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Photography – books of the year

© Chronicle Books 2008

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.
It’s space.
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.

Posted by author: Jose
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14 thoughts on “Photography – books of the year

  • Having just seen the show at the White Cube it has to be Gregory Crewdson: Sanctuary for me. On its own the show/book makes less sense than the work as part of Crewdson’s oeuvre. Perhaps a Visual Theorist’s book, though the images are rather beautiful in their own right. Their very beauty is part of what seems to me to be an elaborate continuing explorations of the edges of the real and the fantasy. If you can get to Masons Yard in London have a look at it but get to know Crewdson’s work first!

  • I’m in total agreement with José about ‘space’; space in presentation and in composition is never wasted. It allows the images, the typography and the layout to breathe; either go full bleed to be ‘in their face’ or be generous with it.
    He’s also made me want to get my hands on it, and maybe even look at it too! Hahaha
    Gareth; blimey, as José would say. ‘ } We’d all have to write a book to respond to that.
    ‘why do photography critics hate photography’, it’s the subject for a PhD thesis; the critique that dare not speak its name. Like you, it puts me onside straight away.
    Both great choices, now I’ll know what to say when asked what I want for Christmas and my birthday.

  • Both books sound fascinating in their different ways. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of space and letting things breathe. And Cruel Radiance sounds fascinating. I will try to catch the Gregory Crewdson show also. Thanks for the tips.

  • Two interesting books from either end of the ‘recently revived’ genre of photography books; One on what is taken and how it is shown, the other about reasons why photographs are taken, what does that communicate and what is the effect of that communication – or at least that’s my interpretation from the reviews.
    My Christmas list has already been sent (via my wife) to Santa(s) Dewi Lewis & Chris Boot (check out their websites) .
    Still, my birthday is in January, so The Cruel Radiance will be on that list… now I just need to find room for a new book-case…
    My pick of the year would be ‘Guantanamo: If the light goes out‘ by Edmund Clark, the latest in his finely observed series about confinement, control and liberties. Many images are beautiful and use colour very effectively; yet they explore a location famous for torture and imprisonment without trial… which comes back to some of the issues raised in ‘The Cruel Radiance’.

  • would be interested in purchasing them but what about price.
    The antartic on would be of great help because photography 2
    i do believe is landscape.

  • Gareth
    I am intrigued by your choice of book partly because I attended the Tate Modern seminar on the representation of violence that followed in the wake of the EXPOSED exhibition. Is Sontag really saying that we have become inured to photographs of suffering? In her book, In Regarding the Pain of Others, she actually writes … “our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images – might be called the conservative critique of the diffusion of such images. I call this argument conservative because it is the sense of reality that is eroded. There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its’ authority.” (p.97 Penguin Edition 2004) which I consider is a vital statement of her outlook. Elsewhere, she admits that “There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronising reality.” (page 99).
    Sontag however tends to be regarded as gospel and I do not think she is; her statements are rather sweeping!
    What a wonderful book you have come across! such books are a bit of a luxury and although Amazon offer it at a reasonable price, it is a matter of whether I’ll have room for it. Maybe … these days I am my own Santa so its’ possible! The Antarctic may not be there much longer so these are poignant landscapes.
    As for my own choice, it is rather personal. The Indians by Raghu Rai does not seem to be available through Amazon and the cost in Delhi of £80 seemed too exorbitant. Nevertheless, I was shown a copy. It starts with a collection of Rai’s old portrait photographs, images from a bygone era when Britain ran the country; these show something of an India that is no more. This is followed by Raghu’s own photographs and features portraits of famous Indians such as Mother Teresa (actually a European) and Indira Gandhi as well as some of the great musicians (Hariprasad Chaurasia for instance). My favourite portrait is that of Jiddu Krsnamurti, a teacher who is still recognised worldwide; he is portrayed in a triptych that suggests both agony and ecstasy. The one that made me laugh is of Moraji Desai, a former prime minister who seems to be glaring defiantly down Rai’s lens; Desai was also famous for drinking his own urine, a nature cure!
    I would also like to mention Michael Freeman’s Photographer’s Mind. What I like about his books is the way they bridge the gap between critic and photographer.

    • The Indians looks like a great choice Amano, like you I couldn’t find it on Amazon, but I did find a link about it here
      I also thought Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind an excellent book – it was on my shortlist for Book of the Year, but didn’t think I could chose a book by someone closely associated with the OCA without someone crying foul!
      Your point about Sontag is an interesting one – it is a while since I have read Regarding the Pain of Others but my recollection was that her critique went something like this: Horrible images provoke sympathy which in turn leads to a sense of terrible, but nothing to do with me. Your quotes make me question this and wonder if Susie Linfield’s take is a partial one. Time for a reread. I think part of the problem might be that while Sontag is polemical she is not always consistent.
      And I understand both the challenges of budget and space – the list recommended by Marmalade from the Observer includes a book, A Million Shillings, which is now on my ‘must have’ list.

      • Thanks for The Indians link Gareth! Actually, the cost is £70; if it does come to the UK, it would probably cost £35 and be available through Amazon for £25 which is the case with Raghu Rai’s India in Colour. Interesting pricing considering India has a much lower cost of living than the UK; it seems Rai’s publisher can command such prices though in India.
        Yes, Sontag is inconsistent I guess, but I can not help but feel her view of photography has matured in Regarding the Pain of Others.
        Thanks for your response!

    • Jonathan Kaplan is a war field surgeon, writer and photographer who has very strong views on images which depict suffering and pain in a very graphic way. His argument is that feelings of disgust when seeing certain kind of imagery actually block more complex emotions which have the potential to engage the viewer on a more constructive and useful level. Kaplan wrote a very interesting article on this subject in the Spring 2008 issue of 8 Magazine http://store.foto8.com/ecom-prodshow/BackIssue_23.html
      His book Contact Wounds is also packed with insightful remarks http://www.groveatlantic.com/#page=isbn9780802142788

  • The more I read Linfield’s book the more often I find myself saying “rubbish”, nonsense”, “yes but….” Maybe I’ll get round to a review later…but get it and read it, especially if you disagree with her!

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