to Brooklyn, New York, he found himself drawn to bodies of water, reminiscent of how he spent his childhood in St. Kitts, I can relate. I too long for the salty air and rhythmic waves of the ocean, having spent what is now half of my life a short car ride away from the Gulf of Mexico.

Lawrence harnessed this bewitchment, found inspiration and honed his artistic vision along a strip of land called Orchard Beach in the Bronx, New York. His revealing portraits of beachgoers share so much—not just about the subjects, but the photographer as well. For it is no small feat to get people to pose for you at the beach, and you can see the comfort his subjects feel in front of his lens.

This book is a delight, from Lawrence’s intensely personal foreword and the historical and culturally telling essay by David Gonzalez to the varied portraits of women, men, families and friends. Each photo elicits a new emotion: happiness at the young love shown in “Danielle and Jonathan, 2011”; admiration for the grace—literally and figuratively—in “Grace, 2009”; an appreciation for “Eddie and Angie,” 2011, especially after reading about how the photographer at first thought the couple “looked hard and tough,” according to Gonzalez’s essay; joy at the two girls perched on their dad’s lap in “Kye, Kaiya, and Kamren, 2009.”

This series was borne from Lawrence’s desire both to honor his brother, who was murdered in 2002, and to build a future for his son, by finding his way as an artist. But it also celebrates what makes New York City a place like no other. Though we all seek the familiar in the chaos of the unknown, Lawrence has found a kinship in the community of Orchard Beach and did the people proud by celebrating who they truly are—and nothing is more beautiful than that. —Meghan Ahearn

Holy Bible by Adam Broomberg and Oliver ChanarinHoly Bible
By Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

718 pages; 614 color images
$80; www.photoeye.com

In their Deutsche Börse Photography Prize-winning book War Primer 2, the photographers-turned-curators Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin updated Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the German poet and playwright's 1955 critique of war mongering in the press, by covering the press clippings Brecht had collected with recent images from the War on Terror. Now the duo has applied their scrapbooking technique to another book about violence and bloodshed: the Bible (specifically, the King James Version).

On the outside, Holy Bible looks like a typical Bible. Inside, Broomberg and Chanarin have placed on certain pages photos (found in the Archive of Modern Conflict) depicting suffering, disaster or the tools of oppression: a pile of bodies at a concentration camp, a tsunami washing ashore, a dead child under rubble, police dragging a protester from Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

As in previous books, their aim here is political. Broomberg and Chanarin were inspired by “Divine Violence,” an essay (pasted into the back of the book) by Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir. Ophir notes, as others have, that in the Bible, God demonstrates his power first by unleashing devastation—plagues, the razing of cities, the slaughter of children—and then through the threat of violence or the promise of salvation. Ophir argues that this model of governance has been adopted by the modern state, which in our time has become the primary agent of destruction or rescue. His note that “images of a destructive violence that encompasses the whole world … are still part of our collective memory and political imagination” provides the jumping off point for Broomberg and Chanarin. Many of the images they select document how states wield awesome power; others show us the terrifying things that inspire us to seek the state’s protection.

The question they raise is arresting. Do news photos of frightening events serve the ends of political entities that achieve power either through intimidation or by promising to protect us from what we fear? I’ve spent days puzzling over Holy Bible, and I’m still not sure if their use of the Bible helps them make this provocative point, or distracts from it.

Call me a prickly Christian, but while it’s easy to find bewildering destruction in the Bible, I think Broomberg and Chanarin’s slant demands selective attention, focusing on vengeance over mercy, the flood rather than the rainbow God places in the sky. Images of acrobatic stunts and magicians performing magic tricks appear on almost every page in which a chapter begins with the words “and it came to pass.” That’s a clever, witty way to undermine any divine or magical import they have read into that portentous-sounding phrase, but it gives a strange emphasis to a literary catchphrase; more modern Bible translations rendered the phrase simply as “now” or dropped it altogether. It’s a welcome reminder in these days of fundamentalist arguments that every interpretation of the meaning of scripture has been influenced by the times, culture and circumstance of the reader.

The Bible isn’t solely concerned with the acts of an omnipotent deity. The stories of its human characters are peppered with specific details about the meals they ate, the crops they grew, how they gave water to their camels, how many fig cakes and clusters of raisins were needed to feed an army. Broomberg and Chanarin mirror this mix of the mighty and the mundane by interspersing images of horror with stock shots of flowers, goldfish and a mother with a baby; medical photos; beefcake nudes; a photo of a woman crouching on a toilet seat to urinate; couples kissing.

I’m not sure how these images relate to Broomberg and Chanarin’s critique of power. The book includes several holiday snapshots that seem banal, except the smiling subjects are wearing Nazi uniforms. Do the other photos of smiling subjects also hide some evil? Are they metaphors for the Bible’s mysterious selection of the saved and the damned? Or are these images of seemingly happy people, like the documents of news events, also propping up power structures? Who is being criticized here: the creators of images that serve as propaganda, or the viewers who are oblivious to their insidious influence? 

Poring over the pages of Holy Bible feels like wandering in the dominion of a wrathful Old Testament God. I’m not sure who is being judged or why, but I know I don’t feel worthy. —Holly Stuart Hughes

Emmet Gowin 2013 photo bookEmmet Gowin
By Emmet Gowin

Text by Keith Davis and Carlos Gollonet
Fundación Mapfre (in association with Aperture)
240 pages; 180 duotone images
$65; www.aperture.org

“My age now is 25 and I have been photographing for almost six years. From the beginning I wanted to make pictures so potent that I would not need to say anything about them”: This is how Emmet Gowin began the artist’s statement for his graduate thesis project in 1967.

He went on to a career producing images full of beauty, mystery and spirituality. Fundación Mapfre mounted a retrospective of Gowin’s work in Madrid earlier this year, and issued this catalogue with the richly reproduced images. The book includes much analysis, at times over-wrought. But it also includes the transcript of a talk Gowin gave in 2009 when he retired from teaching at Princeton University after 36 years. What he had to say was engaging, insightful and inspiring.

The catalogue traces the full arc of his career, starting with his earliest images of his wife and muse, Edith, and her extended family in Danville, Virginia. Gowin’s artistic collaboration with his wife is at the root of all of his work. It was through Edith that he found his voice as an artist, and he had her in mind when he concluded the 1967 artist’s statement by writing, “For me, pictures provide a means of holding, intensely, a moment of communication between one human and another.”

He turned from his “single-minded” exploration of Edith and her family to landscape photography by the late 1970s. The deaths of some elderly members of Edith’s family had led Gowin to appreciate their deep connection to the land. “‘Working Landscapes’ is an idea centered on the condition that we are a living part of nature ourselves, and that our structuring of the landscape can either nurture or destroy the landscape,” Gowin explained in the 2009 speech.

He photographed in Italy, Jordan, Turkey and Ireland as well as the American West. His Mount St. Helens project “is something I just simply fell into,” Gowin says. (None of his projects were intentional, and he has plenty to say about the importance in art of instinct.) By then Mount St. Helens had been documented ad nauseum as a natural disaster. But Gowin saw the mountain almost as a living being—and the eruption and its aftermath as a parable of life and rebirth.

The Mount St. Helens work led to his aerial landscapes, showing the effects of mining, agriculture, development and other human activities on large swaths of land. Most striking, perhaps, are his strangely beautiful photographs of the Nevada Test Site, cratered by hundreds of nuclear explosions over the years. After three trips to photograph the site, he said, “I had learned as much about sadness as I could afford to know.”

By then he had already started traveling to Ecuador on a friend’s invitation to see the forests “and look for insects.” That was in the late 1990s; Gowin ended up spending a decade studying tropical biology, and photographing moths in Panama, Ecuador and Bolivia. “Almost as an afterthought,” he says, he took a small tracing of Edith’s silhouette with him. “Perhaps it would be useful in blocking the UV light” if he tried to catch a moth’s line of flight, he figured. The result “was not really strange to me, but I was not prepared for the vividness and energy of its force,” Gowin wrote in 2006. “I was in her presence and she was in mine; no memory from our whole lifetime together seemed obscure. There is, even in your shadow, if I may borrow Rilke’s phrase, blood memory, blood remembering.”

The images alone are worth the price of this book. The bonuses are the stories by Gowin, the insight he offers about how he learned to see like an artist, and the advice and inspiration he offers to all aspiring artists. —David Walker

Related Article:

Best Photo Books of 2013: Part 1

Best Photo Books of 2013: Part 3

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