Notable Photo Books of 2012: Part 2

PDN editors review a selection of the most notable books of the year. See Part 1 of this feature, here.

Uncle Charlie
By Marc Asnin
408 pages; 60 images
Contrasto; $49

Lots of photographers have made family the subjects of their work, and many have tried to explore the effects of family members’ mental illness on the lives of relatives. But Marc Asnin’s project "Uncle Charlie" has stood apart for its intensity, drama and scale. Having intensively and unflinchingly documented the life of his sometimes brilliant, sometimes callous, often drug-addled and psychologically troubled uncle and godfather for more than 30 years, Asnin has put the work into a new book. It’s a documentary project as a personal quest—a way to come to grips with the person Asnin’s former role model had become—but it also encompasses more.

The book reproduces documents, including a schoolteacher’s glowing letter about young Charlie’s scholarship, a psychiatrist’s report, a social worker’s diagnosis, and a prison transfer slip. Charlie’s own words are displayed in varying type sizes, fonts and designs, suggesting the rambling word salad common to schizophrenics, but with enough clarity for his insights and bursts of self-awareness to engage the reader. These musings appear alongside images of Charlie that often show him in a state of immobility or paralysis: lying on the couch, on his bed, shooting up, smoking, getting blow jobs with an impassive look on his face, sitting by a window or standing on a stoop with the same apathetic expression. “I’ve seen life passing me by at hurricane speed, but I never felt the breeze on that stoop,” Charlie says at one point.

Outside the claustrophobic world of Charlie’s apartment, however, Asnin shows us how life moves on for other members of his family. Charlie’s kids grow up, marry, have kids. One son sickens and dies of AIDS. We see life on the streets and sidewalks in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, and watch clothes and hairstyles change with the times. Then we return to images of Charlie, usually alone. “It rained forever” are his closing words. Uncle Charlie is an elegy to what once was and what might have been. --Holly Stuart Hughes

Lewis Hine
Essays by Alison Nordström and Elizabeth McCausland
264 pages; 230 photos
D.A.P.; $65

In 1904 Lewis Hine was teaching geography and nature studies at a progressive school in New York City when the director asked him to learn photography so he could teach it to the students and also document what was happening at the school. (Hine would later teach photography to a teenaged Paul Strand.) Hine was still learning the medium in 1905 when he began traveling to Ellis Island to photograph immigrants, again at the behest of his school’s director, who wanted the images to inspire the school’s mostly immigrant students.

The school’s founder, Felix Adler, had also created the National Child Labor Committee, and Hine freelanced for the organization before becoming their official photographer in 1908. Hine traveled for three years documenting child laborers for the Committee, which published his work in various print materials and used them for education and advocacy. Hine’s photographs also appeared in popular progressive magazines, which he would continue to publish with for several years.

Among Hine’s other major subjects were New York’s tenements, the aftermath of World War I as experienced by European populations, African American families, and industrial workers, including his documentation of the construction of the Empire State Building. The latter photographs were gathered in Men At Work, which was published in 1932. Hine’s only book, Men At Work is reprinted in its entirety as an insert in Lewis Hine, the comprehensive catalogue for the survey exhibition organized jointly by Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, and Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam. The exhibition opened in late 2011 in Paris, traveled to Madrid this year, and is currently showing through early 2013 in Rotterdam, bringing the substantial Lewis Hine archive housed at the George Eastman House to European audiences.

The catalogue offers readers a new history of this great American photographer. A pioneer of what we might now call advocacy photography, Hine was aware of photography’s power to inform and educate and influence as a form of mass media, as curator Alison Nordström points out in her essay for the catalogue. “Hine understood his images not only as documentary evidence but as a specialized means to communicate information and ideas non-verbally.”

Hine was also a humanist, who despite documenting struggles and hardships and poor working conditions, Nordström tells us, always saw the life and spirit of individuals he photographed. “Even in his most accusatory images of boy minders, isolated in darkness, we see individual personalities shining from bright eyes in blackened faces.”

Late in his life Hine would also gain recognition from the art world as an early practitioner of documentary photography, and his work was written about, championed and exhibited by Beaumont Newhall, and Berenice Abbot and her partner Elizabeth McCausland. Sadly Hine passed away in poverty, renting a house he had once owned. Yet this catalogue makes clear that his work and his ideas about the role of the humanistic “social photographer” continue to be relevant and influential. —Conor Risch

Cecil Beaton: The New York Years
By Donald Albrecht
240 pages
Rizzoli; $65

A successful portrait and fashion photographer, illustrator, artist, and set and costume designer, Cecil Beaton was the epitome of brand extensions for his generation. Not to mention his subjects also ran in his social circle, “blurring the lines between art and commerce, self and subject,” as author Donald Albrecht notes in Cecil Beaton: The New York Years.

As to be expected with any tome dedicated to Beaton’s time in the Big Apple, the pages are filled with photographs of the crème de la crème of the art, theater, fashion and entertainment worlds from the 1930s through the 1960s. And while we never tire of seeing portraits of a brooding Marlon Brando or contemplative Greta Garbo, or Beaton’s inventive takes on shooting fashion spreads, it’s the illustrations of his theatrical costume designs, along with the photographs of the finished products, that truly inspire. Whether designing for My Fair Lady, Swan Lake, Coco or La Traviata, it’s clear Beaton had an exceptional eye for detail and drew inspiration from Old Masters and emerging artists alike.

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective
Texts by Jennifer Blessing, Sandra S. Phillips. Interview by Jan van Adrichem.
264 pages; 170 images
Guggenheim/SFMOMA; $55

The catalogue for the mid-career retrospective of the work of Dutch portrait photographer Rineke Dijkstra, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum. The book and exhibition emphasize photography’s role as a tool for empathy and understanding.

Read our profile of Dijkstra from the February 2012 issue of PDN.

The Beautiful Cliché
By Renato D'Agostin
112 pages; Images throughout
Silvana Editoriale; $65

A Venetian photographer challenges himself to create a different view of his heavily photographed hometown.

Read our article about D’Agostin’s book from the February 2012 issue of PDN.

Causes and Spirits: Photographs from Five Decades
By William Carter
296 pages; images throughout
Steidl; $78

Coming of age in L.A., with the sense of an outsider looking in, William Carter says in the introduction to his book: “I was filled with confusion and wonder ... Who was I? ... I needed to go beyond and below surfaces, to find a rationale in the secret realms of the mind and heart.” He began to travel, first in the U.S. and then around the world, taking photographs to connect. This collection of his favorite images from the last half-century is “not ‘on’ anything or ‘about’ anything,” he explains. Instead, it’s the manifestation of a lifelong effort to understand and celebrate humanity. “I remain hopelessly wedded to outmoded ideals like beauty and truth,” says Carter, whose work is in the spirit of Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man” and Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” In the face of deconstructionism, irony and other subversive trends, Carter takes pains to defend his approach. But his quiet, honest and moving photographs speak for themselves, and require no defense.

American Faith
By Christopher Churchill; essay by Arno Rafael Minkkinen
112 pages; 48 images
Nazraeli Press; $60

Christopher Churchill’s book explores the many manifestations of belief in the United States through large-scale portraiture and landscape photographs.

Read our article about Churchill’s book from the March 2012 issue of PDN.

Pretty Much Everything
By Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin; texts by Penny Martin, Michael Bracewell, Olivier Zahm, Bruce Sterling, Antony, Glenn O'Brien
3 vols. in slipcase; 984 pages
Taschen; $1,000

Throughout their careers, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin have produced work that challenges and intrigues fashion and fine-art audiences, but their partnership has been just as important to their success as their creative output.

Read our profile of Inez & Vinoodh from the April 2012 issue of PDN.

Lick Creek Line
By Ron Jude
112 pages; 69 images
Mack; $45

Ron Jude's book about a fur trapper emphasizes the subjective nature of morality and questions the representative ability of documentary photography.

Read our article about Jude’s book from the April 2012 issue of PDN.

Questions Without Answers: The World In Pictures by the Photographers of VII
Introduction by David Friend
368 pages; 450 images
Phaidon; $75

It has been a decade since the agency VII was officially formed as a photographers’ collective in 2001 at the annual Visa pour l'Image photography festival in Perpignan, France, just days before the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the decade that preceded VII’s formation, and in the intervening years, the photographers who formed the collective and who have since joined them, have created some of the most recognizable images of armed conflicts, natural disasters, economic meltdowns and other critical social issues effecting human beings throughout the world.

This book, Questions Without Answers, gathers together for the first time a collection of the individual stories told by VII photographers—Marcus Bleasdale, Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Ed Kashi, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Joachim Ladefoged, Christopher Morris, Franco Pagetti, Stephanie Sinclair and John Stanmeyer—over the past 20 years, bringing readers a compelling, if necessarily incomplete, look at how several major events have affected the lives of individuals throughout the world.

Among the stories we see Haviv’s coverage of the dissolution of post-Cold War dissolution of Yugoslavia during the 1990s; Morris’ photographs of the first Chechen War; Stanmeyer’s four-year investigation of AIDS in Asia; and the late Boulat’s exploration of the contemporary lives of women in the Middle East. We also see how the agency collectively covered major conflicts like Darfur, or events like the Asian Tsunami. Divided into four loosely themed chapters, the stories, with their short introductions and a few photographs selected for each, can feel too brief, leaving readers yearning for more to look at and understand.

“By one measure, they have become, per capita, the most award-winning cadre of consistently working photojournalists over the course of the past decade,” writes Vanity Fair editor of creative development, David Friend in his laudatory introduction to the book, which includes a brief history of VII’s formation. Ultimately the book is a form of recognition for the varied and extraordinary work these photojournalists have done and continue to do. —Conor Risch

Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers’ Essays
Edited By Will Steacy; introduction by Lyle Rexer
232 pages
Daylight; $14.95

Photographs Not Taken is not a photo book, but it offers a lot of insight into how photographers think and work. Photographer Will Steacy asked 70 of his fellow photographers to describe a photograph that they were unable or unwilling to take, and has now collected their essays in this paperback book being published by Daylight.

Photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Sylvia Plachy, Todd Hido, Hank Willis Thomas, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Richard Mosse, Roger Ballen, Emmet Gowin, Amy Stein and others describe a variety of circumstances and moments that they didn’t photograph. Erika Larsen describes listening to the sobs of a grief-stricken father as she’s unable to lift her camera. Alex Webb recalls being stopped by Ugandan police angry at him because they thought he had taken a photo that, in fact, he hadn’t taken. Nina Berman describes the moment a subject became her friend and she stopped taking her photo. Alec Soth explains why the moment he and his wife first held their adopted daughter is recorded with audio, but no visuals.

The next time someone criticizes professional photographers as callous or indifferent to their subjects, open this volume to any page at random and read the thoughtful, soulful words. Reflecting on the photos they do not have, the contributors also reflect on their occasional uneasiness in their role as observers, their relationships with the people they photograph, the meaning of photos in preserving memories and what Nadav Kander calls the times “you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.”

Valley of Shadows and Dreams
By Ken Light and Melanie Light
176 pages; images throughout
Heyday, $40

America’s system of industrial food production is under scrutiny because Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser and other writers have been raising questions about its social and environmental impacts. Yet industrial farming continues unabated in California’s Central Valley, under the massive application of petrochemicals and the back-breaking work of increasingly unwelcome immigrants.

Enter documentary photographer Ken Light and his wife, writer Melanie Light, with Valley of Shadows and Dreams, their book about the troubling legacy of big agriculture, and its connection to the same money-driven politics that brought us the housing bubble and financial crisis. “The story in the valley is parallel to the story in banking; the same kinds of relationships exist between Congress and agricultural industry groups,” Melanie Light explains in the preface. “People are really angry and prepared to take action … This book is our attempt to add to that national debate.”

With his black-and-white images, Ken Light offers a sympathetic portrait of hard-scrabble laborers barely hanging on in a landscape that appears to have been subjugated for profit, from the laser-leveled fields and drought-dry concrete irrigation canals to the new housing developments that sprouted and promptly went bankrupt. The images conjure the work of Dorothea Lange and others who documented the plight of rural America for the Farm Security Administration during the Thirties. As Melanie asserts in the preface, “The struggle to maintain the balance between freedom and regulation occurs constantly and every generation must learn anew the lynchpins of that struggle and rein in the excesses.”

Red Thistle
By Davide Monteleone
128 pages; Images throughout
Dewi Lewis; $48

Davide Monteleone’s book documents the lives of regular citizens living in the Caucasus, a region scarred by a history of conflict.

Read our article about Monteleone’s book in the May 2012 issue of PDN.

By Richard Mosse; essay by Adam Hochschild
136 pages; 75 images
Aperture/The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; $50

By using infrared film to photograph the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Richard Mosse brings attention to an under-reported issue while also commenting on the difficulty of capturing complicated subjects.

Read our article about Mosse’s book in the May 2012 issue of PDN.

Women Are Heroes: A Global Project by JR
Text by Marco Berrebi
360 pages; 375 images
Abrams; $40

In Women Are Heroes, we see the scope and scale of the public art projects French photographer JR takes on. The book focuses on his “Women” series, which aims “to underline the pivotal role of women in society and to highlight their dignity by photographing them in their daily lives and pasting their faces on the walls of their village and throughout the world.”

For the series, JR traveled to economically depressed communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Kenya, Brazil, India and Cambodia. The portraits and interviews of the women he met in these countries make up one part of the book. The other focuses on how the large, blown-up photos were displayed in the women’s communities as well as in other cities. Shown on trains, bridges, roofs, walls and other public spaces, JR’s massive portraits are art for and of the people—an inspiring concept regardless of where you live.

A Girl and Her Room
By Rania Matar; essays by Susan Minot and Anne Wilkes Tucker
144 pages; images throughout
Umbrage; $40

There’s a lot of compassion in Rania Matar’s portraits of teenage girls in their bedrooms, and her new book, A Girl and Her Room, is a testament to the complex—and often conflicting—emotions that mark that time of life. The young women appear vulnerable and invincible, unsure and self-confident, tough and sensitive.

Matar began the series by making portraits of her teen daughters and their friends, and soon discovered that most of them wanted to be photographed in their rooms, which in many ways are extensions of themselves. Inspired by her own adolescence, Matar decided to expand the project to include girls she did not know who lived in the United States and Middle East, two places she grew up in.

We see girls whose walls are covered with photos of friends or posters; some have clothes strewn about; others are neat and tidy; a few have stuffed animals on their beds. Yet as Anne Tucker, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, states in the book’s introduction, for each girl, this is her “safe space.” Seeing them in their havens reminds us not only of what it was like to be a teen, but to have empathy for those currently experiencing the uncertainty of young adulthood.

historia, memoria y silencios
By Lorena Guillén Vaschetti
84 pages; 43 images
Schilt; $50

By re-photographing her grandparents' personal slide photographs, Lorena Guillén Vaschetti created a book that considers how the photographs we leave behind communicate about us to future generations.

Read our article about Vaschetti’s book from the June 2012 issue of PDN.

Watershed: The French Broad River
By Jeff Rich
108 pages; 40 images
Photolucida; $40

Jeff Rich’s long-term project on the French Broad River basin in North Carolina and Tennessee questions the way people think about their relationship to rivers that flow through their backyards, communities and cities.

Read our article about Rich’s book from the July 2012 issue of PDN.

By Charlotte Dumas
20 pages; 14 images
Self-Published; $35

Charlotte Dumas’s book, based on her exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, depicts the funerary horses that work at Arlington National Cemetery through formal portraits that challenge how we think about animals and their place as subjects in contemporary art.

Read our article about Dumas’s ANIMA project from the July 2012 issue of PDN.

Condé Nast Traveller Photographs: 25th Anniversary Collection
250 pages; images throughout
Assouline; $95

Here at PDN, we work in windowless cubicles. No doubt this circumstance contributed to our delight in looking at the photos in the new book from Assouline celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Condé Nast Traveler. We see images of spectacular beauty or astonishing glamour captured by photographers from a variety of disciplines: Helmut Newton on Miami’s South Beach, Stephen Wilkes at Utah’s Lake Powell, Bert Stern in Egypt and David LaChapelle hanging out with an elephant above the beach in Kerala, India.

This is the third book Assouline has produced in collaboration with Condé Nast Traveler, and it may be the richest in terms of photography. The 250-page book packs more than 100 photographs, 25 of them printed as fold-out gatefolds. Traveler’s work with veteran travel writers is also highlighted, with essays by Paul Theroux and Simon Winchester. The foreword is by Klara Glowczewska, the magazine’s long-time editor, and the introduction is by Luc Sante. It’s a good gift for anyone with wanderlust, or a lot of frequent flier miles.

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey
By Yaakov Israel
136 pages; 64 images
Schilt; $50

Yaakov Israel’s book tells the story of his years-long search for understanding within his country’s borders.

Read our article about Israel’s book from the August 2012 issue of PDN.

By Chris Buck
112 pages; 50 images
Kehrer Verlag; $43.99

In his book of "portraits" of famous people, Chris Buck explores the significance of celebrity and how photographic tricks can manipulate perception.

Read our article about Buck’s book from the August 2012 issue of PDN.

Petrochemical America
By Richard Misrach and Kate Orff
216 pages; illustrations throughout
Aperture; $80

In 1998, Richard Misrach was commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to photograph the American South as part of its “Picturing the South” series. Misrach, who was then best-known for his series “Desert Cantos,” which explored the relationship between man and land, decided to photograph playgrounds, homes and other places between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that had been damaged by pollutants from neighboring refineries and factories. The resulting work, “Cancer Alley,” is a chilling documentation of the impact of industrial pollution along the Mississippi river. Twelve years later, when Misrach was approached by Aperture about republishing the series in its entirety as a book, he decided to return to the same stretch of land in Louisiana with landscape architect Kate Orff to bring a sense of understanding about the rapid and permanent effects of industrialization.

The first section of Petrochemical America contains images Misrach made in both 1998 and 2010, the latter of which document a few of the small changes being made to help create safer communities within Cancer Alley. In the second part of the book, Orff, whose firm focuses on creating sustainable communities based on biodiversity, uses detailed “speculative drawings,” including flowchart-like “Eco-Portraits,” to illustrate the long- and short-term effects pollution has had on the area’s human, animal and plant populations. In this unique book, Orff and Misrach have created, as noted in the introduction, “[a] collaborative examination of Cancer Alley [that] points to the past and into the future, implicating neighborhoods and corporate states … [a] new thinking about how we can best divert ourselves of our addiction to petrochemicals and to sketch the outlines of a more helpful future.”

My Dakota
By Rebecca Norris Webb
112 pages; 42 images
Radius; $50

Photographer Rebecca Norris Webb returned to the landscape of her youth to create this highly personal book, an elegy for her deceased brother.

Read our interview with Webb about her book from the September 2012 issue of PDN.

Out My Window
By Gail Albert Halaban; introduction by Vernon Silver
95 pages; 60 images
powerHouse; $50

Magic hour is not only optimal time for picture taking. For city dwellers, it’s also the optimal time to catch a glimpse of the neighbors through the lighted windows of their apartments, as Gail Albert Halaban illustrates in her new book, Out My Window. All 60 of the medium-format images published here show New York City architecture in great light, and most reveal individuals framed by the windows of their apartments seen from a distance.

The melancholy mood of many of Albert Halaban’s photos, showing people alone and lost in thought, inspires comparison to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” while the voyeuristic view into their domestic lives brings Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window to mind. But Albert Halaban shows a variety of compositions shot from many viewpoints. Most startling are the images she took by gaining access to apartments and offices. In these, a single figure occupies the foreground: reading on a couch, sitting on the edge of a bed in a towel. But our eye is drawn to the window in the background and its view of the outside world. As culture writer Vernon Silver notes in the book’s introduction, these photos are posed. In her acknowledgements, Albert Halaban thanks the many New Yorkers who allowed her into their homes “often for hours at a time.”

The design of the book is clean and simple: Most of the spreads show a photo on the right-hand page, and a short caption, identifying the location of the photo, on the left. But occasionally two photos are paired in interesting ways, either to show how a building looks at different times of day, or to juxtapose neighbors seated at their windows, as if they are both gazing at each other. Albert Halaban, an editorial and fine-art photographer, has previously shot series on her family members and on young mothers. Here she looks intently at a different kind of kinship, the one we have with the neighbors who are so familiar to us yet we don’t even know their names.

The Silence of Dogs in Cars
By Martin Usborne
96 pages; 52 images
Kehrer Verlag; $50

In his cinematic images of dogs, editorial and fine-art photographer Martin Usborne explores emotions that are all too human.

Read our article about Usborne’s book from the October 2012 issue of PDN.

You Look at Me Like an Emergency
By Cig Harvey
144 pages; 74 images
Schilt; $50

In her book of color photographs that are often bright, fantastical and melancholy all at once, Cig Harvey takes readers on a journey that is both personal and universal.

Read our article about Harvey’s book from the November issue of PDN.

By Brian Finke; essay by Whitney Johnson
80 pages; 59 images
Decode Books; $55

Based as we are in a city of perpetual renewal (New York City), the sight of construction projects is nothing new to us. Yet through Brian Finke’s new book, succinctly titled Construction, we see the craft of building large edifices in a way we never can through the cracks in the plywood barriers that commonly protect construction areas. Finke’s look is all-access, and his brightly lit, almost hyper-real images make the workers and the work quite beautiful. Finke’s sense of color and composition—the results of which are often playful and intriguing—engage us with patterns of I-beams, dotted with workers, reaching into cerulean skies; with bright blue valves and tangles of yellow ropes; with muscular (and not-so-muscular) workers sporting well-decorated and -worn hardhats; with yellow earth movers and green re-bar; and even piles of rock and fill. As he has with previous projects on flight attendants and on high school cheerleaders and football players, Finke encourages us to look again at something quintessentially American that we think we know. Finke’s construction is not the loud, gritty, dirty, traffic-menacing headache we experience from the outside. It’s a world of wonder, and it’s actually quite lovely.

And Time is No Longer an Obstacle
Photographs by Niko Luoma; foreword by Timothy Persons.; texts by Daniel Marzona, Lyle Rexer
128 pages; 50 images
Hatje Cantz; $55

Luoma’s abstract work uses systems and the element of chance inherent in photographic film to consider time, space and image making.

Read our article about Luoma’s book from the December 2012 issue of PDN.

Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War
By David Rochkind
144 pages; 90 images,
Dewi Lewis Publishing; $48

David Rochkind’s book documents the physical, social and psychological tolls on the Mexican populace of their government’s war against the drug cartels.

Read our article about Rochkind’s book from the January 2012 issue of PDN.

Related: Notable Books of 2012: Part 1
Indie Photo Books of the Year: Part 1 and Part 2

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