Photo Books

Best of 2016

BY Vince Aletti, December 16, 2016

Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge (Schiffer):

Formed in 1963 by 11 photographers who recognized the necessity of “a forum to address the underrepresentation of African Americans in their field,” the Kamoinge Workshop gave its members a sense of solidarity and support in a period when black Americans were the frequent subject of mainstream media coverage but rarely its author. Roy DeCarava was the group’s first director, and its early meetings and group critiques were held in his Sixth Avenue loft. Writing in Timeless: Photographs by Kamoinge (Schiffer), Anthony Barboza, the group’s current president, describes no-holds-barred exchanges against a background of John Coltrane records and televised baseball. Still active, if less activist, Kamoinge remains small and tight knit, with 24 members dedicated to the idea that the sharpest, most nuanced and empathetic view of a community comes from within. In the words of one of the founders, Louis Draper, “We speak of our lives as only we can.”

Timeless is the proof. At nearly 400 pages, it’s the biggest survey of the collective’s work so far, with portfolios by 14 founding members followed by a lively selection of work by members from the past five decades. Beuford Smith, Eli Reed, Radcliffe Roye, Ming Smith, and Gerald Cyrus are among the standouts, but few of the photographers here got the recognition their talent deserves. Still, “timeless” might not be the best word to describe their pictures. Predominately black and white, overwhelmingly sincere, even the most recent work falls into the tradition of the concerned photographer, which is probably why Kamoinge was featured in the opening exhibition of Cornell Capa’s International Center of Photography in 1974. Barboza isn’t alone in trying out other strategies, but much of the work here is solidly, shamelessly rooted in the past – in DeCarava, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt – and the better for it. When Beuford Smith writes, “I photograph as passionately and humanely as possible,” he’s speaking for many of his colleagues. Working almost exclusively with black subjects, they closed a distance most photographers never even acknowledged, and inspired a generation. Collectively, their vision is rich, textured, and, unlike so much recent photography, grounded in real, tough, and sometimes astonishingly beautiful life.

Ken Light, What’s Going On? 1969-1974 (Light2 Media)

For another thick, juicy slice of the real, pick up Ken Light’s What’s Going On? 1969-1974 (Light2 Media), a collection of the photojournalist’s earliest work, documenting the riled-up, politicized counterculture in which he came of age. Light was 18 in 1969, when he started photographing his peers in the anti-war movement, and 21 when he became a staffer for the Liberation News Service, prime conduit for the burgeoning underground press. His book – with endpapers that reproduce letters from his FBI surveillance files – starts out looking like a student radical’s version of Joe Szabo’s Teenage and ends up with a sequence of furiously engaged reportage that recalls Danny Lyon and Larry Fink. In between, Light covers a lot of ground, from a West Virginia mining disaster to Nixon’s inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., much of it described in a disarmingly personal essay that closes the book. His work here draws on what he calls the American “tradition of protest and rebellion.” It’s not as polished or artful as later projects like Delta Time or To the Promised Land, but its rawness suits the subject. “The experience of being with other young people who struggled, lived, and worked together to create an alternative voice for our generation was idealism in action,” he writes, under an image of his long-haired younger self at a political convention with three cameras and a press badge. Not long before, Kamoinge, whose name comes from an East African term meaning “a group of people acting together,” set out on a parallel path. Both are still traveling on.

Nathalie Herschdorfer, The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Photograph

In her preface to The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Photography, editor Nathalie Herschdorfer anticipates the criticism that an actual hardcover book isn’t just redundant in the age of Google and Wikipedia, it’s “almost perverse.” But, she argues, search engines are notoriously indiscriminate, unscrolling lists of raw data that the reader has to edit and prioritize. So there’s still a need for what she’s put together here: “a book that reduces a seething mass of information to a structured and orderly work of reference.” As promised, her Dictionary is as thorough as it is concise, covering not just individual photographers but movements, techniques, publications, genres, historians, theorists, curators, and critics from a rigorously international point of view. Most crucially, it updates virtually every existing source on paper, with entries on Zanele Muholi, Peter Hujar, Steven Meisel, Pierre Verger, Lorna Simpson, Saul Leiter, and Jean Moral (but not Vivian Maier). Test Dictionary with your own list of interests and obsessions, and I doubt you’ll find it wanting, but the book isn’t merely serviceable – it’s exceptionally well designed and illustrated. A handsome, sturdy tool, ready for use.

Joel Meyerowitz, Morandi’s Objects (Damiani)

Best known for landscapes of remarkable breadth and depth, from Cape Cod to Ground Zero, Joel Meyerowitz went inside for his latest project, a series of still lifes made in Giorgio Morandi’s studio. His subject: Morandi’s Objects (Damiani) – bottles, vases, blocks, tins, and shells – photographed in natural light on the same bare wooden table that served as a platform for the painter’s own modest still lifes. In an afterword, Meyerowitz writes that he began with a question: “How is it that these quotidian objects contained so much power that they kept Morandi in thrall to them throughout his life?” His piece is titled “The Ordinary Sublime,” and that’s apparently what he’s aiming for here: subtlety, simplicity, clarity. Photographing the objects one by one before the yellowed, paint-daubed paper Morandi used as a neutral background, Meyerowitz makes no attempt to re-create the painter’s signature huddled groupings. Instead, he sets each dusty, dented item center stage, where they cast a long shadow but never pretend to be anything but supporting players, uneasy in the spotlight. The table they’re occupying is covered with the overlapping traceries of circles Morandi drew to establish the placement of each new grouping. The repeating shapes recall Cy Twombly’s early graffiti drawings, but the muted, terracotta colors echo the walls in Italian Renaissance paintings. Meyerowitz’s photographs are muted, too. This isn’t a noisy celebration, it’s a quiet homage.

Martine D’Astier and Martine Ravache, Lartigue: Life in Color (Abrams)

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, the French photographer who took many of his most celebrated pictures before he was out of his teens, experimented with Autochromes shortly after the process was introduced in 1912. He was 17 when he took the first color photographs in Lartigue: Life in Color (Abrams), and his Autochromes of friends and family on sunny lawns have the fine-grained delicacy of pastel drawings. He abandoned the process in 1927, frustrated that its longer exposure time prevented him from making the sort of sporty, spontaneous images he enjoyed most. But he loved working in color – “For me, life and color are inseparable,” he wrote – and he returned to it in the ‘50s, while continuing to shoot in black and white. Most of Lartigue’s later color work is reproduced here for the first time, and it’s predictably charming and vivacious. Although the excitement and surprise of his early work has long gone, Lartigue’s delight in the world around him is infectious. Landscapes with his companion, Florette, under flowering trees revive the soft palette of the Autochromes, but the color is wonderfully subtle throughout. Pictures of Picasso, Fellini, Bill Brandt, and Edward Steichen have the casual intimacy of snapshots – reminders that Lartigue’s great talent was to make it look not just easy but effortless.

Man Ray: Writings on Art (Getty), Neil Leifer, Relentless: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Texas), and Vicki Goldberg, Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography (Prestel)

Despite the promise of more pithy provocations like “I have always been convinced that painting is an outmoded means of expression and that photography will dethrone it once the public’s visual education is complete” (from 1930), I’m putting aside Man Ray: Writings on Art (Getty) to concentrate on two books that describe other eventful, instructive, and more typically all-American careers in photography, both ongoing. Neil Leifer’s Relentless: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Texas), written with Diane K. Shah, and Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography (Prestel) by Vicki Goldberg trace their subjects’ busy professional lives through the photographs they took. Both men were given cameras as kids and never put them down. Leifer got his first sports photo into print at 16; Davidson was 22 when LIFE published his locker-room pictures of the Yale football team. Both became successful editorial photographers, but the similarities end there, at least as far as their books’ narratives are concerned.

Leifer worked almost exclusively for magazines, primarily Sports Illustrated (which published his iconic shot of Muhammad Ali standing and crowing over a knocked-out Sonny Liston in 1965) and Time, where his assignments took him beyond sports to a host of movie stars and politicians. His book, with chapters on Ali, Joe Namath, Mickey Mantle, and Arnold Palmer, is anecdotal, entertaining, and packed with details about the business of photography in the pre-digital age. Asides about carrying film back to New York on the red eye from LA in order to meet the SI deadline may not be quite as diverting as the caper involving O.J. Simpson’s nude selfies, but it grounds Relentless in Leifer’s competitive, workaday world and puts his focus on celebrity in sharp perspective.

Although Goldberg’s book on Davidson (the second volume of a Magnum Legacy series that began with Eve Arnold) reads like an extended magazine profile, her subject is more conflicted and reflective than Leifer, and his work cuts a lot deeper. Davidson, who says, “I was basically Cartier-Bresson’s baby, maybe Eugene Smith’s,” is the very model of the modern concerned photographer (Cornell Capa included him in the second of his two books on the approach). Whether it’s Southern civil rights activists, a Brooklyn gang, or one of the toughest blocks in East Harlem, he doesn’t just photograph a subject, he lives with it. “I start off as an outsider,” he tells Goldberg, “usually photographing other outsiders, then, at some point, I step over the line and become an insider.” The results are vivid and soulful; Goldberg suggests an affinity with New Journalism, which was making a similarly empathetic leap beyond traditional reportage in the same period. Davidson had a predictably ambivalent relationship with magazine work, and very little of it is reproduced here, but assignments at Vogue and Esquire sustained him between book projects. Biographical material (a failed first marriage, a period of depression) makes for some awkward passages; Goldberg is more comfortable plotting the trajectory of an utterly idiosyncratic career, and she makes plenty of room for Davidson’s unpretentious voice. Summing up, he compares himself to a pro baseball player: “Sometimes you strike out, sometimes you hit a home run, sometimes you have to be traded.” With his stats, he’s not going anywhere.

Nick Waplington, The Isaac Mizrahi Pictures: New York City 1989-93, (Damiani):

For engaged reportage in a very different vein, pick up Nick Waplington’s The Isaac Mizrahi Pictures: New York City 1989-93 (Damiani), a behind-the-scenes look at the designer at work that predates Douglas Keeve’s vivacious Mizrahi doc, Unzipped(1995). In a brief foreword, Waplington notes that he would often follow up days among strutting supermodels with nights at dance clubs like Sound Factory, so he combines shots from both worlds here. With no captions to distinguish one from the other, the images mix like techno cuts in a brilliant fashion mashup.

Michael Christopher Brown’s Libyan Sugar (Twin Palms):

Michael Christopher Brown’s Libyan Sugar (Twin Palms) is an attempt to shape the Magnum photographer’s experiences in Libya in 2011, as the country exploded into war. It’s chaotic, confusing, only fitfully chronological, and a triumph of you-are-there reportage. In a solid brick of a book, Brown intercuts more than 400 color photographs – all taken with an iPhone after his digital camera fell and broke – with journal entries, emails from home, Facebook posts, and relayed news bulletins. He tells us right up front that he survived the bombing in Misrata that killed fellow photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, but he’s quick to point out that many more Libyans, fighting to topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, died anonymously that day, and he dedicates his book “For the Revolutionaries.” Brown asks more questions than he can answer, but he’s never disconnected. “What is that spirit of a revolutionary living and breathing into the land and blowing through the minds of men,” he writes in his journal some months after the bomb attack. “I am not a Libyan but an American trying to understand.” Perhaps because he imagines that the revolutionaries he sees in Libya – ordinary men, with no uniforms, no military training, and all too often no weapons – were not unlike the citizens caught up in the American revolution, he photographs them with a remarkable empathy and intensity.

A war of flare-ups, skirmishes, and an alarmingly fluid front line doesn’t yield many scenes of battle. Brown ducked bullets, but most of his pictures are of conflict’s aftermath and the evidence of atrocities past: piles of charred bodies, rotting corpses, bloodied blindfolds, and, finally, the raw-meat remains of Gaddafi himself, laid out in a meat locker for the public to see. But it’s not all blood and guts; Brown is a keen observer of the everyday surrealism of urban warfare. His picture of a fighter pointing his machine gun out the window of a ruined apartment is followed by a shot of a vase of flowers, undisturbed on a table at the other side of the same room. The picture immediately after that is of Brown’s mother, watering plants in her Washington State backyard: a flash forward to home. Brown returned there to recover from his injuries and reflect. “Photography can be a sort of disease,” he writes, painfully aware it could also be terminal. “I cannot fake adventure, original thought, and truth. It is either there or not.”

George Dureau: The Photographs (Aperture):

For truth in an entirely different register, pick up George Dureau: The Photographs (Aperture), the long overdue follow-up to the New Orleans photographer’s 1985 book, now a cult collectible. Dureau (1930-2014), a painter with a studio in the French Quarter, considered his portrait and figure photography a secondary pursuit, but there’s no sign of that in the work. His black-and-white images are at once soulful and restrained, with a matter-of-fact directness that tends to undercut the notion that the photographer was a provocateur, out to shock the bourgeoisie with pictures of black men, dwarves, and amputees, usually in the nude. Because Dureau’s sitters were friends, neighbors, and sometimes lovers, the work has real warmth; it feels somehow private – the product of a shared experience. Much the same could be said about the best of Robert Mapplethorpe’s considerably more famous series of black nudes, published in 1986, but artifice and what the book’s essayist, Philip Gefter, calls Mapplethorpe’s “arctic elegance” tends to eclipse emotion. Gefter is especially good on the influence Dureau had on Mapplethorpe (who’s shirtless on page 87) and quotes Dureau’s vivid descriptions of his studio sessions. “I make love to them while I shoot them,” he said, and even if he insisted he was always the top in that relationship, the results suggest a much more equal and intimate exchange.

John Cohen, Cheap rents … and de Kooning (Steidl):

In 1957, fresh out of Yale’s School of Fine Arts, John Cohen rented a loft in a building on East 10th Street, just around the corner from Robert Frank, in what he thought of as “the nowhere land between Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.” Today, this is prime East Village real estate; back then, critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, the block between Third and Fourth Avenues had “not even the picturesqueness of a slum.” But Rosenberg was there because the block had also become home to a slew of artist-run galleries and an avant-garde performance scene that he couldn’t ignore. Cohen’s modest, charming Cheap Rents…and de Kooning (Steidl) is an insider’s view of that proto-Downtown scene and its denizens. He takes us to gallery openings, artists’ studios, poetry readings, and some of Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms’s first happenings. At the Cedar Tavern, he puts us in the same booths with Franz Kline, Grace Hartigan, and Philip Guston while Frank O’Hara chats nearby. Cohen quotes Robert Frank, who became a close friend, musing on his own early work: “The distance between me and these photos is the past multiplied by everything that has happened.” But Cohen collapses that distance for his readers by keeping the book intimate and casual – a diary, not a memorial. That’s especially true of the chapter devoted to the making of Pull My Daisy, the film that Frank and Alfred Leslie made with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, based on a fragment of a play by Jack Kerouac. Cohen was Frank’s assistant on this Beat Generation milestone, and his shots from the set and a nearby coffee shop capture all the players in action and at their charismatic ease. The 10th Street scene was short lived; by 1963, developers had moved in, and Cohen and the galleries were out. But if the art and performance that thrived there – work that John Elderfield, in his introduction, describes as “nonsectarian, hybrid, unpredictable in shape and form” – was transitional, it inspired a counterculture that changed the landscape of the New York art world for decades to come.

William Eggleston: Portraits (Yale):

William Eggleston: Portraits (Yale) is the catalogue to an exhibition that continues at London’s National Portrait Gallery through October 23. It includes, as promised, a number of portraits, but many more pictures of people, like the one of a handsome young Memphis supermarket employee leaning over a bunch of shopping carts in a shaft of sunlight on the book’s cover. In his introduction, the NPG’s Phillip Prodger shrugs off the distinction between portraits and pictures of people by concluding: “Photography might be valued for its evidentiary qualities, but the things it shows us are innately superficial. As viewers, we cannot know the sitter as the photographer did, and he, in turn, knows them only through the prism of his own experience. The camera does not know them at all.” True enough, but countless photographers – Cameron, Brandt, Avedon, Penn, Arbus – have pierced that superficiality to make portraits that feel like revelations. On occasion, Eggleston does, too, but that doesn’t particularly seem to interest him. He says as much in the course of the clever, rambling conversation with Prodger and others that closes the book. Asked, skeptically, “Do you photograph a person the same way you photograph a parking lot?,” he answers, “I think so, absolutely.” When Prodger enquires about his approach to a subject, Eggleston says he never poses people: “I don’t say anything. I just take the picture.” Eggleston’s often extraordinary results, especially with friends and family, suggest there’s far more at work here, maybe some real fellow feeling. Still, there is a difference between genuine portraits and fine pictures of people, and despite the book’s title, the latter far outnumber the former here.

Anthony Hernandez (SFMOMA/D.A.P.):

Whether you think of California as a promised land or a dead end, it’s always been a reliable source of inspiration for photographers, and some of my favorite new books explore the terrain from unexpected angles. The most substantial of these is Anthony Hernandez (SFMOMA/D.A.P.), the catalogue, for a retrospective that continues at the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 1, 2017. Hernandez was born in Los Angeles in 1947 and has made the city and its environs his primary subject. In 1984, after years of photographing some of L.A.’s more desolate locales in stark black and white, he made a color series on Rodeo Drive that sidled up to the pretty, vacant denizens of that nouveau riche shopping strip only to back away in dismay. The satiric undertow of those images was irresistible but a bit too easy. Still, the series was a turning point: Hernandez switched to color and stopped shooting people, focusing on the human impact on the land. Photographs of the debris left behind in Angeles National Forest (shell casings, doll parts) led to an extraordinary series he called Landscapes for the Homeless – mostly wooded sites briefly colonized by people on the move. Hernandez’s scrupulously specific pictures of the mattresses, clothes, and makeshift cardboard shelters they left behind make an invisible population present, and makes their absence all the more poignant. His subsequent work took him to Rome, Oakland, and East Baltimore, but L.A.’s sprawl remained a magnet and, even as the images emptied out, their charge intensified. In an exchange with Lewis Baltz included here, Hernandez says he often photographed things “because nobody else was looking.” And if they were, they weren’t seeing as clearly as Hernandez, or with such consistently fine results.

Curran Hatleberg, Lost Coast(TBW) and Gregory Halpern, ZZYZX(Mack):

Both Curran Hatleberg’s Lost Coast(TBW) and Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX(Mack) are more contained bodies of work, but they’re inspired by road trips, so they sprawl, meander, and feel curiously random and open ended in the contemporary style. Neither book includes captions or descriptive text; Halpern’s notes only that “with few exceptions, these photographs were made in and around Los Angeles between 2008 and 2015.” Hatleberg’s pictures were made much further up the coast, in scrappy Humboldt County, near the Oregon border, over the course of six months in 2014. As a result, Lost Coast is the m
ore immersive and descriptive of the two books; Hatleberg is hardly a photojournalist, but his curiosity drives his work and carries you along. His affinity for outsiders makes me think of Alec Soth and Mike Brodie, but Katy Grannan would seem a more obvious influence in Halpern’s case. Like hers, many of his portrait subjects appear wild and adrift, and his landscapes offer little comfort, but his trajectory – from the desert to the beach – is a hopeful one, even if the water’s dotted with rotting oranges.

AMG 1000 Model Directory(Taschen)

In a more determinedly upbeat mood, there’s the AMG 1000 Model Directory(Taschen), a two-volume boxed set of easily twice that many pictures of nearly naked guys produced during the first 20 years (1946-1966) of the L.A. physique studio known as the Athletic Model Guild. Although photographer Bob Mizer’s view of the city is both idealized and circumscribed – he shot at Malibu and in the high desert, but many of his landscapes involved papier-mâché rocks on the roof of his home-studio compound – his booming underground enterprise wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. With a steady supply of handsome Hollywood hopefuls, Mizer had no shortage of beefcake, but he was clearly obsessive, ambitious, and relentless, and the book is testimony to that – and to editor Dian  Hanson’s genuine pleasure in the work. Because Mizer’s wit kept his eccentricity from going dark, the pictures’ vivaciousness almost eclipses their eroticism.