Photobooks of 2021: Mark Power

I am Warning You by Rafał Milach, GOST

In no particular order, apart from the first one…

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing by Gilles Peress, Steidl

My book of the year. For me, nothing comes close to Gilles Peress’ monumental 2,000-page, 14kg, three-volume masterpiece.

This long-awaited tome about the the Troubles is at once hugely ambitious, historically significant and photographically sublime. A self-proclaimed work of ‘documentary fiction’, there’s a sense of everything happening at once, as Gilles attempts to 'describe everything' in cyclical, seemingly endless groundhog days/months/years of repetition. In addition to the brutal violence (always present) we get beauty pageants, bowls and beer; fancy dress, fairgrounds and fox hunting; weddings, hairdressers, dogs, cats, queues, sunbathing and snogging. And children, always children, playing innocently among the ruins.

Over 3,700 people lost their lives during the Troubles in the north of Ireland - over half of them civilians - and Whatever You Say, Say Nothing is ‘dedicated to the victims of the conflict and their families’. In spite of the book's high price I do hope some will get to see it.

The Quickening by Ying Ang, Self-published

‘A memoire of matrescence’ from the hugely talented Ying Ang. While it might be a little over-designed for my tastes, it could equally be argued that the ever-changing paper stock echoes the shifting moods (from joy and elation to depression and anxiety) of a first time mother. Ying’s poetic text appears throughout, adding another dimension to an already complex book. Self-published in an edition of just 280, last time I looked she still had a few left. But hurry.

I am Warning You by Rafał Milach, GOST

Four paperbacks in a box about three border walls, and an investigation into the architecture and effect of these monstrosities on the landscape and the communities that live nearby.

The first, #13767, is a facsimile of a redacted US Government prototype testing report assessing the various fences used along the border with Mexico. Rafał’s pictures partially cover the text, recalling Broomberg and Chanarin’s Holy Bible. The second,  I am Warning You, was made along the Hungarian border with Serbia and Croatia, a fence hastily reinforced because of the immigration ‘crisis.’ Finally, Death Strip takes us to the space that once fell between the inner and outer Berlin Walls, which is now a tourist attraction. The book is punctuated with pictures taken from the internet of tiny pieces - or entire sections - of the Wall. All are for sale, and by lifting the tipped-in images we discover how much they cost.

The result is a chilling indictment of right-wing nationalism and paranoia, but tinged with the hope - as demonstrated in Berlin - that walls can’t last forever. Important work, brilliantly photographed, and the whole thing exquisitely designed by Ania Nałęcka-Miłach.

Street Portraits by Dawoud Bey, Mack

Staggeringly good portraits of African Americans in cities across America, made between 1988 and 1991. The print quality is sublime, as it has to be to do the work justice. For me, and I’m sure for many others, this will be a valuable reference point for many years to come.

Five Dollars for 3 Minutes by Cammie Toloui, Void

While working as a stripper to support her art school studies, Cammie Toloui turned her camera on her audience, cleverly subverting the male gaze. Punters were offered a discount if they consented to be photographed, and while some cower, attempting to hide their faces, others - the majority in fact - proudly and openly display themselves, so to speak. Strange, seedy, sleazy and fetishistic. I love it.

The Book of Veles by Jonas Bendiksen, GOST

He fooled us all. The perfect lockdown project, playful and profound, which poses disturbing questions about what we can believe both now and into the future. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read the interview on when Jonas revealed his chicanery for the first time. In it he claims he forked out ten times the amount on virtual clothes for his digital avatars than he’s spent on his own wardrobe for several years. I can vouch for that.

Leaving and Waving by Deanna Dikeman, Chose Commune

Gentle and loving, simple, profound and sad, anyone who has lost an elderly parent can relate to this. Another excellent release from Chose Commune in Marseilles, who should be congratulated for the size and weight of the book, which is perfect.

Berlin by Andreas Gehrke, Drittel

Yes, Berlin is a much-photographed city (and very well-photographed too… there are shades of Schmidt and Struth here, certainly) but Gehrke proves there’s plenty of life in the old dog yet. Expertly combining colour with black and white, open vistas with tiny details, this is a book for anyone interested in the topography of the urban landscape. It makes me want to take my camera for a walk.

Restraint and Desire by Ken Graves & Eva Lipman, TBW

Hands, hands and yet more hands. Another beautifully produced book from the excellent TBW, this does exactly what it says in the tin. What struck me while looking through it for the umpteenth time was that even the most (apparently) innocent of pictures becomes loaded purely by the company it keeps. Who would’ve have thought a picture of a man being measured for a hat, another donning a jacket, or a woman putting on a necklace could radiate so much sexual tension?

A Field Measure Survey of American Architecture by Jeffrey Ladd, Mack

A journey across America seen through the Historic American Buildings Survey. Walker Evans’ axiom of the suppression of authorship is evident throughout, although the photographers - who might otherwise have remained anonymous - are listed at the back. Surprisingly there are are many of them, and their pictures span decades,  even though the book appears, at first glance, to be the work of just one well-travelled soul. Far too much to get through in one session - its repetition is part of its strength - this is a book that will reward several readings which, let’s face it, is what we’re all looking for in a photobook, isn’t it?

Cut Outs by Jessica Backhaus, Kehrer

I first saw these pictures on Robert Morat’s stand at this year’s Photo London, and they blew me away. On the surface a simple idea - paper cut outs left to curl in the sun before being photographed - but the blend of careful positioning, chance and the gorgeous textural quality of the paper combine to give the work its energy. Kitchen table Miró’s, or early Kandinsky’s… and just beautiful.

American Geography by Matt Black, Thames and Hudson

Six years in the making, 100,000 miles, 46 states… this is, by any yardstick, a towering achievement. Matt’s eloquent diaristic texts, along with his collections of handmade signs, forks and spoons, fag packets and bits of wire cleverly contextualise the photographs, so many of which are already iconic. By the way, I stood next to Matt while he made the panorama on pages 148/149… and his is picture is much better than mine, the b***ard.

Generally I’m not a fan of square books and, to be honest, I think I prefer Matt’s self-published version from last year, but this is still fantastic. By the way, a little bird tells me it’s almost sold out…

How to Look Natural in Photos by Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica, Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych and Palm* Studios

I’m something of a Cold War junkie, so another book of archive photographs from the period - this time from the Polish Secret Police between 1944 and 1989 - is very welcome. But the fact that this is Poland, a country I know well (and love) makes this all the more fascinating for me. The pictures are now in the collection of ‘The Institute of National Remembrance – The Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation’ and it would appear that in this selection, curated by Bartecka and Rusznica, the images have been chosen for their (broadly speaking) aesthetic value and sequenced accordingly. However, the chilling captions at the back of the book are a reminder of what we’re actually looking at.

And, finally, honourable mentions to these two very short-run publications:

Acts of Dog by Ben Burfitt, Self-published

As a dog-lover I’ve been a huge instagram-admirer of Ben Burfitt’s pictures for a long time, so I was very excited to be gifted this tiny zine. It’s lived in our kitchen ever since and is probably the most-thumbed book I’ve acquired this year.  Long since sold out, this work, which is brilliant in execution, deserves to be in ‘a proper book’. Publishers please take note…

Falling into the Day by Christopher Nunn, Tide Press

A small print run of just 50 copies from a talented Huddersfield-based photographer, this tender and honest portrayal of an artist and friend cruelly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease is reminiscent of Julian Germaine’s seminal For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness. No bad thing, that.

If there was a noun to define someone who spends too much on photobooks then it would be an accurate description of Mark Power. He’s also a photographer who’s made a few volumes of his own, the latest being Terre à l’Amende, published in September by GOST.

I am Warning You by Rafał Milach, GOST

Street Portraits by Dawoud Bey, Mack

Street Portraits by Dawoud Bey, Mack