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.

Gregory Halpern



There is a place deep within the Mojave Desert, around 100 miles southwest of Las Vegas, called Zzyzx. The name was coined in the 1940s by Curtis Howe Springer – a radio evangelist and self-affirmed doctor who opened a health spa of the same name on the land. Springer – who liked to refer to himself as an “old-time medicine man” while others felt that “quack” was more fitting – was a regular chancer. Bottling water from nearby springs and knocking together potions that were really nothing more than celery and parsley juices, he claimed they were cures for any number of ailments. Zzyzx began in Springer’s mind, and journeyed into a real place over time. He named a road leading to the resort ‘The Boulevard of Dreams’.

Something about the story of Zzyzx conjures up images of a young Sissy Spacek, arriving at a mysterious health spa in a small, dusty Californian desert town in 3 Women. Interestingly, beyond it’s setting, 3 Women is a film that is said to have come to its director, Robert Altman, in a dream, and he chose to pursue it without ever fully understanding what it was. Dreams, then, are a recurring theme, as Gregory Halpern’s own ZZYZX comes from a similar place, and he too saw a version of the bizarre dystopia we see in this book, fragmented in his dreams through time. Piecing together images of real people, and real scenes he reconstructed the place that had existed only in his mind. A fiction that made it’s way into reality.

ZZYZX traces a path that begins in the desert east of Los Angeles, moves through the city and ends up at the Pacific. Halpern uses the iconic idea of the journey West – embarked upon by countless artists and writers before him – as the symbol of a voyage to a better life, and a new start. California, in all of its sublime, inconceivable beauty is often seen as the embodiment of the American Dream – a brilliant, psychedelic, intensely dazzling place. But the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow. Los Angeles is also a fractured, profoundly devastating place. Where there is Hollywood there is skid row not so far away. Halpern’s LA makes your head swirl, oscillating somewhere between the two.

The book opens with the image of a hand with stars drawn upon it, reaching out of the darkness, palm illuminated to the sky. This image sets the chimerical tone of the book: sometimes the scenes we see are scorched in the blinding midday sun, while at other times we survey the city from the shadows. People, places and animals eclipse in and out of vision. The individuals who appear in Halpern’s photographs are often those who exist on the edges of society, and the view we are given as the reader reflects that. Almost always, the subject of the photograph is out of reach, seen from a distance, and obscured by branches or fences. Halpern’s portrayals of the people he meets are touching and very human – a particularly resonant photograph depicts a laughing woman, resting her head in the hands of another.

In the colophon, Halpern thanks Jason Fulford for his formative edit of the work, and that makes a lot of sense, as the images speak to each other in ways that are, at times, quietly reminiscent of Fulford’s own brand of image-editing. Subtle connections based on form and colour and symbol emerge between scenes. A cluster of criss-crossing branches gives way to the intersecting lines of a stairwell. A man, jaw agape and front teeth missing, appears opposite a shattered windscreen, it’s arch echoing the curve of his mouth. Everything leads from one thing to another.

There is a constant sense of movement in ZZYZX, and the book carries us forward at an uneasy pace. With flashes of characters and quiet moments, it’s something akin to somnambulation. As Halpern sweeps across the city, things seem to get bigger – a small fire as a book burns on the beach later gives way to a forest blaze, pushing plumes of smoke across the sky. It always seems to be teetering on the brink here. Are things about to collapse? Halpern has recently said that in LA it feels like the world is always, slowly ending. Pathways, freeways and stairs recur throughout the book – ways in and ways up. Furthermore, Halpern wanted for there to be something biblical about this project, and certainly it feels like his pilgrimage. His attempt to distill Los Angeles – this terrifying, awful, beautiful, sprawling, almost mythical city – and everything that goes on inside of its parameters is exquisite and at times, painful. Towards the end of the book, Halpern moves back out, across sea and land. The penultimate image he offers us is phantasmagoric, of two overlapping squares of light falling across the sand. The place we saw, if only for a while, disappears, shimmering in the evening light.

Joanna Cresswell

All images courtesy of MACK. © Gregory Halpern