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05 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Photography Books of 2011

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What the world’s last living nomads have to do with Victorian strongwomen, tweed, and the unseen Beatles.

After the year’s best illustrated books for (eternal) kids and finest art, design, and creativity books, my best-of series continues with a look at the best photography books of 2011 — visual treasure troves that tell an important story, reveal a fascinating piece of history, or just deeply delight with a fresh perspective on a familiar subject.

PILGRIMAGE

Annie Leibovitz is one of today’s most prolific and celebrated photographers, her lens having captured generations of cultural icons with equal parts admiration and humanity. Unlike her other volumes, her latest book, out earlier this month, features no celebrities, no luminaries, no models — at least not directly. Instead, Pilgrimage is Leibovitz’s thoughtful meditation on how she can sustain her creativity in the face of adversity and make the most of her remaining time on Earth. The quest took her to such fascinating locales and pockets of cultural history as Charles Darwin’s cottage in the English countryside, Virginia Woolf’s writing table, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and Freud’s final couch. It’s is as much a photographic feat of Leibovitz’s characteristically epic proportion as it is a timeless cultural treasure chest full of mementos and meta-iconography from the hotbed of 20th-century thought.

The kernel of the idea came before Leibovitz’s partner, the great Susan Sontag, died — the two of them had planned to do a book of places that were important to them, which they meticulously compiled in lists. Years after Sontag’s death, upon visiting Niagara Falls with her three young kids, Leibovitz decided to start her own list and do the book on her own.

From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal. It taught me to see again.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

The darkroom in Ansel Adams's home in Carmel, California, now owned by Adams’s son, Michael, and his wife, Jeanne, friends of Leibovitz

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

The Niagara Falls in Ontario

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Annie Oakley’s heart target from a private collection in Los Angeles, California

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Emily Dickinson's only surviving dress at the Amherst Historical Society in Amherst, Massachusetts

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A glass negative of a multiple-lens portrait of Lincoln made on Feb. 9, 1864, by Anthony Berger at the Brady Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Sigmund Freud's couch in his study at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Virginia Woolf’s bedroom in her country home, which is a few miles from Charleston, England

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A door in the adobe patio wall of Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance warehouse in Yonkers, New York

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Dominique Browning paid Leibovitz a visit to chat about the book and has a lovely piece about it in the Times.

I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

Images courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

VENUS WITH BICEPS

Good thing this omnibus isn’t actually a ranked list, or else I might have been tempted to put Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women at the very top. This fascinating collection of rare archival images, 30 years in the making, chronicles nearly 200 years of sociocultural narrative about the strong female physique. It explores strongwomen’s legacy through rare posters, advertisements, comic books, flyers, and magazines, many never-before-published, for a total of 200 fantastic full-color and black-and-white illustrations and photographs, framed in their intriguing and far from frictionless cultural context. The women in them expanded and redefined femininity itself, reining in a new era of relating to the will and the body, but their plight was and remains far from easy, carried out most prominently in the battlefield of popular imagery.

Among the earliest strongwomen whose names have come down to us is the subject of this lithograph: Elise Serafin Luftmann. Apparently from a German-speaking region of Bohemia, she performed all over central Europe. Luftmann was famous for her ability to lift heavy weights and to juggle cannonballs. This illustration dates c. 1830.

There is something profoundly upsetting about a proud, confident, unrepentantly muscular woman. She risks being seen by her viewers as dangerous, alluring, odd, beautiful or, at worst, a sort of raree show. She is, in fact, a smorgasbord of mixed messages. This inability to come to grips with a strong, heavily muscled woman accounts for much of the confusion and downright hostility that often greets her.” ~ David L. Chapman

A way to diffuse male worries about women being too strong and threatening was to portray them in photos that emphasized their grace and beauty rather than their mass and musculature. Trapeze artists like this one had highly developed arms and upper bodies; it is significant that the photographer chose not to emphasize those parts of the subject's anatomy. Although her name and date are unknown, this gymnast is almost certainly a circus or music hall performer from the 1890s.

The ambivalence about women and muscularity has a long history, as it pushes at the limits of gender identity. Images of muscular women are disconcerting, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations.” ~ Patricia Vertinsky

The Belgian strongwoman had figured out that the one of the ways that she could amaze audiences was to lift a man on her shoulders. Eventually she was able to support half a dozen burly males as well as an oversized barbell.

In the early twentieth century, nothing conveyed the modern spirit of mobility, freedom, and independence better than the bicycle. When a pretty athletic girl was included, she added sexual desirability to the mix -- a sleek human machine joined to the manufactured machine. To many observers, this novel combination was exciting and perhaps a little frightening.

(On that note, see Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) below.)

Created between 1800 and 1980, the images trace society’s conflicted relationship with muscular women, met with everything from fascination to erotic objectification to derision, and even moral admonition. (A 1878 article for The American Christian Review, for instance, outlined a nine-step path to sin and humiliation, down which women participating in sports were headed — a simple croquet game could lead to picnics, which led to dances, which led to absence from church, which engendered moral degeneration…poverty…disconnect…disgrace…and, finally, ruin.) Coupled with this is the permeating fear that a sculpted musculature would effectively “unsex a woman.”

The strongest and most famous strongwoman of the Golden Age of the early twentieth century was Sandwina. Her birth name was Katie Brumbach. She stood over six feet tall and had enough bulk and muscle to amaze audiences with her prowess. Sandwina came from an athletic family, and in this poster c. 1900 she lifts three people (probably siblings) on a bicycle.

The Braselly Sisters were a pair of strongwomen who specialized in graceful and artistic strength stunts. They were also sisters of the even more famous female athlete, Sandwina. Here the two ladies do an adagio (acrobatic balancing) act. The photo found its way into The Police Gazette in 1909 where it was titled 'Muscles and Music.' The editors asked rhetorically, 'But don't you think the lady athletes are a stunning pair of statuesque beauties?'

When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise. here two cheerful ladies work out in their street clothes in a photograph c. 1910 by Willis T. White.

Curiously, the period between 1900 and 1914 was a golden age for images of muscular women, but these images become mysteriously difficult to find in popular media, until about the 1970s. Chapman speculates the advent of cinema and other popular entertainment displaced fairs, circuses, and vaudevilles, a prime venue for strongwomen, causing these foremothers to gradually disappear.

Lydia Pinkham marketed a vegetable compound that was supposed to alleviate menstrual and menopausal pains. The company was successful because the remedy was sold by a woman to women at a a time when females were considered childish and emotional to have much medical knowledge. Pinkham's company produced this booklet (with the same title as Bernarr Mcfadden's well-known magazine), c. 1900. It featured a female athlete flexing her muscles, and was emblematic of the positive and respectful attitude toward their customers.

In the 1940s and '50s, there were few places where muscular women congregated; one of the most important was in the circus. Aerialists, trapeze artists, and acrobats all developed impressive musculature by practicing their arts. There was a cadre of men who pursued these women and captured their flexing biceps on film. The pictures do not show much creativity or talent, but they document female muscularity at a time when such images were very rare. There is a rustic charm to these photographs, taken in off-hours in fort of circus wagons or company busses. Unfortunately, few paying customers wanted to see girls posing like this.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, women had to appear as ladylike as possible, even when doing something as traditionally masculine as working out with weights. This girl is doing a seated press with respectably heavy weight, but her high heels and helmet0like hairdo are like fig leaves preserving her femininity.

Captioned images courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press © 2011

Visually stunning, rigorously researched, and thoughtfully written, Venus with Biceps is as much a treasure chest of rare vintage ephemera as it is a fascinating and important meditation on a contentious facet of gender identity and cultural politics.

Full review, with many more images, here.

THE LOST BEATLES PHOTOGRAPHS

On the heels of last year’s release of Nowhere Boy, the lovely documentary about John Lennon’s little-known early life, rock historian Larry Marion deepens our cultural obsession with knowing the unknown Beatles in The Lost Beatles Photographs: The Bob Bonis Archive, 1964-1966 — a rare and revealing look at the iconic band through a series of intimate, never-before-seen photographs taken during The Beatles’ three U.S. tours.

The photos were taken by The Fab Four’s tour manager, Bob Bonis, who carried his Leica M3 camera everywhere, capturing pockets of wonderfully candid private moments tucked beneath the band’s overscheduled, overexposed public selves.

Bonis, a man of honor and loyalty, felt wrong about capitalizing on his unprecedented access, so for 40 years his photos remained a rare treat for his friends and family only. He passed away in 1992, and almost two decades later, his son Alex decided it was time to share his father’s collection with the thousands of Beatles fans around the world in The Lost Beatles Photographs.

In 1964, The Beatles boarded their charter jet at Seattle-Tacoma airport, heading to Vancouver for their first-ever Canadian concert, and the fourth in their first American tour, at the Empire Stadium on August 22.

George Harrison and Ringo Starr get ready to go onstage in Detroit on August 13, 1966

George Harrison and John Lennon at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, August 21, 1966

Ringo plays with a toy gun -- allegedly a gift from Elvis Presley -- during The Beatles' stay at British actor Reginald Owen's Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles while on their 1964 U.S. tour

While on stage at Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium on August 12, 1965, George Harrison turns around to face Bonis and gives him a warm thumbs-up

The Beatles begin the last tour they'd ever go on in Detroit, August 13, 1966

John Lennon in Portland, Oregon, on August 22, 1965

After the Vancouver shows, The Beatles flew to Los Angeles, only to find their reservation cancelled when the Ambassador Hotel was overrun by Beatlemaniacs. British actor Reginald Owen stepped in, offering them his Bel Air mansion for $1,000

Images courtesy of NPR / 2269 Productions, Inc. / NotFadeAwayGallery.com

Another fantastic Beatles-related release this year, worthy of an honorable mention, is Linda McCartney: Life in Photographs — a remarkable retrospective volume of work by the late and great Linda McCartney, wife of Paul and formidable music photographer who captured cultural icons like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Grateful Dead; she was also the first woman to land the coveted Rolling Stone magazine cover with her portrait of Eric Clapton in 1968.

Originally reviewed, with more images, in March.

SOUTH AFRICAN TOWNSHIP BARBERSHOPS

In his fantastic 2009 TED Talk, Steven Johnson explores how the English coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years. This tendency for physical places to transcend their mere utilitarian function and serve as hubs of (sub)cultural development is evident throughout history, from the cave fire pit that sparked the dawn of communal storytelling to today’s coworking spaces that offer fertile ground for collaborative betterment.

In South African Township Barbershops & Salons, photographer Simon Weller explores the peculiar cultural and social hubs of South African townships, salons and barbershop, which too transcend their mere function as places to get your hair cut and serve as pivotal places for the local community to gather, gossip and exchange ideas. Weller contextualizes the rich and vibrant photographs of the shops and portraits of their patrons with fascinating essays that expound on the aesthetics of these hubs and their signage though interviews with the owners, customers and sign designers.

Originally featured in May, with more images.

BELIEVING IS SEEING

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Case in point, the thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo in August.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

Originally featured here in September.

WHEELS OF CHANGE

Even as a die-hard bike lover, the full scope of the bicycle as an agent of cultural change eluded me until the release of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) — a remarkable National Geographic tome that tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity.

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Image: Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557) | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

Image: History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294 | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Image: © Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Image: © Norman Batho Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

via Sarah Goodyear / Grist

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Originally featured here in March.

On a similar note, another photographic treat for bike-lovers released this year is Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design — part heartfelt homage to the beauty of the bicycle, part museum of notable bike innovations, channeled by Vienna-based designer, bike aficionado and collector Michael Embacher through 100 remarkable bicycles.

AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION

Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”

Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — in a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970

Featured here in August.

SEA

You might recall photographer Mark Laita and his superb Created Equal series, with its beautiful and stark “parallel portraits” of contrasting subcultures. In October, Laita took his masterful eye for visual poetry to another fascinating, even more mysterious and alluring world in Sea — an otherworldly look at the creatures of the deep captured with equal parts cutting-edge photographic technique and imaginative whimsy to explore the extraordinary wonderland that lives beneath the surface of the world’s water. From iridescent jellyfish to prepossessing but deadly puffer fish to playful sea horses, the 104 images in the collection reveal the astounding grace, colors, and personalities of these marine characters with unprecedented artistry and passion.

North Pacific Giant Octopus

Blue Blubber Jellyfish

Golden Butterfly

Green Chromis

Humpback Anglerfish

Red Feather Starfish

Blue Spot Stingray

Miniatus Grouper

Images courtesy of Abrams Books / Mark Laita

HARRIS TWEED

Harris Tweed is a unique fabric hand-woven by the islanders on Scotland’s Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra, using local wool and vegetable dyes. Despite its rustic roots, this unusual cloth has risen to international fame, appearing as anything from a premium finish on limited-edition Nike shoes to the attire of choice for celebrated fictional characters like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, the Doctor from Doctor Who, and Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. Known for its distinctive flecks of color and peculiar scent, produced by the lichen dyes known as “crottle,” Harris Tweed is as much a material as it is a fascinating story about tradition, community, collaboration, and heritage.

In 2010, British photographer and Royal Society of the Arts fellow Lara Platman spent seven months on the islands of Scotland, documenting the intricate human machinery of Harris Tweed production, from the backs of the Blackface and Cheviot sheep to the artisanal looms to the high-end tailors of Savile Row. The result is Harris Tweed: From Land to Street — a stunning large-format tome that captures a group portrait of the men and women who spend their lives and make their living crafting the legendary textile.

'The box room contains all the colours of yarn required for the recipes created by the mill's designer from the colour palette of the mill.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

On a farm in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders, Will and Ruth Dickenson set up maternity wards next to the farmhouse during lambing season. The children play with the newly born lambs and give them names. Along with their extended family, they help look after the lambs.

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Patrick Grant captures the cloth’s magical tradition and heartfelt humanity in the book’s foreword:

I love the island and I love the people who live there and make the tweed. Harris Tweed is made by enthusiasts, craftsmen and women who understand its history, have had its methods passed on by hand and mouth through generations of their families and their neighbours’ families. This cloth, painstakingly woven, from yarn locally spun, from wool of the local clip, is imbued with something personal and humane that no other textile comes close to possessing. And the wearer, in his or her turn, adds something more to it by the wearing. He softens it and scuffs it and shapes it, cherishes and repairs it, and all in good time he passes it on so that a new owner may enjoy it anew. All of this makes Harris Tweed the greatest cloth of all.”

'Bill Walton is one of the best-known faces in the British wool industry, having worked in the business for the past forty years. He has been responsible for grading wool and helped adapt the new wools going into the Harris Tweed industry, working on the production of carding machines in the new double-width looms.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald John Mackenzie, one of the younger weavers, tried a number of careers before he thought he would have a go at this one. He likes the fact that weaving is a regular commitment and you know what salary you will achieve if you work a full week. He has a small croft and has written for the local community about the weaving process.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald Murray started weaving in 1987. His shed is very spacious and has great light. There is a top bar on his loom and although his tweed will be checked when it goes back to the mill, he checks it on the bar under the light before it goes.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'When the weavers have completed their work, the mills' lorries collect the lengths of tweed and bring them back to the mills to be finished. The tweed arrives in bales, which here Donald John Mackenzie is unloading at the Shawbost mill. First the tweed is sent off to be darned. Then it is washed: the process is similar to any domestic wash, and takes place in a big washing tub. Finally it is pressed.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Ultimately Harris Tweed has transcended fashion in terms of transient trends and been prompted to timeless style. As the tailors of Saville Row will tell you, no wardrobe is complete without an item in Harris Tweed, and this will always be the case.” ~ Guy Hills, Dashing Tweeds

Originally featured, with more images, in November.

HURRICANE STORY

When Hurricane Katrina swept across New Orleans six years ago next month, killing 1,836 people, damaging and destroying over 76,000 houses, and leaving many homeless, photographer Jennifer Shaw found solace in capturing the turmoil with a plastic Holga camera. Hers is a story both incredible and true — from the dramatic birth of her first child on the very day of Katrina’s first strike, to her struggle with depression and her husband’s rage episodes, to their eventual return to New Orleans in time for their son’s first Mardi Gras. Hurricane Story is part memoir, part fairy tale, part poetic story of exile and homecoming, told through 46 beautiful, dream-like images and simple but powerful prose. The Holga’s rudimentary functionality, with its limited control over exposure, focus and lighting, further intensifies the story’s haunting, cinematic feel, drawing you into a seemingly surreal world that sprang from an extraordinary and brave reality.

For an ultimate cherry on top, the book comes with a poignant foreword by New York Times “Consumed” columnist and fellow Design Observer writer Rob Walker.

Any city worth living in strikes a balance between order and chaos. I guess any life worth living strikes that balance too. In late August 2005, Jennifer Shaw’s city, and I can only assume her life, tilted too far in one direction. The remarkable series of forty-six images collected in Hurricane Story tells the tale, and in doing so sets the balance right again.” ~ Rob Walker

'We left in the dark of night.'

'My water broke at one-thirty that morning.'

'The next morning we turned on the TV.'

'It was impossible not to watch.'

'We took our hurricane sideshow on the road.'

'It was nice to have a distraction.'

'FEMA hauled off our downed trees.'

'It was months til the phone was restored.'

'We got a new roof before Christmas.'

'Anointed in glitter, we reclaimed the streets.'

Images courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

Originally featured here in July.

NOMAD

What is it about Dutch photographers that makes them so visually eloquent at capturing the human condition? From Jeroen Toirkens comes Nomad — a fascinating and strikingly beautiful visual anthropology of the Northern Hemisphere’s last living nomadic peoples, from Greenland to Turkey. A decade in the making, this multi-continent journey unfolds in 150 black-and-white and full-color photos that reveal what feels like an alternate reality of a life often harsh, sometimes poetic, devoid of many of our modern luxuries and basic givens, from shiny digital gadgets to a permanent roof over one’s head. A stunning exercise in perspective-shifting, it invites you to see the world — our world, and yet a world that feels eerily other — with new eyes, embracing it with equal parts fascination and profound human empathy.

Since the beginning of time, nomadic people have roamed the earth. Looking for food, feeding their cattle. Looking for an existence, freedom. Living in the wild, mountains, deserts, on tundra and ice. With only a thin layer of tent between them and nature. Earth in the 21st century is a crowded place, roads and cities are everywhere. Yet somehow, these people hold on to traditions that go back to the very beginning of human civilization.” ~ Jelle Brandt Corstius

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, 2009

Altai Mountains, Russia, 2006

Nuuk, Greenland, 2009

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Arghangai Aimag, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Nenets, Russia, 2005

Baruun Taiga, Mongolia, 2004

Kazakh, Altai Mountains, Russia, 2004

Berbers, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2002

Kirgiz, Kyrgystan, 2000

Yörük, Bolkar Mountains, Turkey, 1999

Sami, Karesuvanto, Finland, 2001

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Images courtesy of Jeroen Toirkens

Originally featured here, with more images and video, in October.

* * *

A big part of what makes great photography books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?

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24 NOVEMBER, 2011

John Lennon’s Handwritten To-Do List

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What a broken bathroom hook has to do with Norwegian ethnography and the cable guy.

I’m relentlessly intrigued by the lists and to-do’s of famous creators, which reveal a private everyday facet of the public creative self. Last week, the talented Wendy MacNaughton (yep, her) recreated Leonardo da Vinci’s, and now comes John Lennon’s hand-written to-do list, a fine addition to this week’s vintage Beatles love. (Going for a mere $3,000 on this auction site.)

As a bibliophile, I was thrilled to see a fragment of Lennon’s reading list — including this book on the mystery of the Hope Diamond, an unnamed tome by Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl, and Margaret Trudeau’s Beyond Reason, a memoir about life as a wild hippie flower child turned Prime Minister’s first lady — as well as mundane errands like fixing the bathroom hook and all-too-relatable tediums like being home when the cable guy shows up.

For more little-known Lennon, don’t miss Bob Bonis’s lost Beatles photographs.

HT chained and perfumed; HT this isn’t happiness

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22 NOVEMBER, 2011

We Love You, Beatles: Vintage Children’s Illustration Circa 1971

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Can’t buy me love, but you can buy me this vintage treasure.

The Beatles are an utmost favorite around here. We’ve previously explored how the Fab Four changed animation, an infographic visualization of their life and music, Bob Bonis’s lost Beatles photographs, and Linda McCartney’s tender portraits of the icons. Now comes We Love You, Beatles — a stunning vintage illustrated children’s book from 1971 by Margaret Sutton (not the Margaret Sutton who penned the Judy Bolton mysteries). It tells the story of The Beatles, from their humble Liverpool beginnings to meeting the Queen to the British invasion of America, blending the bold visual language of mid-century graphic design with the vibrant colors of pop art.

The trees were rocking and the clouds were swaying and the flowers were swinging and the birds were dancing to the Beatles sound. ‘Let’s sing about love and people being happy.’ The Beatles sing songs you can sing in the sunshine. Sing them! Sing the Beatles’ songs!”

More than a charming way to explain who The Beatles were to a kid, We Love You, Beatles is a wonderful and visually gripping piece of cultural ephemera from a turning point in the history of both popular music and popular art.

Spotted on Burgin Streetman’s wonderful Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves

Donating = Loving

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31 OCTOBER, 2011

From Philosophy to Art, 10 Essential Books on Protest

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What Billie Holiday has to do with Burma, growing your own marijuana, and the American Revolution.

2011 has been the year of protest. From the Arab Spring to the London Riots to the global Occupy Wall Street movement, civic unrest and sociopolitical dissent have reached a tipping point of formidable scale. This omnibus of ten nonfiction books that illuminate protest through the customary Brain Pickings lens of cross-disciplinary curiosity, spanning everything from psychology and philosophy to politics and government to art and music, extends an invitation to better understand the art, science, and psychology of protest, both in our present reality and in the broader context of our civilization.

33 REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE (2011)

Since the dawn of modern history, song and poetry have been tightly woven into movements of social change. In some cases, singers have been censored, arrested, beaten, or even killed for their vocal bravery. (Just recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement attracted such legends as Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie.) In others, they have unscrupulously exploited the protest ethos to garner publicity for mediocre pop songs. In 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day, British rock critic Dorian Lynskey digs deep into the underbelly of 20th-century protest songs to explore why the best of them give you chills and goosebumps, even decades later.

The best protest songs are not dead artifacts, pinned to a particular place and time, but living conundrums. The essential, inevitable difficulty of contorting a serious message to meet the demands of entertainment is the grit that makes the pearl.”

And, lest we forget, music is particularly engrained in America’s present political reality. When Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States, he stood up in front of one hundred thousand supporters and channeled the exhilaration of his inauguration by paraphrasing the lyrics of soul singer Sam Cooke’s iconic anthem. “It’s been a long time coming, ” Obama proclaimed. “It’s been a long, long time coming,” Cooke sang. “..but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” “…but I know a change gonna come.

Obama is, in a sense, the first protest song president. He grew up on the politicized soul of Stevie Wonder and used Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem “Move on Up” at his election rallies. During the campaign, a list of his ten favorite songs printed in Blender magazine included “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, “Think” by Aretha Franklin, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” which was written around a recording of his own speech, thus making him the lyricist of his own protest song.”

From Billie Holiday’s 1939 “Strange Fruit,” the first openly anti-racism song and the tipping point at which pop music fully embraced politics, to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and other anthems of the 1970s anti-war movement to contemporary songwriters addressing everything from nuclear energy to corruption, Lynskey lays out a layered and fascinating study of the intersection of music and politics.

Billie Holiday recording 'Strange Fruit,' 1939

Charles Peterson/Associated Press, courtesy of Don Peterson/ITVS via The New York Times

For a while, in the dizzying rush of the 1960s, it was thought that pop music could change the world, and some people never recovered from the realization that it could not. But the point of protest music, or indeed any art with a political dimension, is not to shift the world on its axis but to change opinions and perspectives, to say something about the times in which you live, and, sometimes, to find that what you’ve said speaks to another moment in history, which is how Barack Obama came to be standing in Grant Park paraphrasing the worlds of Sam Cooke.”

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE (1849)

Even though Henry David Thoreau’s beard ranks rather low on Underwood’s Pogonometric Index of poetic gravity by beard weight, his legacy as a poet, philosopher, abolitionist, historian, and transcendentalist makes him one of the most important thinkers in modern history. In his seminal 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau made a compelling case for individual resistance to civil government that would inspire generations of revolutionaries and ordinary nonconformists alike to engage in moral protest against being made unwitting accomplices in the injustices perpetrated by the state. The essay, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the form ever written, was inspired in part by Thoreau’s outrage over slavery in America and the Mexican-American War, and was based on his 1848 lecture “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government.” Insights and elements from it have inspired some of the greatest social change agents of the 20th century, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no con­science; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a con­science.”

FREEDOM ON THE MENU (2005)

What’s a Brain Pickings omnibus without a proper children’s book? In Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, a fine addition to our favorite children’s nonfiction, author Carole Boston Weatherford and painter Jerome Lagarrigue tell the story of 8-year-old Connie as she observes the spark of the African-American civil rights movement from the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of the infamous Greensboro sit-ins.

Just about every week, Mama and I went shopping downtown. I loved having her all to myself for the afternoon. Whenever it was hot or we got tired, we’d head over to the snack bar at the five-and-dime store. We’d stand as we sipped our Cokes because we weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counter.”

For a grown-up take on these seminal events and times, see The Movement and The Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee.

THE ART OF MORAL PROTEST (1998)

One thing this year’s unrest and its treatment in the popular media have exposed is the tendency of today’s scholars to reduce protest to “objective” factors like resources, evolutionary biology, and political structures. More than a decade ago, prominent NYU, Columbia and Princeton sociology professor James M. Jasper channeled his frustration with this conflation in The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements — a thoughtful and provocative treatise on the creative, subjective side of social and political protest. Since Jasper’s central focus is on mental life, his inquiry extends not only to culture but also to the role of the individual in the dynamic of social movements, something often ignored in theories of collective dissent.

Culture is everywhere, but it is not everything. We can only see it clearly by contrasting it with biography, strategy, and resources. At the same time, we cannot understand those other dimensions of protest without defining culture crisply.”

Jasper examines how issues of innovation, creativity, and change relate to culture and biography, converging to produce powerful social shifts.

Individuals often initiate small changes, many of which become widespread, and it is through cultural learning that they spread. People learn from the interaction between their existing cultural or biographical equipment and new experiences — a preeminently mental process.”

PERFECT HOSTAGE (2010)

Burmese opposition politician, intellectual, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most inspiring figures in modern political history. Between 1989 and 2010, she spent nearly 15 years in house arrest for her political convictions and persistent whistle-blowing around the country’s undemocratic elections. In Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience, Justin Wintle peels away at the reserved demeanor, Oxford education, and gentle femininity of Burma’s Iron Lady to reveal the rugged fabric of her tireless dissent in what’s as much a rigorously researched biography as it is a deeply reverential homage to her bravery and character.

Thus has been created the best-known prisoner of conscience presently alive. In the narrow gallery of modern saints, her images stands out, and it is commonplace to hear Aung San Suu Kyi likened to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, even Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violence she assiduously espoused.”

For an even more personal perspective, see Suu Kyi’s own Letters from Burma, full of poignancy and urgency, published mere months before her release.

COMMON SENSE (1776)

On January 10, 1776, radical author, intellectual and revolutionary Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense. Though he did so anonymously, signing it “Written by an Englishman,” it gained immediate success, with the largest sale and circulation of any book in American history relative to the population at the time, and went on to become one of the most incendiary and important documents of the American Revolution.

Premised on the conviction that American colonists needed to attain freedom from British rule at a time of uncertainty around the issue of independence, Paine’s pamphlet resonated not only because of the candor and passion of its argument but also because it was written in a style that common people understood, a radical departure from the pompous style of Enlightenment-era writers, riddled with Latin references and over-intellectualized language. Instead, Paine borrowed from the structure of sermons and connected independence with the ethos of dissent fundamental to Protestant beliefs, ultimately crafting a distinctly American political identity.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”

For another layer of added relevance, Common Sense is also a powerful case study in successful self-publishing and the viral potential of books, something particularly hotly debated today.

PARASTOU FAROUHAR (2011)

One November evening in 1998, Iranian intellectuals and activists Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, supporters of the democratically elected Prime Minister, were savagely murdered in their home in Tehran. Their devastated daughter, Berlin-based artist Parastou Forouhar, channeled her grief in the language she spoke most fluently: art — powerful, poignant, subversive art that pulls you into its uncomfortable beauty with equal parts urgency and mesmerism. Parastou Forouhar: Art, Life and Death in Iran is a stirring chronicle of the artist’s protest against these most gruesome crimes against human rights, a commentary on both her painful private experience and the broader cultural tensions it reflected, exploring everything from democracy to women’s rights to her parents’ brutal murder.

With work that stands in stark contrast to the loud, conspicuous, explicit messaging of Iran’s street art, Forouhar uses soft colors and fluid shapes to draw you in, only to jolt you with the grave scenes of torture and tragedy they depict — living proof that art doesn’t have to be “street art” in order to be subversive and make compelling cultural commentary on even the most uncomfortable of subjects.

When I arrived in Germany, I was Parastou Forouhar. Somehow, over the years, I’ve become ‘Iranian.’ This enforced ethnic identification took a new turn with the assassination of my parents in their home in Tehran. My efforts to investigate this crime had a great impact on my personal and artistic sensibilities. Political correctness and democratic coexistence lost their meaning in my daily life. As a result, I have tried to distill this conflict of displacement and transfer of meaning, turning it into a source of creativity.” ~ Parastou Forouhar

Originally reviewed here.

STEAL THIS BOOK (1971)

As much a tongue-in-cheek survival guide for life in America (or, Amerika, as it were) as it was a serious piece of cultural commentary on the status quo, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book inspired a generation of social revolutionaries to challenge the cultural and political mandates of the day. Brilliantly and often scandalously illustrated by the one and only R. Crumb, this classic offers insurgent advice on everything from starting a pirate radio station to how to making pipe bombs to growing marijuana. The title reflects Hoffman’s assertion that it isn’t immoral to steal from the state, which he infamously calls “Pig Empire,” calling for rebellion against authority, both governmental and corporate. A frequent rebel himself, Hoffman famously wrote the book’s introduction while in jail.

Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit. When all today’s isms have become yesterday’s ancient philosophy, there will still be reactionaries and there will still be revolutionaries. No amount of rationalization can avoid the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on the planet. I still believe in the fundamental injustice of the profit system and do not accept the proposition there will be rich and poor for all eternity.

Hoffman was also a fellow Marshall McLuhanite with a firm belief that “structure is more important than content in the transmission of information” — his modification of McLuhan’s iconic catchphrase, “The medium is the message.”

TRESPASS (2010)

Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art, one of our 7 favorite books on street art, explores the history and context of illegal art, from traditional graffiti to performance to design interventions, as a powerful form of urban protest. As a proper Taschen treat, this lavish 320-page volume features work from 150 influential artists across four generations of visionary outlaws, including Keith Haring, Os Gemeos, Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey, Blu, and Banksy.

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