Notable Photo Books 2017: Part II
December 1, 2017
The photo book remained unchallenged in 2017 for the title of photography’s favorite form. From years-long documentary projects to experiments in visual narrative, ruminations on cultural history to chronicles of daily life in underrepresented communities, these are the photo books that caught the eyes of PDN’s editors this year. Here is Part II of our three-part series. [See also: Part I and Part III.]
A Beautiful Ghetto
By Devin Allen
Text by D. Watkins, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Wes Moore, Aaron Bryant, Gail Allen-Kearney; Poems by Tariq Toure
In May 2015, TIME magazine published on its cover Devin Allen’s photo of a protester in West Baltimore running from a phalanx of police in riot gear. Allen, who was self-taught, was hailed as an overnight success, a label that ignored the two years he had spent photographing the streets and people of his neighborhood. A Beautiful Ghetto is a collection of black-and-white street photos Allen made before, during and after the incident referred to in the book as the “Baltimore uprising.”
Allen grew up in the same neighborhood as Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died in April 2015 from multiple spinal cord injuries he suffered during what is known in police slang as a “nickel ride”: officers throw a handcuffed suspect in a van without seat belts, then drive it erratically so the suspect’s body is tossed around the interior. Allen shows us the poverty of the neighborhood: blocks of boarded-up buildings, street memorials to crime victims, a syringe found in scrubby grass, posters advertising “We Buy Houses Any Price/Condition.” But he also shows a city neighborhood like any other, where kids ride bikes, and people chat on the street or on their front stoops. “When I look deep into my community, I see a beauty that is often overlooked and unappreciated,” Allen writes in one of the book’s essays.
The section titled “Uprising” takes up about half the book. Photos of a charred car, kids stomping on a windshield and TV crews clustered around a burned-out CVS drugstore bear witness to some of the havoc that was unleashed during the protests, but Allen focused primarily on rallies, speakers, demonstrators and people standing in front of riot police and armored vehicles. People of all ages hold signs, link hands, and shout or chant, sometimes with smiles, sometimes in anger. Kids dance. A boy on a bike rides amidst police in riot helmets to see what’s going on. The book’s last photo shows a man touching a mural painted in memory of Freddie Gray, reminding us of what the uprising was about and hinting at a hope that he won’t be forgotten.
Essays in the book place Allen’s work in a long tradition of photography used to highlight social issues. An essay by Gail Allen-Kearney, Allen’s mother, provides a history of the neighborhood. In the 1970s, her grandparents and their neighbors kept watchful eyes on her and her friends. In the 1980s, crack arrived and manufacturing jobs disappeared. The essay ends in the 1990s, when she became a mother trying to raise strong, proud kids. She says of her children and grandchild, “They are going to understand the good, the bad, and most of all, the beauty, love and peace that we have—that our people have and deserve.” —Holly Stuart Hughes
By Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb
112 pages, 80 images
Rebecca Norris Webb calls half rhymes “slant rhymes,” Alex Webb tells us in their new book. Over the course of 30 years of friendship and marriage and picture making, the photographers have found that certain of their images are like “those pairs of words in poetry whose sounds echo one another, but not exactly….Sometimes we find that our photographic slant rhymes share a similar palette or tone or geometry. Other times, our paired photographs strike a similar note—often a penchant for surreal or surprising or enigmatic moments—although often in two different keys,” Webb writes. Slant Rhymes is a collection of pairings. An image by one photographer is matched with an image by the other, or in some cases one photographer’s image is paired with a short text from the other; there are also pairings that are strictly text.
Reading the book is to consider how photographers’ pictures can interact with one another to create new meaning and an entirely different story than they may have intended. Norris Webb’s photo of a blue dress hanging outside a red house in Rochester, for instance, changes how we see Webb’s image of two men on a seaside street in Havana. Someone might assume the men are the subject of Webb’s picture, but Norris Webb’s image shifts the focus of her husband’s photo to the woman in the polka dotted dress passing in the background. Some of the connections between the images are more readily apparent than others. What does an image of a North Dakota hot spring reveal about a street photograph made in London, and vice versa? What do images made in the same cities tell us about the photographers who made them, about the places where their visual languages converge and diverge? Do their two perspectives combine to create a clearer picture of the world they inhabit?
It’s also interesting to consider Slant Rhymes in the context of contemporary culture, in which people sometimes communicate by sending images rather than words back and forth. Can we read this conversation the way we might read a collection of letters between two writers or two lovers? Webb says they like to think of their slant rhymes as “a kind of long, elliptical, unfinished love poem,” which recalls something Rebecca Solnit wrote in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “A relationship is a story you construct together and take up residence in, a story as sheltering as a house.” Slant Rhymes is such a story, about love between two artists and how their relationship is influenced by their work as photographers. —Conor Risch
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise
By Hiroshi Sugimoto
Essays by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ryuji Hiraoka, Timothy Verdon, Mark Erdmann, Yukie Kamiya
While working in northern Italy on his ongoing series about theaters, legendary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto discovered that one theater he photographed had been visited in 1585 by four Japanese teenagers. They were sent by Japan’s Jesuit missionaries on a voyage to Portugal; from there they traveled through Spain and Italy, and had an audience with Pope Gregory XIII. Sugimoto decided to retrace the boys’ route and photograph the sites they visited. Sugimoto’s long exposures, made on an 8×10 camera, show us familiar monuments with fresh eyes: The Pantheon in Rome lit by moonlight and the façade of the Duomo in Sienna at night. In his black-and-white photos of the Gates of Paradise, the gilded bronze panels Lorenzo Ghiberti designed for the doors of the Baptistery in Florence, the bas relief scenes appear somber and shrouded in shadow. Sugimoto also includes some of his long-exposure seascapes in the book. Showing the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas stretching to the horizon, they suggest the long, shipboard days the envoys spent out of sight of land as they journeyed to Europe and then home again, bringing back a printing press and Christian icons.
History is a theme in much of Sugimoto’s work, and Gates of Paradise examines the impact of the 16th century encounter between East and West. The book includes reproductions of painted screens and scrolls that show Japanese artists’ fascination with Western traders and missionaries. Art historian Ryuji Hiraoka writes that a Jesuit seminary in Hachiro opened an art school to teach watercolor, copperplate engraving and other Western techniques. The seminary’s teachers seem to have believed only Western-style art was appropriate for promulgating Christian doctrine.
When Japan banned Christianity in 1587, one Christian convert and master of the tea ceremony gave up all his belongings to live out his faith in peace. Fascinated by his story, Sugimoto photographed the types of objects that would have been used to perform tea ceremonies or the Eucharist. His still-life photos appear in an essay in which he tries to imagine how Japanese art might have evolved if Christianity had flourished there. Sugimoto, who is knowledgeable about Japanese culture and studied art in the U.S., writes, “Perhaps Japanese minimalist esthetics and Zen thought would have exerted an influence on Europe.” Or perhaps Japan would have become one more Westernized colony, and never produced the great Japanese artists he reveres. “Then,” he writes, “banning Christianity and pursuing a policy of national isolation seem like the right choices after all.” —Holly Stuart Hughes
By Tim Flach
Texts by Professor Jonathan Baillie and Sam Wells
Abrams/Blackwell & Ruth
336 pages, 180 color images
The question at the core of Tim Flach’s new book, Endangered, is how photographers can influence humanity’s relationship to the natural world. It’s a concern that’s driven numerous photographers in recent years. Flach writes in his introduction that humans “must be emotionally touched [by what we see] to spur us into action.” To invite that emotional connection, Flach has traveled all over the world, creating portraits of endangered animals that “emphasize their personality.” He does this by photographing them on seamless or by removing as much context as possible, as he’s done in his previous books about animals, including Dogs and More than Human. In explaining his approach, he cites a study that suggested that animal images that borrowed a visual strategy from human representation caused viewers to feel heightened kinship towards the animals.
In addition to his portraits of elephants and hippopotami, polar bears and lemurs, butterflies and bees, to name but a few species Flach captured, the book includes stories about numerous lesser-known species—the pied tamarin, the axolotl, the American burying beetle. In addition to his portraits, Flach also includes abstract images of animals and their ecosystems. Texts by zoologist Jonathan Baillie and writer Sam Wells address both the threats to individual species and the larger trends altering the habitats of endangered animals.
In his prologue, Baillie writes that if Flach is successful and viewers connect emotionally with the animals, “they can all be brought back from the edge of extinction.” Does the visual strategy work? Will Flach’s images move viewers to action? Even if a reader is touched by the intense concentration of a red panda or the penetrating, head-on gaze of a Philippine eagle, it seems like a lot to hope for. Throughout the world, environmental conservation has been subsumed by political, cultural and economic conflicts. Flach is right to wonder, as he does in his introduction, if it is we humans who are endangered. It certainly feels that way. If Flach’s book can move even a few viewers, and the work of countless other conservation photographers can make their own impact, perhaps that cumulative effort can alter our course. —Conor Risch
Past Perfect Continuous
By Igor Posner
Short story by Mary Di Lucia
Red Hook Editions
Past Perfect Continuous is another collection of images rooted in the landscape of memory. Posner took the photographs between 2006 and 2009 “upon my return to St. Petersburg, a place of my birth (then Leningrad), for the first time in 14 years.” Most were shot in the dark days of winter, and it comes across on first glance as a depressing, down-at-the-heels place. Time seems to slow to a crawl. People bundle up against the cold, and huddle over cigarettes and alcohol in dingy apartments and bars. Buildings crumble. Dogs fight. A woman sells flowers in the snow at night. A man swims naked in icy water. An ancient TV set, apparently hurled in anger, rests at the bottom of an apartment stairwell, where the walls shed their paint. Posner photographs it all in high contrast black-and-white, dragging the shutter in dim available light, and rendering most everything in a semi-blur.
And yet, despite all the pass-the-vodka dreariness, optimism and warmth flicker between the cracks and around the edges. Posner has affection for the place. Little islands of light illuminate things—literally and figuratively—in all the unrelenting darkness. “The light reaches for the next light,” poet Mary Di Lucia writes in her rather free-form afterword. People sit bundled up in the bars, but in those islands of light, we glimpse their warmth and intimacy. Swimming in icy water and selling flowers in the snow are, on second thought, acts of defiance, and therefore hope. So, perhaps, is the hurling of an old Soviet-era TV down the stairs. Posner plays with the tension between light and dark, resignation and hope, tragedy and farce, past and present, and finds the human spirit in St. Petersburg, as well as a little magic. —David Walker
An Autobiography of Miss Wish
By Nina Berman
Drawings by Kimberly Stevens
Texts by Nina Berman, Kimberly Stevens
268 pages, 175 color images
With Augmented Reality-functionality
How much physical, sexual and emotional abuse can a person endure, and what are the short-term and long-term consequences? Is it possible to escape from the shadow of abuse? What kind of responsibility do we have for the vulnerable? These are some of the questions posed by Nina Berman’s collaborative book, which chronicles the agonizing life of her longtime subject, Kimberly Stevens. The book includes Berman’s images, made over the course of almost 25 years, along with Stevens’s psychiatric histories and medical records, recollections and drawings, and Berman’s interviews with Stevens, which make up a video-enabled component of the book.
Berman met Stevens in 1990, while working on a project about homeless youth in London. Stevens, who at the time went by the name Cathy Wish, befriended and charmed Berman with her openness and energy. She also told her frightening stories from her life, about her involvement with a drug and porn ring, and with two men who physically and sexually abused her. Berman photographed Cathy panhandling and smoking crack; when she returned to New York, she told Cathy to keep in touch, and she did. Stevens eventually moved to the U.S., where she continued to struggle with addiction and mental illness, and got in touch with Berman. The two became close, and Berman took on a role she describes in the book as “her emergency contact and de facto next of kin.” In that role, Berman photographed Stevens only occasionally, in pictures that went in Berman’s own family album.
After a decade in and out of homelessness, mental institutions, halfway houses and jail, Stevens got a tiny room in a harm reduction facility for HIV patients in Manhattan. Berman writes, “It was in that room that I started photographing her again. I thought she was going to die and I realized I had only a few pictures to remember her by. I also started recording our conversations because I wanted an account of her life.” During a residency for artists working on the topic of sexual violence, Berman collected all the documents relating to Stevens’s life—“her diaries, writings, drawings, documents, which amounted to hundreds of pages, and all of my photographs, videos, and our letters and text messages spanning 24 years,” and began to piece them together into what would become this book.
Berman recalls a warning from a social worker who told her that “no one who has been through what this girl has been through will ever recover.” The story in this book is heartbreaking and difficult, but it presents a picture of a person who has fought hard to repudiate that idea and hold on to her life. Writes Berman, “Together, this is a collaborative autobiography, our attempt to craft the story of Cathy Wish. Who was that girl, what happened to her, who is the woman she became and strives to be, and what are her feelings, thoughts and dreams?” —Rebecca Robertson