Photography – books of the year
Gareth Dent and I set ourselves the challenge to choose a ‘book of the year’. The task proved to be more difficult than anticipated because the photographic book is going through a healthy revival. The choice of books was mind-blowing. The two books we eventually selected couldn’t have been more different. We hope you find the choice interesting and would be interested in your choices.
Jose Navarro’s ‘book of the year’
I must confess that I bent a few rules in choosing my book of the year. First of all I didn’t go for a documentary photography book and instead selected one on landscape photography, which is unusual. Secondly, my chosen book was actually published in 2008, but considering that I only came across it this year, it is, technically speaking, my book of the year.
The Antarctic: from the circle to the Pole by Stuart D. Klipper, published by Chronicle Books, is one of those books that once you hold it in your hands you find it difficult to let go. It has a special visual and tactile quality that is incredibly alluring. Every design aspect of this book, from size, to format, to typography, to layout, to contributing authors, has been extremely well thought-out. This book has a presence and a physicality which makes it stand out from other landscape photography books. And this is precisely the reason why I chose it as my book of the year, because it proves that in the age of on-screen visuals, books such as Klipper’s provide, in my opinion, a sensual experience of a far higher order – we are already incorporating the sense of touch when we are holding the book.
Some of the design and layout decisions made by the book designers merit a special commentary. For example, you are holding the book horizontally to match the orientation of the cover and as soon as you open it you realise that the introductory articles are all written on vertical, newspaper-style double-columns. Amongst the contributing writers is William L. Fox, well known for his inspirational explorations of the meaning of place in remote environments – e.g. his book Terra Antarctica: looking into the emptiest continent. Fox regularly contributes to books by other landscape photographers such as Mark Klett – best known for his rephotographic surveys Second View and Third View – and Terry Falke, American photographers who continue to explore the dialectic relationship between habitation and wilderness in the American Southwest. In Klipper’s The Antarctic the accompanying text achieves a near-perfect synergy with Klipper’s panoramic imagery. Neither one of them operates as a crutch for the other. Both text and images have their own independence and momentum; the responses they trigger in the reader are different and yet perfectly compatible. That is an achievement in mixed-media communication.
Another interesting design solution is the omission of any geographical information on the images themselves, which in the book are called ‘plates’ in clear reference to older photographic processes. Instead, a well-laid out contact sheet at the end of the book provides information on where and when the photographs were taken. Finally, there is another design aspect of this book that I particularly like. I’ll give you a clue. What is it that there is plenty of in the Antarctic? You needn’t have been there to answer the question. No, it’s not snow, or ice.
In Klipper’s book every image is printed on a single page with a generous amount of white margins. The white space on the page is a metaphor for the vast, unfathomable white spaces on the Antarctic continent.
And I could go on and on writing about small details that make of my chosen book a beautiful and compelling visual object. Or about the fact that the photographer won a place in the Antarctic Artists and Writers Programme (National Science Foundation) no less than five times. Now, that’s what I call putting together a persuasive photographic project proposal. For those of you with a passion for cold places, the British Antarctic Survey runs a similar Artists and Writers Programme. Tempted?
Gareth Dent’s ‘book of the year’
My photography book of the year contains precisely 21 images, or rather it would have, if James Nachtwey have given permission for two of his photographs to be reproduced. 19 photos is not many and yet the book asks some of the most profound questions about the role of photography and challenges some of the easy answers. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield comprises three sections, Polemics, Places and People. The first polemics chapter, is sub-titled ‘why do photography critics hate photography’ and immediately I warmed to Linfield’s perspective. She believes photography is important, too important to be glibly dismissed or ignored.
“Today we are all Brechtians or at least professional ironists; we excel at ridiculing passion and mocking sentiment. We are experts, too – especially in the digital age – in distancing ourselves from photographs: every teenager knows how to manipulate them, tear them apart, dismiss them as lies. What we have lost is the capacity to respond to photographs….as citizens who seek to learn something useful from them and connect to others through them” (p24) Anyone who has followed some of the discussions in the OCA student site after the last year will be given cause to wonder by this statement, and it shines a light on the concerns raised about The Julie Project on WeAreOCA last month.
The people section of the book focuses on three photographers, Robert Capa, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress. The comparison is instructive; why is it that Capa’s images and his life have become iconic and could those images pass muster in photojournalism today. The evidence is not, but Linfield doesn’t see this as evidence of a coarsening of our sensibilities. In fact she directly rejects the Sontag line that we become inured to photographs of suffering, and in doing so points out the extent to which photojournalism and our reactions to it have been themselves subject to attack:
“Some [photojournalists] are criticised for taking too-beautiful images, while others are chided for images which are too ugly to bear; some are criticized for a gruesome realism, while others are accused of being overly romantic in their approach. Viewers , too are at fault: critics have told audiences that their reactions are too harsh or too delicate; needlessly complex or laughably simple, gushing with sentiment or devoid of feeling.” (p48) But as Linfield goes onto as argue, the fact that we can only be imperfect photographers and imperfect viewers doesn’t mean we should turn away and give up trying to look, to see to understand. A powerful, important book.