Picture Perfect


The economy might be sliding, but photography—as a medium and a market—has never looked so strong or been so optimistic. With an astonishing number of contemporary photographs commanding prices that would have been unthinkable for new paintings only a decade ago (both Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky saw their photos sell at auction for $270,000 recently), virtually every art gallery has opened its doors to the medium. The excited attention paid to its art-world stars (including Sherman, Gursky, and Wolfgang Tillmans, the first photographer to win England’s Turner Prize) has had a definite ripple effect. Unfortunately, this attention rarely extends to photography’s more traditional manifestations unless they can be labeled vintage; with few exceptions, a modest black-and-white print made in the last 20 years remains an orphan in the storm. But the growing interest in even quite recent photographic history, fueled by a regular round of rediscoveries and reevaluations, should encourage both traditionalists and iconoclasts. When a medium is in constant flux, anything can happen.

One thing is certain: Where photographic books are concerned, 2000 was another very good year. Though publishers often grouse about the discouraging ratio of cost to profit in photo books, that hasn’t stopped them from adding the occasional lavish volume to their list or, more importantly, seeing worthy projects into print. This year’s list of the best and the brightest—expanded from 10 to 15 and still trailing a slew of addenda—includes an unusually large number of books on major historic figures. Taken together, they trace not only the medium’s fragile, fearless, utterly luminous first steps, taken in the 1830s and ’40s by inventor William Henry Fox Talbot, but its increasingly various, if often contentious progress. Though far from artless, Fox Talbot’s photos record his world with the sort of simplicity and directness Atget (a neoclassicist swimming against the rising tide of modernism) brought to his views of Paris in the early 1900s. Walker Evans made a more ruthlessly pared-down and decidedly American directness his signature in the 1930s, establishing—as Peter Galassi’s provocative investigation of Evans’s influence and influences makes abundantly clear—one of modern art’s defining modes.

Working in a more romantic and stylized manner, Steichen, Brassaï, and List staked out their own modernist territory. Though Steichen’s innovations in both art and commerce have been so thoroughly absorbed into contemporary commercial work that they’re in danger of being overshadowed by fifth-generation imitations, Brassaï’s pungent shots of Parisian lowlife and nightlife, and List’s chic, occasionally surreal homoerotica are still capable of setting off delicious aftershocks. More profound and shattering historical shocks reverberate from Without Sanctuary, a collection of American lynching photographs that is at once more beautiful than it has any right to be and more appalling than you could ever imagine. These are brutally matter-of-fact documents—shameless, even celebratory evidence of our casual inhumanity—but their publication isn’t just important, it’s necessary.

Though the postcards and snapshots in Without Sanctuary come from a hell all their own, they’re part of a vast reservoir of amateur photography that’s been filtering into the mainstream lately. This past year’s prime example is the aptly titled Other Pictures, a selection of vintage vernacular images chosen with a connoisseur’s eye for the mysterious in the mundane by supercollector Thomas Walther. Quite another sort of connoisseurship was at work in the assembly of the Kinsey Institute’s 75,000-piece collection of erotic photography. Distilled into the 156 examples in Peek, that titillating trove should amuse and startle even the most jaded sensualist (dried whale penis, anyone?) and inspire a fresh round of porn-to-pop crossover. Wendy Ewald taps into the vernacular by giving cameras to children all over the world and collaborating with them on projects of self-definition and self-discovery. Secret Games, which gathers 30 years of this remarkable work, is a tribute to the candor, wit, and disarming savagery of the untrained eye.

Ewald and her young collaborators would probably recognize their stylistic kinship with Mark Goodman, who spent 20 years photographing the people of Millerton, New York, with a perfectly calibrated combination of cool detachment and rapt fascination. “I found everyday things mysterious,” Goodman writes, and the intensity of his gaze is as riveting as it is disconcerting, making A Kind of History the sleeper book of 2000. For an entirely different sort of rapture, turn to Lois Conner’s China, one of the year’s most handsomely produced books. Designed as a large oblong to accommodate Conner’s scroll-like panoramas, and printed in a process that closely approximates her sublime platinum prints, China marries the heft and breadth of a classic 19th-century landscape album with the shrewdness and sympathy of a contemporary social study. Unfortunately, Portraits can’t begin to capture the weird, compelling quality of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photos on the wall, primarily because the originals are nearly life-size and unsettlingly lifelike pictures of wax-museum figures. With subjects that include Queen Victoria, Yasser Arafat, and the entire cast of the Last Supper, Sugimoto tweaks the simulacrum until it squeals.

Finally, there’s Fotografía Pública, a Spanish import that provides a quick, encyclopedic overview of photography’s interaction with print in modernism’s formative years, 1919 to 1939. The book begs to be amended and updated, but remains an invaluable source for anyone interested in the development of visual culture. Which brings us to the addenda, the first two of which are magazines: Since Steven Meisel hasn’t put out any books since Madonna’s Sex, his multipage appearances in Vogue Italia are the next best thing, and the March 2000 issue (setting up his knockout Versace campaign) and July 2000 double issue (a millennial Play It as It Lays) are the most important fashion spreads of the year. Three essential catalogs: Early Work of Cindy Sherman (Glenn Horowitz, $50), proving Sherman had it all down from the start; Lee Friedlander (Fraenkel Gallery, $50 cloth, $35 paper), which revisits his brilliant 1970 book of self-portraits in an even more sad-sack mode; and California (Fraenkel Gallery/Matthew Marks Gallery, $45), Robert Adams’s elegy for the Los Angeles Basin’s promised land. Reissue of the year: Tulsa (Grove, $39.95 cloth, $24.95 paper), Larry Clark’s indelible record of love and death on the amphetamine trail, back in print after nearly 20 years.