Top 10

Photobooks of 2016

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photobook releases from the year that was – selected by our Editor in Chief.

1. Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX

Once the hype subsides, and you let Gregory Halpern’s images bathe you in glorious California sunlight, it’s clear to see why ZZYZX was named Photobook of the Year at The Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. MACK’s production is sumptuous and as far as photography goes Halpern’s is of the highest order.

The book takes us on a journey, starting at the desert east of Los Angeles, across the city and up to the Pacific Ocean but seen through the filter of Halpern’s ineffable vision, it is in fact more akin to somnambulation. Images depict odd characters and quiet moments – things observed, rendered through description and suggestion – which on accumulation build up a picture of a sort of Babylon on the brink of collapse. With an untold narrative, contained but concealed, we slowly feel the burning desire for a place; a dreamed-of place since, as Italo Calvino one wrote, “desires are already memories”.

2. Edmund Clark and Crofton Black: Negative Publicity
Aperture/Magnum Foundation

Part research document, part exhibition catalogue and part dossier, Negative Publicity presents a complex and multi-layered reflection on the CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Clark has turned his camera to spaces and surfaces that contain a hidden, violent tension, those which stand in for the countless people who have disappeared into a mysterious prison network – the vanishing point for the law. Yet no drama is pictured here, just the drama of a picture. Collaborating with counter-terrorism expert Crofton Black, he has paired images and redacted documents to interrogate the nature of contemporary warfare and invisible mechanisms of state control. A book that really matters.

3. Sara-Lena Maierhofer: Dear Clark; Portrait of a Con Man
Drittel Books

Sara-Lena Maierhofer has made it her business to tell the tale of a real-life imposter who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller, among other personas, having passed himself off as a scion of the wealthy family. Dear Clark pieces together remnants of his life, through material such as birth certificates, brain scans and family photographs alongside images that speak to key themes of multiplicity and transformation. The book’s material qualities are almost akin to installation with design touches like tipped-in images that perfectly heighten the searching quality of the project. Reality and fantasy, fact and fiction are masterfully at play here as Maierhofer makes tremendous art out of deception and the corrosive effects of lies.

4. Michael Hoppen Gallery: Evidence Case File
Guiding Light

This richly illustrated, cleverly designed book offers a small but brilliant insight into the collection of reknown photography dealer Michael Hoppen. In parallel to The Image as Question: An Exhibition of Evidential Photography, recently on display at the eponymous London gallery, it sets out to disturb the big claims of photography as ‘record’ or ‘proof’. A judicious selection of works harks back to the medium’s 19th century origins and also includes images from 20th century stalwarts as well as contemporary artists. The book empties images of their original evidential function and reconceptualises them in a new context and in a new time. Questioning what a ‘fact’ is a well-trodden area of investigation yet the presentation, editing, sequence and paper choices are very well-measured and all equally important to the publication as various parts separately. Rewards the curious.

5. Laia Abril: Lobismuller
Editorial RM/Images Vevey

Laia Abril is continually on the up and the photobook has always been an essential part of her output. Just recently-released, Lobismuller sees the Catalan artist produce a meditation in photography and text upon Spain’s first documented serial killer. The Werewolf of Allariz, known as Manuel Blanco Romasanta was originally named Manuela since it was initially believed he was a woman. This central figure was also dubbed the ‘Soapmaker’, owing to his habit of using the fat of victims to produce high-quality soap. Gender issues, psychology, landscape, mythology and folklore… the mesmerising story is wrapped upon layer of exquisite literary narrative. Between each image and each piece of text, a creepy affinity can be established, demonstrating Abril’s fluidity between medium and genre, which has come to characterise her practice.

6. Todd Hido: Intimate Distance

This is a lavish monograph befitting one of the most influential US photographers. Todd Hido’s unique brand of cinematic spectatorship is surveyed en masse in Intimate Distance, bringing together twenty-five years of photographs full of substance and thickness of atmosphere. The book tracks the development of a career via Hido’s overlapping motifs and preoccupations: disarming nudes, smudged landscapes and interiors or housing lit up as if glowing chambers, inviting us to consider his world-as-image and rethink his oeuvre from a fresh perspective. The need to know oneself and the fear of self-knowing find their beautiful expression here. His is an art of longing.

7. Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

“Knowledge is not made for understanding, it is made for cutting,” reads the Michel Foucault quote that appears in the postscript to Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective. It serves as a useful coda for considering the work. True to its title, this handsome book is an investigation into the process of studying human anatomy, combining the artist’s own photographs with vernacular images of old anatomy lessons, illustrations from Renaissance manuals, complemented with scientific, literary, and philosophical texts. Using chapters as its organising system – On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, On Discovering – the book reveals a great capacity for sequencing images, and the possibility to conceive of them as a form of literature.

8. David Fahti: Wolfgang

Gathered on the pages of David Fahti’s Wolfgang are black and white photographs sprinkled with quotations from Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics also held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Countless accidents, surprises and flashes of unlikely beauty and absurd humour work to conjure up Pauli’s omnipresence despite his absence in the images. Skinnerboox enlisted celebrated book designer Ramon Pez to step in and around the project and the production is all the better for it. A sum of its wonders; art, design, photography, science and history collide and fuse together to powerful effect.

9. Tito Mouraz: The House of The Seven Women
Dewi Lewis Publishing

Misty forests, bemused animals, brooding portraits and delipidated out-houses are just some of the gothic-infused imagery on display in Tito Mouraz’s The House of The Seven Women. They are visual elements invoked to give material form to a myth of the Beira-Alta region of Portugal, where the photographer was born and raised – that of a house believed to be haunted by the ghosts of seven sisters, including one witch. Strange happenings were said to occur on the occasion of a full moon, namely the women would fly from their balcony to a tree opposite and seduce passers by. An eerie and enigmatic mood piece, the work translates brilliantly to book form, classical and full of craft.

10. Adam Golfer: A House Without a Roof
Booklyn Press

The complicated histories of founding the state of Israel and the subsequent violence and displacement of Palestinians as a result of military occupation serve as the subject for this debut book from photographer Adam Golfer. A House Without a Roof draws on his own personal past and familial connections to the place to form an interesting, first person perspective while foregoing any conclusion about its troubled present. This is not easily reducible or categorisable work and Golfer deftly blends Internet-sourced imagery, archival material and extensive use of text with his photographs of the ongoing conflict, as seen at ground level. At least, it transmits the disorienting sense of an outsider locating oneself within a historic ‘home’, constructed through both real and imagined narratives. 

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.

Adam Golfer

A House Without a Roof

Essay by Janna Dyk

They sat on stumps in the dirt.” So A House Without a Roof begins with these simple seven words, a personal note by the New York-based photographer Adam Golfer, whose project recently migrated to an inter-genre book composed of equal-parts photographs and short stories that function together, published by the Greenpoint-based Booklyn Press and subsequently shortlisted for Aperture’s Paris Photo First PhotoBook Award 2016.

Golfer refers to the work as a negotiation of the memories and mythologies of his own personal past. His family “was implicated by the Nazi Holocaust… and almost everyone beyond [his] grandparents were lost.” The dynamic created for him a “desire to connect the imagined histories that echo back through such places as Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Israel, and Palestine”. In particular, to trace the histories of violence and displacement that link them and, “…to question and draw connections between different geographies, peoples and times.”

It is through this intrapersonal archive of family photos, mementos, telegrams, emails, and imagined and remembered writings, that Golfer navigates both his family ties and representations of the complexities of Israel’s ongoing military occupation. Many of the book’s images are referenced in the appendix with contextualising information. “I was seeking out images in archives and on the internet that echoed pictures I’d already made, and other times creating new images that looked like pictures I’d found,” he has said. “In these moments, different time periods and places became difficult to distinguish from one another. The boundaries were starting to collapse.”

As such the book resides in the slippery space between reality and fiction, employing multiple, simultaneous narratives. Throughout the pages, there emerges the disorienting sense of locating oneself within a historic ‘home.’ Golfer references the novella, Returning to Haifa (1969), by the Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani, the story wherein a Palestinian couple who fled Haifa in 1948 twenty years prior ventures back to revisit their native land. “The events were mixed up, the past and present running together, both in turn jumbled up with the thoughts and illusions and imaginings and feelings of the past… Had he known?… Sometimes he told himself, “Yes, I knew it even before it happened.”

A sentiment reiterative of Returning to Haifa occurred for Golfer in formulating A House Without a Roof, and is palpable in the book. Recalling the experience of visiting his grandmother’s (formerly confiscated) house in Lithuania, Golfer says, “I had spent a great deal of time reflecting on what it would be like to go to Lithuania and knock to see who was living there. But when I finally made it to the town, there was no door to knock on. This agitated against all these interrelated histories for me in a very tangible, ironic way… In my case, there was no door… It’s a reality that pairs with fiction, and suddenly it became about seeing the irony and tragedy together as a new reality.”

This moment appears in a photograph of the house, over which the addition of orange pencil delineates where once the door may have existed. So too resides an imagined exchange: “A knock on the door. An old man answers looking tired so I say, this is my house, and he says something to me in a tongue I don’t understand… I pick up my camera and click take a picture and now the man looks angry…I keep knocking.”

Perpetual knocking and doorlessness (or rooflessness – the title alludes to the practice of refugees avoiding finishing the roofs of temporary houses so as to emblematically proclaim their temporality), of the unfinished or closed-off, carries the book. Each time a text and following image creates meaning via its pairing, it collides in subsequent pages with material that complicates such reading. In a manner similar to the way text functions within a Walid Raad installation or the poetic compilations with archival images of Susan Howe, photographs appear to inform words only long enough to complicate, assembling, to quote Howe, “the confusion or juxtaposition between living truth or acting life.” Photographs inserted one atop the other become “like histories asserted and recombined over each other.” These seemingly unrelated parts form partial wholes that leave vital, poetic gaps.

Such partial understandings find in the book repeating visual devices, or “echoes,” as Golfer calls them. Two photographs of the same windshield are bound, side-by-side, as if seen from each eye while the other is closed. As the human body holds simultaneously two views with which the brain must negotiate (at times leaving or filling in blind spots), so too function these photographic homonyms as simultaneous perceptions. References to aspects of vision, of seeing and its limitations, gazing, and the tricks one’s perspective plays on itself, undulate throughout the texts and photographs. Two neighbouring blown-out windows in a depopulated 1948 house visually mimic a delicate pairing of David Ben Gurion’s dishtowels, creating emotional and philosophic blurring between them. In another spread, the eye-holes cut out for the mask of a Palestinian prisoner are repeated on the next page in an ocular shape within a house’s gate. So too a text relays, “a cat is staring at me. She is black with a white belly. I blink and she is grey. I cock my head to be sure, and she is black and white again.”

This perspectival uncertainty – actual grey area – is also relayed in abrupt, cinematic-like shifts detonated by flips between the images and text, interjecting narratives, and repeating onomatopoeic words such as “click,” “clack,” “BOOM,” “wham,” and “bing…” They serve as poetic devices that alternately reference an exterior eye’s view from a camera, the noise of military conflict, the mental-scene shifts that occur while wandering through free-associative thoughts, or the psychological syncing when something clicks that puncture and punctuate.

Golfer seems to suggest that such holes resemble the way that memory and history reside, as incomplete or non-wholes. This intuitive incompleteness reiterates in one of the final texts, a humoured exchange between three generations of individuals attempting to resolve an unspoken question about what is was like to live in Kaunas, Lithuania, before the war. Remaining unanswered, the section ends: “I look at Dad and he is laughing and then Poppop starts laughing too and I start laughing and I feel a bit embarrassed but somehow relieved. There is a roll of paper towels on the table, and I am not sure why, but I pick it up and throw it at Poppop. He catches it and laughs, and then something clicks.” Metonymically, a lot clicks in this moment, leaving one to return again.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Adam Golfer

Janna Dyk is an artist and independent curator based in New York. In 2015 she received a MFA from Hunter College, after studying Photography at the School of Visual Arts, and Literature and Spanish Linguistics in undergraduate.