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.

Salvatore Vitale

How To Secure A Country

Essay by Max Houghton

Switzerland has long enjoyed its reputation as ‘the safest country in the world’, not least for anyone wishing to keep financial affairs private. Since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, self-imposed political neutrality has been central to Switzerland’s security. This decision saved thousands of Swiss – though few Jewish – lives during WWII, when the country was encircled by Axis powers. Neutrality, however, does not equal pacifism. With every male citizen aged 18-34 mandated to military service, Switzerland is a gun-nation, the third most heavily armed country in the world, after the United States, and Yemen, and where it is common-place to see a ten year-old loading SIG SG 550 or FAS 90 (similar to the AK47, but also customised for sport). In case of invasion, hyper-vigilant Switzerland is ready to defend its territory.

Making citizens feel safe comes at a price, of course, as Josef K. found out, to his detriment and eventual voluntary suicide, in Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka was matchless in describing what happens to a person, when everything and everyone is perceived in terms of a threat; a kind of disintegration at the level of the soul. Spiritual bankruptcy.

A question hovers, and remains ever-present: when does a threat become a risk? Looking for the answer has preoccupied photographer Salvatore Vitale, a Sicilian, who has been living in Switzerland for the past twelve years. One imagines the initial shock of experiencing the smoothness and visibility of a Swiss road at night. His adopted home, surrounded by mountains, enfolded into the very centre of Europe, offers unique social, political and financial protection to its citizens; it is palpable. Vitale could feel it in the air. Over time, his observations of differences in efficiency and state protocols inspired a desire to create an extensive visual research into How To Secure A Country. He began to collaborate with the prestigious ETH university in Zurich, a relationship which has proved essential in both trying to assess one of the most complex security systems in the world and in gaining permission to access places otherwise sequestered. The collaboration functions at many levels and is used by Vitale specifically to be responsive to interests outside the art world. By being guided by specialists within various institutions, he aims to show how the system works from the inside. This approach to research is as refreshing as it is rigorous.

Looking at Vitale’s meticulous, clinically clean Switzerland, we might begin to comprehend that the landscape we more stereotypically associate with skiing or yodeling or Heidi is in fact weaponised, to use a popular term, or we could say ‘securitised’. Mountains are hollowed out to house entire army divisions. Fake stonework conceals artillery; domestic residences in chocolate-box pretty villages harbor canons; bridges are stuffed with dynamite, ensuring all roads become dead-ends in the event of an attack.

‘Pre-emption.’ Brian Massumi writes, ‘is the generative logic of our time.’ He is writing, in Ontopower, about post 9/11 USA, but the Swiss approach might operate as a kind of antecedent. The experience of looking at Vitale’s chilling imagery reminds us how ‘[t] his incipience of an event as yet to be determined, overfull with really felt potential, carries an untenable tension.’ Vitale has striven to find an aesthetic approach that bears witness to this tension. He has restaged the contents of instruction manuals, spent time in border control rooms, weather stations, and airport watch-towers, and been present at simulation exercises in order to understand the production of security. Vitale’s eye also takes in the environment in the shape of mountain valleys, nocturnal foliage, a lake inhabited by a police diver. To further the connection with Massumi’s thinking, Vitale’s enterprise reveals how state power is a significant factor in shaping the very environments in which we live. Eventually, it all becomes entirely natural.

Vitale is also spending time – the project is ongoing – at MeteoSwiss, which supplies vital meteorological analysis via its super computer in Lugano. There is a productive connection between the weather and state security, which Vitale is exposing, in terms of air traffic, both civil and military, or chemical or nuclear accident, for example, as well as providing forecasts for climbers or hikers, who would be at risk from extreme weather. In wealthy Switzerland, the profitable insurance industry relies on such risk analysis.

Piecing together the many links in this unwieldy network, via Vitale’s imagery, we begin to see how a politics of knowledge is created through power relations. He brings us a sonar image, used on a rescue mission undertaken by Swiss lake police, who provided the image. Sound wavelengths in water are approximately 2000 times longer than those of visible light, which makes it possible to ‘see’, when light can’t penetrate far enough. The resulting image can only be interpreted by a highly-trained expert, leaving the layperson to consider it purely as visual spectacle: a narrow, symmetrical chasm between two masses, with an unidentifiable circular ring to the top right. Scientists have employed sonar imaging techniques in Lake Neuchatel to find evidence of tectonically active zones that might trigger earthquakes, for example. Seek and you shall find.

As might be expected, technology is at the forefront of security production. While older methods of detection are still utilised – as we see in the image of the sniffer dog – the most advanced robotics technology is playing its role too. Vitale introduces us to ANYmal, which (it is tempting to say ‘who’) is being developed for rescue missions, and is designed for autonomous operation in challenging environments. Robotics research has been focused predominantly in this area since Fukushima. The inclusion of ANYmal in this series seems ominous. The human body begins to feel superfluous.

Perhaps the most revealing glimpse into the production of security is the series of still images, the title of which translates as The six errors with regard to security threats. Classic stock imagery of elegant ballets dancers, or three generations of a healthy Swiss family, is juxtaposed with more sinister pictures – a hooded person at a keyboard, a raging fire. The original video is a Swiss Army production, at once bane and antidote: one the one hand, it educates the public on possible dangers to their culture or economy, while at the same time, presents the army as the necessary solution; guarantor of peace and prosperity.

A couple of images offer brief respite from the tightly-calibrated visual regime. Vitale’s research began with border control, where, outside the inspection rooms and the extraterritorial space of the airport, he observed traces in the landscape, left by refugees. The viewer is affected by this fleeting human touch. A hand-written note in Tigrinya, the Eritrean language, offers reassurance for those that might follow in their footsteps: ‘We are here. You are in Switzerland.’ Elsewhere, a vivid red map acts as a warning to fellow refugees, to make clear that Switzerland is in fact a country in its own right.

A final image in this illuminating series shows a white cross on a red square, one of the most-recognised flags in the world, or the looking-glass version of a never-ending state of emergency. The disaster-to-come is always already present.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Salvatore Vitale

Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.