The Best Photography Books of 2013
From Mongolia to Mars, by way of mesmerizing mines and Manhattan’s characters.
By Maria Popova
“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography nearly three decades before the age of Instagram and the selfie. Indeed, the photographic image has not only retained by amplified its power to move, to mesmerize, to usurp power. On the heels of the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, “children’s” (though we all know what that means), and pets and animals, here are 2013’s most exquisite books on photography.
1. THIS IS MARS
“Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there WILL be by the end of this century,” Arthur C. Clarke predicted in 1971 while contemplating humanity’s quest to conquer the Red Planet. “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you,” Carl Sagan said a quarter century later in his bittersweet message to future Mars explorers shortly before his death. Sagan, of course, has always been with us — especially as we fulfill, at least partially, Clarke’s prophecy: On March 10, 2006, we put a proxy of human life on, or at least very near, Mars — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its powerful HiRISE telescope, arrived in the Red Planet’s orbit and began mapping its surface in unprecedented detail.
This Is Mars (public library) — a lavish visual atlas by French photographer, graphic designer and editor Xavier Barral, featuring 150 glorious ultra-high-resolution black-and-white images culled from the 30,000 photographs taken by NASA’s MRO, alongside essays by HiRISE telescope principal researcher Alfred S. McEwen, astrophysicist Francis Rocard, and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold — offers an unparalleled glimpse of those mesmerizing visions of otherworldly landscapes beamed back by the MRO in all their romantic granularity, making the ever-enthralling Red Planet feel at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever. At the intersection of art and science, these mesmerizing images belong somewhere between Berenice Abbot’s vintage science photography, the most enchanting aerial photography of Earth, and the NASA Art Project.
In a sentiment of beautiful symmetry to Eudora Welty’s meditation on place and fiction, Barral considers how these images simultaneously anchor us to a physical place and invite us into an ever-unfolding fantasy:
At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates. These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.
Originally featured in October.
2. HUMANS OF NEW YORK
The ever-evolving portrait of New York City has been painted through Gotham’s cats and its dogs, its buildings and its parks, its diaries and its letters. Underpinning all of those, of course, are the city’s true building blocks: its humans.
In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton — one of the warmest, most talented and most generous humans I know — lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago and was forced to make new light of his life. Having recently gotten his first camera and fallen in love with photography, he decided to follow that fertile combination of necessity and passion, and, to his parents’ terror and dismay, set out to pursue photography as a hobby-turned-vocation. (For his mother, who saw bond trading as a reputable occupation, photography “seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment.”) Brandon recalls:
I had enjoyed my time as a trader. The job was challenging and stimulating. And I’d obsessed over markets in the same way I’d later obsess over photography. But the end goal of trading was always money. Two years of my life were spent obsessing over money, and in the end I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to spend the next phase of my life doing work that I valued as much as the reward.
In photography, he found that rewarding obsession. Approaching it with the priceless freshness of Beginner’s Mind, he brought to his new calling the gift of ignorance and an art of seeing untainted by the arrogance of expertise, hungry to make sense of the world through his lens as he made sense of his own life. And make he did: Brandon, who quickly realized that “the best way to become a photographer was to start photographing,” set out on a photo tour across several major American cities, beginning in Pittsburgh and ending up in New York City, where he had only planned to spend a week but where he found both his new home and his new calling.
And so, in a beautiful embodiment of how to find your purpose and do what you love, Brandon’s now-legendary online project documenting Gotham’s living fabric was born — at first a humble Facebook page, which blossomed into one of today’s most popular photojournalism blogs with millions of monthly readers. Now, his photographic census of the world’s most vibrant city spills into the eponymous offline masterpiece Humans of New York (public library) — a magnificent mosaic of lives constructed through four hundred of Brandon’s expressive and captivating photos, many never before featured online.
These portraits — poignant, poetic, playful, heartbreaking, heartening — dance across the entire spectrum of the human condition not with the mockingly complacent lens of a freak-show gawker but with the affectionate admiration and profound respect that one human holds for another.
In the age of the aesthetic consumerism of visual culture online, HONY stands as a warm beacon of humanity, gently reminding us that every image is not a disposable artifact to be used as social currency but a heart that beat in the blink of the shutter, one that will continue to beat with its private turbulence of daily triumphs and tribulations even as we move away from the screen or the page to resume our own lives.
The captions, some based on Brandon’s interviews with the subjects and others an unfiltered record of his own observations, add a layer of thought to the visual story: One photograph, depicting two elderly gentlemen intimately leaning into each other on a park bench, reads: “It takes a lot of disquiet to achieve this sort of quiet comfort.” Another, portraying a very old gentleman in a wheelchair with matching yellow sneakers, shorts, and baseball cap, surprises us by revealing that this is Banana George, world record-holder as the oldest barefoot water-skier.
Some are full of humor:
Damn liberal arts degree.
Others are hopelessly charming:
When I walked by, she was really moving to the music — hands up, head nodding, shoulders swinging. I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked: “Does she belong to you?”
Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard: “I belong to myself!”
Others still are humbling and soul-stirring:
My wife passed away a few years back. Her name was Barbara, I used to call her Ba. My name was Lawrence, she used to call me La. When she died, I changed my name to Bala.
I stepped inside an Upper West Side nursing home, and met this man in the lobby. He was on his way to deliver a yellow teddy bear to his wife. “I visit her every day,” he said. “Even when the mind is gone, the heart shows through.”
Then there are the city’s favorite tropes: Its dogs…
…and its bikes…
I’m ninety years old and I ride this thing around everywhere. I don’t see why more people don’t use them. I carry my cane in the basket, I get all my shopping done. I can go everywhere. I’ve never hit anyone and never been hit. Of course, I ride on the sidewalk, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do, but still…
…and the deuce delight of dogs on bikes:
Above all, however, there is something especially magical about framing these moments of stillness and of absolute attention to the individual amidst this bustling city of millions, a city that never sleeps and never stops.
Whatever your geographic givens, Humans of New York is an absolute masterpiece of cultural celebration, both as vibrant visual anthropology and as a meta-testament, by way of Brandon’s own story, to the heartening notion that this is indeed a glorious age in which we can make our own luck and make a living doing what we love.
Originally featured in October — see more here.
3. BLACK MAPS
For nearly three decades, photographer and visual artist David Maisel — whose gloriously haunting Library of Dust project you might recall from a few years back — has been transforming landscape photography with his stunning aerial images exploring the relationship between Earth and humanity. Now, the best of them are collected in the magnificent monograph Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring more than 100 of Maisel’s surreally entrancing portraits of our worldly reality, at once beautiful and tragic. From cyanide-leaching ponds to open-pit mines to the sprawl of urbanization, Maisel’s mesmerizing photographs — which, without context, could be mistaken as much for abstract impressionism as they could for cellular microscopy — capture fragments of the landscape that “correspond to the structure of human thought and feeling.”
4. DOROTHEA LANGE
At the same time that pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott was busy capturing the urban fabric and trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Mead was laying the groundwork for modern anthropology, Dorothea Lange mastered the intersection of the two in her influential Depression-era photojournalism and documentary photography. In Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (public library), Lange’s goddaughter Elizabeth Partridge, an accomplished and prolific author in her own right, presents a first-of-its-kind career-spanning monograph of the legendary photographer’s work, placing her most famous and enduring photographs in a biographical context that adds new dimension to these iconic images.
Among the biographical sketches is also the story of Lange’s best-known, infinitely expressive, most iconic photograph of all — Migrant Mother, depicting an agricultural worker named Florence Owens Thompson with her children — which came to capture the harrowing realities of the Great Depression not merely as an economic phenomenon but as a human tragedy.
In 1935, Lange and her second husband, the Berkeley economics professor and self-taught photographer Paul Taylor, were transferred to the Resettlement Administration (RA), one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs designed to help the country recover from the depression. Lange began working as a Field Investigator and Photographer under Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division.
In early February of 1936, while living in a small two-bedroom house in California with Taylor and her two step-children, Lange received an assignment to photograph California’s rural and urban slums and farmworkers. She was supposed to spend a month on the road, but severe weather along the coast delayed her departure. When she finally set out for Los Angeles, the first destination on her route, she wrote in a letter to Stryker:
Tried to work in the pea camps in heavy rain from the back of the station wagon. I doubt that I got anything. . . . Made other mistakes too. . . . I make the most mistakes on subject matter that I get excited about and enthusiastic. In other words, the worse the work, the richer the material was.
It was in the pea camps that she captured her most iconic image less than two weeks later — an image that, due to its unshakable grip of empathy, would transcend the status of mere visual icon and effect critical cultural awareness on both a social and political level. Partridge writes:
Two weeks of sleet and steady rain had caused a rust blight, destroying the pea crop. There was no work, no money to buy food. Dorothea approached “the hungry and desperate mother,” huddled under a torn canvas tent with her children. The family had been living on frozen vegetables they’d gleaned from the fields and birds the children killed. Working quickly, Dorothea made just a few exposures, climbed back in her car, and drove home.
Dorothea knew the starving pea pickers couldn’t wait for someone in Washington, DC to act. They needed help immediately. She developed the negatives of the stranded family, and rushed several photographs to the San Francisco News. Two of her images accompanied an article on March 10th as the federal government rushed twenty thousand pounds of food to the migrants.
The most remarkable part of the story, however, is that this was an image Lange almost didn’t take: At the end of that cold and wretched winter, she had been on the road for almost a month, with only the insufficient protection of her camera lens between her and the desperate, soul-stirringly dejected living and working conditions of California’s migratory farm workers. Downhearted and weary, both physically and psychologically, she decided she had seen and captured enough, packed up her clunky camera equipment, and headed north on Highway 101, bickering with herself in her notebook: “Haven’t you plenty of negatives already on the subject? Isn’t this just one more of the same?” But then something happened — a fleeting glance, one of those pivotal chance encounters that shape lives. Partridge transports us to that fateful March day:
The cold, wet conditions of Northern California gave way to sweltering heat in Los Angeles, a “vile town,” Dorothea wrote. By the beginning of March she was headed home, exhausted, her camera bags packed on the front seat beside her.
Hours later, the hand-lettered “Pea pickers camp” sign flashed by her. Did she have it in her to try one more time?
The long, hard rains that had delayed Dorothea at the outset of her journey had deluged the Nipomo pea pickers. And even as Dorothea drove north and homeward, the camp was still floundering in water and mud. Not long before Dorothea arrived, Florence Thompson and four of her six children, along with some of the other stranded migrants, had moved to a higher, sandy location nearby. Thompson left word at the first camp for her partner, Jim Hill, on where to find them. Earlier in the day he’d set off walking with Thompson’s two sons to find parts for their broken-down car.
The sandy camp in front of a windbreak of eucalyptus trees is where Dorothea pulled in and found Florence Thompson and her children. They were waiting for Hill and the boys to show up, for the ground to dry, for crops to ripen for harvesting. They were waiting for their luck to change.
In minutes, Dorothea took the photograph that would become the definitive icon of the Great Depression, intuitively conveying the migrants’ perilous predicament in the frame of her camera.
Originally featured in November.
5. BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY
In the late 1990s, photographer Jimmy Nelson became fascinated by Earth’s last living indigenous tribes. It took him a decade to begin documenting their fascinating lives, but once he did, what came out of his 4×5 camera was nothing short of mesmerizing — a glimpse of what feels like a parallel universe, or rather parallel multiverses, to our Western eyes, yet one full of our immutable shared humanity. The magnificent results are now gathered in Before They Pass Away (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring 500 of Nelson’s striking photographs, standing somewhere between Jeroen Toirkens’s visual catalog of Earth’s last nomads and Rachel Sussman’s photographic record of the oldest living things in the world.
The journey took Nelson all over the world, from the deserts of Africa to the steppes of Siberia. He writes:
I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.
The semi-nomadic Kazakhs, descendent from the Huns, have been herding in the valleys of Mongolia since the 19th century and take great pride in their ancient art of eagle-hunting.
The Huli of Papua New Guinea migrated to the island about 45,000 years ago. Today, the remaining tribes often fight with one another for resources — land, livestock, women. To intimidate the enemy, the largest tribe, the Huli wigmen, continue the ancient tradition of painting their faces in yellow, red and white and making elaborate wigs of their own hair.
Though the Gauchos of South America might appear more “modern” than other indigenous tribes, these free-spirited nomadic horsemen have remained a self-contained culture since they first started roaming the prairies in the 1700s.
A distinct ethnic group and even more distinct cultural collective, Tibetans, descendent from aboriginal and nomadic Qiang tribes, are known for their prayer flags, sky burials, spirit traps, and festival devil dances, which encapsulate their history and beliefs.
The Maasai endure as one of the oldest and greatest warrior cultures. As they migrated from the Sudan in the 15th century, they took possession of the local tribes’ cattle and conquered much of the Rift Valley. To this day, they depend on the natural cycles of rainfall and drought for their cattle, which remain their core source of sustenance.
The reindeer-herding Nenets of northern Arctic Russia have thrived for over a millennium at temperatures ranging from 58ºF below zero in the winter to 95ºF in the summer, migrating across more than 620 miles per year, 30 of which consist in the grueling crossing of the frozen Ob River.
Originally featured in November — see more here, including Nelson’s entertaining and moving TEDxAmsterdam talk.
6. FACES OF JUSTICE
On the heels of Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear comes Justice: Faces of the Human Rights Revolution (public library) by New-York-based photographer Mariana Cook — who gave us this heart-warming portrait of Maurice Sendak and his dog Herman, a fine addition to history’s beloved literary pets. The humanist upgrade to Platon’s Power, Cook’s magnificent black-and-white portraits, poetic and dignified, capture 99 beloved luminaries ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spearheaded the opposition to apartheid, to President Jimmy Carter to Sir Sydney Kentridge, who served as the lead lawyer in the 1962 trial of Nelson Mandela, to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who helped champion this week’s historic win for marriage equality.
Cook frames the project in her preface:
How do people come to feel so passionately about fairness and freedom that they will risk their livelihoods, even their lives, to pursue justice? A few years ago, I became fascinated by such people—people for whom the “rule of law” is no mere abstraction, for whom human rights is a fiercely urgent concern. I wanted to give a face to social justice by making portraits of human rights pioneers. I am a photographer. I understand by seeing. Peering through the camera lens, I hoped to gain an understanding of how they become so devoted to the rights and dignity of others.
Accompanying each portrait is a micro-essay exploring the life, legacy, and singular spirit of its subject.
Originally featured in June.
7. VIVIAN MAIER: SELF-PORTRAITS
In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.
Maloof writes in the foreword:
As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.
There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.
It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.
The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood.
Originally featured in November.
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Catch up on all the year’s best-of reading lists here.
Published December 17, 2013