Like so many small publishers, photographer Paul Schiek’s TBW Books, based in Oakland, California, has found innovative ways to stay alive and make exceptional books. The backbone of the press is a remarkably affordable, smartly designed four-book subscription series, introduced in 2006 with titles by Jim Goldberg, Mike Brodie, Ari Marcopoulos, and Schiek himself. Subsequent series were equally shrewd samplers of contemporary practice. The latest foursome — Wolfgang Tillmans, Christian Patterson, Raymond Meeks, and Alessandra Sanguinetti — is TBW’s strongest so far, and the format, while remaining slim and compact, has expanded to accommodate it. (The books in series #4, the first in hardcover, measure 9 x 11 inches.) As before, each photographer was invited to conceive and sequence a book of previously unpublished work, and the results are, to one degree or another, quite personal.
At just 40 heavyweight pages, with no text outside of the credits, the books are focused and restrained, like a solid gallery exhibition; the format allows for seemingly random, stream-of-consciousness pacing but discourages filler. The Tillmans book, Utoquai, is especially satisfying in this regard. Here, the object of the photographer’s affection is a slim young man seen usually lounging outdoors on the weathered wooden decks of a Zurich swimming facility. As a portrait, the book is cumulative and rigorously anatomical. Tillmans examines his friend at close range and in detail: the stubble on his neck, the veins on his wrist, an ear, a knee, a nipple. Stieglitz took a similar approach to O’Keeffe; he was hungry for her, and fascinated. Tillmans is cooler but hardly detached. He’s all over this guy; he can’t get enough. The result is an essay in desire, if not obsession. Printed matter has always played an important part in the Tillmans oeuvre, and this is a key addition to an already crowded shelf.
Christian Patterson made a big impact last year with Redheaded Peckerwood, his idiosyncratic meditation on the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree that also inspired Terrence Malick’s Badlands. In TBW’s Bottom of the Lake, he takes a similarly allusive view of his hometown, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, assembling pieces of a puzzle he never attempts to solve. Throughout, geographical details (snow-covered taverns, a deserted lakefront) are shuffled among images of pitted concrete, cinder-block walls, and nearly abstract expanses of wood grain and snow. Those taverns are the only suggestion of autobiography here; Patterson thanks “Wisconsin beer, Mom and Dad,“ but seems less interested in his wasted youth (or remembered conviviality?) than the texture of a place that’s now mostly a state of mind.
Erasure, the Raymond Meeks title, describes his approach to the urban landscapes of his new home in Providence, Rhode Island. The color in many of his pictures of people and buildings has been bleached out and the focus slightly fogged, so everything seems suspended in a chilly haze. The effect recalls the over-exposed views of Southern streets in Paul Graham’s American Night series, and Meeks’s take can seem just as judgmental as Graham‘s. He may not like this place he’s moved to, but he respects its tough exterior, and he finds a certain harsh beauty in its wastelands that allies him with the best of the New Topographics crew.
Alessandra Sanguinetti, best known for her color pictures of two young girls growing up together on a farm in Argentina, turns the camera on her own life in Sorry, Welcome, a book of black-and-white images taken in San Francisco. Tweaking a documentary style with genuine intimacy and care, Sanguinetti sketches in the relationship between her partner, photographer Jim Goldberg, his grown daughter, and her younger daughter in a perfectly balanced, affectionate and incisive group portrait.