Top 10

Photobooks of 2019

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from 2019 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark.

1. Long story short
Fraenkel Gallery

Long story short sees San Francisco-based Fraenkel Gallery return to publishing. Coinciding with the current exhibition marking the gallery’s 40th anniversary, this book is an endlessly rich slice of 180 years of photographic history. It aims to convey “that visceral sense of experiencing a work of art for the first time, in ways that defy words.” With a taste for the eclectic, it certainly delivers. Enigmatic photographs, such as the anonymous Untitled [Dinosaur Balloon], November 25, 1969 cover image, ricochet against immediately recognisable images from some of the medium’s stalwarts – Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Katy Grannan or Eadweard Muybridge to name but a few – all continuing to entrance, all brought together in a celebration; not only of Fraenkel’s anniversary year, but to also retune our attention on the pleasures and rewards of sustained looking. With its sumptuous printing and lavish production values, Long story short is a joy to behold. A door to the heart of a gallery that has done so much to contribute to the culture, study and appreciation of photography as an art form in the United States and beyond.

2. Salvatore Vitale, How To Secure A Country
Lars Müller Publishers

As a case study to consider critical global issues, such as borders and immigration, Salvatore Vitale’s How To Secure A Country promulgates a timely and deeply-layered look at 21st century statehood. Edited with Lars Willumeit, this long-term visual research project – as opposed to an investigation of a ‘closed’ topic – deals with the machinations and protocol of security systems in Switzerland, a country widely regarded as one of the world’s safest. The work is organised into visual clusters to reflect the collaborations with individuals from different disciplines and via access granted by various institutions, both public and private, including those relating to borders and customs, cybersecurity, data centres, armed forces and even weather forecast and supercomputering. How To Secure A Country offers a privileged perspective and multi-vantaged point of view on the fraught relationship between individuals, power and state control, yet never through images that are self-explanatory, nor without pronouncing judgement. In Vitale’s work there is always space for the viewer.

3. Lisa Barnard, The Canary and The Hammer

Another book of first-rate intelligence is Lisa Barnard’s Canary & The Hammer, spanning four years of photographic work shot across four continents. The artist’s third monograph takes gold as a subject – its complex history, relationship to wealth accumulation and symbolic representation – to demonstrate its myriad of uses and ubiquity in modern life. Deftly combining image, text and archival material within a structure of seven chapters, Barnard’s project embraces a fragmented narrative as a metaphor for our dissonant and uncertain times. Overlapping disparate yet related stories, ranging from the 1849 Gold Rush or activities by Peruvian mining organisations to jewellery manufacturing and high-tech industry, hers is a larger vision comprised of systems, contradictions and affects, ultimately cognisant of capitalism’s proclivity to both exploit and self-destruct. Throughout her career, Barnard has rigorously tested and questioned parameters within contemporary documentary practice, all the while reflecting on photography’s ability to render visible such vast and seemingly unimaginable themes.

4. Masahisa Fukase, Family

It’s a swell time for reprints of photobook masterpieces. And MACK has been leading the way in recent years. Amongst its latest have been Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home and Alec Soth’s Niagara, and now comes Family by giant of Japanese photography, Masahisa Fukase. First released in 1991, and the artist’s final book, the project centres on a series of group portraits showing Fukase and his relatives in the family’s professional studio that were shot over nearly two decades. Family utilises the ritual of the family portrait but subverts it by featuring various nude or partially dressed women, many of whom are young performers or student actors bearing no relation to the family. Melancholy is piled on melancholy in these photographic gestures of commemoration. Touching on issues of memory, empathy and dispersal, it reflects what Geoffrey Batchen has referred to as “the desire to remember, and to be remembered”. And as Tomo Kosuga notes chillingly in his parting words to one of the book’s essays, Archiving Death: The Family Portrait as a Site of Mourning: “As we meet their staring eyes, we may feel that the process of the mourning vigil, conducted around the Fukase family, is taking place within ourselves.” File under: ‘essential titles’.

5. Hassan Hajjaj, Hassan Hajjaj

As the eponymous title suggests, this is a book about the vibrant Anglo-Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj – his creative universe, unique visual language and cultural remixing – that provides a noteworthy contribution to this year’s offerings. Remarkably this is Hajjaj’s first major monograph, produced to accompany the recent retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. It draws upon his signature colour work that so effortlessly and promiscuously straddles modes of documentary and fashion photography. It also reunites this with hitherto unseen black and white work. His is an approach to studio and street portraiture that harks back to the traditions of Malick Sidibé, but which is given a contemporary twist through the bricolage of high and low cultural references in order to shine a light on the louche of global consumerism. The book’s design perfectly augments the content of the imagery by drawing out the repeated motifs and all-over compositions in an explosion of patterns and visual textures. Pluralism and new signs of recognition are the order of the day.

6. Anastasia Samoylova, FloodZone

Necessary images from the frontiers of climate emergency in the southern United States make up this brooding exploration of the people, spaces and surfaces existing in preparation of its onslaught. Rising sea levels and hurricanes threaten but it’s the absence of any drama or action that defines Anastasia Samoylova’s FloodZone. Instead, as individuals wait and look on, conjured is an atmosphere akin to a mood piece laden with suspense and foreboding. Through a skilful blend of luscious imagery, encompassing lyrical documentary photographs and black and white studies – by turns staged and spontaneous – along with epic aerial views, and touching upon issues of paradise, tourism, decay and renewal, FloodZone constitutes an inventive addition to the slew of recent approximate visions of the Anthropocene. As David Campany notes in the monograph’s essay, “Paradise is as photogenic as catastrophe.” And while “the seductive contradictions of a place drowning in its own mythical image” is indeed embodied, Samoylova’s is a fantastic double vision, proffering depictions that oscillate somewhere between the already seen and never seen.

7. Karla Hiraldo Voleau, Hola Mi Amol
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions and ECAL/University of Art and Design, Lausanne

Readers of 1000 Words will recall the recent magazine feature on this highly-original monograph. Within it, French-Dominican artist Karla Hiraldo Voleau has made it her business to take us on a journey through her personal history in Hola Mi Amol, one that burrows into her dual heritage, its influences and prejudices. As a child Voleau was often warned to treat Dominican men with suspicion, ergo the slightly leery title of this book project, and here she returns to the island of her youth to actively seek out those very individuals she was warned about. A cast of nude or partially-dressed men populate the photographs – seen at the beach, in homes and motels or riding on the back of motorbikes via selfies with the artist – in images that both resist the admonishments of her family and, by natural extension, play us as viewers on a meta-level. Combined with text extracts, Voleau’s intersections call into question ideas of authenticity and ambiguity in the narration of the artist’s various encounters. Hola Mi Amol speaks through the most personal and private experiences relating to eroticism, prowess and racial identities. Ultimately the male gaze has in effect been turned on itself to powerful, and at times beguiling, effect.

8. Sohrab Hura, The Coast
Ugly Dog

Blood splatters, smoke bellows, tattoos sore, rats cower, tears fall – the visual experience of leafing through Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura’s fourth monograph The Coast is akin to a feverish dream. Chosen by the jury of Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Book Awards as Photobook of the Year, there is something clearly so captivating about The Coast. And what’s interesting eventually winds up beautiful too. Opening with an absurd short story of a woman named Madhu, who has quite literally lost her head, the tone is set for an intense and unrelenting narrative that Sohrab relays in twelve varying iterations. It features photographs taken up and down the Indian coastline that work in service of what the artist refers to as “a metaphor for a ruptured piece of skin barely holding together a volatile state of being ready to explode.” Images are printed full bleed with only a narrow white gap creating a continuous visual flow – or assault – while their shifting contexts furnish our gaze onto a disorientating post-truth world, particularly in a country where disinformation and acts of violence are on the rise. Reality teeters between fact and construction in this fable for the times.

9. Amak Mahmoodian, Zanjir
RRB Books/IC Visual Lab

“This book is a conversation imagined between the artist Amak Mahmoodian (1980-present) and the Persian princess and memorist Taj Saltaneh (1883-1936).” So reads the preface to Zanjir, a riveting book hot off the press by Bristol-based, Iranian-born Amak Mahmoodian. What unfolds through sequences of quiet photographs – both authored and appropriated from the Golestan archives in Tehran – is a moving meditation on the actuality of having one’s family based there but no here and the hybrid experience of living between cultures, lands and languages, all bound up in sensations of love, loss and longing. From the subtle gaps between recording and not forgetting emerges this deeply poetic look at the vestiges of the past as they move into the present only then to become the past again. Time, memory, dreams and their inevitable decay approach something so powerful as it relates to the homeland. Mahmoodian, by her own admission, has created “a life of memories” swaying between presence and absence. With a stellar team of editors including Aaron Schuman and Alejandro Acin, Zanjir is a personal and rich foray into the imagination of an understated and poetic artist.

10. George Georgiou, Americans Parade

This is the kind of photography that renews a feeling of wonder every time we gaze upon its imagery. Here, we are witnessing the theatre of life as seen through the parade of Americans during 2016, the year Donald Trump came into office and when the country had revealed its profound fractures. George Georgiou’s black and white photographs show one community after the next in a project spanning 24 cities across 14 states. Crowds of various sizes are captured via a simple but effective approach of photographing wide and from a distance to form tableaux-style images, their constancy bestowing a feeling of detachment but also one of acute observation. Revelling in the abundance and complexities of individuals who make up group identities, it is almost as if Georgiou is invisible – such is the candour. In these instances, people never stare down the camera, but instead focus on something beyond the frame. And they resonate with us, so pressingly that we look for ourselves in them. As we scrutinise the minutiae in such detail, images within images emerge, resolving into a kaleidoscope of mini portraits that are full of contemporary trappings. It thus offers up a valid document; in the same way the various locales reflect the socio-economic disparities of the United States to speak volumes of the environments in which the photographs were taken. Something must be said of the book’s quad-tone printing and its importance in revealing the sumptuous detail of the scenes, which, combined with lay-flat binding, allows viewers to really enter the imagery: exquisite.

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words. 


1-Eadweard Muybridge, Contortions on the Ground1887. (Long story short, Fraenkel Gallery)

2-Salvatore Vitale, A customised assault rifle transformed for sport purposes, from the series How To Secure a Country, 2014-18.

3-Lisa Barnard, Gold-miner Kimberly, at the Las Vegas Gold & Treasure Show, 2017, from the series The Canary and The Hammer.

4-Masahisa Fukase, from the series Family, 1971–89. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, and Éditions Xavier Barral, Paris.

5-Hassan Hajjaj, Keziah Jones, 2011. Courtesy Vigo Gallery, London, and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York.

6-Anastasia Samoylova, Park Avenue, 2018, from the series FloodZone. Courtesy Galerie Caroline O’Breen, Amsterdam.

7-Karla Hiraldo Voleau, from the series Hola Mi Amol.

8-Sohrab Hura, India, 2014, from the series The Coast. Courtesy Magnum Photos.

9-Amak Mahmoodian, from the series Where Time Stood Still.

10-George Georgiou, 4 July Parade, Ripley, West Virginia, 04/07/2016, from the series Americans Parade.

Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Hola Mi Amol

Book review by Alice Zoo

In Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new book Hola Mi Amol, the narrator – Karla herself, or a version of her – is often travelling on the back of a motorbike. She snaps pictures with her phone of the shadow cast by the bike, and the two people on it: herself, and the Dominican man she’s holding onto as they ride. The motorbike recurs again and again, despite the book being made up of her different experiences and acquaintance with seven different men. It is as good a metaphor as any for the freedom and spontaneity and dangerous thrill that runs through the project like shining thread – the trust required in allowing a stranger to transport you like this, on the back of a bike, away from home, without a helmet, your body pressed close against them.

On its surface, Hola Mi Amol, co-published by SPBH Editions and ECAL, is a relatively straightforward re-approaching of a personal history. Voleau grew up under the influences of her dual heritage: French on her mother’s side, Dominican on her father’s. When visiting Santo Domingo as a child, she was warned against straying outside her house, advised to treat Dominican men with suspicion: ‘I think sometimes my parents were just terrified I’d get pregnant with a “tigre” passing by.’ As an adult, Voleau returns to the island alone, without the admonishments of her family, and seeks out the people and places she was warned about. Her images illustrate encounters with these men, meeting them on the beach, or accompanying them back to their homes or motels, riding on their bikes, shooting portraits of them surrounded by greenery. Often the men are nude. She turns the lens on herself, too, most frequently in selfies with her subjects, but at times alone. The images are accompanied by a simple text, describing a very limited account of their encounters. We skate along it, accepting it as easily as the heat from the Caribbean sun.

When Voleau meets a witch, however, the narrative starts to feel more uncertain. A friend needs to visit to remove a curse; Voleau accompanies them, and finds herself asking for a love potion. Her childhood suspicion of the men hasn’t quite gone away. ‘I want to desire back,’ she says, ‘I want to believe them.’ The inclusion of this supernatural element unsteadies us, and other uncertainties from earlier on, hardly noticed at the time, start to rankle. The project has become a hall of mirrors that distorts the narrator, her subjects, and the viewer, too. In the book’s final pages, Voleau asks: ‘Do you still believe me? Have I been transformed into the character I was pretending to be?’ Voleau lies across a bed, eyes towards us, a challenge in them. So, then, what is the performance? What were we expected to believe, and what judgments have we formed? The images and text must be re-approached and, as we do so, they splinter.

Voleau’s visual approach appears to mimic the foundational principles of her project, one intended to be ‘more personal, more tender, more spontaneous’ than the connections her family allowed her to make in her youth. Much of the work is shot on a phone, and is rough and grainy as a result. The low resolution feels contemporary, like the way that images degrade the more they are reproduced and passed around online. This aesthetic is relaxed, undemanding, an ad hoc approach that only foments the project’s intense intimacy. Introducing a professional camera into a circumstance formalises it, or induces subjects to perform, no matter how much the photographer works to palliate this effect; but every contemporary subject is more at ease around a phone. There’s no need to be quite so guarded. The cover of the book shows a man’s back, covered in sand which sticks to the skin; inside, this motif is repeated, where sand clings to a torso, and later, to the palm of a hand, its coarse grain mimicking the grain of the images’ own rough resolution. However, as long as we are taken in by the effect of informality, we are blind to the highly formalised meta-techniques peppering the work. At one stage, we see an image of Julio’s back, and spliced below it is a photograph of the phone as it takes that same image. Yet if we can see the phone taking the picture, that means another one must have taken the second frame which we are now looking at. In this way, Voleau is calling attention to the presence of the camera, to the making of the image, even where she appears to have adopted the very apparatus that would allow itself to go unnoticed. In another image, we see her and Julio together from a distance, appearing to meet one another on the beach. If the phone is on a self-timer, then the meeting is staged. Not all is as it seems.

When Voleau goes looking for Julio in town, shortly after they meet, she is conscious of the assumptions of those watching her. ‘I could feel people assumed I was looking for sex.’ She makes photographs of the time they spend time together; he tells her his friends ‘advised him to fuck [her].’ Overleaf is a gloriously sensual portrait of him reclining, naked, his eyes closed, his penis semi-erect. Across the page, his trousers rest on a stone wall, discarded in dappling light. What does the viewer assume? What do we read in images taken at such close quarters, and especially when sex has been explicitly discussed? Later on, however, Voleau again uses the text to remind us that nudity does not have to be code for anything in particular. She asks Dimas, another subject, if he minds being naked, and he replies in Spanish that perhaps she should get naked with him. The photograph occurred while she was clothed, then, and his question suggests he is yet to see her naked. The transaction is photographic, not sexual, even if the content of the photograph hints at the latter. Everywhere the photographs and text misdirect us, only to reveal themselves in a different direction later on.

The book explores the potency of the female gaze, or the potency of turning the male gaze back against itself. She takes these Dominican men, in this place where ‘clichés of toxic masculinity’ abound, and makes beautiful, voluptuous images of them. Beyond these facts, her relationship to them is unclear. Throughout the book, whenever she directly quotes her subjects, it is in Spanish. As such, their presence within the work is set at that slight distance from the reader (presumed to be English-speaking, given that the bulk of the narrative is written in English). We can see Voleau’s subjects better than we can understand them, and we can see them close enough to count the individual drops of seawater that still cling to their chests on the beach. Towards the end of the book, when she seems to establish perhaps the book’s only genuine romantic or sexual relationship, with Denichel, she quotes him in English when he tells her, ‘I want to hold you.’ It is as though the truthfulness of their connection has brought him into the main language of the work: he is given words the reader is sure to understand. The genuine connection is given the clearest portrayal, until their short relationship ends, too.

Though Voleau has said that she wants to ‘put on display the brutal loneliness of our times,’ the book does not read as evidence of loneliness. It reads rather as evidence of the ease with which a transactional relationship can be established, and how frequently the surface of a thing can be misread as its totality. The narrative construction experiments with the expectations of the men it portrays, as well as the expectations of the viewer. It asks: what do we look for when we see a selfie taken by an attractive young woman in the ocean, her arms around a man? Yet the work doesn’t seek to answer the questions it raises about the performance of desire, or the suggestiveness of its images, nor does it judge the viewer for perhaps making judgments of their own; it merely holds a mirror up, the glass distorted, the reflection warping. The actual substance of her relationships, throughout Hola Mi Amol, is barely relevant. Voleau is a bold narrator flicking towards us jewel-like images, as though they were bait, and waiting to reel us in.

All images courtesy of the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy Editions. © Karla Heraldo Voleau / ECAL, University of Art and Design Lausanne

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.