Sunday, 10 December 2017

Book Club 2017

For me, this year has not been a stand-out year for photo-books. No bad thing, as I've been trying to ease off on my book-buying, anyway, partly because I've got far too many already, but also because I think the photo-book boom has got out of hand, and the rewards are diminishing as more and more half-baked projects get the full-on luxury treatment. You know the sort of thing: a top-quality, cloth-bound publication with tasteful but possibly over-designed layouts, accompanied by an incredibly expensive "special" edition in a slipcase or clamshell box with a small print and a signed archival envelope of the artist's nail-clippings thrown in for good measure. But the actual work? Meh. True talent is always spread thin, and it only gets spread thinner by this sort of hyperventilated, premature publication.

Nonetheless ... I have bought a few books of particular interest, so allow me to draw your attention to some of them.

Nancy Rexroth, Iowa
I said my piece on this landmark book (from that landmark year, 1977) in this blog post, and have nothing to add. If you didn't buy a copy then, I can't see you're going to buy one now. Even though you should.

Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression Final Cut
Michael Wolf (website here) is a photographer whose thematic compilations are full of interest (particularly those delightful small books from German publisher Peperoni Books collating objects like brooms and chairs found in the back-alleys of Hong Kong), but the series of "Tokyo Compression" books – in which tube passengers in Tokyo are captured crushed against grimy, condensation-covered windows – established a genre and brought him to wider attention. This "Final Cut" edition is his own selection of the best of these wonderful images, that capture moments of private interiority in conditions of enforced intimacy with the rest of humanity. We've all been there. Christmas is coming.

Stephen Gill, Night Procession
I'm ambivalent about Stephen Gill's work, which often seems to be driven more by some gimmick than any real vision or theme, but when he's good he's really good, and he really knows how to put a top-quality book together. The gimmick of Night Procession is the use of a movement-triggered camera and infra-red flash to capture nocturnal wildlife in his new rural Swedish neighbourhood – quite a radical change from the grimy streets of Hackney (some sample images here and a book preview here). They have an ethereally-drawn quality that I find very beautiful. And the book itself is a real pleasure to handle.

Stephen Coates, X-Ray Audio
This book is one part of an extraordinary project, documenting the use of old x-ray plates to create bootleg audio-recordings of forbidden music like jazz and rock'n'roll in the Soviet era (website here). As visual objects, these discs are simply remarkable (and, it has to be said, spookily reminiscent of some of my own work), and although I am very familiar with Russian samizdat print publications from that era I had never come across this phenomenon before. File under Weird and Wonderful.

Andrew Tatham, A Group Photograph
I must admit I haven't got around to reading this one yet, the result of another multi-output long-term project, but just the idea of it sold it to me (website here). In recent years, like so many, I've become very interested in my own family history, and have shown various vintage group photographs of, for example, my grandfather in WW1 on this blog. Anyone in possession of such photographs must surely have wondered about the identities of the other, non-family members in the group, but will almost certainly have done nothing about it. Andrew Tatham has, and – taking it several stages further – has not only tracked down every man in a particular formal WW1 group photograph in his possession, but also their pre- and post-war lives and careers, and even found their descendants. It's a remarkable enterprise, that took over twenty years; as the website says, every man has been remembered "as if he were a part of your own family". Like all such acts of "remembrance", one hundred years on, it's both deeply moving and gloriously pointless. That's a recommendation, in case you were wondering, and also, of course, a fairly sound definition of "art". In fact, you might even say that this sort of project is a true form of conceptual art, that puts the empty, ego-driven posturings of most work trading under that label to shame.
As always, I'd urge you to buy your books either directly from the artist's or the publisher's website, or from a specialist bookseller. In the UK I use both Beyond Words and PhotoBookStore, both of which offer an excellent service. If I lived in the USA, I'd probably recommend photo-eye. These booksellers all run what libraries call a "current awareness" service, in the form of a regular newsletter and a "what's new" spot on their websites. Sign up, if you like your photo-books, but be like a patient watcher of the skies, waiting for a rare glimpse of a spectacular comet. You have to keep your eye on the constant stream of the ordinary to know the truly wonderful when it appears, and be quick to capture it before it goes.


amolitor said...

The X-Ray audio thing strikes me as an elaborate joke. Not to say that it *is* but it certainly had the flavor of a joke that escaped and is becoming Common Knowledge.

I guess I should see what has come up with on it, if anything.

Mike C. said...

No, seems real enough to me -- can't see where the humour would lie if it was! "Stilyagi" etc., are all well-enough known phenomena of the Soviet era.