Although 1999 saw no letup in the boom of exceptional photography books, this year’s list of the chosen few has been scaled back to a neater, more manageable top 10 from 1998’s generous top 20. (The two William Eggleston titles in the number five slot push the limit a bit, but Eggleston’s deceptively simple, sublimely beautiful color pictures demand an exception.) Half of the listed books have already been reviewed in these pages, most in the course of the December 14 holiday roundup, but the criteria weren’t quite so rigorous or so personal there. Gathered here side by side, however, they acquire a collective heft and meaning. Like any critical selection, they reflect one person’s idiosyncratic taste, involving in this case a weakness for outsider narratives and wild-style visions.
Mark Morrisroe and Robert Mapplethorpe, both of whom died of AIDS, could not have been more different stylistically. Morrisroe reveled in the overheated and the handmade—in the serendipitous funk of crudely fixed Polaroids and photograms that looked like Man Ray on angel dust. Mapplethorpe strived for classic elegance, for balance, sophistication, and a flawless finish. But both photographers probed queer desire with an unflinching, consuming brilliance that’s grounded in confrontational self-portraiture. This first collection of Morrisroe’s photos captures his satiric, anarchic spirit perfectly, and Pictures, the latest of many Mapplethorpe books, is the only one to focus exclusively on the s/m sex photos that remain his most unsettling and most important work.
Morrisroe, who’s had plenty of exposure because of his prominent Boston School connection to Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson, is still news to most people. But Daido Moriyama, Ed van der Elsken, and William Gedney are this year’s great unknowns, their rediscovery all the more exciting for taking many of us by surprise. All of them have solid reputations in photographic circles but have been little seen in America, a myopia that these books begin to correct. Moriyama, with his supergrungy views of postwar Japan, is the dark star—bastard child of William Klein and Enola Gay. Van der Elsken, a Dutch photographer and filmmaker with a jones for rebellious youth, devoted the first of his 17 books to a posse of alienated beauties who hung out in the cafés on Paris’s Saint Germain des Prés. Love on the Left Bank, reissued in a facsimile of its original 1956 publication and never before distributed in the U.S., is a document that’s lost none of its bleakness or heat; it smolders like the New Wave film Godard never made. Gedney, who died of AIDS in 1989, left a small body of intensely soulful work, much of it involving life on America’s economic and social margins—in the belly of a Kentucky hill clan and among the aimless young hippies who flocked to San Francisco in the late ’60s. In both series, Gedney, clear-eyed and unromantic, seems to connect with something sweet, bruised, and intimate in his subjects—something about desire and loss that still resonates.
Danny Lyon, who has gravitated to similar fringes, might have found Gedney a sympathetic companion. Lyon’s autobiographical Knave of Hearts takes him from his motorcycle-gang days to the vivid complexities of family life, its text punctuated by collagelike arrangements of color and black-and-white photos, many of them pungent outtakes from his earlier books (like The Bikeriders, whose updated Twin Palms version was inadvertently left off of the 1998 list). Nothing is wasted here, and nothing extraneous; Lyon’s juxtapositions suggest a headlong, historical simultaneity that feels just right for the life of this restless photographer. Richard Avedon’s The Sixties is another sort of autobiography—a wide-ranging investigation that places the photographer at the decade’s racing heart. One of the few books to locate the hopes and fears of the ’60s with such strategic accuracy, Avedon’s collection rounds up a cast of characters from the counterculture to the establishment, from Janis Joplin to Rose Kennedy, and (with the help of Doon Arbus’s interviews) allows many of them to speak, though rarely as eloquently as they pose. This is the period as we lived it—darker than we remember, perhaps, but more substantial and affecting, too.
Several of these titles are shadowed by other 1999 books that would have made a longer list. Eggleston, for instance, suggests Susan Lipper’s equally laconic, wittily deadpan travelogue, Trip (powerHouse, $45). Moriyama finds a contemporary equivalent in Michael Ackerman, whose hectic, compelling End Time City (Scalo, $49.95) sees India through a very particular looking glass. Full Moon, Michael Light’s cinematic sequencing of NASA moon-shot photos, is also one of the year’s most extraordinary landscape books. To put those blasted vistas into perspective, see Light’s book alongside Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception (Abrams, $65) and Lynn Davis’s Monument (Arena, $65). And, finally, van der Elsken, who found Weegee’s Naked City an inspiration, would have loved New York Noir (Rizzoli, $29.95), a compendium of the Daily News‘s most artful, lurid crime-scene photos, and discovered a kinship with the knockout dynamics of Garry Winogrand’s The Man in the Crowd (Fraenkel Gallery, $45) and Ray K. Metzker’s City Stills (Prestel, $39.95).