02 January 2015

Good Reads - 2014

Tah Dah! A bunch of books.

I believe a year has to be fully over before any summary statements can be made about it. Look at what happened to Alec Soth; he had a set aside a favorite in fall, then got one last book that blew it away.

So that’s my justification today, in the waxing minutes of the third (used to be the waning minutes of the second) day of 2015, after having done approximately nothing on the blog of either a summary, summery, vernal, autumnal, or hibernal nature after Valentine's Day. Some writer I am.

I did receive a number of interesting books last year. And I had a lot of thoughts about several of them, but due to other obligations most of those thoughts will remain latent, tucked away in deep crevasses of my brain.

With all the usual caveats and disclaimers, I present...Tah Dah! A list of books. Most from last year, some older. The common factor in this list is that, regardless of publication date, the book came into my possession in 2014. And stood out, for various reasons, as a good read among others that arrived between January 1 and December 31.

Small Books with Big Ambitions

  • War Porn, Christoph Bangert (Kehrer, 2nd edition, 2014)
  • Pipeline: Human Trafficking in Italy, Elena Perlino (Schilt, 2014)
  • Memory of Trees, Kathryn Cook (Kehrer, 2013)
  • Bloody but Unbowed: Pictures of Britain Under Fire (Scribner’s, 1941), Ernestine Carter, ed., photographs by Lee Miller et al.

All four of these books could fit into the cubic space of any single title in the next section. But I found each to be a surprisingly broad, eye-opening journey into the insidious nature of conflict.

The smallest, Bangert's unprepossessing collection of what Ziya and I, working on adjacent light tables in the Magnum Photos picture library, used to call “gnarly” photographs--photographs, that is, that were so horrifyingly graphic we knew we had very limited opportunity to circulate them. These photographs should be fictional, but are not. They illustrate that old shibboleth, “man's inhumanity to man,” as so often found in the context of war.

Perlino’s expose tracks the Nigerian trade in humans, mostly for prostitution, that occurs across Europe but in this case outside Italian cities. For eight years Perlino immersed herself in the work, and the resulting images come fearfully close to dumping us into the maw of the machine.

Cook addresses a large scale atrocity that took place over a century ago. The inhumanity of the Armenian genocide can only be inferred from her images, which capture a dis-ease in the natural and built landscape that echoes the unconscionable wave of xenophobia that forced the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people.

Lee Miller, “Revenge on Culture” from Bloody but Unbowed

Finally, Bloody but Unbowed is a book I've been after since the 1980s, when I first discovered Lee Miller's amazing photographs made during the weeks of London’s fierce WWII bombing. Thanks to Christian Peterson I now own it, a slim book, about the dimensions of an iPad, but it contains some gems. “Revenge on Culture” is in my pantheon of all-time great photographs.

Big Books with Small Ambitions

  • Antibodies, Antoine D’Agata (Prestel, 2014; first published in 2013 by Editions Xavier Barral as Anticorps)
  • Eyemazing: The New Collectible Art Photography, Eyemazing Susan aka Susan Zadeh (Thames & Hudson, 2013)
  • Photography Today, Mark Durden (Phaidon, 2014)
  • Eden and After, Nan Goldin (Phaidon, 2014)

Small ambitions? Well, that may be hard to defend as a category. And I don't mean it in a pejorative sense. But these are inward-looking, self- and medium-reflexive topics given maximal published treatment (pages/pounds: D’Agata 559/4.9, Zadeh 544/8.8, Durden 463/7.0, Goldin 381/6.2). The results are successful for varying reasons; bigger isn’t always better, but these four are all really good.

I mentioned before that Elena Perlino had brought us to the brink of disappearance in the slave trade. D’Agata is already there, waiting for us in the shadows of deeply deviant exchanges. The journey we take with him is at turns deadpan blasĂ© and excoriatingly detailed, and the result is a brutal book of unimaginable depth and inconceivable depravity.

For those of you who don't know Eyemazing, it is a Dutch photo magazine that has been published since 2003. I have never understood its guiding esthetic, but as this tome makes clear, the images it champions never fail to amaze. The range of artists published in the magazine is unparalleled in contemporary collections. Scanning the list of artists in the book, you may recognize some of the names, but I bet many, even half, will be unknown to you. And that is a good thing. To my way of thinking, a browse through these pages is armchair traveling at its best.

As an historian, I find contemporary photography to be so rife with publications and emerging visions that creating new histories of photography is at best a speculative venture. But someone has to stake those flags as time marches on. We are approaching the medium’s 175th anniversary, besides. Mark Durden has done his bit. This professor of photography at the University of South Wales has created a new history built on both old familiars (Arbus, Eggleston, Frank, Mann, Winogrand, etc. etc.) and new standard-bearers (Dijkstra, Graham, Neshat, Wolf, Woodman, and many others). Worth examining, debating, absorbing, and admiring.
Nan Goldin, Eden and After, cover
Three living photographers who released big retrospective volumes this year—Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, and Stephen Shore—appear in Durden's history. My favorite of this trio was Goldin's essay about children and the paradise they briefly inhabit before they leave the garden. Some familiar images here, but mostly new work that parallels and underscores her lifelong engagement with la vie boheme, that life that has inevitably generated new life. I like that Goldin continues to examine the facets of her world, which she has charted with such acuity for so many decades.

Surprises and Delights

  • Dolce Via: Italy in the 1980s, Charles H. Traub (Damiani, 2013)
  • Peach, Susanne Hefti (Kehrer, 2014)
  • Pikin Slee, Viviane Sassen (Prestel, 2014)
  • Zusammenleben, Ute Mahler (Hatje Cantz, 2014)
  • Touching Strangers, Richard Renaldi (Aperture, 2014)
  • Taxonomy of a Landscape, Victoria Sambunaris (Radius, 2013)
  • The Time of Dreaming the World Awake, Yvette Monahan (Self-published, 2014)
  • Wild Pigeon, Carolyn Drake (Self-published, 2014)
  • Primer, Karolina Karlic (Self-published, 2014)

There isn’t much I can do to tie these together, other than to say that each, in its way, engaged or touched me and reminded me that the book form is surprisingly limber and adaptable in diverse situations. Just a few words about each. (Please note, too, that the last three are indies, and were sent to me by the artists/publishers. This trio stood out among the crowd for both bibliographic excellence and as expressions of their makers’ generosity. Yvette, Carolyn, Karolina, and everyone else who sent me books in 2014, thank you so much. Note to all indie publishers: If you haven’t sent your work to Larissa Leclair’s Indie Photobook Library, please consider doing so.)

Charles H. Traub, “Rome, 1981” from Dolce Via
Traub’s Italy is a place I remember from my twenties, from some individual images I’d seen here and there. Aperture, I know, ran a couple in the magazine. Having never seen a fuller collection, I was happily reacquainted with the familiar images in the context of a book that is fun, sexy, curious like the best street photography, and not terribly self-absorbed.

Peach is one of two books on my list with accompanying foldouts featuring cars. Go figure. Hefti’s work is a garden of visual delights, using natural and man-made motifs that loop and weave in and around themselves. Working with designers so+ba, Hefti has constructed what might best be described as an artists book qua Moebius strip.

Pikin Slee! Pikin Slee! Pikin Slee! I feel like Zippy the Pinhead, parroting an inexplicably catchy non sequitur. Fortunately, Pikin Slee is more than a clever title—it’s a real place in Suriname, you can map it (though not via Wikipedia), and if the place has anything like the character Sassen captures in what is one of the most elegant, seamless meldings of duotone and color I’ve encountered, I want to go. Sassen lays the groundwork for a great tale of discovery. Perhaps we could call this lyrical anthropology.
Ute Mahler from Zusammenleben
Mahler’s visions of Germans living together—or simply coexisting in the frame, since many of the settings are hardly domestic—suggest the deceptive simplicity of Bill Owens’ Suburbia or Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor. And they cover a similar time period, 1972 to 1988, so there’s some apt correlation in subject, and entirely pre-cellular. Imagine that, and see it here. There’s so much material for speculation, and minimal guidance or editorial apparatus to intrude. Like casual ethnography, exquisitely non-specific and resistant to method and analysis.

I’d been eager to see Renaldi’s book since I first saw examples of this project, before a maquette existed. And the finished product, which I contributed to on Kickstarter, does not disappoint. This is a brilliant concept, executed with honesty and forthrightness. Renaldi captures the beautiful challenge of analog life in a digital era. A great, great book.

Taxonomy is one analytical mode in Sambunaris’ book. Typology is another, with its open-ended, expansive stance toward knowledge. I like this resistance to closure, as if the book—the portfolio, to be more accurate, designed with bound-in and loose pieces in a big pocket—is asserting itself as evidence of attempts to capture something about landscape, acknowledging that there are many ways to describe the elusive, subjective nature of any place.

Page spread from The time of dreaming the world awake by Yvette Monahan

Yvette Monahan was new to me. And the place she describes in her book seems like a landscape newly born into myth. Somehow, the sight of a man bearing water jugs and wearing a pair of horns seems entirely consistent with her evocation of a real place (42°51′49″N 02°22′45″E) that seems like a portal from the world we know into a world we can only imagine. Lovely, quixotic, intimate, and immense.

Carolyn Drake’s new volume expands on the promise of her first self-published book, Two Rivers. It accomplishes an effect diametrically opposed to Monahan’s; it takes a storied place, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in far western China, which most of us know only through news reports and rumor, and humanizes it with story, art, and image. Drake collaborates with residents in ways that seem like emotional or spiritual mergings. This is a volume full of surprising details and revelatory changes of perspective. Highly recommended.

Finally, the second iteration of a publication that is yet to be fully realized, and the harbinger of a singular vision of life in the post-industrial, pre-simultaneity age. Primer is the evolution of a book first Blurb-published as Elementarz, which remains the book’s subtitle. What have we learned? What do we know? What systems affect our lives? are among the questions Karolina Karlic asks in her evolving consideration of commerce, the auto industry, and American culture. (Yes, this is the second book on my list with a car poster.) Set against the counterpoint of her father’s terse letters to his daughter, Karlic opens up human lives in their errant progress from labor to management, from process to product, from grace to defilement.



  1. "marlene" was one of goldin's subjects back in the early 70s. i know marlene, she's quite something. marlene & the other side, a seedy gay bar, were all very eye-opening to a young, naive waif, such as myself.

  2. How’s Marlene doing these days? Did you ever go to Tin Pan Alley, normadesmond?

    1. i saw marlene a few years ago at a gathering. she's older, but her edges are still sharp. it's her sister that i really know. as for tin pan alley, forgive me, i never heard of the place. there'd been a bar across the street from 'the other side' called 'jacques.' never went in, was VERY rough. have no idea what bay village is like now. (hoping you are well sir!)