Photo Books

The Present, Avedon: Murals & Portraits, Thomas Ruff, Judith Joy Ross, Saul Leiter

BY Vince Aletti, July 1, 2012

Halfway through 2012, a quick round-up of books likely to be on my year-end top-ten list, starting with The Present (MACK), Paul Graham’s brilliant dismantling of the conventions of New York street photography. Color shots of people passing at an intersection or on the same stretch of sidewalk, taken seconds apart, combine for a series of diptychs and triptychs in which little or nothing happens; when a woman cries, or another trips and falls, it’s an event. In the absence of a decisive moment, a disarming, absorbing, and seemingly random dailiness takes over. Even if the pictures here appear as anonymous as Google Street Views, Graham has a way of making each of them count. Like his previous probe of the American social landscape, the similarly cumulative A Shimmer of Possibility, The Present isn’t driven by drama or incident, it’s animated by the quality of Graham’s attention—at once glancing and intensely focused, a contradictory stance that feels exactly right these days.

Avedon: Murals & Portraits (Gagosian) focuses on four enormous photographs Richard Avedon made between 1969 and 1971, kicked off by his famous three-panel frieze of Andy Warhol and a gaggle of Factory regulars that’s more than 31 feet long. None of these pictures (which also include The Chicago Seven, Allen Ginsberg’s Family, and The Mission Council, photographed in Saigon) will be new to Avedon aficionados, but each one is discussed in depth and accompanied by a wealth of preparatory studies, contact sheets, and other related material, much of it previously unpublished. All of it comes from an unsettled but remarkably prolific period for the photographer, when radical politics and the counterculture began to eclipse fashion as the inspiration for his most passionate and committed work. The murals, which introduced massive scale to photography long before Gursky and Ruff, mark a turning point in Avedon’s career, one that the book explores in depth.

Speaking of Thomas Ruff, he’s one of several photographers with new monographs essential to understanding the full range of their work. Like many of these titles, Ruff’s Works 1979-2011 (Schirmer/Mosel), with essays by Okwui Enwezor and Thomas Weski, includes examples from series that have had no extensive exposure in the U.S. Among the surprises are a 1990-01 series of grainy, appropriated, black-and-white news photos and tweaked NASA views of the surface of Mars from 2010 that are more Ab-Ex than sci-fi. South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s This Must Be the Place (Prestel) finds him traveling widely in the region, recording the skeletal remains of genocide in Rwanda, trash-pickers in Ghana, and outrageously costumed “Nollywood” performers in Nigeria for a far more nuanced view of Africa than we get on the evening news.

Working almost exclusively through warm-toned black-and-white portraiture, Judith Joy Ross charts the volatile mood of contemporary America with a sympathy all the more extraordinary for its solid critical underpinning. Her Photographs Since 1982(Schirmer/Mosel), rounds up images from series made at D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, at the U.S. Congress, and at parks, shops, and schools near her home in Pennsylvania. Saul Leiter: Retrospective (Kehrer), the most beautiful of these titles, is the first book to survey Saul Leiter’s entire career since his “rediscovery” in the mid-90s. I contributed a brief essay on his years at Harper’s Bazaar, but the emphasis is on his marvelously subtle non-commercial photography, as well as his painting, with previously unpublished examples of both that make the interplay between the two mediums especially clear. A master of the tangential and the indirect, Leiter is also something of an old-school bohemian, and he comes vividly alive here.