The Year in Photobooks

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Many moons ago, when this blog was still in the very early stages of planning, I dismissed the idea of writing about photography and I’m not entirely sure why.  I’m married to a photographer, I’ve worked as a newspaper and magazine photo editor for longer than I care to remember, and I’ve written about photography and photo-based art for over a decade now. I guess I felt that photography was intrinsically linked to my old working life, and this space was to be focused on a new, slowed down way of living following my own creative pursuits and storytelling. But the truth is that photography still excites me as much as it ever did – and it remains a big part of my life. It occurred to me that it didn’t feel authentic to not write about it.  

I love looking at photobooks. The very best ones are works of art in their own right. In our increasingly digital world, where physical objects are, in many cases, being replaced by virtual ones, the photobook gives me the joy of engaging with great photography in the most tactile and sensory way.  Photographs look so much better in print than on a computer screen - as beautifully illustrated by the books here.  In a sense, I see the photobook is a miniature mobile exhibition.  In fact, in many ways I prefer looking at a good photography book to visiting an exhibition because the experience is so solitary and personal, and I can take my time in a way that doesn’t feel natural in a gallery space.

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There have been some brilliant books this past year but there are a few that particularly caught my eye.  When a really good book comes along, one of the things it does is to draw attention to the absence of such a book on your shelves before it arrived.  Stardust by Amy Friend stands out for its emphasis the tactile nature of the photobook experience, and for its sheer beauty. Friend re-invents a series of vintage photographs (some dating back to the 1920s), creating new, imaginary worlds. Scores of laser cut holes are peppered throughout the pages, so that the images appear to have been sprinkled with light. The pages invite touch - press your fingertips lightly down on the delicate paper pages and the starbursts appear brighter. The effect is magical. French bound and housed in its own laser cut paper box, this a book to treasure.

In Halo, Rinko Kawauchi has made a thing of astonishing beauty, and in doing so cements her reputation as a master bookmaker.  Kawauchi explores the themes of time and transience, and rituals both physical and spiritual in three series that are linked by the lunar calendar and the earth’s seasonal rhythms. She has captured the great shifting shadows of migratory birds at dusk on the South East coast of England;the rain of light as locals throw molten iron against the city walls in a three hundred year old festival in the Hebei province of China; and refractions of light glittering through raindrops during a sacred festival called Kami Mukae Sai along the shoreline of the Izumo region of Japan. At once strikingly atmospheric and almost luminously beautiful, the sequencing is thoughtful and measured. And the printing is exquisite, adding another dimension to this remarkable book.

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Equally powerful is the re-issued Sleeping By The Mississipi by Alec Soth.  When it was originally published, in 2004, Soth (quite rightly) won prizes and plaudits for hisquietly theatrical colour images that capture the ordinariness of people on the fringes of society during his trip along America’s “forgotten coast.” The forty six immaculately composed images – of landscapes, interiors and portraits, and of discard and decay, have an air of melancholy and loss. The driving force behind these images is curiosity. Throughout the five year project, Soth asked his subjects to write down their dreams: “I dream of running water,” says one. This is work that makes you look at the world differently.

At the heart of John Chiara’s work is a celebration of process.  Chiara describes what he does as “part photography, part sculpture, and part event.” Each image is unique because he doesn’t shoot on film; instead he loads photographic paper directly into his custom-built camera and exposes it. Chiara has been photographing California most of his life.  Choosing locations that are often non-descript or overlooked, he often works in a place for extended periods of time.  He arrives, assembles his camera, then uses his body to dodge and burn areas of the image.  The prints are scorched with light flares where he’s pointed the camera directly at the sun, have irregular edges, and are dented and creased where he’s forced the large, unwieldysheets of paper into the camera. This sculptural effect of the work is emphasised in the quality of the printing in the book, which has fold-out pages and a silkscreen cover.  But it’s Chiara’s radically experimental, yet slow, sustained way of working that I find most fascinating.

The plates in Sisters by Sophie Taylor-Harris may be small but are no less strong in their force of personality. Taylor-Harris explores the complexity and uniqueness of sororal relationships in a subtle, thought-provoking way in a sensitive series of intimate portraits that she describes as “a celebration of sisterhood, in all its glory and with all its flaws.”  Over a period of two years, Taylor-Harris photographed and interviewed more than 100 sets of sisters.  Shot using natural light, the resulting works are both effective and strangely affecting. They’re housed in a cloth-bound hardback book published by Hoxton Mini Press - one of my favourite independent book publishers - who make beautiful, collectable photobooks.

Guy Bourdin is well known for his surreal and provocative fashion works shot in vibrant colour. But “Untouched” brings together a series of recently discovered black and white prints from his archive that have lain dormant for more than half a century.  Shot during his formative years (Bourdin is a self-taught photographer) between 1949, the year after his military service and 1955, the year he was first commissioned for Vogue, the majority were made in Paris.  What is notable is the way he homes in on the geometry of the built environment, and his mastery of tone and contrast that anticipates his later skill as a colourist.

I’m of the firm belief that there are two types of people in this world: cat people and dog people. I have nothing against dogs but I am resolutely on “team cat”. As a nation, we are obsessed, posting over 3 million cat pictures and videos online every day.  But you’ll find no cats eating cake or sporting Trump-inspired toupee in Photocat, edited by Dutch photographer Sacha de Boer.  Here, photographers capture feline quirks and characteristics in a way that is as artful as it is playful. In Alla Dolgaleva’s impressionist portrait, a diminutive black cat appears as a shadowy presence identifiable only by her wide eyes that glow out of the darkness like amber headlamps.  Only the tail and hind legs of a ginger tomcat are visible as he leaps out of the frame in his best attempt to evade the Bob Bronhoft's lens; and Jason Houge summons the spirit of Masahisa Fukase in his ghostly black and white shot of a prowl of cats silhouetted in a tree.

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