After checking out the biggest newsstand I can find, one of the first things I look for in any city is an art bookstore. In Amsterdam recently, one of the best was off the lobby of the renovated Stedelijk Museum, and two books I picked up there are worth searching out. Life is Strange (nai010), the catalog for the summer exhibition at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille, is yet another fascinating deep dive into a vast photographic archive – in this case, the 12 million images left to the National Archives of the Netherlands by the illustrated weekly magazine Het Leven (1906-1941). Leven (or Life), though international in scope and decidedly populist, was more sensationalistic than its American counterpart, and editor Rob Moorees’s selection for the book is skewed toward the outrageous, the alarming, and the enigmatic. The result is history through the looking glass – a nightmarish mix of news and “human interest,” the brutally real (Hitler, Hiroshima, a masked KKK member displaying a noose) and the bizarrely surreal (a shrunken head, a UFO, a levitating man). If the order is random and far from chronological, the page-to-page juxtapositions are sharp and witty, making this one of the year’s most stimulating collections of vernacular photography, and an ideal companion to Thomas Ruff’s Zeitungsfotos/Newspaper Photographs, reviewed in the last issue.
Sans Limites (Editions du LIC), the other book I brought back from Amsterdam, is an impressionistic mashup of a series of road trips by Théo Gosselin, a young French photographer who, I’m just discovering, is something of a star on social media. And no wonder. His work is vivid and spontaneous, but effortlessly incisive; prime Instagram fodder: shots of friends at the wheel, underwater, running, naked – all anchored and balanced by serene landscapes and botanical studies. According to his publisher’s website, Gosselin took these pictures in France, Spain, Scotland, and the U.S., but his book has no captions and no text, so the images blend together into one great adventure. Because, for this footloose crew, Sans Limites often means without clothes, Gosselin’s work exists in the long shadow of Ryan McGinley’s. Both photographers imagine a new Eden, a back-to-nature paradise, but Gosselin survives the comparison. His book has weight and spirit and a determined optimism all its own.
Two photographers whose work I admire – Wolfgang Tillmans and Andrea Modica – have excellent collections out. Tillmans’s self-titled book, the catalog for a 2013 retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, is the latest addition to what’s already a substantial stack of monographs devoted to the photographer’s wide-ranging work. But his idiosyncratic and influential approach to exhibition design is captured especially well in these pages, which are uninterrupted by text or description of any sort. A list of titles and dates appears on the book’s cover, over an image of clearing storm clouds, and a note on the back cover refers readers to a website with more complete documentation. Inside, the photographs stand on their own or, more accurately, support one another in a dazzling flow that switches pace from quiet contemplation to headlong rush and back. Modica’s As We Wait (L’Artiere) gathers previously unpublished photographs from throughout her career, including portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and several especially charged images of people sharing a space and a life. Selected and sequenced by Larry Fink, the work is meditative, soulful, and often quite dark. But Modica suffuses her pictures with such an intense concern that even the most mysterious of them feels like a declaration of love. Since many of the photographs here are of a longtime companion, that love is not just metaphoric, and it glows, subtly, steadily throughout the book.