The 11 Best Photography Books of 2011
What the world’s last living nomads have to do with Victorian strongwomen, tweed, and the unseen Beatles.
By Maria Popova
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.
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
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.
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
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
(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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Originally featured here in September.
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
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.”)
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.
“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
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
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.
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.
Featured here in August.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
Images courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press
Originally featured here in July.
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
Images courtesy of Jeroen Toirkens
Originally featured here, with more images and video, in October.
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A big part of what makes great photography books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?
Published December 5, 2011