There are 20 titles on my list of the best photography books of 2001, but—at the risk of appearing arbitrary or indecisive—they’re unnumbered. That doesn’t mean they’re entirely unranked, but after the first few, the order is rather fluid, and besides, with so many other fine books vying for attention this year, it seems appropriate to leave the list suggestively open-ended. As always, these are books whose style is as important as their content: They don’t merely reproduce great photographs, they match them with intelligent, innovative design that both serves and strengthens the work. Particularly illuminating to the distinction between books about art and books as art is The Book of 101 Books, dealer Andrew Roth’s ardently opinionated reference to what he calls “the seminal photographic books of the twentieth century.” (In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that the brief texts describing those books were written by David Levi Strauss and myself.) In his introduction, Roth defines the only sort of book he’d include on his list as “a thoroughly considered production: the content, the mise-en-page, choice of paper stock, reproduction quality, text, typeface, binding, jacket design—all of these elements had to blend together to fit naturally within the whole. Each publication had to embody originality and, ultimately, be a thing of beauty, a work of art.” I can’t make that claim for all the books on my list—the high cost of quality means there’s an especially tight squeeze where production values are concerned—but even if they’re harder to meet these days, Roth’s criteria are the same ones I apply.
Several titles accompanied and expanded upon great shows, notably curator Peter Galassi’s knockout Gursky retrospective at MOMA, the eye-opening traveling survey of David Goldblatt’s South Africa work that had an extended run at the AXA Gallery in New York, and Richard Avedon’s tightly focused exhibition at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery of vintage prints (and their original, heavily annotated mounts) from some of his most famous early-’50s fashion shoots. One of the many books trailing just below the list deserves mention here: Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s heads, published by Steidl/Box/PaceMacGill in conjunction with his show at PaceMacGill’s new Chelsea space, reproduces all the photos from his extraordinary series of New York street portraits in a format that, while only hinting at their massive scale, preserves their formal beauty and emotional impact.
Broad career overviews account for the greatest number of photo books published each year, and 2001 was no exception, with excellent monographs on Robert Capa, Elliot Erwitt, John Rawlings, Nadav Kander, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Mario Giacomelli, James Casebere, Dennis Hopper, Alair Gomes, and others, all clamoring for attention. A longer list would include many of these titles. I chose the Gursky, the Goldblatt, and three others: Helen Levitt’s handsomely produced Crosstown, whose wide array of famous and unfamiliar, color and black-and-white images of New York street theater was selected by the artist herself; Exhibit A, the first book of Guy Bourdin’s vastly influential, still disturbing fashion photographs from the ’70s and ’80s; and, at long last, Barbara Ess’s I Am Not This Body, a collection of her dreamy, hallucinatory pinhole pictures accompanied by her equally vivid prose (one particularly telling excerpt: “I will construct a life, my little world, and wait for something outside myself, something out of control, a phenomenon that will throw all my planning and conniving into thrilling chaos”).
Most of the entries on my list focus not on an entire (if ongoing) career but on a particular body of work, and many of these are what I think of as artist’s books, the best of which are collaborative extensions of the artist’s vision to the printed page. Perhaps the most inspired current example of this collaboration is Masao Yamamoto’s Nakazora, produced by Nazraeli as an 18-foot-long scroll in a Lucite-covered wooden box. Yamamoto’s lyrical photos (of a tree, a waterfall, a woman’s gesturing hand) are scattered across the length of the scroll like flower petals on a path, and that scattering captures the artist’s improvisational, collage-like presentation the way a traditional book never could.
But more conventional volumes can be just as highly attuned to a photographer’s way of seeing. Take Jeff Burton’s Dreamland, a collection of his allusively tangential views of the L.A. porn industry, which is so smartly edited (by the super-savvy Neville Wakefield) and densely packed that it has far more impact than any of Burton’s gallery shows. Or Roni Horn’s oversized Dictionary of Water, which gathers 95 deadpan and fascinating photos of the surface of the Thames into the sort of focused meditation that would be difficult to achieve in a public space. (View Dictionary alongside Horn’s previous book on the same subject, Another Water, which adds 832 footnotes of wonderfully random and poetically pointed musings.) Or Thomas Struth’s lovely Dandelion Room, color photos of flowers and rural landscapes done as a commission for a Swiss hospital and arranged in these pages as sensitively and eccentrically as they are in the patients’ rooms.
Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw, at the top of the list this year, is an artist’s book in the classic mold. Designed by DeCarava in the mid ’60s but unpublished until now, it has a self-conscious gravity and heft rare to contemporary books but entirely fitting to its loving embrace of jazz musicians, their milieu, and their inspiration. (The Sound I Saw, along with the Avedon, Penn, and Bourdin books, was discussed in greater depth in the holiday book roundup that appeared in the December 11 Voice.) Finally, speaking of classics, please welcome back three books reissued this year and worthy of their own sub-list: Paul Strand’s collaboration with poet Claude Roy, La France de Profil (Aperture), originally published in 1952 as a celebration of French country life and available in English for the first time; Dave Heath’s A Dialogue With Solitude (Lumiere Press), a counterculture cult book from 1965 that hasn’t lost a bit of its melancholy grace; and Larry Fink’s Social Graces (PowerHouse), expanded from its original 1984 edition but with its biting wit and generous humanity intact. Even open-ended lists have to stop somewhere, but perhaps you can imagine this one scrolling off the page like Yamamoto’s book, full of promise and surprise. . . .