Every year a number of people pick their photography books of the year. In almost every case this means picture books. So here are the selections of photography books of the year by some writers, primarily of books full of words about photography. If anything it shows the diversity of photographic publishing, especially given that no two writers have picked out the same book. Plenty here to interest the inquisitive.
Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu eds., Feeling Photography
Tanya Sheehan ed., Photography, History, Difference
Paul G. Pickowicz, Kuiyi Shen and Yingjin Zhamg, Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Global Metropolis
Anne Ferran, Shadow Land texts by Susan Best, Anne Ferran and Thierry de Duve.
Any selection of favourite books is mediated by a combination of personal interest and happenstance. My selection also points to the current state of photography studies, with these books collectively representing a global perspective and a diverse range of voices and issues. I have chosen two anthologies of essays. Together they showcase a new generation of scholars, speaking from a variety of disciplines but bound by a common concern for the marginal and the displaced, whether that be the histories of photography in places like Ireland, Iran, Indonesia and Canada; the social stratifications of race, class, sex and gender; or simply the taboo issues of feeling and sentiment. Both are highly recommended. Liangyou offers an exhilarating glimpse into a new continent of photographic practices, focusing on an innovative magazine published in Shanghai from 1926 to 1945 and exploring the various ways it addressed itself to the burgeoning modernity of that city. In so doing it touches on everything from the appeal of patent medicines to the invention of a modern Chinese masculinity. Shadow Land acknowledges and surveys the career of Australia’s finest photographic artist of the past thirty years, examining how Anne Ferran has tenaciously given visual form to the experiences of women that would otherwise be lost to history. It is an exemplary case study of what an artist can contribute to the social life of the present.
Geoffrey Batchen teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
PATRIZIA DI BELLO
Manuel Vason, Double Exposures - Performance as Photography / Photography as Performance, ed. by David Evans. For how it performs its book-ness, mainly.
Luke Fowler, Two-Frames Films (2006-2012), for how it makes us think about the double-page spread.
Joan Fontcuberta, Pandora's Camera, although not full of glossy pictures, it is a lovely tactile as well as visual object, and the essays are a delight to read. Not too expensive either, a deluxe stocking filler!
Patrizia di Bello is author of The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond.
For me 2014 was the year of stodgy prose by intelligent but inarticulate academics. I waded through countless tomes that were too long in every sense, from the sentences to the paragraphs and the overall page count. Small but important arguments bloated and diffused in such a way that they could only ever preach to dogged converts. And me: all year I looked for needles of insight in haystacks of waffle. I shan’t name names. If photography academics wish to be read by more than their peers and their Phd students, they need to start crafting their words. With that off my chest, I can tell you about the books that have remained in my mind and on my desk. All explore the depiction of conflict.
Inge Henneman ed., Shooting Range: Photography and the Great War
The scholar and curator Inge Henneman led the team that researched and presented this extraordinary study of the various uses made of photography during the First World War. There is propaganda, soldiers’ ‘selfies’ and memento mori, morale-boosting exhibitions, postcards, images by military photographers, aerial reconnaissance photos and copious examples from the early days of reportage and photojournalism. This project was an enormous undertaking, but the research and choices of material are first rate and full of surprises. I saw the multi-layered exhibition at FoMu in Antwerp. Now I’m reading the accompanying publication. This book will last.
Simon Baker, ed., Conflict, Time, Photography
For me, curator Simon Baker’s show at Tate Modern was brave and inevitably flawed (but all I ever want from a thematic exhibition is that moment when ‘success’ tips thrillingly into failure). The attempt to organize photos of the last century’s major conflicts by the time – from seconds after events to a hundred years after – is clever and suggestive. However, ruins and traces tend to resemble each other. Such is the law of entropy. So I think the conceit works much better as a catalogue. Here the sedately formal elegance of the show is compressed into a thick wad of same-size images. It allows you to see the mad, compulsive circularity in the picturing of war’s aftermaths and memories. It is, as they used to say in the 1920s, a ‘visual argument’. The accompanying essays are a great bonus.
Ernst Friedrich, War Against War (1924)
My 1924 copy of Ernst Friedrich’s book is falling apart, having been looked at by dozens of students over the years. The author was a pacifist anarchist who managed to round up a wide range of images from the First World War that had been suppressed, censored or were never for public consumption. Photos of war crimes, medical images of appalling injuries, documents of civilian deaths and more. It was published with text in four languages and became an anti-war bestseller in the traumatized post-war years. It still resonates in today’s highly policed visual culture. Moreover, Friedrich’s understanding of context and how images can be appropriated and re-functioned strikes me as perfectly contemporary. This re-edition is most welcome.
David Campany is author of The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip.
Christopher Wrights 'The Echo of Things: The Lives of Photographs in the Solomon Islands' was officially published in December 2013 but did not hit the bookshelves until February 2014. Wright provides an ethnographic study of the social uses of photography by the peoples of the Roviana Lagoon, identifying the singular photographic image as connected to ancestral pasts, memory and history. Some of the best writing on the social uses of photography has emerged from cultural anthropology and 'The Echo of Things' is another reminder of how little I know about photography outside of Europe and North America.
Elizabeth Edwards and Sigrid Lien's edited volume 'Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs' is an important addition to the study of photography's multiple histories. The contributors are academics and museum professionals and the essays provide interesting insights not only into the place of photographs in a broad range of museum settings but also how photographs are mobilised or suppressed in the visualisation of histories that are difficult to incorporate into agreed national narratives. Without singling out any specific contributors there are some wonderful insights into the role of museum photographs in the cultural politics of photography and representation.
John Roberts 'Photography and its Violations' is hot off the press. It arrived in the post in the morning and was so compelling I read it from cover to cover that day. This is not to say it is an easy read. It is very dense in its use of language but cuts through the details of many recent debates about photography and social relations with surgical precision, taking to task many of the field's leading theorists such as John Tagg and Ariella Azoulay. As with Roberts's other writing on photography, some of the most significant theories of the last 40 years are put under much needed dialectical analysis in a discussion of the social ontology of photography and realism. This is an important book and one that will have a lasting impact in debates about photography's emancipatory capacity to break with the stifling pressures of globalization, conflict and social surveillance.
Justin Carville is author of Photography and Ireland.
MARY WARNER MARIEN
Carol Squiers, What is a Photograph?
Lena Johannesson and Gunilla Knape (eds.) Women Photographers—European Experience
What is a Photograph? served as the catalog for the 2014 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name. The texts transplant post-modern ideas into the larger category of conceptualism. But editor/curator Carol Squiers is not seduced by theory. She stresses that images generate ideas, not vice versa. She Who Tells a Story, which accompanies a currently circulating exhibition in the U.S., also insists on the complexity of visual expression and photograph-based documentation. New to me was Women Photographers—European Experience, a hefty 2004 book that accompanied a touring exhibit. It, too, eschews easy deductions and linear thinking. It is an overlooked gem.
Mary Warner Marien is author of Photography: A Cultural History.
Joshua Simon, Neomaterialism
Simon is an Isreali academic/curator who updates the Marxist critique of commodity for the digital era. He gave a fascinating talk at the ICA last week about selfies (I did not think there was anything fascinating left to say about them, but he managed it!). In an age of unfettered capital, it strikes me as burningly important – more than ever – that we maintain a sense of the historical and economic big picture, and Simon does this with flair. This book has a lot of important insights for contemporary photographers as artists and cultural producers.
Sarah Thornton, 33 Artists in 3 Acts
Do you want to be part of an exclusive photo tribe, or do you want to participate in the global art world? Would you like the conceptual tools to properly understand the difference? Sociologist Thornton interviews a range of international art world figures, asking them each the deceptively simple question “What is an artist?” Their answers range from the predictable to the gobsmacking. This book can provide even the hardened art world insider with new insights about what it means to be an artist now.
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
A political theorist Bennett provides a wealth of provocative examples of ways we might reconsider the world with inanimate matter at the centre rather than the periphery of our consciousness. If we want to slow the pace of ecological disaster, we should think about how and why things matter. Photographs are images, but they are also, of course, objects, and frequently depict objects. This book will transform the way you think about stuff.
Lucy Soutter is author of Why Art Photography?
The book is a fantastic and comprehensive collection of documents coming from the mythical first year of the history of photography. Quite a lot of them haven't been published for more than 150 years. If you want to understand the historical context of photography's eve this book is a wonderful guide. It is going back to the historical roots in order to understand why photography has become what it is right now.
Tobias Zielony, Vele
Vele is a film and a photo-book at the same time. The German photographer Tobias Zielony was working in this notorious suburb of Naples nearly at the same time as Matteo Garrone was directing a film on the Camorra based on Saviano's book Gomorrah. Zielony's film 'Le Vele di Scampia' is made up of 7000 photos and he extracted about 300 for this book. It'a fantastic and fabulous ride until the end of the night in this strange place. I haven't seen such an impressive use of light in photography for a long time. You will admire the fireworks at the end of the book.
László Moholy-Nagy, Sehen in Bewegung
A classical book to be rediscovered! Moholy's last (and really exceptional) book on photography and vision, available for the very first time in German. It's a shame that the English edition is no longer in print. You will find everything you want to know about late modernism and the theory of perception right here.
Bernd Stiegler is professor of twentieth-century German literature and of literature and media at the University of Konstanz.