Top 10

Photo books 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
Self-Published

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
MACK

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
Stanley/Barker

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. 

Thomas Demand

New Photographs

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles
24.01.15 — 04.04.15

In the beginning was the model. And the model demonstrated that the idea worked, at least on paper. And what began on paper, was in turn mediated by it, and has returned to it, becomes it. In most accounts of his work to date, we have known Thomas Demand for his paper sculpture, and what we might also think of as his constructed, or staged photography of these objects. We are familiar with their laborious production, their 1:1 scale, and their origins in pre-existing photographs. Such contexts inspire a wonderment – upon the first viewing of Demand’s project we are drawn to its labour and spectacle, and perhaps justly so. But for those who return, what of the strange balance of familiarity and the novel? Is a different set of longer lasting questions at work?

It is strange that we might account for the role of paper in the work of Thomas Demand, and not that of the model. Apparent in Demand’s most recently completed work, in his exhibition at Matthew Marks in Los Angeles, is the evolving status of this very object. The philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote, in a lecture to L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie, in Arles, France, that photographs were models. He stated: “The true photographer intends to make pictures which may be used as models for the experience, the knowledge, and the evaluation of their receivers.”

The photographer, for Flusser, did not simply accept the apparent ‘realism’ of the image, but actively constructed it. For Demand, the model is a unifying theme, which brings together the artist’s method and subject matter. He is at once the maker of physical models, and the surveyor of photographs as models of meaning and information.

On the one hand, a model might be retrospective: it is an historical image existing as a blueprint. It functions as a marker or trace, the flicker of an event whose significance is only now becoming fully apparent – in Atelier, the brightly lit studio of Henri Matisse is represented at a late and overlooked stage of the artist’s career, at the moment of his cut-outs. Coloured paper is strewn on the floor, as if we were witnessing the moment after they were formed from their paper – just as they were made, and about to go out in to the world. More than simply a product of the artist’s age and ill health, which usually attempts to explain his move from painting, the cut-outs suggested a different strategy of art-making, made of paper and scissors, rather than brushes and paints. They point to reinvention, and the quick joy of assemblage over the slow process of painterly construction. In Demand’s hands they seem to return us back to one of the artist’s core obsessions: paper as material. Paper is both the material of proposition and the tool of historical record.

If Demand often portrays scenes from the past, so too are recent events made visible. Backyard represents the side steps up to the house of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings that took place in 2013. It is a work reminiscent of many of Demand’s accounts of recent history, presenting banal or familiar spaces – kitchens, homes, bars and gardens – loaded with the weight of the events that haunt them. This image of Tsarnaev’s home presents the vernacular wooden architecture of the Boston suburbs. The proximity of each house to the next suggests both density and community, but also sets a stage for a certain honest or straightforward living. Such an idyll is disrupted by objects strewn across the little patch of grass. These signifiers, in a culture in which one’s garden is often manicured to maintain the social contract, allows the portrayal of Tsarnaev to quickly form his status as an outsider.

It is worth noting Demand’s taste for criminals and their stories, not so much for the language of the crime scene photograph – as has so often been remarked upon – but for their subjects’ clearly defined and quickly formed place in our historical consciousness, as evil, unimaginable, other. Tsarnaev was crafted as a kind of model, or anti-model. Not interrogated for motive so much as simply represented to the public, he is held up as the very antithesis of reason, of sense. Caught in a context in which his immigrant status prefaces his brutal acts, Tsarnaev is suspended in history as an abstraction, as are many of Demand’s villains.

Thinking historiographically – rather than historically – permits a view of history subject to alteration, to the will of its authors, and to its casting and re-casting. Demand’s reconstruction of Matisse’s studio is similarly appropriate. It falls at the time of a re-evaluation of the artist’s collage in exhibitions at Tate and MoMA. At the very moment the viewer comes face to face with the notion of Matisse as a master collagist, history is recast, recomposed. Matisse himself becomes a model – an object of study, and a means of projecting into the future.

Usually, we think of the model as a forecast, as a form of pre-visualisation. A sleight of hand, which turns photography from an object obsessed with the past, into one concerned with the potentiality of the future, Demand began in 2011 to photograph the architectural models of John Lautner. The rough, scuffed and annotated cardboard structures in Model Studies showed the anticipation of an architecture yet to be built (of course, some of an architects’ models are realised, whilst many are not). Demand’s new photographs show working models by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of celebrated Japanese architects SANAA. Shaped and crumpled, and cut out by hand, what emerges are overlapping, opening and compressing volumes. Cleaner than Lautner’s models, they produce an architecture as space, and envisage the model as a vision of a built environment yet to come. They are as real as images of space as are photographs of architecture itself, for Demand is something of a realist, despite or perhaps because of, his paper constructions.

And so what is the status of the model after Demand’s treatment? It might be clear that – beyond our initial wonderment – the model is something that is made, crafted and forged, though it is not simple labour. The model is history written and brought into being. It is not a passive object, but a process of shaping: hence Demand’s distinctive matching of the model as process and subject of enquiry. Realism is the model that we opt to manifest.

All images courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. © Thomas Demand


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.