I’m not a fan of “best of the year” lists, but a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about my favorite photobook acquisitions of the year. Like Christmas decorations, these ridiculous lists start to appear earlier and earlier each year. As with most lists, the “best photobooks of the year” lists are entirely subjective as is this one. What I prefer to do is list the photobooks that have had a significant impact on me as a photographer, writer, and photobook collector and to share some thoughts on each one.
I buy used photobooks when I can. I like to think of where these books have lived before arriving on my shelves, who might’ve thumbed through the pages in awe or perhaps boredom, and how they might’ve moved someone else to see the world differently. I buy some books new in the likelihood they’ll go out of print (because of such “best of” listicles, which means perhaps I’m contributing to the problem). I’ve only ever intentionally bought two brand new copies of the same book with the intent on leaving one in the shrink wrap.
I believe photobooks are meant to be handled, pored over, hell, even obsessed over. I love trying to figure out how sequences work (or don’t), how text works with (or against) the photographs, and the solitude of leafing through the finished “thing” a photographer has dedicated so much time to putting into the world. So, on with my list of favorite photobook acquisitions of 2015.
The Notion of Family | LaToya Ruby Frazer
Aperture, 2014, 156 pages.
LaToya Ruby Frazer has had a pretty incredible year and deservedly so (last year included a Guggenheim Fellowship). She was the recipient of the ICP Infinity Award, a MacArthur Grant, a $625,000 prize distributed over five years, and named a TED Fellow. Her first book, The Notion of Family, was published by Aperture last year and is centered on her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania (which is in Appalachia). The book is beautifully produced and is a testament to family, identity, and vision. This book is hands down my favorite photobook acquisition of the year.
“Informed by documentary practices from the turn of the last century, Frazier explores identities of place, race, and family in work that is a hybrid of self-portraiture and social narrative. The crumbling landscape of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a once-thriving steel town, forms the backdrop of her images, which make manifest both the environmental and infrastructural decay caused by postindustrial decline and the lives of those who continue—largely by necessity—to live amongst it.” – LaToya Ruby Frazier
One Place | Paul Kwilecki
University of North Carolina Press and CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies, 2013, 272 pages.
There are many books dedicated to detailing the lives of conflict photographers, but I can’t think of many that focus on four decades of photographing one county. That’s right, one county. “I confine myself to the place I was born and raised, not as an arbitrary discipline or to prove that subjects worthy of photographs exist everywhere and in abundance, though it is true that they do, but because Decatur County (Georgia) is home,” Kwilecki wrote, “and I know it from my special warp, having been both nourished and wounded by it.” His photographs are astounding and show us community fabric in pictures in a way only one can who is so intimately familiar with home can, warts and all as the’d say. With no formal photographic training, Kwilecki began making pictures around 1960. He photographed the deep south, black and white folks, and pursued the notion of home with true passion. Kwilecki’s work and the resulting book, published a few years after his death in 2009, have heavily influenced my thought process on making work in Mingo County, West Virginia.
Father Figure | Zun Lee
Ceiba, 2014, 124 pages.
I met Zun Lee at LOOK3 earlier this year and asked him to sign my copy of Father Figure. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a more humble and joyful person. There’s so much heart in this book, I can’t possibly capture it here. This work strikes a chord with me as a father, but further it’s deeply moving to me as someone who grew up without my biological father being in the picture for most of my childhood. All I ever wanted to be was a dad, a good dad. This work is passionate, intimate, and as Jamel Shabaaz describes it, “visual medicine.” It challenges stereotypes and asks us to acknowledge men who are all too often dismissed in the media. Teju Cole writes in the introduction, “These are images of love, which is an elusive subject, an almost impossible subject. There is an affection for life in these photographs, an affection for Black life, for fatherhood and childhood, for the tender moment that will soon be gone.”
The Nature of Photographs | Stephen Shore
Phaidon, 2007, 136 pages.
Stephen Shore is arguably one of America’s preeminent voices in photography and a pioneer of color work. I’ve found this book to be invaluable, a great find at a local used bookstore. Shore writes, “In bringing order to this situation, a photographer solves a picture, more than composes one,” alongside a photograph made by Nicholas Nixon in Friendly, West Virginia in 1982 (one of my favorites in the book). Though not incredibly lengthy in text, its provides succinct, thoughtful meditations on the photographic works of William Eggleston, Helen Levitt, Berenice Abbott, and many others.
TIS01 | This is Sausage (TIS) Books
TIS Books, 2015, Set of four books, edition of 300 (between 48-60 pages per book).
I have to say these folks are up to something really good. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was, but when I saw this series launch earlier this year, I wanted to get this set of books and I couldn’t have been happier. The books are by four different photographers: Tim Carpenter, J Carrier, Nelson Chan, and Carl Wooley, but I love the fact they’re all produced in the same color, size, binding, and relative length. Each carries its own unique narrative and theme, but work incredibly well as a set. They’re the sort of books you’d be thrilled to have one of, but knowing they’re a set of four makes it that much better. There is virtually no text save for the colophon in each of the books, which I find to be well suited for an edition this size. TIS Books is making some great photobooks and I hope that by this time next year, I’ll be writing about their production of Steven B. Smith’s Waiting Out the Latter Days.
The Mining Photographs | Milton Rogovin
Getty Publications, 2005, 144 pages.
Before I even get to the Rogovin photographs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredibly wonderful introductory essay by Judith Keller. I think it should be required reading for anyone interested in long form work in Appalachia. She writes, “Rogovin’s study of community extended beyond neighborhoods in his own northeastern city. With the collaboration of his wife, Anne, a special-education teacher, he undertook a lengthy investigation of Appalachia mining communities, returning to small towns in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky each summer from 1962 until 1971. Through union contacts he found the mines and recorded the men at work. Anne assisted in getting acquainted with the general population; Milton photographed them on their porches, in their yards, on the sidewalks, and in their homes.”
In addition to Appalachia, Rogovin photographed miners in Scotland, Germany, China, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. The Rogovins were friends with the late Dr. Donald Rasmussen, a well-known authority on black lung disease, who passed away earlier this year in West Virginia. Throughout this beautifully edited book, Rogovin captures the pride, dignity, and spirit of the often-overlooked miner. It is a true testament to the working class.
Photographers’ Sketchbooks | Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals
Thames & Hudson, 2014, 320 pages.
The list of photographers the duo of McLaren and Formhals enlisted for this books is staggering: Roger Ballen, Jason Eskenazi, Stacy Kranitz, Susan Meiselas, and Alec Soth just to name a few. McLaren writes, “To explore the ‘photographic sketchbook’ in all its various forms is in one sense a legitimate return to photography’s earliest role in the fine arts.” He continues, “Photography may be having a bit of a Babel moment, so our intent here is to let the reader see how intelligent practitioners are cutting through the visual noise to make a compelling case for photography’s future relevance.” No small feat, right? But they offer a dizzying look into the minds and processes of some truly amazing photographers and they do it well. Robin Cracknell’s diaries – heartfelt, dark, and not about perfection – are worth the cost of the book alone. This is a book to own, to keep close at hand when you need some motivation, or to simply sit for a spell and say to yourself, “Damn.”
The Americans | Robert Frank
Scalo (third edition), 1998, 180 pages.
Hear me out on this one. This is the first copy of The Americans I’ve ever owned. Hell, it’s the first copy I’ve ever looked through and I didn’t buy it until I was in Athens, Georgia this fall. There have likely been more talks and articles written about this book than you can count, so it’s unlikely I’ll have any revelations here. What I can say is that I feel like I’ve reached the age where I can appreciate The Americans more so than at any other point in my life. It’s sort of like the difference between drinking shitty beer at a party in high school and sipping fine whisky or bourbon with friends on the front porch; it takes a while to identify and appreciate the difference. This truly is a special book and it’s justifiably legendary unlike your high school parties.
Face to Face | Lloyd E. Moore
Erlewine Design, 2004, 129 pages.
This was the surprise book of the year for me. Earlier this year, I started publishing a picture of an Appalachian photobook every Friday (Appalachian Photobook Friday). Someone reached out to me and suggested I check it out. I found a clean, used copy and have found it to be a gem. Lloyd Moore, a lawyer, began making pictures of his clients to gather legal evidence. He started with a 35mm camera and eventually moved to an 8×10. What resulted in the book, Face to Face is the splendor of someone who genuinely loved people and who loved making their pictures. That much is evident when holding this book.
The Whiteness of the Whale | Paul Graham
MACK and Pier 24 Photography, 2015, 240 pages.
This is my first Paul Graham book. It combines three of his American series: American Night (1998-2003), a shimmer of possibility (2005-2007), and The Present (2008-2011) and includes essays by David Chandler and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. The book feels much larger than its 9×12 size. Perhaps it’s the space, the room to breathe, between photographs on the physical pages. Perhaps it’s the remarkable essays by Chandler and Wolukau-Wanambwa (one of the smartest damned people I’ve ever met). Graham has quickly become one of my favorite living photographers. My only complaint about The Whiteness of the Whale is that my copy didn’t include the red printed mailing box as advertised.
Songbook | Alec Soth
MACK, 2015, 144 pages.
I had a chance to see the Songbook exhibit earlier this year at LOOK3 in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was impressive. The prints were huge, beautifully framed, and took on a life of their own. When I sit with my copy of Songbook, much of that magnitude transfers to book form as well. It physically feels like a family photo album you’d pull off the shelf at your grandmother’s house. And I swear you feel like you’re going to see someone you know in at least one of the photographs. It has that sort of familiarity to it. Soth writes, “I became a photographer because I thought I wanted to work alone. But over time, I realized that photography was not just a means for me to communicate with other people, it was also a vehicle for collaboration and community.”
Southern Glossary | Ryan Sparks
Southern Glossary, 2015, 60 pages.
I was pleasantly surprised to get a copy of this in the mail from Ryan Sparks, the force behind Southern Glossary. A little over a year ago, Ryan featured the Looking at Appalachia project on Southern Glossary. In addition to several rounds of emails and a lengthy phone call about photography, writing, and publishing work, I knew Ryan was on to something wonderful. What I didn’t know is that he’d produce such an amazing little zine of work from photographers and artists who’d contributed to the Southern Glossary Instagram feed over the past year. It features the work by Nic Persinger, Amanda Greene, Shaun H. Kelly, Jen Ervin, and many others along with a great essay – “Southern Identity Crisis” – by Brad Rhines. (Full disclosure: this zine was a gift and not a purchase.)
Sour Vanilla | Aaron Canipe
Aaron Canipe and Empty Stretch, 2015, 34 pages.
Aaron’s latest zine was another mailbox surprise received just a few days ago. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with it and I have to say it’s quite something. As with all of Aaron’s work I’ve seen in person, it’s thoughtful, well-designed, and leaves me wanting more. Combined with Canipe’s photos are text excerpts from Flannery O’Connor’s “The Partridge Festival” (hence the title Sour Vanilla). “They sat silently, looking at nothing until finally they turned and looked at each other. There each saw at once the likeness of their kinsman and flinched.” (Full disclosure: this zine was a gift and not a purchase.)