Shelf Lives

The best and brightest photography books for the holidays

Every holiday season there's at least one photographic book whose combination of elegance, intelligence, and broad appeal makes it the ideal gift. This year, that book is Irving Penn's A NOTEBOOK AT RANDOM [Bulfinch, $65], an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging collection of published and unpublished work by this prolific fashion, portrait, and still-life photographer. Penn's 43-word introductory note, promising "amusements and seductions," is characteristically modest and concise. What follows is an exceptionally handsome, thoughtfully annotated scrapbook that juxtaposes work from the 1940s to the present in a way that emphasizes both its rigorous consistency and its marvelous variety. Included with portraits of Balthus, Cocteau, Colette, Capote, and Chagall are a host of fashion, food, and figure studies as well as key examples from Penn's best-known series—small tradesmen, African tribesmen, voluptuous nudes, skulls, cigarette butts. A number of these images are accompanied by rough preparatory drawings or reproduced as fragmentary platinum test strips, providing invaluable glimpses of the artist's working process and a companionable context for a number of his largely abstract, collage-like watercolors and drawings. Even if we don't value these artworks as highly as Penn does, their presence helps round out the rich self-portrait he's constructed here. Many of his most famous photographs are animated by the tension between restraint and release, precision and disarray. A Notebook at Random taps into the same creative push and pull, allowing us the most intimate view of Penn so far—not a summing up, but a progress report from a remarkably complex working artist. To underline that point, I'd combine this gift with a subscription to VOGUE [$18], where Penn's regular appearances are one of the most reliable joys of modern magazine publishing.

Penn isn't the only living legend with an important new book on the shelves this season. Robert Frank, another photographer who has never stopped challenging himself, compiled STORYLINES [Steidl, $40] to accompany his current retrospective at the Tate Modern, but don't expect a greatest-hits survey. Although the book opens and closes with contact sheets from The Americans, that landmark work is sublimated here, and in its place are previously unpublished or rarely seen photos, film stills, and collaged consstructions that more than make upfor its absence. Frank's vision—restless, tough, melancholy, and almost helplessly engaged—influenced the look and mood of post-war photography so profoundly that even his outtakes have impact today. But the selection in Storylines allows for very little flab while providing plenty of surprises. Two series from 1958—one of Coney Island on the Fourth of July, the other of New Yorkers seen from a bus window—are worth the price of the book in themselves, and his most recent text-and-image pieces burn with a furious, undiminished intensity.

Lee Friedlander's San Angelo, Texas [1997] from Sticks & Stones
photo: Frankel Gallery/D.A.P.
A spread from Irving Penn's A Notebook at Random.
photo: Robin Holland
A spread from Irving Penn's A Notebook at Random.

Another photographer's photographer, Lee Friedlander, is also the author of several of the medium's most memorable and collectible books. The latest, STICKS & STONES: ARCHITECTURAL AMERICA [D.A.P./Fraenkel Gallery, $85], is his best in years and a must for anyone interested in the built environment. Friedlander's big, square, black-and-white photos, nearly all made within the last decade, are almost brutally matter-of-fact but rarely uncomplicated. Because he prefers the obstructed view, the foreground of nearly every picture is occupied by a chain-link fence, a telephone pole, a car window, a traffic sign, a truck, a mailbox, or some other mundane disruption. The result is a kind of sublime chaos—the American streetscape as reimagined by Cady Nolan and Jason Rhoades. Friedlander mocks the ambitions of the sleekest skyscrapers while paying homage to vernacular found sculpture. America the beautiful? Eliot Porter's got it covered. Friedlander takes us down to funky town. You might accompany this gift with a year's membership to the Museum of Modern Art ($75), where a major Friedlander retrospective next summer (June 3 to August 29) promises an even deeper immersion in his world.

Three other books, each designed to accompany a recent museum show, are key additions to any complete contemporary photo library. Sylvia Wolf's ED RUSCHA AND PHOTOGRAPHY [Steidl/ Whitney Museum of American Art, $60] not only establishes the L.A. painter's roots in photography but makes it clear why he's one of the medium's most distinctive and influential eyes. His deadpan documentation of the ordinary American landscape, SoCal division—apartment houses, parking lots, swimming pools, and every building on the Sunset Strip—made Walker Evans look quaint. Since so much of his work was hired out to hacks, Ruscha doesn't make any claims as a photographer, but like Warhol's, his banal, appropriated images defined generic Americana for two generations of conceptual hipsters. SHOMEI TOMATSU: SKIN OF THE NATION [SFMOMA/Yale, $45], with texts by Leo Rubinfien, Sandra S. Phillips, and John W. Dower, is the catalog to the revelatory retrospective now at Japan Society. Though a number of Tomatsu's more sensational images of flesh, glass, and metal melted by the atomic bomb at Nagasaki have penetrated the American consciousness over the years, the bulk of this smart survey is new to us. The work, which explores all aspects of post-war Japan, including its conflicted attraction to America, is at once formally radical and emotionally accessible, cool but white-hot. GABRIEL OROZCO: PHOTOGRAPHS [Steidl/Hirschhorn Museum, $45] collects full-color evidence of the Mexican artist's playfully serendipitous interventions in the landscape. Sometimes, working with common materials —a pile of melons, tins of cat food, sandwiches, lime wedges, tortillas—he creates ephemeral sculptures, little performances that last only as long as an exposure. Other photos record similar marvels in the unmediated world: a tree full of kites, a melted Popsicle, water pooled in a deflated soccer ball, a sleeping dog. Orozco's delight in the simple pleasures of these manipulations and discoveries is understated but palpable. The world is his oyster, and pearls abound.
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