Photo Books

New Books by Justine Kurland, Rahim Fortune, and Huw Lewis-Jones

BY Vince Aletti, July 1, 2024

I’m circling back here to pick up one of the year’s great books, intended for an earlier column but inadvertently overlooked: Justine Kurland’s This Train (MACK). Designed as a concertina with images on either side, the book unfolds to reveal two parallel sequences back-to-back, both in rich but subdued color. For one, Kurland reproduces a series of Western landscapes as composed and “magnificent” as any since Carleton Watkins, each one with a seemingly endless freight train threading its way across the terrain. On the reverse of these vistas are more circumscribed landscapes and interiors, also souvenirs of road trips made between 2005 and 2010 by the photographer and her pre-school son, Casper. Kurland dedicates the book to him, “to his resilience, and to his many contributions to these photographs. They reflect a negotiation that he wasn’t always content to take part in – he led me to the trains, often shunning the camera, and I followed.” In a sense, This Train is a compressed version of Kurland’s earlier book, Highway Kind (Aperture, 2016), which covered a somewhat broader stretch of time from a more inclusive point of view. In that book, Casper is joined by a host of other figures – mostly mechanics and fellow-travelers, both men and women – encountered along the way. They become characters in a cross-country odyssey of America on the move, however aimlessly. But without a Promised Land to head off to, everyone seems stuck where they ran out of steam or money.

Justine Kurland, Byers Canyon Coal Cars, 2008, from This Train (MACK, 2024). Courtesy the artist and MACK

Like the trains, Kurland and Casper are forever passing through. Texts acknowledge the railroads’ blood-stained history, but they’re as much a part of the landscape as the mountains they hug and penetrate, and Kurland never editorializes. Many of the toys Casper packs into their camper van are miniature railway cars, and the routes of the Union Pacific, the Norfolk Southern, and other storied rail lines helped shape their road trips. However reluctantly she may have come to focus on the railroad, Kurland’s landscapes are fully committed, at once sophisticated – beautifully framed, meticulously made – and sublime. Although Casper is present in nearly every one of the other photographs on the reverse of the landscape accordion in This Train, he’s rarely sitting for a portrait. Instead, he’s usually looking anywhere but at the camera, preoccupied or absorbed in play. Kurland, who absented herself from Highway Kind, is often present here, twice on her own, always as an omniscient eye, negotiating camera shots from locations that allow her to peer deep into views of herself and her son at a campsite, a riverbed, a hillside meadow. Many of these images are lovely, some charming, but Kurland isn’t really interested in the idyllic moment. Life is far too complicated – and motherhood too fraught – for that. With Casper’s childhood now history, she preserves what she can: nothing elegiac, everything brilliantly matter-of-fact.

Kurland’s text in Highway Kind is worth going back to, so I’ll give her the last word. She’s especially good at describing exactly how she worked: “The luxury of overthinking my process gave way to the necessity of working fast, on the fly, making the best of what was at hand. I learned to trust in chance accidents, which were in no short supply. Casper not only changed how I photographed but what I photographed; his being permeated everything I did. And yet it was as if every picture took me away from him and he was forever pulling me back. I remember complaining to him once, ‘Jeff Wall doesn’t have to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the middle of his photo shoots!’ And he, age four, replying, ‘Oh yeah? What else does Jeff Wall not have to do?’”

Rahim Fortune, Mcgregor Park, Houston, Texas, 2021. ©Rahim Fortune 2024, courtesy Loose Joints

Like his previous book, I Can’t Stand to See You Cry (Loose Joints, 2021), Rahim Fortune’s Hardtack (Loose Joints) is a collection of black-and-white photographs that suggest a series of intertwined narratives set in the Black South, most often rural Texas. (Raised in Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation, Fortune divides his time between Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn.) Fortune’s loose and allusive arrangement of photographs – a formula popularized by Alec Soth – has become familiar, and the main reason there are so many lazy, pointless, and forgettable photobooks out there. Absent a strong, singular vision, a book’s sequence feels merely random. Fortune avoids the format’s pitfalls; he keeps his books tight but never constrained and has learned how to cast a spell. The key is to make every picture count, whether it’s a boarded-up country church or a rodeo cowboy with his hat held in prayer. Fortune sees the history in landscapes – in swamps, in trees hung with Spanish moss, in the remains of a railroad track, in a plantation’s row of preserved slave quarters. But he’s just as concerned with the people who inherit that land and survive that history, with an especially keen eye for Black children and elders who spark the book with a sense of limitless and undimmed possibility.

©Leila Jeffries, The Tweets, a trio of budgerigars, Canberra, Australia, 2018. Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Finally, this may not be at all fair to the ambition behind Why We Photograph Animals (Thames & Hudson), by Huw Lewis-Jones, but I’m going to treat it as a great picture book – one of my favorites this year so far. A compact block at just under 350 pages, it’s packed with pictures I’ve never seen before by photographers I’ve never heard of. That’s not entirely the case; Eadweard Muybridge, Margaret Bourke-White, Elliott Erwitt, and Stephen Gill are here. But it’s Xavi Bou, Alexander Semenov, Alicia Rius, and Leila Jeffreys who get the often astonishing multi-page portfolios. Animals are seen underwater, in mid-air, and in microscopic close-up – occasionally dead but more often startlingly alive. In between the individual profiles, there are sections called Fragments that gather up a wide range of smartly selected historic and contemporary images, from a horse-race photo finish on the cover of a 1948 Picture Post to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image of Henri Matisse clutching and sketching a white dove. Even the end papers, end-to-end collages of vintage stereocards, are ravishing. I’m sure Lewis-Jones does his best to answer the question his title poses, but it seems obvious: We photograph animals so we can see pictures like these.

©Xavi Bou, Tree swallow, Grand Teton National Park, 2019. Courtesy Thames & Hudson