World Viewings: Ten Photography Titles

THIS YEAR’S ROUNDUP of photography books explores some of the essential aspects of the medium, qualities that make it so fascinating. One title observes that, more than ever, we are deluged by images, at which we glance for a split second and then move on from, without taking time to look more closely, although we should. Others investigate photography as bearer of memory and history, as complicated and contested as these elements may be. Many consider the form as anthropology, documenting trends and attitudes, or as time travel, letting us walk through a past place and era. Photography is a technology, and it expands its reach by making use of newer innovations, such as drones, as one title illustrates. Finally, for most if its history, photographers have sought to have image and text work together, and several entries here demonstrate how words elaborate upon the photograph’s sometimes enigmatic surface.

redstarCole, Teju. Blind Spot. Random. Jun. 2017. 352p. photos. maps. index. ISBN 9780399591075. $40. PHOTOG

Readers may be most familiar with Cole as a novelist and essayist (Every Day Is for the Thief; Known and Strange Things), but he is also an accomplished photographer and critic, contributing to the “On Photography” column for the New York Times Magazine. Many photographers have experimented with combining text and image, but this title brings them together in ways unusually sophisticated, expanding the possibilities of the photo caption. A travelog of sorts, this book presents images taken during the artist’s journeys around the world. Cole’s pictures, however, lack the superficial gloss associated with much travel photography—many are, in fact, rather banal takes of hotel rooms or unremarkable streets. The outwardly nondescript images serve as triggers for the photographer’s thoughts and feelings about place, as he investigates what one can make visible through the medium, and how photos might express facts beyond the obvious surface. These image/text combinations merge interior monolog with an outward-looking gaze. VERDICT Highly recommended as a project expanding our sense of what it means to create and look at photographs.

Dronestagram. Dronescapes: The New Aerial Photography from Dronestagram. Thames & Hudson. May 2017. 288p. ed. by Ayperi Karabuda Ecer. photos. index. ISBN 9780500544723. $40. PHOTOG

Dronestagram is a photo-sharing website that showcases aerial photography made with lightweight, personal unmanned aerial vehicles, popularly known as drones. Launched in 2013, dubbed an “Instagram for drones,” it is considered the leading online venue for quadcopter photographers. This title, published in association with Dronestagram, offers some 250 thrilling, beautiful, vertiginous, and quirky photos taken around the world, grouped by subject: urban, wildlife, landscapes, abstractions. There is even wedding photography. The images were assembled by photo editor Ecer (Reuters, Magnum Photos). Aerial photography has been around almost as long as the medium itself (there are photos from hot-air balloons made in the 1850s), but personal drone photography introduces something new. Given the low altitude and the vision these drone image makers bring to their efforts, these pictures stand out among the crowd. ­VERDICT With its glossy, high-quality color images, this is a great introduction to a refreshing style of picture making.

redstarGreenfield, Lauren. Generation Wealth. Phaidon. May 2017. 504p. photos. ISBN 9780714872124. $75. PHOTOG

Photographer Greenfield (Girl Culture) has devoted years to a project that she describes as a “25-year inquiry” into the “influence of affluence.” She emphasizes that her “Generation Wealth” exploration does not depict affluent one-percenters as such, but rather the “aspiration for wealth” that has taken Americans and others across the globe of all social classes on a multidecade roller-coaster ride of conspicuous consumption, widening income inequality and financial instability. The gleaming color images here are, by turns, lurid, poignant, and envy-inducing. This title is the culmination of an eight-year endeavor, the photographer working with curator Trudy Wilner Stack to sift through some half a million images that Greenfield produced over the lifespan of her project, has edited thousands of images, conducted hundreds of interviews, and expanded the investigation to encompass China, Russia, and other global spots. VERDICT This body of work is extraordinary, fascinating, and an almost anthropological look at the ways in which wealth and status are ­displayed.

redstarHambourg, Maria Morris & others. Irving Penn: Centennial. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Apr. 2017. 372p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9781588396181. $70. PHOTOG

There is no dearth of books about the life and art of Irving Penn (1917–2009). WorldCat catalog shows almost 100 titles by or about the remarkable mid-20th-century fashion photographer and portraitist. This major retrospective catalog, accompanying the exhibition of the same name at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, including more than 200 plates, is stunning. Penn’s career spanned the 1940s through the first decade of the 21st century, during which he produced sophisticated fashion photography, impressions of celebrities and cultural icons, and still life studies. Standouts include his portraits of the peoples of Peru, Benin, New Guinea, and Morocco, images that suggest ethnographic studies are actually elegant fashion photos. His images of zaftig female nudes anticipated the body positive movement, but were too outré for 1950 when they were made. VERDICT With hundreds of photographs from every phase of Penn’s career, together with informative essays on his life and work by Hambourg and other Met curators, this title’s quality of the printing does justice to the superb caliber of Penn’s originals.

redstarKessels, Erik & others. The Many Lives of Erik Kessels. Aperture. Apr. 2017. 576p. photos. bibliog. ISBN 9781597114165. $65. PHOTOG

Amsterdam-based Kessels (creative director, KesselsKramer; editor, Useful Photography) has pursued a hybrid career as advertising art director and photography collector, curator, and artist. He has published over 50 books showcasing his ability to find themes (humorous, relevant, and thought provoking) in snapshots, family albums, and archival photos that most would consider failed attempts, mistakes, or simply banal images. Kessels’s previous books have been published in Europe, so this title, drawing together many of his photo projects, will introduce his work to U.S. audiences. Coinciding with a retrospective exhibit at Camera: Italian Centre for Photography in Turin, Italy, it is larger than a trade volume and hefty, with ribbon place markers, a slipcase, matte stock, and sections organized by color, it resembles a limited-edition artist book. VERDICT Kessels combines a photo editor’s knack for eye-catching concepts with an artist’s ability to bend our perception in fresh directions. Recommended for readers interested in photography, graphic design, and fine art.

Lichtenstein, Andrew & Alex Lichtenstein. Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory. West Virginia Univ. Oct. 2017. 180p. photos. notes. ISBN 9781943665891. $34.99. PHOTOG

Among photography’s many uses is that of helping us to remember and understand historical events. But what if people don’t agree as to the significance of those events, or even if they happened at all? The past isn’t fixed, as this project by photographer, journalist, and teacher Andrew Lichtenstein shows. He traveled throughout the United States, photographing “sites of violent trauma” (the location of Emmett Till’s murder; the Sand Creek Massacre site, etc.) of particular significance for Native American, African American, and labor history. He strove to understand events and places that Americans commit to public memory, as well as those banished to forgetfulness. It’s easy to feel disoriented, spatially and historically, while viewing these photographs, which is exactly the intention, pointing readers to the perplexing quality of what the book’s introduction refers to as the “topography of the past.” A slate of distinguished historians supplement the images with insightful essays. VERDICT A thought-provoking addition to the literature on sites of public memory, complementing titles such as Kenneth Foote’s Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy.

Lyon, Fred. San Francisco Noir. Princeton Architectural. Oct. 2017. 224p. photos. ISBN 9781616896515. $40. PHOTOG

Those under San Francisco’s spell become enthralled by its dynamic light and character: sparkling, or fog shrouded, or shadowy and mysterious, depending on time and season. Photographer Lyon is no outsider to the city. He is a fourth-generation San Franciscan and has photographed it for decades, obsessively roaming its vertiginous streets. Most of these velvety black-and-white images were taken in the 1940s and 1950s, a lost era of pillbox hats, fedoras, neon signs, stevedores, and a real fishermen’s wharf. In addition to the exteriors, Lyon made vivid, up-close portraits of jazz musicians in live performance at classic long-gone venues such as Basin Street West and the Black Hawk. Unfortunately, most of the photos are not captioned with date and location (a minor quibble), but the glossy paper, attractive printing, and black cloth-bound cover with silver lettering make an attractive package. A brief introduction by journalist and author Ernest Beyl describes Lyon’s lifelong passion for his native city. VERDICT A wonderful browse that invites armchair time travelers to experience a bygone era.

Michna-Bales, Jeanine. Through Darkness to Light. Princeton Architectural. Mar. 2017. 192p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781616895655. $40. PHOTOG

This title is not a history of the Underground Railroad, that network of people, routes, and safe houses used by runaway slaves to reach freedom in the Northern United States and Canada in the years before the Civil War. For excellent chronicles on that subject, consider Fergus M. Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, or Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. Instead, this is a creative and imaginative project that uses the medium of photography to show how the journey might have appeared to those in route. Photographer Michna-Bales bases her project on research conducted in archives rich with materials on the Railroad, including those of the Indiana Historical Society. She scouted locations around Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan. Conveying the darkness of nighttime in photos is not easy to do; readers’ eyes must adjust to the inky depths of these images, suggesting the daunting quest so many experienced. VERDICT An inventive, heartfelt, and worthy contribution to literature about the Underground Railroad.

Short takes

Lesy, Michael. Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. Norton. Apr. 2017. 256p. illus. notes. ISBN 9780393239737. $49.95. PHOTOG

Photography scholar, author, and professor of literary journalism Lesy (Hampshire Coll., Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935–1943; Wisconsin Death Trip) brings a singular perspective to the study of historical photographs, offering sometimes shocking insights. Working with a collection of 3-D stereograph photos produced at the dawn of the 20th century and used as pedagogical tools in American schools, Lesy sees disturbing parallels between that era and our own, including ethnocentrism, cultural arrogance, militarism, and an overconfidence in dangerous, destructive technologies. The title implies a fond, nostalgic view of the past, but these images are anything but.

Stephenson, Sam. Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View. Farrar. Aug. 2017. 224p. photos. index. ISBN 9780374232153. $26. BIOG

Writer and documentarian Stephenson has already produced two outstanding titles about mid-20th-century Life magazine photographer and photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project; The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue). This selective biography draws from the author’s 20-plus years of research on Smith, numerous interviews, and archival holdings at the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, each chapter a finely honed vignette looking at a phase of the artist’s creative, tempestuous life.

Michael Dashkin (MLS, MA, studio art, New York Univ.) is a researcher and writer living in New York City. He has written about contemporary art for the fine arts auction house Christie’s and has reviewed art and photography books for LJ for almost 17 years

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Share
Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*