Far be it for me to state the obvious, but that this has been a difficult year for us all, and not least for photobook publishers. If printers weren’t closed altogether, for many months clients weren't allowed on press. Frankly, I’m amazed that so many fine titles have been produced at all. Anyway, here are my top ten:
The perfect lockdown book; a magnificent tour-de-force made entirely within the confines of home. Let’s start with the cover, a poem/collage inspired by Nick Cave’s 'Rings of Saturn’… I decided tosong on repeat (I recommend you try this too): "And this look carefully through the book with the is the moment, this is exactly where she is born to be. Now this is what she does and this is what she is." But where is this? And what is she? Therein lies the enigmatic nature of the work; it’s deeply, fiercely intimate, yet at the same time reveals very little, almost nothing. We’re used to photography’s descriptive strengths, its ability to show us what things look like, but Meeks’ book is so wonderfully restrained; a delphian poem, a love song... or perhaps a dream, as Adrianna sleeps through so many of its pages.
At the end of the book we find another (beautiful) poem, 'The Impossible House' by George Weld, which begins: "If I tell you about our house, tell you so well that you can imagine yourself living in it, it will no longer be my house.” And this is where I’m left, feeling I know the house, but I don’t; that I know Adrianna, but I don’t. Or, as 'Rings of Saturn’ continues to play, "And I'm breathing deep and I'm there and I'm also not there, and spurting ink over the sheets but she remains, completely unexplained.”
Like many others, I’ve been following Alessandra’s journey with Guille and Belinda for more than a decade. The girls are grown-up now, with children of their own, but the work has lost none of its charm, sensitivity or brilliance. There is so much love in these pictures, and as readers we’re given access to the most intimate of moments. A wonderful celebration of the simple things in life… and I can’t wait for the next chapter.
A collaboration between two photographers set in a disadvantaged white Afrikaner community near Johannesburg. This is a beautifully crafted object that allows the work of both to be viewed simultaneously (there are two book-blocks inside the cover) and little tricks are employed here and there to ensure we’re still in the correct sequence. The story behind the work (especially Lindo’s) is too long to tell here, but it’s on the GOST website. I’m convinced this will soon become a classic, so I urge you not to miss out.
What a treat for Michael Schmidt fans, but with a caveat: I thought I was close to being a Schmidt-completist but I’ve now learned that I’m missing a number of books, which are all very expensive. But that aside, this is a glorious career retrospective, with the emphasis as much on objects as the photographs themselves. There are reproductions of contact sheets, book dummies, gallery invitations, posters, views of exhibitions, and several of the great man at work and play. I can’t wait to see the show at Jeu de Pomme next summer… We will be able to do that, right?
I love anything Ron Jude turns his hand to, and this doesn’t disappoint. ‘12Hz’ is epic in its ambition, and the exceptional production values are entirely justified. This isn’t an easy read but, like the best of books, it gradually reveals itself over time. It’s the sheer scale of what we’re often looking at that can be difficult to fathom, and one can’t help but feel small and insignificant when considering forces beyond our control… which, of course, is the point. I was fortunate enough to see this work in progress while visiting Ron’s studio in Oregon last year, so it’s wonderful to see it come to fruition.
Don’t look through this book if you have a hangover; it contains the brightest colours I’ve seen printed anywhere, and the pictures will play havoc with your eyes. This is easily the strangest book I’ve received this year, yet behind the brashness lurks a deeply serious intent, a timely and angry response to the current state of Polish politics as the young (and not so young) demonstrate on the streets for basic human rights. This is a book like no other, but Agnieszka only made 300 copies so be quick if you want one (and you really should want one).
I received this book soon after returning from two weeks at the US/Mexican border. Immediately the content (stark, flash-lit portraits made at a moment of extreme vulnerability) together with a rather grandiose production made me uneasy. But after reading José Ángel Navejas’s harrowing memoir (included in the book) of his own experience crossing the border, the work shifted from exploitative to absolutely vital and necessary. Light made these pictures in the ‘80s; how did they stay hidden for so long?
The child of Polish immigrants, Siegieda grew up in Loughborough, Leicestershire, in a tight-knit community rooted in family and the Catholic Church. Fortunately he had the wherewithal to photograph the world that surrounded him, but not only this; he managed to be both insider and outsider at the same time, able to look dispassionately at what, to him, was so very familiar. This is one of those rare gems that occasionally resurface from the past, and the work is done full justice by a beautiful production by RRB in Bristol. By the way, there are other, more personal reasons why I’m drawn to this work; I too grew up in Leicestershire, was raised a strict Catholic and my best friend at (Catholic) school was Polish. I was on my Foundation course in Loughborough between 1977 and ‘78, when many of these pictures were made. Surely our paths must have crossed occasionally… or so I like to believe.
I have a real weakness for pictures of sparsely populated regions at the edges of cities, and Schink has always been someone I’ve admired, so this had to go on my list. Seven years in the making, these are the quietest of quiet landscapes, often covered in snow and ice, with lots of farm animals standing around doing very little. It’s a book that may well have dropped beneath the radar of many – I only discovered it myself because of a friendly Instagram prompt – but I urge you to search it out, along with a number of other excellent titles from Hartmann Books, such as Ute and Werner Mahler’s ‘Kleinstadt’ and André Kirchner’s ‘Berlin: The City’s Edge’, which made my list last year.
Welcome the strange and bizarre world of military training, set in a mock-village in the fictional country of ‘Atropia’, which is of course somewhere in America. Debi is a former human rights lawyer, so one would expect this to be an extremely learned and well-researched body of work, and it certainly is that. But she is far, far more than a lawyer with a camera; these are finely crafted, intelligent photographs that collectively form the darkest of dark comedies. And, because of this book, I now know one can buy, “in a convenient spray-top container” scents of decaying flesh, dead body, faeces, burnt flesh, vomit, urine or car bomb… “to provide realistic olefactory simulation”. Oh Lord.
And finally… two very different publications that I think deserve honorary mentions: Mary Ellen Mark’s The Book of Everything (Steidl), a huge, brilliant and vital three-volume retrospective, and, at the other extreme, Ricky Adam’s Don’t You Forget About Me (Audit), a simple zine, but for me the best of all responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, proving once again that the simplest ideas are often the best.
Mark Power has been a lover of photobooks for longer than he cares to remember. He has published twelve books of his own, the most recent being the imminent arrival Good Morning, America Volume Three, the third installment in a five book set. Power has been a full member of Magnum since 2007.
Images: top - Hinterland by Hans-Christian Schink, below - Polska Britannica by Czesław Siegieda, Ciprian honey cathedral by Raymond Meeks