My favourite photobooks in 2014

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Lists are silly, but we all love them (at least in some ways). Photoland spends obsessing over lists for roughly six weeks every year, the best of this or that… You know the drill. Given I am really only seeing a fraction of all the photobooks produced, I think the idea of a list of the “best” photobooks doesn’t make much sense for me (see some statistics etc. here). I’d rather talk about my favourite books – that small subset out of the group that somehow made it into my hands, resonating most strongly.

This year, I started using a rating system for photobook reviews. I haven’t seen it adopted, even in modified form, anywhere else. So it doesn’t seem the idea is overly popular. Or maybe people aren’t so willing to say in public what they’ll talk about over a beer. Regardless, having to look at each and every book based on a more strict system has made me look more carefully at books. It has deepened my engagement with photobooks.

The rating system runs from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest possible rating. Most of the books I review end up somewhere in the range between 3 and 4. Some books rate more highly, a few less so. This doesn’t reflect the rating system itself as much as my decisions which books to review and which ones to pass over.

It has been noted that photoland has a big problem with negative reviews – there are hardly any. Realistically speaking, there are way more bad photobooks than good ones, and there isn’t much to be gained from reviewing most of those bad ones. Also, and this is important to me, if someone barely known, publisher or photographer, produces a bad book trashing it doesn’t feel right. Major publishers or big-name photographers – that’s another story. So that’s where I’m coming from.

There are quite a few books that I still have to review. Obviously, those are excluded from the list of rated books. Some of them are also excluded from the list of my favourite books – they’ll simply be on next year’s list.

There is some overlap between the list of books most highly rated in this system and the list of my favourite books. I’m actually glad that these two lists aren’t identical: there are some things you simply can’t measure. It’s art. The ratings provide some important measures for what matters in a photobook. Beyond that there is… all that which is subjective.

Here then are all the books with ratings equal to or higher than 4 (note that this list only includes book I already reviewed – you can find the reviews in the archives): Heikki Kaski – Tranquility (Lecturis 2014) 4.9; Awoiska van der Molen – Sequester (Fw: 2014) 4.7; Laia Abril – The Epilogue (Dewi Lewis 2014) 4.5; The Sochi Project – An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture 2013) 4.3; Peter van Agtmael – Disco Night Sept 11 (Red Hook Editions 2014) 4.3; Tobias Zielony – Jenny Jenny (Spector 2013) 4.3; Willeke Duijvekam – Mandy and Eva (self 2013) 4.2; Philip-Lorca diCorcia – Hustlers (Steidl 2013) 4.1; Joan Fontcuberta – The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography (MACK 2013) 4.1; Mayumi Hosokura – Crystal Love Starlight (Tycoon Books 2014) 4.1; Cristina deMiddel – Party. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (AMC/RM 2014) 4.0; Jim Goldberg – Rich and Poor (Steidl 2014) 4.0; Muge – Going Home (Jiazazhi 2013) 4.0; Michael Schmidt – Natur (MACK 2014) 4.0.

And these are my favourite books this year (in no particular order really):

Harvey Benge‘s  Some Things You should Have Told Me (Dewi Lewis 2013) should have been on my list last year, the only reason why it wasn’t being that I forgot to add it. It’s the kind of book that looks and feels somewhat unassuming until you realize what it really has to offer.

I have always loved Muge‘s pictures that became Going Home (Yanyou Di Yuan 2014), and the book truly doesn’t disappoint (review).

I am convinced that Peter Van Agtmael‘s Disco Night Sept 11 (Red Hook Editions 2014) will ultimately find itself in the company of those few books that powerfully speak of the folly and horror of war in a lasting manner. This book is going to be the book about the so-called war on terror, which resulted from imperial hubris as much as incompetence, a deadly and terrible combination when in the hands of those who find themselves in power (review).

Julia Borissova‘s Vegstvo Na Krai [Running to the Edge] (self 2014) displays the true beauty of self-publishing.

Philipp Ebeling‘s Land Without Past (Fishbar 2014) finds another young German photographers trying to cope with his country’s past (review).

From what I can tell, Eamonn Doyle‘s i (self 2014) appears to rub some people the very wrong way, which is marvelous. It’s a book I didn’t think I’d like this much (review).

Daisuke Yokota has been churning out way too many books. Linger (Akina 2014) is a true gem that makes one forget most of the other ones (see my article about the photographer).

As much as I do not appreciate the size and production itself, Katy Grannan‘s The Nine/The Ninety Nine (Fraenkel 2014) is great.

At a time when so much photography is so unwilling to be, well, sexy, Mayumi Hosokura‘s Crystal Love Starlight (Tycoon 2014) shows us what photography can do, and I think it really helps it’s not another middle-aged guy photographing much younger female models (review).

Laia Abril‘s The Epilogue (Dewi Lewis 2014): Smart and clever and heartfelt – yes, you can have all three of these. The book raised the bar for those trying to tell documentary-style stories considerably (review).

I had been looking forward to seeing Heikki Kaski‘s Tranqulity (Lecturis 2014) since it won an award I was a jury member of last year, and it didn’t disappoint. Possibly the one book I’d pick as my most favourite book this year (review).

Awoiska van der Molen‘s Sequester (Fw: 2014) presents the underlying work in a very smart way, allowing the viewer to engage with the photographs, which in theory really require the presence of the artist’s magnificent prints, through the medium photobook. Intensely beautiful (review).

Masako Tomiya’s Tsugaru (Hakkoda 2013) was one of the surprise finds this year (thank you, Peter!). Somewhere between Issei Suda and Rinko Kawauchi, bringing the best of both to photography (review).

Arwed Messmer re-worked East Germany’s Stasi (Ministry for State Security, officially known as MfS, colloquially known as Stasi) archives, going beyond the creepy or weird, and pointing at the outright evil (I’m not using this word lightly), while showing the role of photography: Reenactment MfS (Hatje Cantz 2014).

Federico Clavarino ‘s Italia o Italia (Akina 2014) deals with the state the country is in, in ways that aren’t quite so obvious and near the surface. A surprisingly engaging and deceptively simple book.

Did I need another book by Thomas Ruff? Well, yes, I did: Editions (Hatje Cantz 2014) presents this artist’s work, based on special editions he has been making over the years, using a variety of often unusual printing processes. I’m a big, big fan of Ruff, and this book adds a lot to the canon.

Cyril CostilhesGrand Circle Diego (Akina 2014) is another Akina book in this list. I hope the publisher won’t repeat the various mistakes other publishers have made in the past, when popularity resulted in too many books, severely diluting quality… We’ll see. Regardless, Grand Circle Diego is an impressive book, full of mystery and terror; and I have the feeling it’ll ruffle some feathers.

It takes someone like Rafal Milach to make a book like The Winners (Gost 2014), where you take a very simple and seemingly obvious idea, to present it in a way that’s deeply engaging and often bitingly funny. A brilliant example of the form of a photobook really enhancing its function. Oh, and would there please be a second edition so that people who haven’t seen it can get their copy as well?

Shomei Tomatsu‘s Chewing Gum and Chocolate (Aperture 2014) turned out to be a bit of a surprise for me. Expecting a fairly obvious compilation and/or re-release of older, known work, the book instead presents what could or maybe should or maybe just might have been the eponymous book the artist had been planning to make for a while. Included are a few very good essays, which make it a must buy for anyone interested in photography from Japan.

Rosalind Fox Solomon‘s Them (MACK) has so far resisted my attempts to review it, which might just be a good sign. Of all the books recently made in/around Israel and Palestine by far the very best I think.

I found Abigail Heyman‘s Growing Up Female (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1974) in a second-hand bookshop for $6, and I ended up being blown away by its beauty and power. Forty years later, things haven’t really changed that much – a book for our times (find a few thoughts about it here).

Lastly, there’s Issei Suda‘s Waga-Tōkyō hyaku (Nikon Salon Books 5. Tokyo: Nikkor Club, 1979), which was re-released in 2013  (note the previous link points to the re-release). I was given the 1979 copy (thank you again, Peter!), and it has become a book I have spent a lot of time with this year.

Conscientious Portfolio Competition 2014: The Winners

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Emine Gozde Sevim

Now it its sixth year, the Conscientious Portfolio Competition has become an important part of this site. With the help of two external judges, three emerging photographers are chosen as winners. This year, Arianna Rinaldo and Thomas Weski very kindly agreed to make their selection from the shortlist.

There are a few things that I personally am proud of as far as the competition is concerned. For a start, it’s free to enter. It’s no pay-to-play scheme. What is more, the eventual winners are selected blindly, mimicking blind auditions: the judges get a set of photographs (and nothing else), with the names of the artists encrypted. This, I believe, is a good way to at least attempt some of the problems plaguing contemporary photography, namely its imbalance concerning gender and race. For what it’s worth, including this year’s winners, there have been 12 female and 7 male winners.

Here are this year’s winners. Arianna Rinaldo picked Kentaro Takahashi‘s submitted portfolio, The Riverbed:

“The work intrigued me from the beginning and stayed on my list until the end. I am attracted by the fact that the focus of the story seems to be just OUTSIDE the frame, not in the actual shot. There is something going on that viewer cannot participate in. There is a sense of suspension that brings me to want to see more, a sort of other dimension that will final give an answer to the somewhat surreal, unfinished gestures in the images that I am let to see.”

Thomas Weski selected Emine Gozde Sevim‘s Homeland Delirium:

“After much consideration I came to the point to select four group of works as my favorites, which I all find interesting because of the personal commitments of their authors showing in their photographs. But I am voting for Emine Gozde Sevim as finalist as I find her work best in its translation of a political topic into interesting images.”

My own choice is Lucy Levene‘s The Spaghetti Tree:

“I actually still haven’t quite figured out why or how The Spaghetti Tree keeps such a strong presence in my mind. That, ultimately, is the sign of good photography: it will stay with you and keep asking questions, instead of providing superficial answers. With The Spaghetti Tree, Lucy Levene not only shows her skills as an image maker, she also displays a profound understanding of photographic conventions, which, when played against each other, keep irritating the viewer, to confound expectations.”

My thanks to Arianna Rinaldo and Thomas Weski, and to all those who submitted their work! And congratulations to the winners!

Anouk Kruithof – The Bungalow

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In an email to Anouk Kruithof, Brad Feuerhelm wrote “There are also waaaaay too many people simply editing images of a vernacular sort. […] I believe there is a grand difference between being an arty editor and an artist. I am the arty editor and you are certainly an artist.” This statement goes to the core of what has indeed become very popular over the past few years. If we want to accept the distinction between an arty editor and an artist, the question of course becomes: what does the artist do that the arty editor doesn’t do? The answer is – in part – provided by The Bungalow, a book in which Kruithof boldly pushes the boundaries of what can be done with vernacular photography (the quote comes from one of the various emails, which Feuerhelm exchanged with Kruithof and which are reproduced in the book).

It all begins with Feuerhelm’s collection of vernacular photographs, from which he pre-selected a set of a 2,500, to present to Kruithof (I remember seeing this number somewhere in the book, but now I can’t re-find it). Kruithof, in turn, whittled these down to 500, which she took to a place somewhere in the south of Holland, “the bungalow,” to work with or maybe more precisely on them.

As far as I can tell, there are different levels of working with vernacular materials. Even the arty editor breaks down into how arty you get, how much of an editing you really do, ranging from mostly just finding material to finding material based on some category, with the latter being either a category in the pictures themselves (for example pictures of dogs) or something beyond that (for example pictures of men wearing funny jackets). There’s nothing wrong with such approaches per se, even though things can quickly feel a bit stale.

In contrast, artists working with vernacular photography usually treat it as raw material in the actual sense, as material that can be changed or modified in as drastic a fashion as they can think of. Seen that way, The Bungalow might come at the more extreme end, which will make it not very easily digestible for those who prefer their soup thin. Well, c’est la vie. That is art, after all. Artists can do whatever the hell they want.

Kruithof is a rare breed, in that she is a conceptual photographer who manages to infuse her work with a lot of exactly the kind of energy, fun, and passion that is usually completely absent from the genre. On top of that, where most conceptual photography never manages to get beyond the concept itself, Kruithof’s work usually (but not always) transcends its original ideas. This really is the only kind of conceptual photography I enjoy, where the concept is less of a rigid skeleton or scaffolding that holds everything together than a springboard, from which all kinds of other things might derive.

The material in The Bungalow usually is reworked heavily, if not beyond recognition. It is so tempting to keep vernacular photography in its original form, to, indirectly, celebrate the often quirky way it was made. Kruithof, in contrast, decided to create something entirely different out of material that, I think, most other artists (or maybe arty editors) would have preserved. A series of bondage photographs end up getting essentially disemboweled, their subjects – as far as I can tell mostly women – cut out, literally cut out. Mind you, the viewer gets to see those cut outs: there’s a spread that shows a pile made from them.

Process itself, the means of creating something new out of pre-existing material, plays a large role in the book. The bound women were literally cut from their source images. A large number of spreads shows screenshots (or parts of them) of what looks like Photoshop in action, including the various tools available in that software: guide lines, frames, … Describing things this way probably makes the book a lot less interesting than it actually is. The basic strategy behind its making is simple, the results are anything but.

The Bungalow is divided into a set of chapters, each of which uses different strategies to re-work the original source material, and which use different types of paper (there are large section printed on blue paper, for example). While I do feel that the book would have benefited from a tighter edit – reducing it to about 50% of its material probably would have been a good improvement, the book still demonstrates what can be done with vernacular photography beyond artful edits. Anyone interested in this type of photography might want to have a look.

The Bungalow; images by Anouk Kruithof, based on vernacular photographs from Brad Feuerhelm’s collection; 272 pages; Onomatopee; 2014

Rating: Photography 3*, Book Concept 4, Edit 2, Production 4 – Overall 3.4

(* the rating for “photography” here refers to the vernacular images)

Heikki Kaski – Tranquillity

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The problem with photography is that regardless of whether you, the photographer, believe that what you point your camera at to make a picture is actually in it, large parts of your audience will do just that. Photography’s descriptiveness is its strength and its curse. People will see a photograph of a person as that person, or as a photograph of that person, even if what you’re interested in is something a lot more universal than that. In much the same fashion, a photograph of some place becomes that place, resulting in some people actually watching over whether certain places, let’s say Appalachia, is depicted in the proper way. Might they not be served better by their local tourist offices?

If photography wants to be a true art form it will have to engage in a world that at least acknowledges the fact that the visual description of whatever was in front of a camera lens (which might or might not have been altered – let’s ditch the term “manipulated” – during post-production) does not in fact describe the actual topic. In other words, you can engage with Tranquillity as photography, or as art that happens to use photography. I realize how useless it is to re-open the discussion about whether or not photography is art. That said, if we accept that photography is – or maybe more realistically: can be – art, then we have to treat it as art – and not as merely photography. To somewhat loosely paraphrase David Campany, photography describes what is (or rather what was the moment the picture was taken), art (-photography) alludes to what could be or maybe should be.

There is a town called Tranquillity somewhere in California (the Wikipedia page tells you more), one of those numerous God-forgotten places that litter the North American continent. This is where Heikki Kaski went to take photographs, which resulted in Tranquillity, the book (“the book,” the photographer’s website notes, “comes with an endless edition of nothing”). To take up my earlier train of thought, as a viewer, you now have an option. You can take all of this at face value and try to determine what the book tells you about the place. Alternatively, you can treat the title and hence the town as a red herring and try to experience the book in a different way. I am going to go for the latter.

My task is made a little easier given that Kaski employs a few games in the book that, I think, hint at his desire to move beyond photography’s literalness, its descriptiveness, to show how little is gained from sticking to exactly that, the literalness, descriptiveness. For example, early on in the book, two pictures can be found side by side, both of them showing a tree covered by a tarp. Their framing is  slightly different, but crucially, so is the time of day. One was taken at night, the tree illuminated by a flash, the other one during the day. It’s the same picture, and it isn’t. It gives us the same information, and it doesn’t. These picture are not in any kind of literal way about that tree. They’re not even about how photography renders the scene at different times of the day (that would just be another way of being very literal). They are instead about a clarity of description and, crucially, how little is gained from it if we stay too close to that.

Later in the book, right around the middle, there is a sequence of images bookended by bright orange pages. Each of those images shows the sky, with a flock of birds circling in it. It’s one of the most marvelous parts of a photobook I’ve seen in a while. It completely stops you in your track, it interrupts whatever experience you might be having with the book until then, it takes you into a different state of mind, and then it drops you right back into the main story. It’s almost shocking to see how well this works. There we are, thinking about how photobooks work, how you edit and carefully sequence them, and Kaski throws a spanner into those wheels, breaking up the flow of the book, subverting one type of artifice with another, only to make it work.

There are more games like these being played in the book, and they all work. They all work effortlessly, in a way that is less about playing the game and about showcasing how visually smart the book’s maker is, then about alluding to a state of mind. Tranquillity ultimately is a state of mind more than anything else, a visual meditation that uses a somewhat specific place as a conduit for a larger story that, in the end, cannot be revealed. Photographically, a lot is obscured. Where something isn’t obscured it is shown in multiple ways (like the tree) to remind us how little photography’s descriptiveness actually shows. It’s a book that I have been looking at over and over, almost obsessively, without ever getting tired of it.

Tranquillity; photographs by Heikki Kaski; text by Veli-Matti Hoikka; 118 pages; Lecturis; 2014

Rating: Photography 5, Book Concept 5, Edit 5, Production 4.5 – Overall 4.9