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. 

Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê

White Gaze

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

At the end of Señorita, a music video by rapper Vince Staples, the camera withdraws backwards from a street scene, through a window and into the ground floor of a house to reveal a white, affluent North American family looking out, smiling at what they have witnessed. This scene is effectively an urban prison. As the song unfolds, its socially diverse characters — working class black, latino, ‘white trash’ men (berating Staples as he walks by), a homeless man and two sex workers — are either celebrated, ridiculed or shot one-by-one by gun surveillance turrets above.

The video’s narrative is a metaphor for contemporary America: bourgeois whiteness reigns supreme at the expense of an underclass, comprised largely of people of colour and those Trump-voting white folks left behind by their middle-class counterparts. The window through which the camera withdraws frames the ‘disturbing’ scene outside for the ‘perfect’ white family to watch from a position of comfort; allowing them to look out both protected by, and in possession of, a ‘white gaze’. This underclass is mere spectacle or entertainment to that gaze. The camera, which tracks the narrative of the video is an extension of this form of ‘white sight’, eventually reclining to safety within the house. As George Yancy writes, ‘It is the social world of white normativity and white meaning making which creates the conditions under which black people are always already marked as different/deviant/dangerous.’ It is this precise sense of difference and danger Staples engages in his video.

Whiteness, which in this instance takes the form of monstrously bearing witness to from a position of safety, is reflected in a system of class dominance maintained by a violent, colonial prison state more commonly referred to as the USA. Cameras and guns conflate to form a single technological and militaristic entity that protects the hegemony of white power at all costs. Whiteness – which desires to track violence outside itself – is ignorant to the fact that the real source of violence lies within its own house. Whiteness, it might be said, is the root, the provenance and the source of social barbarity from its invention in the early 17th century to its present-day murrain. As Richard Seymour notes in his essay on Salvage, ‘whiteness is a plague.’

In a poem by Viêt Lê with an accompanying image by Michelle Dizon, whiteness gazes on in the form of a gesticulating white woman standing above three crouching black men. The image suggests she has something to explain; that her knowledge – her performance of a certain kind of education – must be articulated both verbally and physically ‘above’ – thus gazing down upon – the bodies of people of colour. The accompanying poem reads:

Eyes wide
in class
the British university
was also a technique
of pain
of the deserted
of painting
the raw desert
of humanity
of the humanities
in automatic shackles
Return to the colonies
of the mind.

Here, whiteness takes power as a form of European knowledge, the all-seeing and knowing eye of white sight manifest in the gestures of the white body and the utterances of the white mind. Here the white gaze offers – incognizantly, tediously, repetitively – its intellectual fruits to people of colour on their own land. In a different form of education-as-violence than the colonist Sir Thomas Dale promoted when starting a college along the Powhatan River to ‘educate the natives’ in early 17th century British America, this anonymous white woman professes her ‘unsurpassable’ knowledge to those she deems to be below her cultural imperialism. Criticised directly in Lê and Dizon’s image/poem intersection, the elite British university system is the network of institutions that socialised and educated elites who paved the way for the formation of the earliest inventors of whiteness – a group of governing individuals named the House of Burgesses (a word which is aptly derived from ‘bourgeois’) who, in 1619, forced the first group of twenty African slaves into servitude in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

Across multiple images and texts, and spanning various periods of colonial rule by different nations, Lê and Dizon’s White Gaze reveals page-by-page the way in which those socialised white often unconsciously experience – and therefore gaze upon – the world around us. Named after both a philosophical theory and the practice of one of the most violent forms of seeing, this book stands as a potent visual and poetic affront to whiteness.

Central to the idea of the gaze is the notion of desire. ‘In the beginning… desire is always competitive,’ writes Peter Wollen in his essay On Gaze Theory, which traces the genealogy of human desire in the form of looking and wanting from G.W.F. Hegel to Laura Mulvey. The desire of one human portends to the desire of another: I may want what you desire, I may shadow or mimic your desires, and it’s in this kind of relationship that human history might be thought as the ‘history of desired desires’, remarked Alexandre Kojève in a 1947 lecture on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In this way, you and I are constituted as truly human only when we focus our desire on the desire of an “other”, and, that in this instance, according to Wollen in his reading of Kojève, becoming human is somehow about being self-consciously in competition with an “other” via the gaze as a form of shared desire (because I desire what you desire above all else). I want not exactly what you want, but more precisely I yearn to be within the throes of that which you desire.

In Hegel’s view, during the early 19th century the gaze as a form of power was a struggle between two different kinds of unequal human: the master and the slave. The slave desires to take the position of the master and the master desires the acknowledgement of their power over the slave. At this point we would do well to remember Hegel’s immensely ignorant words on the “Negro” which, as Achille Mbembe reminds us in his On the Postcolony, are ‘an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness.’

This interpretation of the gaze puts emphasis on, as Wollen continues, ‘the possibility of struggle’. In a simple sense this demonstrates that it is entirely possible to desire an object or thing – to struggle to obtain it – because others around us also desire it, not because we actually want it. When we desire things – for example whiteness, to be white, to act white – what form of power dynamics are at play as we do so? When we unwittingly project our white desires onto others, who are we in “competition” with? Might it also be said that we thus desire at the expense of others supposedly unlike ourselves? These are not the only relevant questions in the case of Lê and Dizon’s White Gaze, which begins to ask what the relationship between a certain form of white desire and photographic images might be?

Much like the way in which Vince Staples’ video seeks to metaphorise White America as a form of racialised power – the final scene literally framing the world of people of colour as an urban prison apart from the white familial space of comfort – Lê and Dizon’s project demonstrates that the history of photographic images and the camera itself equally reflect forms of deeply violent white sight. In my view, the importance of White Gaze is that it uses photography and poetry to ask white people to feel less comfortable in our whiteness (and for an increasing number of us, our new-found ‘wokeness’) and instead find ways to meaningfully resist our own white subjectivity. As George Yancy quite rightly suggested at a symposium in response to the question what should white people do? – and we white people might think of this book as a catalyst for the same action – “I want them to confront their own whiteness. That’s the kind of honesty I’m looking at; the kind of humility I’m looking at. That fearlessness to be torn apart… White people should go home tonight, get naked, look in the mirror and ask themselves, what’s so special about me?”

All images courtesy of the artists and Sming Sming Books. © Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Historical & Critical Studies in Photography, School of Media, University of Brighton; Visiting Tutor, Critical & Historical Studies, School of Arts & Humanities, Royal College of Art and Online Editor, Viewpoints at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.