Photography mavens look for a print with what they call “object quality,” meaning one possessing elements, both physical and ephemeral, that transcend the image itself and make the picture unique. Virtually everything about a print’s condition— including its finish, toning, scale, age, weight, and overall presentation— determines its object quality, which, in turn, determines its value. Of course, none of this matters if the image is itself of no interest; a wonderful example of a terrible picture is still worthless. Applying a similarly rigorous assessment to books, which are, after all, produced in large, identical numbers, is only a metaphorical exercise, but the best ones usually pass the test. Most of the books on the 1998 Top 20 have a texture, heft, and sensational design that approaches true object quality— the ideal balance of style and substance that makes a book of pictures more than a passing diversion.
Because more publishers are beginning to recognize the importance of this balance, 1998 was an extraordinarily good year for photography books that matched beauty with intelligence— so much so that limiting our list to 10 or even 15 entries, as in previous years, seemed downright stingy. Many of the books included here have already been reviewed in these pages, several in the course of the holiday roundup that appeared in the issue of December 15, but others deserve comment, if only for the serendipitous connections the list sets up. Between Bruce Davidson’s soulful, cinematic portrait of tough Brooklyn teens in 1959 at number one and the retrospective of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s surprisingly vigorous early 20th-century pictorialism at number 20, the range of subjects and styles is striking, but sensibilities arc and mesh from one end to the other.
The dreamy, soft-focus subjectivity of Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of women finds a modern equivalent in Bill Jacobson’s wraithlike images of men; for both these photographers the subject is the spirit, not the flesh. Francesca Woodman, whose theatrically introspective self-portraits— remarkably prescient explorations of identity and body politics— ended with her suicide at 22, is their troubled soul sister. David McDermott and Peter McGough recapitulate Cameron’s feverish neoclassicism with cool postmodern irony and disconcerting sincerity in their sly, sumptuous A History of Photography. Put their still lifes next to those of Charles Jones, the British gardener whose turn-of-the-century, gold-toned studies of fruits, flowers, and vegetables were discovered in a trunk at London’s Bermondsey antique market in 1981. Unknown during his lifetime, Jones’s work is obsessive in its dedication but marvelously restrained, and each piece has the rounded, thoughtful quality of a portrait. Peas glow like pearls in their pod; onion skin looks like burnished brass; gooseberries are as lovely and delicate as Christmas ornaments. Jones was their recording angel.
Another sort of ordinariness is elevated in Wolfgang Tillmans’s Burg, the best collection so far of his very personal, extremely influential snapshot aesthetic, whose seemingly random accumulation and anything-but-haphazard juxtaposition is subtle, seductive, and unexpectedly touching. Fashion rebel Terry Richardson trashes this innocent artlessness with an adolescent’s wild-style, fuck-you glee; his snapshots of clowns, punks, big dicks, and models popping out of their underwear are aggressively crude and antichic. Mario Testino (with Any Objections?) and Ellen von Unwerth (with Couples) issued similarly hectic and considerably more stylish compendiums of sexy outtakes this year, but Richardson aces them both by opting out of the commercial world completely (his book was printed only in Japan and disappeared quickly) and producing an ugly, hilarious tour de force.
Dailiness and funk are also the subjects of Boris Mikhaylov’s Unfinished Dissertation, the Russian artist’s annotated scrapbook of photos taken in the winter of 1984 in the dreary capital of the Ukraine. As if in anticipation of the current vogue for the tangential and the pointless— the utter rejection of the “decisive moment”— Mikhaylov’s photographs are spectacularly banal: scruffy landscapes, sad housing blocks, faceless pedestrians. But he mixes these in with antic shots of friends at home and surrounds them all with scribbled notations, including quotes from Wittgenstein and Cartier-Bresson as well as musings like this: “I see nothing . . . But sometimes it seems to me that I do not see anything but the point.” An offhandedly witty, if philosophically cramped, take on the postutopian Soviet Union, Unfinished Dissertation is also the year’s most accessible artist’s book.
For a quick jolt of cultural dissonance, put Mikhaylov’s tattered scrapbook next to When We Were Three, the elegant, sepia-toned travel albums compiled between 1925 and 1936 by the American expats, aesthetes, and lovers George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler, and Glenway Wescott. If this fat little volume feels a bit slight and overrefined— as if Bruce Weber were consorting in Antibes with F. Scott Fitzgerald— it’s also a fascinating document of sophisticated gay life between the wars. Lynes, Wheeler, and Wescott are one another’s favorite subjects, but their circle opened up to include members of the international avant-garde, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, and Christian Bérard among them. Here’s the real snapshot aesthetic, casual and poignant, anchored and framed by Anatole Pohorilenko’s and James Crump’s clear-eyed texts for 1998’s smartest beach book.
Think of brilliant trickster Vik Muniz as the offspring of Man Ray and Jacques Henri Lartigue, combining the former’s relentless experimentation, the latter’s effortless wit, and their mutual inventiveness in work that defies category. Fazal Sheikh and Nicholas Nixon, like Bruce Davidson before them, prove that the idea of concerned photography has vital currency when practiced with as much emotion as commitment. And, to return to object quality, Albert Watson delivered the year’s most opulently, irresistibly over-the-top book design for Maroc, his hyperchic portfolio of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from Morocco. Finally, there were at least two imports worth searching out: Christian Bougueret’s massive, superbly printed Des Années folles aux années noires: La Nouvelle Vision photographique en France 19201940 (Marval, Paris), packed with previously unseen avant-garde work by everyone from Man Ray to Jean Moral, and Martin Harrison’s Young Meteors (Jonathan Cape, London), a lively look at British photojournalism, 1957 to 1965, when Brit sharpshooters like Roger Mayne, David Bailey, Don McCullin, Terence Donovan, and others honed their talents in the dailies and pop mags.
Two Coney Island photos from Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang
Vegetable Marrow Long White and Ornamental Gourds from Charles Jones’s Plant Kingdoms
Two images from Fazal Sheikh’s The Victor Weeps of Afghan children born in exile
A spread from Wolfgang Tillmans’s Burg including Jason in Skatepipe
1998’s Top 20 Photography Books
1. Brooklyn Gang
by Bruce Davidson (Twin Palms, $60)
2. The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan
by Fazal Sheikh (Scalo, $49.95)
by Wolfgang Tillmans (Taschen,$29.95)
4. Jacques Henri Lartigue,
Photographer (Bulfinch, $95)
5. Man Ray: Photography and Its Double
by Emmanuelle de L’Ecotais and Alain
Sayag (Gingko Press, $65)
6. Vik Muniz: Seeing Is Believing
7. 19891997 by Bill Jacobson
(Twin Palms, $60)
8. When We Were Three: George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler, and Glenway Wescott 19251935
9. Unfinished Dissertation
by Boris Mikhaylov (Scalo, $45)
10. Pages From the Glossies
by Helmut Newton (Scalo, $75)
11. A History of Photography
by McDermott & McGough (Arena, $65)
12. Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women
by Sylvia Wolf (Yale, $49.95)
13. Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones
by Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson (Smithmark, $24.98)
14. Terry Richardson
(Hysteric Glamour, $75)
15. Francesca Woodman
16. Miguel Rio Branco
17. American Musicians
by Lee Friedlander (D.A.P., $49.95)
by Albert Watson (Rizzoli, $75)
by Robert Coles and Nicholas
Nixon (Bulfinch, $35)
20. Alvin Langdon Coburn 18821966
(Edition Stemmle, $60)