Big Picture 2016: Ten Photography Titles To Pore Over

Photography introduces us to subjects that take us beyond our own social circles and comfort zones. The medium has always eloquently documented individuals and groups living on the margins, and that tradition continues here in a powerful way.

Books published this year further demonstrate the form’s far-reaching capabilities. Some trends are apparent. Titles that bring to light images taken generations ago, lost, then rediscovered, tell the story of their photographer ­creators. Recent years have seen a crop of volumes that remind us of mid-20th-century American artists who, although not entirely forgotten, have been perhaps unfairly neglected, introducing their work to a younger audience. Women photographers’ contributions are related in some excellent new editions.

Books describing the impulse some people have to amass photographs help us understand the urge to and the gift for collecting. Of course, museums, too, are collectors, and a wealth of new entries have described how some of the great museum photography troves were assembled. Some of the most unexpected and wonderful books are those that show how obsession (for a particular subject or place) can take hold of a photographer, helping readers to understand the artist’s fascination and perhaps even to share it. Despite the power and pervasiveness of digital image creation and presentation, photography remains closely linked to text. Just released publications about the photobook format illustrate how harmoniously the formats work together, and we’re likely to see the steady production of photography books for some time.

Dahl-Wolfe, Louise & others. Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Aperture. May 2016. 256p. photos. ISBN 9781597113588. $60. PHOTOG

louisedahlwolfe-jpg91516Cool, modern, sophisticated: those words describe Dahl-Wolfe’s fashion images and Hollywood portraiture of the 1930s–50s, many created for Harper’s Bazaar magazine with the stellar team of editor Carmel Snow and art director Alexey Brodovitch. For a host of reasons Dahl-Wolfe hasn’t been elevated to the status of artist: She retired at the height of her career. Only late in life did she burnish her image by publishing her memoir. Worst, she had the bad luck to be overshadowed by the great midcentury photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Still, she was enormously influential, doing location shoots in distant, exotic locales well before most photographers dared to do the same, shooting in color in an era dominated by black and white, creating uncontrived portraits with natural light, and portraying women as free and independent. This title is divided into four sections: Fashion; Portraits; Still Lifes and Nudes; and Color. Essays by ­John P. Jacob (Smithsonian American Art Museum) and Celina ­Lunsford (Fotografie Forum Frankfort) inform and enlighten readers about Dahl-Wolfe’s life, career, and era. VERDICT Recommended for enthusiasts of fashion photography, modernism, and the contributions of a significant innovator.

Drucker, Zackary & Rhys Ernst. Relationship. Prestel. Jun. 2016. 160p. photos. ISBN 9783791382487. $34.95. PHOTOG

This title may startle or perplex as much as it may inspire or intrigue. It’s the visual diary, taken between 2008 and 2014, of a couple, Drucker and Ernst (film directors, She Gone Rogue; producers, Amazon series Transparent), each undergoing gender reassignment surgery. The authors originally intended the diary to be private, but a visit from Whitney Museum curator Stuart Comer (who provides an introduction) persuaded them to include some of the images in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The color, snapshotlike photographs are far more emotionally than sexually explicit, exploring the complex, multiple meanings of both identity and relationship. Although the work might be termed documentary, these artists seem less interested in presenting their lives for the benefit of outsiders than in simply living them, in the process reaching out to others in the trans community. ­VERDICT For readers interested in contemporary art and for members of, and those interested in, the trans community.

Martineau, Paul & others. The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Getty. May 2016. 244p. photos. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781606064672. $59.95. PHOTOG

Sam Wagstaff was exactly the perfect person living at the right moment to make a significant contribution to photography. Born into a wealthy family, he was a successful museum curator, had idiosyncratic tastes, and possessed great confidence. He had the foresight to begin collecting photographs when they were still considered a lesser art, before a market had developed to inflate their values. Wagstaff acquired 26,000 photographs between 1973 and 1984, then donated the collection to the Getty Museum, dramatically expanding its holdings. Included here are 147 photographs, representing a cross-section of Wagstaff’s interests. His choices were unusual at the time, but he pioneered a strategy that came to be widely used by museums: acquiring vernacular photographs by anonymous makers side by side with those of the greatest practitioners; assembling documents not created as aesthetic objects—medical images, police crime photos, and other improbable but exceptional pictures. Getty associate curator Martineau, curator emeritus Weston Naef, and art historian Eugenia Parry describe the life and ideas of this figure whose offerings to the medium were significant. VERDICT Recommended for collectors, students, and scholars of photography and admirers of Wagstaff and his circle.

redstarNaggar, Carole & Fred Ritchin. Magnum Photobook: The Catalogue Raisonné. Phaidon. Nov. 2016. 272p. photos. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780714872117. $79.95. PHOTOG

magnum.jpg9216When people think about photographs they may picture only the image itself, not its context. Yet context is crucial. Photobooks (bound collections of the work of one or more photographers, organized on a given theme) have been produced almost as long as the form itself. This beautifully illustrated and informative catalog raisonné is an excellent accompaniment to Phaidon’s three-volume work The Photobook: A History. It documents photobooks “conceived, authored, and published” by members of the Magnum Agency, a cooperative founded in 1947 that has counted as members the most influential photojournalists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Listing over 1,000 first-edition Magnum photobooks, it includes catalog descriptions with publisher information, dimensions, and a thumbnail photograph of each book cover. Extensive notes by Ritchin (dean, Sch. at International Ctr. of Photography) and Naggar (cofounder & special projects editor, PixelPress) discuss 100 of the books in depth, emphasizing the creative freedom and aesthetic possibilities the medium afforded these artists. VERDICT A valuable reference that will inform and delight those interested in photojournalism, as well as book and graphic design.

redstarNaudé, Daniel. Sightings of the Sacred. Prestel. May 2016. 144p. photos. ISBN 9783791382203. $55. PHOTOG

Photographers tend toward the obsessive. At its most successful, a photographer’s work evokes in others the same passion they themselves feel. This title is a wonderful example of this phenomenon. Simply put, the book (with the exception of a brief introduction by South African photographer Naudé) is filled entirely with color photographs of cows. That basic description, however, does not begin to hint at the accomplishment of the captivating images. Traveling in Uganda, Madagascar, and India, Naudé documented remarkable breeds of cattle native to each country. These animals (Ankole, Zebu) possess extraordinary, long curved horns; bodies simultaneously ungainly, fragile, and majestic; horns painted vibrant colors for a festival in India. Remarkably, each one is portrayed as an individual, and indeed “portrait” is the correct word. Whatever conclusion readers draw as to what sentience or sacredness these creatures may possess, all will agree that the photographs are a visual delight. VERDICT Highly recommended as an exceptional and unusual example of documentary photography.

redstarOstman, Ronald E. & Harry Littell. Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers: A Visual History of Pennsylvania’s Railroad Lumbering Communities; The Photographic Legacy of William T. Clarke. Pennsylvania State Univ. (Keystone Bks.). Sept. 2016. 252p. photos. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780271072074. $39.95. PHOTOG

In 1974, Honeoye, NY, near Rochester, two wooden crates of 19th-century glass-plate negatives were discovered in the dusty corner of a toolshed, apparently undisturbed for decades. Who was the long-forgotten photographer who created the images? Who and what made up the photos’ subjects? Why were they taken? This title introduces readers to the detective work of a cast of amateur and professional historians, photographers, and curators who sought to answer the many questions surrounding these 100-year-old artifacts. The photographs are a stunningly clear and detailed window into a specific time (1897–98) and place (the logging camps of north-central Pennsylvania), and the lives of the people living then are vividly portrayed. Valuable historical documents, the images ­fascinate, also, through their depiction of the environment devastated by logging activity and of the strange locomotives and heavy machinery, iron dinosaurs in the forest landscape. Some of the items have a gothic strangeness, notably a photo of two girls dressed in city clothes, looking impassively at the camera, seeming to have materialized just that moment in the middle of the dark forest. ­VERDICT This volume will be of equal interest to readers exploring 19th-century photography, Pennsylvania history, the logging industry, or environmentalism.

Rosenheim, Jeff L. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jul. 2016. 256p. photos. ISBN 9781588395955. $50. PHOTOG

Much has been written about Diane Arbus (1923–71). Her startling photographs and enigmatic persona have fascinated since the early 1960s, when she began creating her mature work. Readers might think that there’s no unseen Arbus image left to explore. This title—published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met)—reveals that there is in fact more to know. The catalog includes over 100 images that Arbus took during her formative early career (1956–62), more than half never before published. A brief essay by Rosenheim (curator, dept. of photographs, the Met) discusses ­the artist’s encounter with her mentor and lifelong friend, photographer Lisette Model. Rosenheim describes Arbus’s desire to establish a personal encounter with her portrait subjects in order to produce poignant, often haunting images. A second essay by Met senior research assistant Karan Rinaldo reveals her own valuable work in the Arbus Archive, clarifying dates and subjects of the photographs. Included are contact sheets, journal entries, notes, and print and negative sleeves with the photographer’s annotations. VERDICT A valuable addition to the Arbus literature.


blindphotographer-jpg91516The Blind Photographer: 150 Extraordinary Photographs from Around the World. Princeton Architectural. Sept. 2016. 166p. ed. by Julian Rothenstein & Mel Gooding. photos. ISBN 9781616895235. $45. PHOTOG

What may seem incongruous (or even impossible), the blind making photographs, becomes reality via the images here and the introduction by novelist Candia ­McWilliam (who for a time had lost her sight), an opportunity to reflect on the nature of photography and of vision itself, in this moving and memorable book.

London, Jack. Jack London: The Paths Men Take. Contrasto. Sept. 2016. 196p. ed. by Alessia Tagliaventi. photos. ISBN 9788869656392. $24.95. PHOTOG

Born John Griffith, London’s (1876–1916) reputation is firmly established as a literary figure; readers may not know that he was also an accomplished photographer. A globetrotting photojournalist before the term existed, he documented the Russo-Japanese War, the San Francisco Earthquake, and his travels in the South Pacific. This handsome volume includes many examples of London’s photography, together with text describing the form’s role in his adventure-filled life.

Parr, Martin. The Chinese Photobook: From the 1900s to the Present. 2d ed. Aperture. Sept. 2016. 448p. photos. ISBN 9781597113755. $80. PHOTOG

First published in 2015, this second edition is offered in a slightly smaller format and at a more affordable price. Photobooks are an underappreciated medium no matter where they originated, and those from China in particular have largely escaped notice until now. With beautiful illustrations of hundreds of titles tracing a history of modern China, informative scholarship, and translation by a team of contributors led by renowned photobook collector/scholar Parr, this work is an extraordinary presentation of works produced in China from the dawn of the 20th century to today.

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 16 years

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  1. Sam says:

    Great choices!