Maybe it’s the booming prosperity of the photography market coupled with the medium’s increasing prominence in the art world. Or pop culture—its appetite for pictures more voracious than ever—kicking visual literacy into the hot zone. Or some sort of millennial urge to survey the vast image bank photographers have filled over the past century and a half. Whatever the cause, 1999 has been a great year for photo books, both in quality and quantity, and they’re all vying for attention this holiday season. With major monographs or quick studies on Bill Brandt, Andy Warhol, Daido Moriyama, David Bailey, Robert Mapplethorpe, Erwin Blumenfeld, Paul Himmel, Paul Outerbridge, Lady Clementina Hawarden, Brassaï, William Eggleston, Sylvia Plachy, Peter Beard, El Lissitzky, Gregory Crewdson, Ray K. Metzker, Carleton Watkins, and Garry Winogrand out right now, the range of choices is overwhelming even for the medium’s most dedicated mavens. So let this maven take you firmly by the hand and lead you to a few books that stand out from the crowd.
Top of the list this year is Richard Avedon’s The Sixties (Random House, $75), a collaboration with Doon Arbus that delves into the decade with such exuberance and despair it feels like a flashback. Always drawn to the artistically engaged and the politically committed, Avedon puts John Lennon on the book’s front cover, Abbie Hoffman on the back, and fills the pages in between with other counterculture icons: Janis Joplin, Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, William Kunstler, Bob Dylan, Dorothy Day. But Avedon and Arbus never allow The Sixties to turn into a radical-chic roll call, and some of the book’s most arresting images were taken far from the movement’s front lines, whether among antiwar activists, reporters, and soldiers in Saigon or with the Young Lords, the staff of WBAI, or the mothers of slain civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner back home. Still other figures, both famous and obscure, are included in blocks of verbatim quotes that are Arbus’s most apparent contribution. “I have an enormous need to find a barricade to die on,” filmmaker Shirley Clarke says, but many of these speakers are shockingly inarticulate (Leonard Cohen babbles like a man unmoored), and none of them are as vividly present as they are in their photos.
Avedon, who utters not a word here, is also quite present—his hopes, his passions, his sympathies, his disillusion woven in page by page. Though his books have always had an autobiographical element—culminating in 1993’s conflicted, anguished An Autobiography—The Sixties comes closest to capturing his spirit in such intimate rapport with his times. Here was a moment when Avedon, the ridiculously successful fashion photographer, ultimate insider, and perennial outsider, could find a host of vital, dedicated people ready to bite the hand that fed him. The revolution so many of his subjects talk about with such conviction may not have happened quite the way they imagined, but he locates its beating heart (and its foolish excesses), along with his own. Ruth Ansel’s book design—at once aggressive and drop-dead cool—preserves every photo at its peak of freshness. It helps that nearly half of them haven’t been published before, yet even the familiar pictures (the Warhol factory broken panorama, for instance) have renewed impact in this context. Taken together, they’re important reminders not just of what was but of what remains.
Avedon, of course, remains, as does his influence, if diluted by parody and imitation. Makeup entrepreneur turned photographer François Nars’s massive book of color portraits, X-Ray (powerHouse, $85), uses Avedon’s trademark white seamless as the pristine backdrop for a sideshow of fabulous freaks. Gathering nearly 250 models, actors, artists, singers, fashion designers, drag queens, and assorted party people from Jocelyne Wildenstein to Boy George, Nars teases each of them into a froth of pure illusion. Nars, who also did every inch of makeup here (in eyebrow pencil alone, that would probably reach the moon), has such an intimate, hands-on relationship to glamour, beauty, and fame that he can’t help twisting them inside out. His genius is his willingness to go gleefully over the top—to get a performance, not a portrait; when he leaves his sitters alone with their celebrity, they fall flat. But because Nars pushed his book to the limit, too, even those ordinary pictures get carried along on X-Ray‘s bigger-is-better fun-house ride. More Sex blush, please.
Nars would have loved Mark Morrisroe, the rambunctious young artist and leading provocateur of what’s been dubbed the Boston School. A former teen hustler, sometime avant-drag filmmaker, and lifelong scamp, Morrisroe was a friend and an inspiration to Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson when they were all sorting out their individual photographic styles in the early ’80s. Morrisroe’s style—in full effect in a terrific new collection of his work, Mark Morrisroe (Twin Palms, $60)—was deliberately slapdash but never as accidental as it appeared. His Polaroids—many of them confrontational nude portraits of himself and his friends, both male and female—were scratched, mottled, overexposed, and often inadequately fixed so they faded badly. Other photos, also in the mode of diaristic self-examination, incorporated scrawled texts, hand-painted color, and a gorgeous messiness that makes every one a record of Morrisroe’s rough process. If the work feels careless, campy, full of narcissistic posing and Jack Smith-style melodrama, it’s also classically avant-garde (Man Ray’s photograms are a key touchstone), irrepressibly sexy, and poignant, even quite sweet. Morrisroe died of AIDS in 1989, so his pictures take on the aura of relics—evidence of a furious, brilliant recklessness that’s lost none of its seductive magnetism.
It’s not really fair to set Bruce Weber alongside Mark Morrisroe, especially when Weber’s new book, The Chop Suey Club (Arena, $60), is so charmingly slight. Nearly 300 pages of photos of the same boy, a Weber prototype model named Peter Johnson, from age 15 to 19, Chop Suey is the record of a makeover and the history of an obsession. Included are pictures of Johnson as a face in the crowd at an Iowa City wrestling camp, where Weber first spotted him, along with many more pictures of Johnson transformed into the sort of all-American teen hunk Weber has served up to hungry consumers for what seems like an eternity. No question, the book has a certain fascination, much of it inherent in the power dynamics between artist and model, the interplay and exchange of innocence and experience. (Weber, the master manipulator, somehow manages to come off as the naïf.) Sure, Johnson blossoms and ripens under Weber’s gaze, but what he turns into—despite the photographer’s quirky choice of gender-bending accessories—is dismayingly generic: another flawless, shirtless beauty ready for his close-up in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Weber junkies shouldn’t be denied his latest physique collectible, but the less addicted might be appeased with a $12 subscription to the A&F Quarterly.
Several of the season’s most appealing books deal with landscape. The best of these is Michael Light’s remarkable Full Moon (Knopf, $50), which edits thousands of NASA Apollo mission photos down to a cinematic narrative, from liftoff to splashdown, that’s at once spectacular and smartly understated. Without slighting the science involved, Light brings an artist’s eye to the project, devoting the book’s central bulk to images of the moon’s rock-strewn wasteland and framing them with the expected awesome views of Earth from space. Even previously published photos look astonishing here due to a thorough digital scrubdown, but many more pictures were pulled out of NASA’s archives by Light just for this book, and they put the astronaut’s experience—of desolation, of anxiety, of wonder—in a fresh perspective. Perhaps because contemporary landscape photographers like Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and Richard Misrach have staked out the junk heap, the barren lot, and the desert as prime subjects, the surface of the moon, so coldly otherworldly, has also never appeared so commonplace.
Full Moon could be ideally paired with Lynn Davis’s Monument (Arena, $65), a collection of her subtly toned landscapes that updates the 19th-century album of travel photos. Davis inflects that classic, distanced, documentary vision with a passionate clarity that feels almost spiritual. Natural and manmade wonders from icebergs, mountains, and geysers to pyramids, temples, and stone carvings appear here in magnificent isolation, as if discovered anew. Stripping away a century of touristic trash, Davis invites us to look again at a world we take for granted. Hiroshi Sugimoto arrives at an even more bracingly reductive view of the landscape in his book of black-and-white seascapes, Sugimoto (Fotofolio, $29.95). Dividing each image evenly between sea and sky, then blurring the boundary as the light fades or fog rolls in, Sugimoto presents nature as a repeated motif of abstract minimalism without ever losing touch with its rich, marvelous variety.
Finally, consider three smart compendiums for the photophile who never has enough. American Photographs 1900/2000 (Assouline, $90), gallerist James Danziger’s selection of a century’s worth of outstanding images (much chosen with the collaboration of Stephen Daiter) is huge and handsome, bound as a portfolio in solid black, and, at 400 pages, dauntingly comprehensive. Though it tends to reinforce an established pantheon (Weston, Strand, Evans, Man Ray, etc.), the book includes plenty of unexpected images and idiosyncratic choices, from Peter Hujar to Wendy Ewald, all reproduced with extraordinary care. In a similar vein, San Francisco gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel celebrates his 20 years in business with 20 Twenty (Fraenkel Gallery, $45), 68 photos that sum up this connoisseur’s eye for the excellent and the unusual. The sequencing here is especially witty, making revealing connections between disparate photos and turning the book into an exhibition in itself. Charles Melcher’s sexy, clever Voyeur (HarperCollins, $35) applies both these books’ historical range to the idea of voyeurism at its broadest. Photographers from Thomas Eakins and Alfred Stieglitz to Larry Clark and Merry Alpern catch their subjects unawares—or at least appear to—peering through open doors, dirty windows, even “keyholes,” or working with concealed cameras in strip clubs, porn theaters, and the subway. The results, printed small and surrounded by black borders, are compellingly intimate, convincingly furtive, and hot. Just the thing for the prospective playmate. Now deck those halls.