What an incredible year for photobooks – I could go on for pages, but let’s just dive in; here are just a few of my favourites in no particular order:
A Geography of Abandonment by Raymond Meeks & Adrianna Ault, Origini Edizioni
A loose and lyrical elegy - to love, loss and the passage of time; to the restlessness and rootlessness that overwhelms in the face of an empty nest; to the ever-shifting nature of relationships; to our ever-changing understanding of “home” and our place within it; and to the desperate search and empowering force that is the creative process, which we turn to when little else seems to comfort, nurture or heal. Beautifully printed and masterly crafted, A Geography of Abandonment’s use of the book form is practically balletic in its gracefulness and evocative elegance, bringing feeling more than meaning to both the photographs and the astoundingly nimble visual choreography that it contains. This is a difficult book to explain or summarise in words – you genuinely have to hold it in your hands and read it for yourself to experience its emotional power – but when you do, like its authors, it will bring you to your knees.
The Drawer by Vince Aletti, SPBH Editions
A complex and addictively page-turning deep-dive into the life, career, insights, intuitions, passions and desires of one of photography’s greatest critics and curators, Vince Aletti – as seen through multi-layered, collage-like compositions made spontaneously out of thousands of tearsheets, newspaper-clippings, gallery invites and announcements, and other ephemera that he’s collected over nearly fifty years. It reads as both an unorthodox visual history of photography and a scrapbook-ish diary that is profound, provocative and inspiringly personal.
Hidden / CXOBAHE by Elena Subach, Besides Press
A stunningly moving testament to the human spirit and its dedication to art and cultural heritage in the face of war. This book documents a team of workers and volunteers in the medieval city of Lviv – restorers, museum workers, musicians, psychologists, artists and teenagers – as they hurriedly set about trying to protect and conserve the city’s sacred cultural relics from destruction at the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. The story itself is enough to stir the heart, but Subach’s acutely observed photographs further emphasize and reveal the love, tenderness and care that this community summoned in the face of imminent threat, and serve as a piercingly poignant allegory for both the intensity of fear and immediacy of hope in times of war.
This Golden Mile by Kavi Pujara, Setanta Books
Documenting various aspects of the predominantly South Asian neighbourhood and community along and around Leicester’s “Golden Mile”, Pujara explores, embraces, examines and celebrates the intricacies and complexities of the immigrant experience in Britain – in the short-term and long-term – as well as the vibrancy and vitality it both contains and contributes to the country at large. With Brexit and increasingly restrictive and punitive immigration policies serving as its backdrop, This Golden Mile counters the isolationist rhetoric of recent years using tenderness, empathy and real love, reminding us of the longstanding importance, benefits, beauty and power of diversity and multiculturalism – as he explains, “We have a multicultural society because Britain is the product of a multicultural empire; communities like this are not an erosion of British values or its culture, but a vital part of our intertwined colonial histories.”
Transcendent Country of the Mind by Sari Soininen, The Eriskay Connection
Using photography to reveal what lies beyond the curtain of reality and our common perceptions of it is no easy task, but in this book Soininen transforms the everyday into a collection of seemingly subconscious, almost hallucinogenic glimpses into possible alternative dimensions that may exist both within and everywhere around us. Born from what she describes as a traumatic and life-changing, yet eye-opening experience in her early-twenties – an extended psychotic episode, brought on by excessive experimentations with LSD, which led her to renounce all of her worldly connections and belongings – Transcendent Country of the Mind offers up a reading experience and a vision of a world that that is at times staggeringly ecstatic, terrifying, mysterious, mesmerizing, seductive, devastating, beautiful and overwhelmingly otherworldly; a universe and insight into other realities that potentially resides within all of our minds.
Rise & Fall by Michael Schmelling, Here Press
In the autumn of 2011, the photographer Michael Schmelling was commissioned by WIRED to make a portrait of Bitcoin's “chief proselytizer” at the time, Bruce Wagner, for an article entitled “The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin: The virtual currency you can actually spend—if it doesn't get stolen first.” The magazine ran only one photograph of Wagner, but Schmelling took hundreds on the day, and this book walks us through the full shoot, presenting us with a repetitive yet evolving, hypnotically revealing, deconstructed contact-sheet of sorts. Page by page, our faith in and understanding of Wagner is continually changing, as he seems to gradually morph and shapeshift before our very eyes – from confident businessman, to sleazy salesman, to attention-seeking hyperactive little boy, to insecure teenager trapped in a middle-aged-man’s body, to sage, to statistician, to prophet, to conman, and so on – serving as a powerful metaphor for our collective relationship with and investment in cryptocurrencies over the last decade, and its newfound legitimacy and power in our world today. As Schmelling notes, “There didn't appear to be anything remarkable about this editorial assignment at the time, but over the years, as the price of Bitcoin rose, the photographs began to gather weight, as photographs often do.” Furthermore, the price of the book itself – made in an edition of 750 – fluctuates depending on an algorithm that takes into account its availability, market demand, and our collective faith in it, or lack thereof. The first copy sold for $1; within 24-hours it had reached $39.60;…and at the moment of writing, Rise & Fall could be yours for the incredible price of just £21.95…(plus shipping and handling; prices may vary; terms and conditions apply).
A Pound of Pictures by Alec Soth, MACK
For any photographer who has abandoned a failing project but continues to make pictures for themselves nevertheless, this is the perfect example of how self-imposed limitations or pre-conceived project ideas can sometimes prove painfully frustrating, yet can also prove potentially fruitful in terms of opening up a Pandora’s box of newfound creative understandings, inspirations and self-discoveries along the way. In a valiant attempt to overcome stagnation and existentialist self-doubt while making work about the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train “in an attempt to mourn the divisiveness in America”, Soth just keeps on shooting – here, there and everywhere - turning both his camera and his attention away from Lincoln’s last path, and instead towards the act of picture-making in itself. In doing so, he uses his own photographs – as well as his own photographic process – to ask some of the most basic yet vital questions that face us all when we pick up a camera and/or look at pictures: Why do we make photographs? What do want from them? What do they show us? And how do they connect us – to each other, to our experiences, and to the world at large?
The Blindest Man - by Emily Graham, Void
Loosely centred around a tortuously cryptic and unsolved treasure hunt that’s been going on in France for nearly thirty years, Graham not only infiltrates the lives, minds and practices of various members of this idiosyncratic treasure-hunting community, but gradually joins in with them, and adopts their collective quest and underlying desires as a foundation upon which to build and interrogate her own quest as a photographer and seeker of meaning in the visual world. Like that of her subjects, Graham knows and wholeheartedly admits that this is “a pursuit that has no answers and no end”; and yet like so many of us, she continues to take pictures along the way anyway – enigmatically beautiful ones at that – which temptingly yet elusively act as open-ended clues, hinting at something that is potentially transformative, revealing and profound, but that is still hidden just out of sight, and buried just out of reach.
Some Say Ice - by Alessandra Sanguinetti, MACK
Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip – which tells the bizarre and tragic stories of the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, during the late-nineteenth century, using primarily historical documents, newspaper clippings, and contemporaneous glass-plate photographs made by Charles Van Schaick, a German immigrant who served as the Justice of Peace and the town’s photographer – has been a cult-classic amongst photobook aficionados ever since it was first published in 1973. In Some Say Ice, Sanguinetti returns to Black River Falls nearly a century and a half after Van Schaick first started making his pictures, and piercingly discovers a place and a community that is still seemingly haunted by its past, to this day struggling to survive within a harsh wilderness, and forever under a dark, almost gothic cloud of superstition, economic decline, crime, disease, violence, hardship and the ever-looming spectre of death.
Baldwin Lee by Baldwin Lee, Hunters Point Press
Monographs of the work of Baldwin Lee have been long overdue for some time, and this one – hopefully the first of many – is astonishing. Lee, a first-generation Chinese-American who studied with both Minor White and Walker Evans (amongst others) in the 1970s, spent much of the 1980s photographing low-income black communities in the American South. When Lee arrived in a new town, he would often visit the local police station and tell them that he was planning to take photos with expensive photography equipment, so that they would warn him about the poorer parts of town; Lee would then make a point of visiting these neighbourhoods, and document the people he met there - at home, at work, at play, in the street, and amongst nature - with a level of tenderness, empathy, dignity, compassion, appreciation and understanding that was (and is) rarely afforded to them to this day. This book features eighty-eight stunning images, selected from the nearly ten thousand black-and-white negatives that Lee made from 1983-89, and I very much hope that many more of these photographs will be published in years to come.
I also want to mention a book published in 2021, which somehow passed me by and which I only discovered earlier this year, but is one that I think is worthy of much more attention (and as far as I can tell, it seems that there are copies still available and out there). Flags for Countries That Don't Exist But Bodies That Do by Rene Matić (Arcadia Missa, 2021) – is an understated, deeply personal and very beautiful, almost diaristic exploration and expression of love, youth, friendship, family, identity, race, and “the immeasurable dimensions of Blackness through the lens of Matić own personal experiences as a queer, Black womxn living in the diaspora” in twenty-first-century Britain. Highly recommended; and a book that I think will gain even more importance over time - grab a copy while you can
Lastly, I wanted to draw attention to the remarkable wave of great writing on photography that has been published in just the last twelve months – here are just a few of the books that have inspired, nourished and exponentially expanded my understanding of the medium recently, which I’m incredibly thankful for (and there are so many more):
Everything Must Go! by Karine Baptiste, Caiti Borruso, Eleanor Eichenbaum, Cable Hoover, Marissa Iamartino, Will Matsuda, Erika Morillo, Michael Popp and Irit Reinheimer (Edited by Jason Fulford), Image Text Ithaca
Aaron Schuman is a photographer, writer, curator and educator. He is the author of three critically-acclaimed monographs: Sonata (MACK, 2022), Slant (MACK, 2019) and FOLK (NB, 2016). Schuman has also published essays and interviews in many notable books - including Aperture Conversations, Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, Alec Soth: Gathered Leaves and Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals - and regularly contributes to a wide variety of platforms and publications, such as Aperture, Foam, Frieze, TIME, Magnum Photos, and the British Journal of Photography. He is Associate Professor of Photography & Visual Culture at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)
A Pound of Pictures by Alec Soth, Mack
This Golden Mile by Kavi Pujara, Setanta Books