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March – April 2020 Photo Books

  “I’m trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality. About the last ditch.” No one could sum up Dorothea Lange’s achievement more trenchantly or more forcefully than the photographer herself in the wall text for what would become a posthumous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. (The show opened in January; she died in October 1965, at 70.) Lange’s intentions could not have been more evident in her work. She saw clearly and concisely, without sentiment or polemics, but her pictures never feel detached or merely reportorial. Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures (MoMA), the catalogue to…

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January – February 2020 Photo Books

You won’t find Leo Goldstein in any of the dictionaries, encyclopedias, or guides to photographic history. Although one of his photographs is included in The Radical Camera (Yale University Press), the history of New York’s Photo League, his name never comes up. So a substantial, appealing new book of Goldstein’s work, East Harlem: The Postwar Years (powerHouse) is a genuine surprise. Little seen in his lifetime, Goldstein’s photographs were boxed up following his death, at the age of 71, in 1972, and only unpacked after the death of his wife, in 1996, when his son and daughter-in-law cleared out the family home and realized the importance of the work. Goldstein’s approach is solidly within the Photo League mold of concerned, left-leaning photojournalism. His influences were…

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November – December 2019 Photo Books

Just in time to contend for the best photo book of the year: Light Break by Roy DeCarava (First Print/David Zwirner). Following the reissue of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, DeCarava’s 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes, and accompanied into print by a reissue of the sound i saw (2001), his brilliant “improvisation on a jazz theme,” Light Break is the first important survey of DeCarava’s work since the MoMA retrospective Peter Galassi organized in 1996, and it feels even more momentous. Trained as an artist, DeCarava tended to make his photographs compositions of dark and light, but it was darkness that he saw most clearly. The blacks in his photographs – in truth, as he pointed out, “infinite shades of gray” – are rich and…

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September – October 2019 Photo Books

      With her first book, 2002’s Closer (Chronicle Books), Elinor Carucci brought us into her life and took us into her confidence, trusting viewers to understand that a certain amount of nakedness, both physical and emotional, was no big deal in her extended family. Closer was an intimate self-portrait with a tight-knit supporting cast, including Carucci’s husband, parents, grandparents, and, from their birth, her children, fraternal twins. Her approach, a mix of cinéma verité immediacy and theatrical staging, with nods to Sally Mann and Nan Goldin, was as nervy as it was sensitive. In her introduction, Carucci wrote that “the camera was…both a way to get close, and to break free. It was a testimony to independence as well as a new way…

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July – August 2019 Photo Books

  The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Lincoln Kirstein exhibition gave the museum the perfect opportunity to reissue, in a substantially revised form, a publication the curator and collector had helped bring into print. Originally published in 1966 to accompany an exhibition of 43 photographs, The Hampton Album was an abridged version of a leather-bound portfolio Kirstein had found some 20 years earlier in a Washington, DC, bookshop and had just donated to MoMA. The entire contents of that album – 159 platinum prints made in 1899 for inclusion in the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition – are reproduced in the new book, which also gives more prominent front-cover credit to its author, Frances Benjamin Johnston, a successful, white commercial photographer Kirstein…

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May – June 2019 Photo Books

William A. Ewing’s The Body: Photographs of the Human Form was something of a pop-culture phenomenon when it was published in 1994 (editions in 13 languages; 500,000 sold). A compact brick of a book, it was a broad historical survey of the subject – Roger Fenton to Robert Mapplethorpe – wonderfully shrewd, witty, and as sexy as it was scholarly. With Ewing’s blessing, Nathalie Herschdorfer (who first came to attention as Ewing’s most talented protégée at Lausanne’s jewel-box Musée de L’Elysée) picks up where he left off with Body: The Photography Book (Thames & Hudson), focusing on work made mostly since 2000. I miss a historical component (and the wealth of anonymous and vernacular material Ewing pulled together), but Herschdorfer makes up for that with…

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March – April 2019 Photo Books

Dr. Blankman’s New York (Steidl), a collection of color photographs Tod Papageorge made in the city in 1966 and ’67, is an excellent place to kick off a roundup of street work. According to David Campany’s afterword, Papageorge was 25 that first year and new in town, but his work is strikingly confident and as subtle as it is vivid, always alert to the moment and the mood of the street. The book’s title comes from an optometrist’s sign in the window of the opening image – the first of many storefronts Campany traces back to Atget and Walker Evans and, thanks to a grocery-store’s row of Brillo boxes, forward to Warhol. Given the year, a Pop Art sensibility is all but inevitable, so it’s…

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January – February 2019 Photo Books

The idea of the romantic landscape was pretty much squashed by the New Topographics crew in the 1970s. Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, and their contemporaries weren’t interested in the magnificent vistas that had inspired so much early photography, especially of the American West. Instead, they turned their attention to the industrial parks, tract homes, shopping malls, and other features of the built environment that, while a lot less picturesque, were a lot more ubiquitous. Their landscapes were matter-of-fact but hardly unsophisticated, combining dirty realism with a heady dose of the quotidian sublime. Their approach was not merely influential; it became a new way of seeing – one that informs several of the books under consideration here. Prime example: American Winter (MACK) by Gerry…

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November – December 2018 Photo Books

    ’Tis the season for Big Books, including several that would be welcome gifts. Easily the most ambitious is Civilization: The Way We Live Now (Thames & Hudson), William A. Ewing’s latest deep dive into a subject that knows no bounds (previous topics: The Body, Love and Desire, and the contemporary landscape). Working with Holly Roussell, Ewing has rounded up nearly 500 photographs to suggest that, when it comes to the world we’ve created, the best of times is also the worst of times. Typically, Ewing’s approach is multi-faceted and exhaustive, touching on progress and pollution, community and alienation, leisure and drudgery, utopia and dystopia. He and Roussell make their case with work by Thomas Struth, Edward Burtynsky, Katy Grannan, Cindy Sherman, Pieter Hugo,…

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