Photo Books


Notable Photo Books 2017: Part I

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 I of our three-part series. [See also: Part II and Part III.]

© Peperoni Books

Michael Wolf: Works
By Michael Wolf
Text records by Marc Feustel, Jan-Philipp Sendker, Wim van Sinderen and Michael Wolf
Peperoni Books
296 pages, 400 images
$65

Michael Wolf’s 25-year career as a globetrotting editorial photographer ended unceremoniously in 2003 when Stern magazine decided not to renew his contract. He was one of many casualties of the declining magazine business. But with his wide-ranging curiosity, his anthropological instinct, and the obsessiveness of a collector, he built a successful second career as a fine art photographer. Works features his many art projects about city life. But it also includes his 1976 college thesis project called “Bottrop-Ebel,” a traditional black-and-white documentary about life in a German industrial town that launched Wolf’s editorial career. And it reflects the constants that have stuck with him throughout his 40-year career, including his generosity of spirit and his appreciation for quirky individual expressions amidst the regimented public order.

As an editorial photographer, Wolf gravitated early on toward typologies, photographing mundane subjects—German factory workers on breaks, for instance, and the office décor of bureaucrats. As boring as they may sound, those and other collections add up to compelling cultural observations. For instance, “Bastard Chairs,” a series he shot in the 1990s while traveling through China on editorial assignments, shows chairs that appear beyond repair but have been repaired anyway. The series speaks to a cultural regard for functionality and thrift.

His art photography projects continued in that vein after 2003. Much of the work focuses on Asia, where Wolf relocated around 1995. Works such as “Architecture of Density,” a series of visually compressed Hong Kong high-rises, and “100 x 100”—a series of portraits of people in their identical 100-square-foot apartments—are about how people assert their individuality in a city that renders them anonymous and insignificant. While Wolf explores existential questions about urban life in metaphorical ways, he hasn’t abandoned his documentary sensibilities. Though some of his work borders on the abstract, it remains rooted in reality. That makes his photographs accessible, and in all their detail, fun to explore. —David Walker

© The Ice Plant

Local Objects
By Tim Carpenter
The Ice Plant
144 pages, 74 images
$42

The landscape in Tim Carpenter’s book is made up of the most unremarkable components—modest single story homes, lawns, sidewalks, telephone poles, asphalt, cornfields and trees, all under an even grey sky. But throughout, tiny alignments of form reveal Carpenter’s mind at work finding satisfying arrangements of shapes and space—guywires bisect a view of lawn and sky; chain link fence zigzags around home plate on an empty baseball field; the shape of a pothole is echoed in the  shape of a clearing between trees.

The book moves through the Central Illinois landscape like a slow walk through suburban streets, moving to the edge of town and beyond into forests and fallow fields. The images pay attention to the edges of these environments, where a cornfield stops and mowed grass begins or where the sidewalk leaves off in an expanse of lawn. They also focus on how and where textures and elements intersect—an evergreen is boxed in by telephone wires; bushes grow against a white-shingled house; a clapboard garage abuts an expanse of cement driveway.

Carpenter is a writer as well as a photographer and in an essay he published last year on the photo book blog This is Sausage, he explores the power of form, quoting from Robert Adams’s book Beauty in Photography. Adams said that form in art is beautiful because “it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.” Writes Carpenter, “The demands on form are indeed as substantial as Adams asserted; in fact they rise above artistic endeavors to the level of our interior lives.” He argues that coherent structure and organization in art are essential tools for understanding ourselves. With this in mind, the subtle forms that Carpenter finds in this unremarkable landscape take on a philosophical meaning. —Rebecca Robertson

© GOST/Aperture

The Last Testament
By Jonas Bendiksen
GOST/Aperture
468 pages, 174 images
$50

In The Last Testament, Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen has documented the daily lives and ministries of seven individuals who claim to be the Messiah. They include Apollo Quiboloy, a Filipino man who says his church has attracted 6 million members worldwide; Moses Hlongwane, who has about a dozen followers in his village in South Africa; and a former MI5 agent who alternates wearing male and female clothing, in keeping with St. Paul’s instruction that there is no longer “male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”   

Scripture and tradition offer different ideas about the Messiah. But they agree that when the Anointed One comes (or comes again, depending on your faith), the world will be radically transformed. Bendiksen’s subjects, on the other hand, live in this world, with all its mundane problems. We see the Zambian taxi driver who calls himself Jesus of Nazareth changing a tire, Jesus Matayoshi of Okinawa preaching from the top of a minivan that crawls through traffic and the man who calls himself INRI riding a scooter through the compound where he and his disciples live. The incongruities are funny, but Bendiksen doesn’t go for cheap laughs. He simply observes. The book reprints written testimonies by each of the self-proclaimed Messiahs, allowing readers to decide for themselves if their doctrines have merit.

Bendiksen has a sympathetic eye for the spiritual leaders’ followers. The women who live in the compound run by INRI push him on a rolling throne and wear matching blue robes and white caps. The followers of Vissarion of Siberia live, farm and worship in rural eco-villages. All look content and purposeful. Bendiksen approached his subjects with an open mind, and he wants his readers to do the same. In the book’s preface, he describes himself as “a man of little faith,” but seems to admire those who have not seen “unmistakable signs, grand miracles or the Heaven opening above” and yet have believed. He warns skeptics that “a Nazarean carpenter’s son of modest societal status, who spent nearly all his time in the backwaters of the Upper Galilee” didn’t inspire much confidence in many of the people he encountered. Bendiksen adds, “By what criteria would you judge the Messiah today?” —Holly Stuart Hughes

© Kehrer Verlag

Super Extra Natural!
By Emily Shur
Kehrer Verlag
240 pages, 135 color images
$50

In her text for Super Extra Natural!, Emily Shur explains that at some point she realized the subject of her photographs wasn’t what she thought it was. When she made the first of her 16 trips to Japan, she felt she’d found “my place,” a source of inspiration, “a country whose natural beauty is accentuated by thoughtful design, a culture that values simplicity and kindness, yet also embraces the completely absurd.” We understand these qualities in Shur’s images of Japan. We see the humor in the street-side arrangement of life-size dog statues. We see the attention to esthetics in the manicured gardens or hotel lobbies, or at the carefully considered intersections of built and natural environments. But as Shur returned again and again to Japan, the pictures became less about the place, more about “an exploration of my own perspective on photography and the act of taking photographs,” with Japan as a fertile context.

Shur writes about the instant of photographic inspiration, when “shapes and colors seem to fill the frame as nature intended.” It’s then, she explains, that she understands, “I am in the right place, doing the right thing, and in that moment, I feel truly grateful.” In some sense, then, her book is about that feeling, and the roles that camera and subject play in its creation. It’s also about the photographer’s search.

Shur found her moments through wandering. Some came in expected places—a glassy pond overlooking a misty mountain forest, a towering red shrine on a beach. Others emerged from less likely scenes—parking lots or gas stations, laundry hung out to dry, a portrait studio window, ferry boat ashtrays. Color and light and geometry and content can align almost anywhere, Shur’s book suggests. She also emphasizes how elusive photographs can be, writing of days of frustration, promising trips that don’t pan out. “I worry about how much I worry,” she confesses. Shur wonders if viewers recognize photographers’ “struggles and elation” in their images. Some may not. But photographers will recognize the seeking, the process, the attention to color and light and form, and they’ll understand at least some of what went into making these pictures. They’ll feel the “sensation beyond photographic satisfaction” that Shur’s images describe. —Conor Risch

© Princeton Architectural Press

San Francisco Noir
By Fred Lyon
Princeton Architectural Press
222 pages, 200 images
$40

Before San Francisco was synonymous with tech money and progressive politics, there were other versions of the city. The version that Fred Lyon celebrates in his new book is a classic—San Francisco full of smoky jazz clubs, neon lights in fog and sharply dressed men and women stepping on and off of trolley cars. Made mostly during the 1950s and ’60s, Lyon’s images are big on atmosphere and style, and hit many parts of the city that visitors love. The Golden Gate Bridge emerges from fog; a man sweeps the steep steps of a Kearny Street sidewalk; and shiny cars park outside the seafood restaurants at Fishermen’s Wharf. There are glimpses of the city’s upper crust dancing at a debutante ball and taking their seats on opening night at the opera. Other images show more ordinary moments—men unload ships and catch fish with nets, and roam the city’s alleys and rain-soaked streets wearing fedoras and trench coats.

In a foreword, Nion McEvoy calls the photographs “Lyon’s valentine to the city.” Lyon is a fourth generation San Franciscan and spent 75 years photographing there, sometimes in the company of beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Like any valentine, Lyon’s images tell one part of a story to the exclusion of others, and present a sort of simplified version of San Francisco. They show little of the era’s growing counterculture or the city’s racial diversity.
My favorite photos show houses and apartments at night, densely packed onto hillsides. Their curtain-less windows glow and allow a peek into the private worlds of San Franciscans, hinting at complex lives just out of sight. —Rebecca Robertson

© MACK books

Forever
By Anthony Hernandez
MACK Books
108 pages, 68 color photographs
$40

Personal memory intersects with urban alienation in Forever, Anthony Hernandez’s collection of photographs from the mean streets, empty lots and homeless hangouts in and around Rampart, a section of Los Angeles just west of downtown. The book takes its title from one of the photographer’s musings, recorded in the afterword by his wife, the novelist Judith Freeman: “More and more homeless all the time. The homeless capitol of America. Still a lot of pictures I could be making. It could go on forever.”

Yet the homeless, or any people for that matter, are virtually absent from the images. Hernandez is interested instead in revisiting the places he wandered as a kid, and considering what those places look and feel like from the perspective of those who frequent them now. “In that way these pictures are like performance pieces. He [Hernandez] is lying in their beds, sitting in their seats, looking,” Freeman writes.

It’s no polemic, though. It’s a walk through the emotional terrain of the photographer’s own neighborhood and memories. The forbidding walls and chain link fences are just part of the scenery. Hernandez invites us to see it all as the pedestrians—mostly homeless people—do: as obstructions to their movement, and invitations to Go Away. Many of the images suggest the ghost-like presence of street people: an exuberant while-you-were out message scrawled on a wall, a crucifix left on a fence, a neat array of 20 pennies, presumably organized out of boredom. Other images reflect aspirations and longings: an old basketball trophy, a dog-eared snapshot of a child, stuck to a broken piece of cinder block. The latter image is one of the most heartbreaking in the book, for all the love and loss it suggests. Asked by Freeman why he isn’t depressed by it all, Hernandez responds: “You don’t think of it that way or you couldn’t be out there.” In that forsaken landscape, he’s identifying the people, and how they’re making lives and getting by, pretty much like the rest of us.  —David Walker

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Related:

Notable Photo Books 2017: Part II

Notable Photo Books 2017: Part III