Notable Photo Books of 2012: Part 1

PDN editors review a selection of the most impressive photography books published this year.

A New American Picture by Doug Rickard
Essay by David Campany; interview by Erin O’Toole
144 pages; 79 photos
Aperture; $60

A new American Picture by Doug RickardIn this compelling collection of virtual street photography, Doug Rickard has selected and manipulated a series of images from Google Maps Street View that paint a picture both bleak and beautiful of twenty-first century America.

Google launched Street View five years ago to photograph the world’s streets with automatic cameras mounted at a height of 2.5 meters atop cars. The result is a mechanical accumulation of a vast archive of pictures that enables us (for whatever reason) to look up, down and around just about any street from a computer screen. Rickard used the archive to take a virtual road trip around America, searching for scenes that caught his eye and then photographing his computer screen with a 35mm camera mounted on a tripod. He then manipulated the digital image files in Photoshop, and printed them with an inkjet printer.

His selections are inspired by his conflicting views on America (including his outrage over social injustice), and informed by the work of many photographers of the American landscape—from FSA photographers to William Eggleston to the New Topographics photographers, among others. Rickard emphasizes the down-and-out: the low-income sections of major American cities, with loiterers on littered streets, and in front of cut-rate liquor stores and abandoned commercial buildings that speak of lost hope and prosperity. He shows junk cars, mobile homes and the general ruins of rural areas.

On one level, it’s a bleak fest, and we’ve seen it all before. What makes Rickard’s work so compelling is the odd remove of the Street View cameras and the Polaroid-like colors and soft focus of his manipulations—both of which give the work a surreal, painterly quality. He emphasizes that it is not a journalistic project, and says, “I didn’t expect that it would prompt any sort of change.” But the dream-like quality of the images at least leaves room for hope that perhaps we can wake up from this, and do better. —David Walker

(based on a true story) by David Alan Harvey
132 pages; 66 photos; edition of 600
BurnBooks; $95 (copies 1-100) to $192 (copies 501 to 600)

based on a true story by David Alan HarveyOne word that summarizes David Alan Harvey’s new book is “contemporary.” Both the photos—showing life in the city of Rio de Janeiro—and the non-narrative design of the book feel very much of this moment in photography, reflective of several trends and ideas at once.

First, there’s Harvey’s decision to use a small, compact camera. It allows him to get tight, intimate shots of nightclub dancers, pedestrians in narrow alleyways, festivalgoers, and a couple and their baby glimpsed through a window. The camera’s technical limitations sometimes create blur, odd colors or blown-out street lights, but these flaws seem to amplify the vibrancy and chaotic life of Rio, from the beaches to the favelas to its fanciest nightspots.

Then there’s the book’s non-narrative design. The pages are unbound. All the full-bleed spreads are stacked, and held in place with a string, so you can pull out each spread and rearrange the pages to make your own remix. A postcard inside each slipcase says the book is “interactive,” and notes, “There is more than one way to read this novella.” (There is a poster in the back that shows how to re-assemble the pages as they were originally produced.) The folding makes for some interesting juxtapositions of forms and settings. For example, as the pages are originally assembled, one pairing shows a close-up of a woman’s cleavage on the left; on the right, we see a cushy sofa in a modern building with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a pool and nearby mountains. Another pairing matches two young girls in bikinis on the left, and, on the right, a man riding his bicycle along a street crammed with cars, power lines, apartment buildings and awnings.

In true multimedia style, there are even moving pictures. Inside each cover and on an inner spread is a sequence, as if from a movie, showing two girls having a day at the beach. Many of Harvey’s still photos also suggest life in motion, thanks to their teeming compositions. While maintaining the color and richness familiar to fans of Harvey’s earlier work in Latin America and Cuba, the images in (based on a true story) seem to be the perfect marriage of form and content. —Holly Stuart Hughes

SOHO by Anders Petersen
Essay by Brett Rogers
124 pages; 87 photos
MACK; $55

Soho by Anders PetersenYou can tell a lot about a place by looking at the people and things that inhabit it, and in his new book, Anders Petersen give us a fascinating peek into London’s SoHo neighborhood. The Swedish photographer spent a month capturing the area’s street life for The Photographers’ Gallery and the photos in SOHO are as much a reflection of the neighborhood as they are a testament to the constant give-and-take of urban renewal.

SoHo’s history as a red light district runs like an undercurrent in the book, and Petersen’s gritty, grainy, black-and-white images bring a raw vulnerability—or seediness—to his subjects. A woman in garter belts fastening her shoe; a young man in underwear, socks and little else; a couple making out at the pub—these are all overt examples. Yet even seemingly innocent subjects have an air of sensuality to them, such as lobsters stacked on top of one another in a tank and rows of curved kitchen faucets for sale.

But change is a constant in city life and SoHo’s past is always coming into contact with its future. Photos of stylish twenty-somethings on the street and uniformed school kids walking past a homeless man on the sidewalk represent this. Even a pairing of two photos that play with light and shadow—one of a woman and her lover, the other of three men in suits—feels like a commentary on what’s next for SoHo.

Some of the pairings also have a humor to them. A photo of two young girls looking at their made-up faces in a pub’s mirror is matched with a portrait of an old man raising a pint while wearing a suit and what appears to be lipstick. Another of a woman looking wide-eyed at the camera is shown alongside an image of toy glasses sold at a store.

As Petersen notes in the book: “I want to see everything, capture everything, be a fly on the wall. But I am not a vacuum cleaner—I choose.” And he has chosen to show all of the people and things—highbrow and lowbrow, young and old, rich and poor—that make SoHo unique. —Meghan Ahearn

Classroom Portraits by Julian Germain
Essay by Dr. Leonid Ilyushin
208 pages; 87 photos
Prestel; $60

Classroom Portraits by Julian GermainCertain things come to mind when one hears the word “classroom”: students, textbooks, desks, pencils and notepads. In Julian Germain’s book Classroom Portraits, we see that these symbols exist because classrooms, at their very essence, are the same all over. As Dr. Leonid Ilyushin, professor of pedagogy at Saint Petersburg State University, points out in the book’s introduction, the whole-class system of teaching has been around since the fifteenth century, and is widely followed from rural Peru to urban Tokyo. Rooms where children of a similar age have been grouped together to learn are central to this teaching system, and the large-format photos Germain made of students in their classrooms are an engrossing study of the commonality as well as the uniqueness of their worlds.

Germain, who has been working on the series since 2004, never told the students how to pose in his photos. Instead, he would arrange them so all of their faces appeared in the frame, and then ask them to stand still for the quarter- to half-second exposure time. The range of emotion displayed by every group is mesmerizing. Whether its the Year 8 co-eds in their Information Technology class at Darwen Vale High School in Lancashire, UK, or the Year 6 girls taking a Bengali exam at Surovi School in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there are students in each class who look bored, happy, sad, bemused, annoyed and more. That such individuality exists in classrooms around the globe is another shared trait.

Of course there are also many differences. Some of the students must wear uniforms, or headscarves and hats; others use their clothes to express their personalities; and a few are barefoot. The classrooms, which are as important in these environmental portraits as the students, range from roofless rooms with dirt floors to immaculate rooms with rows of computer screens. Yet they are all filled with the best and the brightest, as well as those who will fall behind—as it always is in the never-ending cycle of school life. —Meghan Ahearn

Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya by Greg Constantine
Foreword by Emma Larkin
160 pages; 92 photos
Nowhere People; $34.95

Exiled to Nowhere by Greg ConstatineGreg Constantine is a singularly focused photographer. He has spent nearly his entire career as a photojournalist documenting the lives of stateless people—people who because of their ethnicity have been denied rights of citizenship in their historic homelands. Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya is the second in a series of books under Constantine’s Nowhere People imprint that look at different stateless populations around the world, a subject he has photographed since 2005.

The Rohingya have lived in Burma since the ninth century, long before it was a state. Deemed “illegal residents” of a territory they have occupied for hundreds of years, many of the ethnically Muslim Rohingya flee “one of the world’s most extreme violations of human rights,” as Refugees International President Michel Gabaudan describes their situation, to neighboring Bangladesh or other areas of Southeast Asia.

Constantine’s black-and-white photographs of Rohingya living in refugee camps and unofficial settlements in Bangladesh are straightforward, well edited and haunting. They are free of sensationalism or trite symbolism. His landscapes show us the tenuousness of a makeshift existence. His photographs of Rohignya in their shelters or doing what work they can, urge us to appreciate their strength and perseverance while also assuring us we can’t imagine it.

Throughout the book, captions and brief histories of individuals and families offer a glimpse at the myriad challenges Rohingya have faced. (Constantine relies heavily on quotations in his texts, mediating as little as possible between his sources and the reader.) They are forced to work for free or are underpaid. They are taxed and extorted. They cannot marry legally, own land or pursue an education. They suffer high infant mortality rates and abysmal health conditions. They flee one place only to be pushed back by another. One man, Jamal, was on a boat bound for Malaysia when the Thai authorities intercepted he and hundreds of other refugees, put them on another boat without an engine, dragged them into the ocean and left them for dead.

In the book, statements from experts at the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations offer background and a note of possibility for the future of the Rohingya as Burma emerges from a half-century of strict military rule, while Emma Larkin, an American writer born and raised in Asia who has an intimate knowledge of Burma, adds a foreword.

Constantine is now six years into his project photographing stateless populations, and Exiled to Nowhere is a product of that long-term devotion to a subject: His work is frank, interesting to look at and beautiful in the way that respectful images of people suffering man’s inhumanity to man can be. —Conor Risch

Taking My Time by Joel Meyerowitz
688 pages; 580 photos
Phaidon; $750

Taking My Time by Joel MeterowitzIn this delightful two-volume, slip-cased, limited-edition retrospective of his career, Joel Meyerowitz tells the stories behind many of his images, while narrating the larger story of his education as a photographer, and his coming of age in one of photography’s richest eras.

The story begins with a photo shoot Meyerowitz attended as a young ad agency art director: So inspired was he by the working methods of the photographer (Robert Frank) that he quit his job to take up photography and never looked back. He describes what his relationship with his street-smart father taught him about observation, anticipation and timing. And he recounts the lessons he learned about photography (and life) during one adventure after another.

On his first road trip in 1965, for instance, he learned to read the scale of the open space out West, and to “allow things to be small and in the distance rather than moving in on them and making objects out of them.” Traveling around Europe in 1966 and 1967, he says, “I was never happier or hungrier for the world to show itself to me. I found my character, if one can ever really say that.” He describes how he learned to photograph from the window of a moving car, how he came to embrace color photography and how it unnerved him at first—then changed how he shoots.

Meyerowitz points out his eureka moments—accidental photographs that revealed things about the power of photography, and how to be a better photographer. “A photographer’s mind flickers with the possibilities offered by the coincidence of events and how they appear for just an instant, before sinking back into ordinary reality. You train your mind to free-associate, so that anything can have fresh meaning at any given moment,” he writes. Taking My Time is all the more engaging for the thrill and wonder of it all in Meyerowitz’s voice: Fifty years after quitting an advertising job on impulse to become a photographer, he’s still in love. —David Walker

Prairie Stories by Terry Evans
176 pages; 69 photos
Radius Books; $50

Prairie Stories by Terry EvansIt’s unclear exactly when “the heartland” or “Great Plains” became a collection of “fly-over states,” as some “coastal elites” like to call them. What is clear is that various loudmouths have gathered whole states and regional populations into generalized groups expedient to our divisive national political debate.

Terry Evans will hopefully forgive me for briefly bringing up politics in discussing her beautiful, soulful book Prairie Stories, but as I write this, there is an election coming up and we are all wondering what injustice might be perpetrated upon us by our fellow Americans if our horse doesn’t win the race. Thus it’s nearly impossible to look from New York City at a book of photographic stories about a place called Matfield Green, Kansas, without scouring it for signs of threatening otherness.

Fortunately it doesn’t take long for Evans’s book to cure me of this impulse. A collection of seven stories inspired by a town and surrounding prairie in Kansas, Prairie Stories opens with some scene setting: A black-and-white photograph of a ribbon of highway arcing across a landscape bearing only the faintest signs of population; a humble, white, two-story house, in the front window of which a man sits reading a paper; an illustrated educational chart sitting creased and dirtied on the floor of an unused school room; a wide-open grassy landscape showing signs of a controlled burn.

The meat of the book, Evans’s stories, which she created with black-and-white and color photographs made over two decades in and around Matfield Green, show first and foremost the passage of time in this landscape. She offers us portraits of families across generations and of individuals as they age. Abandoned home interiors hint at an atmosphere of depopulation. Photographs of people with small stocks of farm animals—the antithesis of industrial farming—or with their pets betray a sense of care and closeness. Aerial photographs of the landscape show animal trails, green pastures, drought-ridden fields. We see church meetings, a young couple kissing, the arch of a horse’s back. There is peeling paint, old carpet, homes in disrepair. Fall leaves cover the ground of a quiet street sparsely dotted with houses.

The book is printed with French folded pages, physically connecting each image to the next. A quote from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, one of a handful Evans chose for the book, tells us: “There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here with one another and with the place and all the living things.” The thought and sentiment describe well what Evans’s stories show us, and also alludes to the photographer’s perspective, which is evident throughout this collection of thoughtfully told stories. —Conor Risch

Tim Walker: Story Teller
Introduction by Robin Muir; foreword by Kate Bush
256 pages; 170 photos
Abrams; $75

Story Teller by Tim WalkerIn a genre known for outlandishness, fashion photographer Tim Walker’s elaborate and surreal scenarios are distinguished by their wit and whimsy. They’re more likely to make you smile than scratch your head.

“When you’re a fashion photographer everything is contrived from the start,” he writes. “So what you’re trying to do in this fake world is to make a real moment happen by installing genuineness into the artifice.”

In his introduction, Robin Muir, art director of British Vogue, notes that when he was young, Walker worked for a summer in the archives of Cecil Beaton, another English eccentric and artist who, as a photographer and set designer, created worlds that were both elegant and playful. Many of Walker’s images are set in English manor houses, where he unleashes havoc: A model leads a fox hunt in a flying saucer; a crystal ship swathed in cobwebs lists in the corner of an elegant drawing room; a model mounted on a horse statue crashes into the French doors of a greenhouse.

Walker often evokes fairy tales and nursery rhymes: The cover image, for example, shows a model stepping through the shards of Humpty Dumpty’s shattered body. And like many fairy tales, his images suggest a dark undercurrent. In one series, a giant doll with curly hair and glassy eyes chases a frightened model over fields and through a forest. Depending on how you feel about pouty fashion models, you could read these images as a child’s nightmare come to life, or as a delicious revenge fantasy that inspires you to root for the doll. In another series, the silhouetted figures on road signs come to life, cavorting on an empty highway with models dressed in couture.

The book reproduces some of his sketches and notes for his elaborate productions. It also reproduces portraits he shot against white seamless: actor Helena Bonham Carter in a wig and crumpled crown, sipping a Coke; designer Alber Elbaz in rabbit ears and holding a crushed peony.

So much of high-fashion photography today inspires in viewers a feeling of awkwardness or unease. Walker gives the viewer a sense of stepping inside a fertile, and delightful, imagination. —Holly Stuart Hughes

The Raw and the Cooked by Peter Bialobrzeski
Essay by Peter Lindhorst
160 pages; 128 photos
Hatje Cantz; $89

The Raw and the Cooked by Peter BialobrzeskiNowhere does the old rub up against the new in such a stark juxtaposition as on the Asian continent. In The Raw and the Cooked, the latest exploration of dwellings by German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski, the contrast is evident on nearly every page. Photographing 14 different countries—a few of which were not in Asia—Bialobrzeski captures cities from both the inside and out. Approaching a metropolis, we see the fringes of urban life: shantytowns, mud homes, run-down buildings.

People’s living quarters stacked on top of one another, the frame often bisected with clothing lines or power lines. As we move closer to the city, it looms on the horizon. Behemoth buildings dotting the skyline, symbols of growth, future and boom times—this is development that waits for no one. When we finally hit the city center, the buildings become more sterile, they radiate artificial light. They are architectural feats that Bialobrzeski at times turns into abstractions just by framing them a certain way.

The soaring skyscrapers and multi-level slums both represent one thing: a massive population. When people are in the photo, they are everywhere. Lining the streets in cars, rickshaws, buses, scooters and bikes. The lights of their vehicles leaving behind the recognizable trails of movement, the markets teeming with shoppers. The frame itself is filled as well, reflecting the cramped quarters many of these city dwellers call home.

Amidst this chaos is Bialobrzeski’s soothing color palette tying the images together regardless of whether they were made in Manila, Singapore, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Kolkata or Jakarta. These cityscapes represent transition, and change never looked so interesting. —Meghan Ahearn

Behind the Walls by Paolo Ventura
Edited by Danilo Montanari
6 photos; 1 double-photo spread, text page and fold-out poster
Photographica FineArt Gallery
200 Numbered copies, $105; 40 limited-edition signed copies, $655

Behind the Walls by Paolo VenturaIn his exhibitions and books, Paolo Ventura has created tableaux envisioning scenes from World War II-era Italy and the memories of a retired circus performer, using tiny models, figurines and miniature props that he then photographed in his studio. Though created from his imagination, these images often called to mind historical photos of an actual time and place. With Behind the Walls, a collection of prints contained in a hand-painted cardboard box, Ventura has stepped further into the mythic. The story, slight though it is, is elusively explained in brief text, letter-pressed onto a single folded sheet enclosed with his prints. The scenes take place in a walled city, the text says. “No one knows how to leave the city. The people wander the streets all day in order to forget.”

The mood is lonely. The black-clad men in his photos stand staring into the fog that whites out the sky, or trudge downcast, hands in pockets. In one image, a man stands in an alley alone, playing a tuba. In another, a man stands on a sidewalk, the lights of a café behind him, and golden autumn leaves blow past his feet. Ventura’s color palette of pale grays and golds, and his wide-open plazas populated only by a few isolated figures suggest the surreal cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico. There is also an echo of Cubist collages in some of his photos, in which single letters from street signs suggest no words.

Ironically, to create this allegorical series, Ventura incorporated photos of actual people, blending them into the sets he created. The boxed set of images comes with a poster-size page titled “Polaroid Album.” It reproduces the pages of an old-fashioned photo album, with Polaroids pasted in. Some of the photos show men costumed as a tuba player, a uniformed soldier—some closely resembling Ventura himself—as well as the sets he built for many of his photos. How the photos and the sets were incorporated remains a mystery. Clearly Ventura continues to stretch not only his imagination but the techniques he uses to bring his imagined worlds to life. —Holly Stuart Hughes

Labyrinth by Daido Moriyama
304 pages; 300 photos
Aperture (in association with Akio Nagasawa Publishing); $80

Labyrinth by Daido MoriyamaDaido Moriyama devotees, grab your loupes. This collection of black-and-white contact sheets—more than 150 pages of them—offers a glimpse inside the mind and methods of the renowned street photographer and artist. Moriyama came of age during Japan’s turbulent post-war period, which his work reflects. Rejecting the quiet, controlled beauty of a traditional Japanese esthetic, he is interested in light, shadows, and sharp contrast playing out against the grit and disorder of (mostly) urban environments. And he’s no slave to formalities such as focus and framing (he has said in interviews he often shoots without looking through the viewfinder). His primary milieu is Tokyo, but this book includes images he shot while wandering through London, Paris, New York City and other cities.

A look down any chaotic city street or alley is a favorite motif, but Moriyama is not particular about subject matter. He shoots portraits, flowers, vegetables, landscapes, seascapes, nightscapes, posters and billboards, stairwells, passers-by, buildings, shop windows, industrial sites, ships, doorways, pipes, wires, hands, feet, legs, nudes—you name it, and he has probably shot it, and seemingly at random. But his esthetic is distinctive, and he brings even mundane subjects (of which there are plenty) to life. Expect to work at this book, though. The 35mm contact images are a challenge to discern, and so are Moriyama’s larger purpose and direction. But as he explains in his brief afterword, which is the only text in the book: “Whoever it is that I am looking for has yet to reveal himself, so I continue my journey. Each day is a journey of the mind and body through a labyrinth. Sometimes my steps follow a path. Other times, I find myself wandering. The different realms to which I go are like disjointed parts of a puzzle, never finding resolution.” —David Walker

Cedric Nunn: Call and Response
Essays by Rory Bester and Andries Walter Oliphant; interview by Okwui Enwezor
152 pages; 104 photos
Hatje Cantz; $60

Call and Response by Cedric NunnThis 30-year retrospective of South African photographer Cedric Nunn’s career presents his tender, black-and-white images of the residents of rural KwaZulu Natal, where he was born and raised, along with thought-provoking texts. These include an interview with Nunn by curator Okwui Enwezor and an essay by photo historian Rory Bester, which puts Nunn’s work in the context of the history of documentary photography in South Africa before and after apartheid. Like the International Center of Photography exhibition “Rise and Fall of Apartheid,” co-curated by Enwezor and Bester, this book inspires a reconsideration of photography’s role in effecting social change and of what obligations a documentary photographer owes to his art and to his society.

As a young photographer Nunn, who was classified as “colored” or mixed race by the apartheid government, felt called to participate in the struggle to end apartheid. He joined the collective Afrapix, which supplied news images to the international and independent press. At the same time, he tells Enwezor, “I really just wanted to tell ordinary human stories.” In 1984 he began photographing his extended family. The project produced intimate, quiet, dignified images reminiscent of such chroniclers of rural poverty as Russell Lee and Shelby Lee Adams, but with an eye for dramatic composition and framing.

Though he was often pressed to cover newsworthy events, including the suppression of a labor strike that lead to the Natal War of the 1980s, his quiet scenes exploring the lives of marginalized members of society, including his mixed-race family, dominate the book.

Looking back on his news images he says, “I did have a journey to take, to understand what was happening in this country, an obligation to be at the forefront of the struggle for change.” The years right after the country’s first free elections saw the closing of Afrapix and what Bester calls “the re-emergence of traditional exhibition spaces as the primary form for the display of and debate around documentary photography.” Lacking a gallery, Nunn earned money shooting PR. In recent years, however, he again photographed KwaZulu, where poverty has not ended. He tells Enwezor he is “a bit disappointed by the fact that I didn’t have that strength of conviction to follow my original vision. I would have produced far stronger work if I had followed that vision—those quiet images that I could have made if I had spent far more time exploring the backwaters and backstreets of the world that I lived in.” The question is whether such humanistic images might have been as useful to the struggle as his news photos. —Holly Stuart Hughes

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