Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by 1000 Words

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by 1000 Words.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter

Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2018

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photo book releases from 2018 – selected by our Editor in Chief, Tim Clark.

In association with Spectrum.

1. Carmen Winant, My Birth
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions

My Birth by Carmen Winant is perhaps this year’s standout title from Bruno Ceschel’s famed Self Publish, Be Happy enterprise. Yet it is also utterly unlike any other. Deftly fusing image and text, the book – a facsimile of the artist’s own journal – combines photographs of Winant’s mother giving birth to her three children alongside found imagery of other, anonymous women undergoing the same experience. This visual strategy aims at “the flattening of cross-generational time and feeling”, while the title is a nod to Frida Kahlo’s 1932 painting of the same name. Immediate, precarious and utterly vulnerable, Winant’s project, which coincided with an on-site installation at MoMA’s Being: New Photography 2018, is also bold and fearless. Sensitive to the world, and to the world of images, My Birth asks probing questions that move beyond transgression to open up a space for considering childbirth and its representation as a political act.

2. Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
Aperture Foundation

What really matters now are the needs that art answers, and visual activist Zanele Muholi always delivers with great rigour. Having first emerged as a photographic spokesperson of members of the black queer community in South Africa and beyond, her long-awaited monograph sees Muholi turn the camera on herself to powerful effect. This arresting collection of more than 90 theatrical self-portraits first reclaim and then reimagine the black subject again in ways that resist, confront and challenge complacency to racism – both historic and contemporary. During these times when violence, misogyny and even white supremacy are rife, the photographs’ accumulative presence flies in the face of stereotypes and oppressive standards of beauty.

3. Raymond Meeks, Halfstory Halflife
Chose Commune

This is the kind of pleasurable photography that approaches something so eloquent yet understated but which we cannot altogether grasp. Master of the quiet photograph, Raymond Meeks is also a prolific photo book maker. Meeks’ current collaboration with Chose Commune bears all the hallmarks of his lyrical explorations; strong narrative and occasional riffs off poetry and short fiction, all the while concentrating on the symbiotic relationship between family, memory and a sense of place. Here, black and white photographs of young men, making their way through openings in hedgerow to access prime spots for river-jumping in the Catskill mountain region of New York, are both visceral and spontaneous. Their pale bodies fling themselves into the dark void, frozen as if mid-flight, pivoting from the point of view of an adult seemingly remembering a moment of fledgling sexuality and uncertain future.

4. Michael Schmelling, Your Blues
Skinnerboox and The Ice Plant

Taken between 2013 and 2014, and shot while on commission for the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Colombia College Chicago, Michael Schmelling’s photographs in Your Blues are our guide through the city’s vibrant and eclectic music scene, where “the dominant form is hybridity”. Musicians and revellers, parties and recording studios, lovers and strangers all collide, depicted through casual views and with feelings of familiarity. This then forms a ripe photographic account of the varying degrees of individualism within this community. Blues, punk, hip hop, psychedelic jazz, emo, hardcore and house music are all part of Chicago’s cultural inheritance and encompassed here via Schmelling’s vignettes and reflections on niche and local performers in unconventional venues. Akin to a novel of images, Your Blues provides a noteworthy contribution to this year’s offerings.

5. Max Pinckers, Margins of Excess

A response to the ‘post-truth’ era, Max Pinckers’ speculative documentary work revolves around the narratives of six protagonists who all momentarily achieved infamy in the US only to be ousted as fakes or frauds by the media. Such highly-idiosyncratic stories range from a self-invented love story set in a Nazi concentration camp to a man compulsively hijacking trains. With fever-dream urgency, Margins of Excess brings together fragments of these lives through staged photography, archival material, interviews and press clippings: the explicit folding of imagination into imaging “in which truths, half-truths, lies, fiction or entertainment are easily interchanged.” Pinckers’ take on embracing reality in all its complexity via this particular strand of storytelling offers an interesting reminder: that contemporary documentary practice might be more productively considered as small arguments, gestures or even critical methods.

6. Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê, White Gaze
Sming Sming Books

Readers of 1000 Words will recall the recent magazine feature on this gem of a photo book from collaborative duo Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê, which deserves much wider recognition in light of its poetry, playfulness, acuity and, most crucially, decolonising strategies. Intellectually energetic, White Gaze repurposes imagery from National Geographic to confront notions of white privilege and Western-centrism by reworking and negating image and text from the publication’s original pages. Countless uncomfortable truths hidden at the bottom of every lie, every act of denial or white complicity, come to bear through the interplay of the two languages, critiquing how meaning is constructed to administer imperialist narratives and racist histories.

7. Mimi Plumb, Landfall
TBW Books

As far as great discoveries go, the case of Mimi Plumb’s resurfaced archive has been a fairly recent but major breakthrough. Having taught photography throughout much of her career at San Jose State University and San Francisco Art Institute in the US, it has only been during the past five years that her work has really come to light following the 2014 exhibition of her Pictures from the Valley series. Now, a collection of images taken throughout the 1980s have been published by TBW Books under the title, Landfall, containing black and white photographs full of foreboding and unease, yet always delicate and beautiful in register. They appear to encapsulate a time when the world at large seemed out of kilter – with obvious parallels to our present moment. Stylistically, too, there’s a whiff of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Henry Wessel to these images that certainly will not fade quickly.

8. Chloe Dewe Mathews, Caspian: The Elements
Aperture Foundation and Peabody Museum Press

It’s heartening to observe this renewed period for Aperture Foundation’s photo book publishing arm, albeit still very traditional in format. One of its many great, recent titles comes courtesy of British photographer and filmmaker Chloe Dewe Mathews who spent five years roaming the borderlands of the Caspian Sea, where Asia seamlessly merges into Europe, to come away with a compelling record of the region’s complex geopolitical trevails. Much of this of course is largely bound up in the singular importance of gas and oil reserves and the disparate economies of bordering countries – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – but it’s Mathews’ receptiveness and examination of the ties between people and the landscape, as well as the religious, artistic and therapeutic aspects of daily life, that are so intriguing.

9. Thomas Demand, The Complete Papers

While there is obviously no equivalent experience to viewing a Thomas Demand artwork at its intended size and scale, this new volume on the oeuvre of the acclaimed German artist more than makes up for it in scope, depth and scholarship. Edited by Christy Lange, and with texts from voices as diverse as the novelist Jeff Euginedes to curator Francesco Bonami, The Complete Papers provides a hugely comprehensive view of Demand’s past three decades of artistic production. Known for using pre-existing images culled from the media, routinely with political undertones, which he then recreates from cardboard and paper at 1:1 scale before photographing the assembled scene, admirers of the work will no doubt appreciate hitherto unseen pieces from the early 1990s when he first started making paper constructions for this sole purpose of photographing them. With the customary bibliography and full exhibitions listing, this is a researcher’s dream. A catalogue raisonné of the highest order.

10. Sunil Gupta, Christopher Street, 1976

Sunil Gupta’s Christopher Street, 1976 performs an act of personal remembrance by bringing together photographs shot in in New York when the artist spent a year studying photography with Lisette Model in between cruising the city’s streets with his camera; part of a burgeoning, proud and public gay scene prior to ensuing AIDS epidemic that subsequently sent it underground. The photo book is minimally designed, presenting one black and white photograph on each right-hand page in a spiral-bound volume, marking the latest release in Stanley/Barker’s small but judicious selection of titles. It celebrates both a key moment in Gupta’s identity and the political value embedded in the struggle for LGBT liberation, the consequences of which were far-reaching.

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

Peter Fraser


Book review by Jeremy Millar

If one wants to take the measure of something, then it is often best to do so from more than one point. More usually these multiple positions occur in space – the same object viewed simultaneously from different places, for example – but they can also occur in time. Let’s consider, for example, something that Peter Fraser noted some years ago: ‘With each series of photographs I choose a different strategy to approach the same underlying preoccupation, which is, essentially, trying to understand what the world around me is made of through the act of photographing it.’ Actually, this was fifteen years ago, and – full disclosure – written to me in preparation for a retrospective exhibition of his work that I was curating for The Photographers’ Gallery, London, yet it could quite easily describe the process that Fraser has undertaken for this most recent book published by Skinnerboox. The title Mathematics might also bring to mind that of an earlier series, Towards an Absolute Zero, but whereas that was metaphorical and referred to ‘a “still” universe’ where a ‘minute shift carries importance’, here the title is to be taken quite literally; as he notes in the afterword, Fraser has made these photographs with the belief ‘that mathematics can explain the world, or at least describe it in a way that approaches an explanation’.

Such a claim, and perhaps the misgivings one might have towards it, is apparent in the first photograph. Here a triangular rack of pool balls recedes upon the cobalt blue felt of the table, the white sitting atop them. While all sports depend to some extent upon numbers – points scored, time taken, distance covered – pool seems amongst the most ‘mathematical’, a table-top exercise of Platonic forms and Euclidean geometry. Even the balls themselves have numbers upon them, yet while these might help us to describe their relative positions within the rack as wrong, could they explain it? Here, one might feel that mathematics is less a structure underlying the world – and the work – than one placed upon it.

The work becomes far more compelling when such an organising structure seems less apparent and given the diversity of pictures here contained, this is often. Indeed, the universalism that mathematics seems to hold for Fraser allows him to photograph far more widely than he has for some time. (I didn’t then mean geographically, although this is also true: whereas many earlier projects were bound by a form of geographic constraint – a particular journey, or city – here the photographs are clearly made in many different countries.) I am reminded often of pictures found within Two Blue Buckets, Fraser’s seminal book, which, through its recent republication as a director’s cut, might itself become another point, or two, from which to view this more recent work. One might also come to think it almost inevitable that there should be two books called Two Blue Buckets, both similar, each different. The irregular curves along the back of a bay horse; the weathered paint of a corrugated building; the arrangement of domestic objects; the interiors of sacred spaces: all can be found in both books, and if the democratic vision he borrowed early from William Eggleston insisted that yes, even this – the merely familiar – was worthy of our consideration, then Fraser now allows that ‘this’ might also include that which is extraordinarily familiar, such as the Matterhorn, or great works of architecture, or of art (or their copies, at least).

To this list we might also include people, who here return to his work. Before making each portrait, Fraser asked each person ‘to imagine that they had just discovered that something they had always believed to be true had just been found to be a lie.’ Whether, in the terms established by this work, such a discovery might be considered an addition to or a subtraction from their sense of the world, or themselves, is left uncertain, as uncertain as their expressions, yet the premise is far less so: ‘had just discovered’ suggests that the knowledge had been accepted in a manner that ‘had just been told’ surely wouldn’t. What we know to be true depends largely upon what we believe to be true, and here we return to the subject that has been at the very heart of Fraser’s practice for three decades or more: the notion of faith. In the mid-Eighties he wrote that, ‘The sacred is everywhere and resides in the most unlikely places’, finding it then in the knotted net hanging in a stable, or the Marian embrace of an Avery weighing scale (although whether this was a Nativity, or a Pièta, one would never know). Now, Fraser’s faith might have shifted, but it is made manifest in similar things. One does not have to hold such a belief to believe that others do, nor that that belief might create things of great beauty and intelligence, whether that is the strange scintillation of what seems to be a flooded quarry, or the calligraphic splendour of the main dome of Blue Mosque.

To consider one last picture: here we are invited to look down, obliquely, across the rooftops – polygons of terracotta and slate – of what one presumes to be a European city. The bright sunlit planes of the stuccoed façades throw into relief the shadow thrown across – and up from – the foreground, spiking flatly across the complex of shapes below. And yet where might we situate ourselves in such a view? Given our downward glance one can assume that we are somewhere high upon the building casting the shadow, yet our position is unclear. We are both elevated and umbral, never knowing how far from that threshold to lucidity we are.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Peter Fraser

Jeremy Millar is an artist, and Senior Tutor at the Royal College of Art, London.

Alessandro Calabrese

A Failed Entertainment


Something to do with loneliness and something to do with setting up a conversation between human beings.” In a 1996 radio interview David Foster Wallace explained his understanding of art and writing in relation to Infinite Jest, his complex, dystopian novel that has inspired Alessandro Calabrese’s recent photobook A Failed Entertainment. HD screen-sized with a glossy, laminated cover, Calabrese’s work opens an unsettling dialogue with its audience, grappling with binaries of digital/analogue, proliferation/reduction, representation/abstraction, automation/control, in an exploration of photography, authorship and the Internet.

Twenty-one images formed of multiple digital photographs, overlaid and centrally aligned so that each composite recedes to black. Like window upon window of a desktop in overdrive, the frames pulse centrifugally on bright white pages so that it is hard for the eye to find a resting point. What legible data there is is so varied it seems arbitrary and, like redacted documents, the crux of the matter is obscured. Colours blend between layers to lurid effect. Visual information hits in a barrage (there are at least two figures pointing guns). Faces are anonymous – masked, concealed or obliterated entirely. Marble busts meld with the head of a primate in one particularly sinister amalgam.

Two short texts expose the workings of Calabrese’s project: the artist uploaded analogue photographs taken on the industrial outskirts of Milan to Google’s ‘Search by image’ service. From the results he used an algorithm to make a random selection of twenty-one files, which he printed on individual acetate sheets, arranged in layers and scanned back into the computer.

Calabrese’s original film prints are reproduced in the second part of the book, effecting a stark inversion. These quiet, searching portraits of his home town emanate from matte black paper with a vivid luminosity. If his digital compounds are tangled, noisy, abstruse these pictures are understated, subtle, direct. To compare the two sets is to become startlingly aware of their polarity, and so of our excessive, faceless consumption of imagery on the Web. Here is the longing and loneliness of the Information Age that Wallace sensed so presciently twenty-one years ago.

Michaela Nettell

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Alessandro Calabrese

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.

Federico Ciamei

Travel Without Moving

Book review by Duncan Wooldridge

It has always been photography’s prerogative to show worlds just out of reach. Even though it seems unusual today, we might remember that, in their heyday, picture magazines commissioned photographers and writers on long-term projects, embedded in far flung countries and cultures that were unfamiliar to occidental eyes. Written accounts were sent back, describing the world without images, and written in a prose that was necessarily descriptive and evocative. The very subjects were cultures and peoples – a picture of the world was to be formed through those images and descriptions.

As much as many of those projects were humanist in intent, today they understood in part as a colonial project. But in the globalised and networked present, they also appear as the beginnings of networks and assemblages. Edward Steichen’s Family of Man brought together images from around the world to show mankind’s similarities by placing hundreds of images in one exhibition and publication. In its grand tour as an exhibition, however, and its multiple printings as a catalogue, Family of Man showed not only a specific view of the world, but also, just as importantly, how photographs continued to move, after Benjamin’s description of mechanical reproducibility, away from the subject and towards the recipient. The Family of Man described – enacted even – a passage of information. It was, in its own way, an illustration that complemented André Malraux’s conception of an Imaginary Museum, or Museum without Walls, in which the artworks of the world could be collected as an institution on the printed page. The world exists in the home of the reader-viewer – it is compressed in each of our own museums.

Photography’s recent use of the satellite and networked image, as a material for visual and critical practice, corroborates this early movement of the image. From the comfort of the home, images of the world can be presented to us. But more than this: progressively, the very collections of major museums – the preserved holdings of institutionalised knowledge as the projects of generations of curators, collecting policies and ideologies – have become available through great projects of scanning and digital reproduction. Their images enter the algorithmic soup of user-generated photographs and selfies present online.

Federico Ciamei’s book Travel Without Moving published by Skinnerboox presents the pre-photographic representations of the once-exotic landscapes of distant lands, to meet the now-familiar templates and formats of the digital image file and the screen of the computer. The book begins with extracts from traveller’s diaries, in a small selection of texts affixed neatly to the cover. Each fragment recounts the approach to or departure towards a new place. The expeditions diaries suggest the many social interactions that formed the body of the explorations themselves – gossip about what was to come, and tales of what had occurred. Each undoes the scientific distance at which new cultures were often measured and described formally. Inside the book, images sourced from the digitised archives of travellers and explorations make up the majority of Ciamei’s material: maps, drawings, and written indices, combine with photographs to produce a hybrid reality.

Present in many of Ciamei’s images are the coloured flickers of the digital screen as it continually updates – many images are re-photographed in this way, and reflexively bounce the reader back from the image’s representational content. At the same time, wild landscapes and images of distant civilisations emerge as backgrounds upon which the multiple windows of image files are easily overlaid. Ciamei suggests that the image is one that underwrites what we know about the world, and is at the same time subject to being altered as it is displayed. He often makes subtle alterations to the image as a window on the world, bring two images into conversation (an image of a bird finds a home on the branch in the background of an image showing a pair of monkeys), whilst at other times, he overlays satellite images of the river over its hand-drawn analogue. Images are continuously in play with each other, making sometimes clear and at other times elusive correspondences.

Ciamei’s book presents the work of explorers and collectors, but presents it in a manner that destabilises the facts of exploration and geographical specificity. The reader is left with no clear sense of what is accurate or inaccurate, plausible or implausible. If the originary function of the museum was to collect the world’s knowledge, such resources are now available to users everywhere, but emerge as fragments organised by the logics of digitisation and the search. As such, their coherent narratives and threads are undone. As David Joselit has written in his book After Art, new forms of image and object production emerge from this “epistemology of search” – the knowledge available according to the algorithms of databases, which maintain what is knowable and unknowable, visible and invisible. It seems no coincidence that Ciamei provides a spread of links and references to many of the files, showing that he has mined many university and museum databases and public records. This parsing of digital information is the very practice that progresses from an archival impulse to the digital subjectivities that make us all knowledge-workers.

In Travel Without Moving, Ciamei folds space and time upon themselves, in an acknowledgement that such images are not only subjective, but are also subject to continual change. Opening multiple windows, of the same file, repeatedly, so that they cascade densely upon the screen, we see the expansion of the image file. Existing no longer in one moment or in one place, they multiply. Such plays reveal the power of images, and their abilities to transport the distant and make it proximate. Today, we not only produce images of ourselves, but share sights and texts that are not even part of our own, lived experience. In a large part, we experience the world vicariously, and the image-world meets the world that was once the subject for the nomad-photographer. But it also seems fitting that Ciamei takes the extraction of digital information to its logical extremes and reveals their subjectivities also. More than re-representing, he composes a world and its new culture from the images he finds. This seems to have always been a potential of both image and text, but one that is rarely deployed. It has textual origins in Raymond Roussel’s 1910 Impressions of Africa written from Roussel’s room, as a work of imagination, and Italo Calvino’s 1972 Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes an infinite variety of cities, drawn from the microcosm of just one place, that being Venice. Ciamei’s Travel Without Moving finds a photographic analogon for this very possibility, drawn from the archives of our image-world digitised online.

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Federico Ciamei

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Alejandro Cartagena

Santa Barbara return jobs back to Us


Encountering a book for the first time it is sometimes surprising what element of it lands the first blow. With Alejandro Cartagena’s Santa Barbara return jobs back to Us it was the smell, the sharp scent of ink mingling with something musty, like a long dry landscape after a much needed scattering of rain. This seems apt. Predominantly photographed in the titular city while Cartagena undertook a residency there, other images come from cities of the same name scattered across Latin America – in Mexico, Venezuela, and Chile.

Cartagena is a prolific photographer but for most he will be best known for his self-published book Carpoolers. This is a classic a typological study, photographs taken from on high of the open backs of speeding pickup trucks, wherein migrant workers huddle for warmth enroute to day jobs in the grey economy of the southern United States. Santa Barbara is very different, both in its physical form, narrative structure, and photography. It also, however, feels very much like a continuation of Cartagena’s interest in the United State’s fraught relationship with its southern neighbours, in particular his native Mexico.

In contrast to the strict typology of Carpoolers, the photographs in Santa Barbara are a series of vignettes and snapshots, where themes reoccur organically and unpredictably, making the narrative feel like a solitary walk through an unwelcoming suburban sprawl. These vignettes are typically American, perhaps to the extent of cliché. Gun violence, film noir, suburban houses, highways, mug shots, cheerleaders, late night stores, and a bumper sticker from which the book’s title is taken, albeit recast less as a request or demand than as a simple statement.

Through this narrative Cartagena conjures the sense of a place, which has the air of an ambiguous borderland, a porous place where culture and people flow. Whether it is between north or south, or past and present, is difficult to say. It is a place where the idea of concrete identities, nationalities and strictly delineated borders seem like a nostalgic dream or a relicfrom the past superseded by a new and very different reality – a place where the topography is treacherous, the present uncertain, and the future, even more so.

Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Alejandro Cartagena

Vittorio Mortarotti

The First Day of Good Weather

Book review by Natasha Christia

Vittorio Mortarotti’s The First Day of Good Weather feels like one of those books that asks you to go back to it again and again. It is multi-layered and cryptic in tenor, and its sequence is constructed with sophisticated albeit uncanny couplings of seemingly disparate elements. It is a style that can be seen in other Skinnerboox publications, such as Alessandro Calabrese’s superb Die Deutsche Punkinvasion, where the juxtaposition of close ups of junkyard cars with archival pictures of punk revolts produces a chain of striking and effective connotations.

Impelled by a similar penchant, Mortarotti’s narrative takes me through a misty topography of devastation, melancholy and resignation. There is a bluish undertone to the book, a sort of mute score reverberating in the depths of an ocean. Night and day alternate indifferently in perennial circles of rising tides; views of semi-demolished houses, cracked cement blocks and smashed cars are paired up with flashy portraits of drained individuals and tormented night bar affairs. And yet, I can tell that beneath this rough, silent mood is a winding stream of emotions, a lust to hang on to life. This collision of distinctive visual and emotional registers within a low-spirited, obscure and industrialised environment turns into both a graphic and literal incarnation of an attempt to get access to a secret, to recollect its traces, to grasp how life can be after everything has been smashed into a million pieces.

Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the book, a text has been inserted, dating back to May 1999. It is a letter written in French by a Japanese woman named Kaori. It is addressed to a man. This letter complicates the story. It makes it clear that there is much more in here – something deep, personal and intimate.

In the pages that follow, the story recovers its visual pace. But while Mortarotti’s gaze keeps safeguarding its distance from dramatic exasperations, it unleashes an unsettlingly emotional, almost existential register that drives me away from the letter and away from words.

In the colophon I read that the book brings together three unconnected moments: the fall of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the death of Mortarotti’s own father and teen-aged brother in a car accident on 8-9 July 1999, and the terrible earthquake and Tsunami that shook Japan in March 2011. All moments of historical relevancy; all massive, unexpected, unprecedented and utterly devastating in their after-effects.

In the wake of this data assemblage everything falls into place. Death appears here in capital letters and History intermingles with personal traumas. The locations shown in the book recover their names: Fukushima, Tokyo, Hiroshima … And as for the letter, it forms part of the correspondence between Mortarotti’s brother and Kaori, his Japanese girlfriend who kept on writing and sending postcards for months after the accident. Tracking this pack of letters and looking for Kaori fifteen years later became, for Mortarotti, a pretext to visit Fukushima and the area hit by the Tsunami in a cathartic search for what might have been in the aftermath of stories of loss other than his own.

I am aware now of many key elements of the story. Too many, perhaps, in the eyes of the purists still inhabiting our photographic community. Photographic purism would dismiss the book I hold in my hands as too dependent on words. It would dictate that sequence must speak for itself, that we do not need illuminating words; when these are needed, they say, it is because the images do not work for themselves.

But curiously, The First Day of Good Weather feels relevant precisely because it breaks these rules with its contaminated and versatile mood. Removing the limitations of visual storytelling or photobook-making is an option in its own right. But it cannot become axiomatic. It does not and should not exclude other options. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to”.

The First Day of Good Weather is a hybrid photobook in every sense of the word. By expanding its branches to apparently irrelevant storylines, its narrative adopts an elliptical style akin to cinema and literature. At the same time, it masterfully combines and balances the documentary, diaristic and conceptual modes with a marked preference for a “slow” inception of reality and its facts. The links between the photographer’s personal tragedy and Japan’s collective trauma play out the universal mechanisms of coping with grief and of moving on after experiencing a dramatic event. Mortarotti manages to tackle the delicate and private sphere of mourning without falling into cliché or an excess of autobiographical references. What’s more, he brings Japan to the foreground in an unpretentious and neutral way. It would have been easy to let it take up the entire frame for the umpteenth time, but he does not. He avoids temptation.

How can we approach an alien space? How can we cope with death and its remnants? How can we overcome it? The components of Mortarotti’s story are tied together by the intuitive assumption that the bits and pieces of our immense world are interconnected. During most of his journey around Japan, we feel attached to the ground. Then the bird’s-eye view in the small postcard pictures of skyscrapers and the portrait of a woman (Kaori, in the present) against the window and the blue sky introduce a soft, airy element – a parallel dimension to the journey. There is a climax of sensations that reinforces an awareness of the randomness of cosmic events – a volatile lightness, horrendous in many ways, as the title of the project suggests. The first day of good weather was the day life stopped in Hiroshima. “The first day of good weather” was the order issued by President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. On 6 August 1945, it was raining over the other targets. It was sunny over Hiroshima.

We are used to conceiving of books – not merely photobooks – as static objects, but perhaps it would be useful to consider that they might not be. Books, after all, are elastic condensers of time. They exist in time; they grow with us. They stand for a sort of synaesthetic experience where we, the reader, have to contribute our imagination and intuition to fill in the gaps.

So I let myself drift into The First Day of Good Weather. I let myself add to its sequenced layers of experience emanating from my personal debris. Experience that adds more lines to the story as if it were an unfinished novel. I catch myself going back and forth. Especially backwards in a futile hope that this movement could restore something of the past. Rather than revoking the trauma, I seek to accommodate it in the present. I catch myself returning to The First Day of Good Weather for there is something in it that persistently resonates in my mind: an intense, sustained and profound force that replenishes its argument and makes me see it anew.

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Vittorio Mortarotti

Natasha Christia is an independent writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. She was recently the guest editor at the Read or Die publishing fair in Barcelona during November 2015. She has also been appointed as curator of the upcoming edition of DocField Documentary Photography Festival, taking place during May and July 2016, entitled Europe: Lost in Translation.