My first ever best-of list. These are the books that have circled my mental radar over the past year.
The shoes make the man, so the saying goes, “Gotta be the shoes” Spike Lee said of Jordan, and I believe it was no less than Winogrand (the M.J. of street photography) who, when asked what it takes to be a great photographer, replied “a good pair of shoes.” In my experience this is undeniably true; photography, as most of us engage with it, is an ambulatory art like few others.
A dense spiral bound book, Dandelion records, through color photographs and snippets of journal entries, Lower’s life together with his wife Jo-hsin during the last two years of her life as she battled cancer, and the emergence of the Covid pandemic. In it we indeed feel ourselves moving through the world on two feet, and yet, I sense not only the uncertain pace of lives moving towards an unknown destination, but the shoegaze – the downward stare of the solitary walker seeking grace, amidst the world’s wash of distorted full-volume feedback.
Cucumbers on a curb, a pile of shingles on a sidewalk, construction pits, fences, cones, dirty dishes, occasionally, pictures of Jo-hsin herself; at 580 pages, Dandelion is epic and tireless. The pictures seem as if something just happened or is about to happen – absurd hands are dealt, life is here, and waiting just around the corner – and in that pause, we’re repeatedly left to stare, to discern, to ascertain, to wonder.
By all accounts Los Angeles, where the pictures were made, is not a walking city, but it is one bathed in light, perhaps too much so. High key illumination that seems intent on exposing all the refuse, waste, decay, debris, and disintegration that forms the actual core of the American fantasy – it’s What We Bought for the 21st century and what we’ve thrown away. And thus, the shoegaze is also reflexive – a self-protective measure against the glare. But in this reflex, whether forced by sun or by sorrow, we find in Lower’s vision not a bleak perspective – but instead someone engaging with the world as it is. Someone trying to extend time, to feel real, searching for some sort of order, attempting to cobble a response to irrationality, to make it make sense, and despite seeing proof everywhere of how little rationality there is, and enduring that reality, someone who continues to look, regardless, finding instead a type of beauty, which I take as inspiration to do the same.
Things as they are, and things are not what they seem – they’re certainly not what we’ve been told. Go to the Land and I Will Show You is an important book that joins the long conversation on the idea of America and the freighted landscape of a post-colonial world and provides a welcome counterpoint to the crop of books that trade in cowboys and cobwebs. Go to the Land and I Will Show You near its end finds the artist “satisfied with my dissatisfaction of failing to image the unseeable” Looking at the photographs Perino has made we too can be satisfied with this failure and can also understand it more broadly as necessary – a rejection of any manifest claim photography might make on clarity, or the photographer on omnipotence. With so much that is unseeable, and unspeakable this book’s unsettling uncertainty is our nearest truth.
In the next Parr & Badger History of the Photobook there will certainly be a chapter dedicated to “the pandemic photobook” and The Nest, a lyrical book of splendor, will be among the best. The fact that it’s a pandemic book however is beside the point, in that Lilley took the restrictions of lockdown, made good use of them, and managed to transcend the limits of that raison d’etre by reveling in the subtle movements of color and light, and through them, revealing the silence and life that was always there, waiting, listening.
The simplicity of this book’s title, Men Untitled, and its premise, the male body scrutinized the “way we do women’s”, belies its complexity and power – the fact that Drake took up this demanding interrogation of men (so rarely done, so rarely honest) is striking and brave. Drake’s photographs - open and inscrutable, revolting and endearing - attract and repel at the same time; we find empathy and anger bound within the same image, and volleying between the images, as we stumble from page to page, viscerally feeling the artist and her antagonist engaged in a charged dialectic. Vulnerable and damning, Men Untitled is a book of striking clarity and significant vision.
Young photographer’s often start with dreams of working in far flung locations and are told repeatedly by their wizened elders that they should be able to find stories “in their own backyard” – Family Tree Removal provides proof that these can indeed be words of wisdom and it does so through a deft economy of means. While photobooks often attempt to bolster narrative with complicated artifice or photographers attempt to adhere narrative to their images with complicated statements, winding up with little more than cliched, obvious and empty vessels, Baumgarten, in a written essay recounting the overdose death of his neighbor and 27 photographs documenting a feral Mulberry tree being chopped down - the majority taken from the fixed vantage of his bathroom window, depicting the space of just a few feet and made in the span of an hour - has created a complicated allegory of loss and grief, and how precariously close we ultimately all are to being cut away; how proximate the knife to life.
J Carrier is a photographer whose books include Elementary Calculus (Mack Books, 2012) and The Folly (TIS Books, 2021). His most recent book Mi’raj (TIS Books, January 2024) is the second in a trilogy of works made in Palestine and Israel. He teaches photography at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and lives in Vermont with his wife and kids.
top - The Nest by Lynn Alleva Lilley, The Eriskay Connection
below - Go to the Land and I Will Show You by Alana Perino, Valley Books