Once upon a time, coffee-table books signified luxury, upward mobility, things of quality and distinction. Buying one of those suckers conferred a sense of your own good taste. It was only a matter of time before publishers began catering to the downwardly aspirational, offering cheap (well, not that cheap) voyages into other people's fringe or freaky existences.
Take Create and Be Recognized (Chronicle, $40), the first major study of photography in outsider art. The title phrase was the motto of Eugene von Bruenchenhein, a baker and self-taught artist who photographed his wife obsessively and exclusively over two decades. He is one of the many forgotten visionaries included in this beguiling book by John Turner and Deborah Klochko. What binds together these figures isn't their amateurishness but the obsessive nature (and sometimes outlandish scale) of their missions. Alexandre Lobanov, deaf and dumb, staged elaborate self-portraits as a kind of Russian revolutionary icon, while homeless artist Lee Godie dressed herself in multiple personae for her many photo-booth snapshots, making her a bag lady forerunner of Cindy Sherman. Some of the eeriest images come from Morton Bartlett; although he was educated at Harvard and briefly worked as an advertising photographer, he belongs here because his photos, like those of his fellow outsiders, were born of "extreme private impulses." For 30 years he created and shot plaster figurines of young girls: a fantasy family of little women.
The somber photos of Margaret Morton's Glass House (Penn State, $34.95) capture another kind of marginal existence. The book's subject is an abandoned glass factory in the East Village settled by squatters in the early '90s. The poignant oral history and dimly lit pictures trace the household's emergence: Images of young people standing in rubble give way to portraits of people building their own rooms from scratch, occasionally using police barricades as structural supports. They make forays into the street to siphon water from hydrants, and cook dinner on a hot plate powered by the corner street lamp. In retrospective interviews, the squatters recall how they ended up theresome had no place else to go, while others chose the lifestyle for a sense of community or independenceand piece together the death of Glass House, infamously invaded and shut down by riot police in 1994.
It's hard to know how to look at David Yellen's heavy-metal devotees in Too Fast for Love (powerHouse, $35). Admire them on their own terms, as rebels against tight-ass, red-state mores? Or pity them as victims of one never ending bad-hair day? The proudly defiant poses of these subjects and the sheer effort they've put into their appearance suggest the former. And the ultra-bright, unflinching way Yellen shoots them, exposing every pore and underarm stain, further undermines any impulse to sneer. What's particularly touching is that these are not fans of contemporary nü metal, but time-warp acolytes of '80s hair metal, still showing up to see increasingly haggard relics like Poison. In fact, there's something heroic about these thirty- and fortysomethings who remain faithful to their subculture long after the world has passed it by.
Craig R. Stecyk III's legendary images of another subcultthe Dogtown skateboarders of the late '70shelped transform a local scene into a nationwide phenomenon that in turn influenced the loose assemblage of artists and photographers collected by Aaron Rose and Christian Strike in Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture (D.A.P./Iconoclast, $39.95). United by what Rose dubs a "rogue outsider creative spirit," these artists erupted out of 1980s DIY culture (skateboarding, graffiti, hardcore, and indie rock), distributing most of their work via alternative venues. Some, like Chris Johanson, played in bands and did graphics for skateboard companies. Barry McGee paints his primitivistic cartoons of down-and-outs on buildings and trains as well as canvases; Clare E. Rojas conjures folksy paintings while recording naive bluegrass records under the name Peggy Honeywell; and Shepard Fairey's flyposters of Andre the Giant became a ubiquitous part of the New York streetscape.
Intoxicated by graffiti, most of the Beautiful Losers crew mess around with typography, cramming tags and signs into their work. They'd probably agree that "the hand is mightier than the pixel," as Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic boast in Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age (Thames & Hudson, $45). This book documents the recent explosion of scrawled or "distressed" typefaces, and in the process offers a fascinating if meandering history of handwritten lettering. (For a deeper look at one of the most influential fountains of fonts, check out The Push Pin Graphic, a boisterous compendium of the graphic design magazine published between 1957 and 1980 by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast's Push Pin Studios.) Connoisseurs of the splotch and the scratch, Handwritten's authors present a boggling array of examples from books, ads, and comics, paying special homage to the king of animation lettering, R. Crumb.
Ironically, it takes great control to create chaotic visuals à la Ralph Steadman or Maira Kalman, and Handwritten points out that the popularity of the Macintosh as a design tool almost killed off the tradition of hand-lettering. Tell that to the army of Apple fetishists brought to life by Wired columnist Leander Kahney in his amusing tome The Cult of Mac (No Starch, $39.95). Kahney crawls into every crevice where Mac addicts lurk, providing us with tales (and images) of tattoos, evangelism, hoarding, and Deadhead-style conventions. (It's fascinating the way people convince themselves that this corporate entityas innovative and comparatively consumer-friendly as it may beis some kind of counter-cultural bastion rather than just a more enticing form of consumerism.) Kahney trots out theories to explain (and perhaps justify) this cultish behavior, ultimately leaving us with the question: Are Mac addicts loyal to a brand, or is it more about allegiance to some big Apple community?
"America has always been a nation of isolatos, solitaries striking out on their own," argues poet J.D. McClatchy in the text accompanying American Writers at Home (Library of America, $50). "Europeans could never understand . . . why we headed off into the unfamiliar, why we built our cabins on the pond's edge." Erica Lennard photographs the cocoons that famous writers like Walt Whitman and Flannery O'Connor fashioned for themselves in those dark, pre-iPod days of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bathed in honeyed light, these images are so sumptuous they might be mistaken for layouts from a shelter magazine dedicated to gracious, cozy old houses. Instead, they provide an excuse for McClatchy's meditations on how dwellings and solitude shape the creative process. If these houses look like museums, that's because they are. When regular people die their things are ransacked, most precious possessions parceled out or tossed away. But these show homes halt and preserve a moment in an illustrious writer's life, like an insect trapped in amber. We see Eudora Welty's desk as it apparently looked while she lived: littered with manuscript pages, calendars, and correspondence. Or the corner of Faulkner's pantry, where the camera finds a wall covered with names and numbers scrawled above a black rotary phone that will never ring again.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.