As usual, compiling a list of last year’s best photo books proved devilishly difficult, not because there were too few worthy titles but because there were too many. I’m not complaining, only lamenting the necessity to shrink my initial shortlist from a fat 44 books to a trim 20. Cut, but not forgotten: the Getty’s massive, essential Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs; Daughter of Art History (Aperture), Yasumasa Morimura’s shrewd subversion and shape-shifting occupation of the Western canon from Leonardo da Vinci to Frida Kahlo; 100 Suns (Knopf),
Michael Light’s terrifying and gorgeous compilation of atomic bomb explosions; and Cruel and Tender (Tate) the catalog to the Tate Modern’s timely survey of “the real” in 20th-century photography, which is especially adept at establishing stylistic links between August Sander, Andreas Gursky, Paul Graham, William Eggleston, Rineke Dijkstra, and a host of key figures, both historic and contemporary. All these books belong on the shelves of anyone interested in the range, depth, and eccentricities of the photographic medium.
But let’s not get sidetracked. First you need to think about making some space on those shelves for the titles in this year’s Top 20. Although a number of books have been covered previously in these pages, some deserve underlining and others require a little explanation. Despite Janet Malcolm’s sniping in the current New York Review of Books, Diane Arbus—whose Revelations tops the list—hardly needs my endorsement or defense. After Robert Frank and Walker Evans, she’s easily the most influential American photographer of the 20th century and the ultimate savage eye. Malcolm compares Revelations, which serves as the catalog for the first Arbus museum retrospective in more than 30 years, unfavorably with the Aperture monograph that accompanied the last one, a posthumous show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. No question, the Aperture book, which Malcolm calls “photographic publishing at its most distinguished,” is a model of clean, understated design; never out of print, it has served the Arbus legend faithfully and well. But over the years, as the estate, in the person of Arbus’s daughter Doon, exerted an uncommonly tight control over reproduction rights, the book’s spareness has come to seem more stingy than restrained.
The wealth of previously unseen photo-graphs, memorabilia, and documentation released for the new book and exhibition de- manded a more generous and flexible design. The one Yolanda Cuomo has devised integrates image and text, most effectively in the book’s engrossing central chronology, which suggests an illustrated diary or one of Arbus’s own bulletin-board collages. “More is less,” insists Malcolm, who declares, “The new photographs, with few exceptions, only subtract from our sense of Arbus’s achievement.” On the contrary, all this new material finally allows us to put Arbus’s achievement in perspective—to get a sense not just of her working and editing process but also of the quantity, variety, and emotional complexity of her pictures. Even if some of those pictures do little more than illustrate Arbus’s alarming voraciousness, countless others are, indeed, revelations, and well worth the wait.
The notion of photography as autobiography finds plenty of support in the Arbus book, and crops up throughout the list this year, explicitly (Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Jacques-Henri Lartigue), metaphorically (Rosalind Solomon), and somewhere in between (Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Sally Mann, Wolfgang Tillmans). Mitch Epstein may not be the most reliable narrator of the stories woven through his Family Business, but he understands that personal history—in his case, a tangled web of guilt, ambition, resentment, mistrust, frustration, and failure—doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “How had my father, once owner of the largest furniture and appliance store in western New England and the former Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year in 1974, ended up a character out of an Arthur Miller tragedy?” Epstein asks in his introduction. The answer involves rundown real estate, industrial decline, white flight, interracial misunderstanding, and ordinary family tensions aggravated by a frayed business partnership. Epstein, who worked with both still and video cameras over a period of three years, begins by recording his father’s going-out-of-business sales and tenant problems, but finds himself drawn into the bigger picture—a network of associations that radiates through the entire town. All this is grounded, finally, in family, and most particularly in a series of portraits of Epstein’s father, a proud, determined breadwinner who puts his business before his family and often seems on the verge of losing both. Epstein’s sympathy for him is strained, but the measured respect and tenderness he brings to the pictures of his dad suffuse the entire book.
There’s a similar mix of emotions at work in Deborah Luster’s extraordinary One Big Self, a collection of her portraits of inmates in three Louisiana prisons. Following the murder of her mother, Luster used the camera as a way to “dig out” from despair. “I found that I was still capable of making contact,” she writes. Oddly, the people she felt drawn to connect with were convicts in the state where she lived. Subtle, soulful, and surprisingly intimate, her portraits have the memorial gravity of antique cartes de visite, an effect compounded by Luster’s technique of printing them in creamy tones on small plates of black aluminum, not unlike tintypes. These images are reproduced actual size throughout the book and interwoven with C.D. Wright’s patchwork poems, many of which include pungent fragments of prisoners’ remarks. “I cannot explain the need I felt to produce these portraits,” Luster writes, “because I do not fully understand it myself.” No matter. Her work is moving without ever seeming sentimental. She allows her subjects—men and women, fragile and steely—to be simply, fully human and invites us to see through her eyes and connect.
Rita Moreno during a rehearsal for West Side Story, 1961, from Phil Stern’s A Life’s Work
(photo: Robin Holland)
Phil Stern, one of Hollywood’s most reliable celebrity photographers, inhabits an equally rarefied if entirely different world. Although his pictures of its denizens—notably Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and various members of the Rat Pack—have been reproduced endlessly, Stern had never seemed particularly interesting or original until powerHouse released a big, slipcased retrospective of his career. Intelligently edited (by Meg Handler) and fabulously designed (by Francesca Richer), A Life’s Work is a knockout and a rarity: a coffee-table book with as much soul as pizzazz. The smartest move was including Stern’s World War II photographs from the Sicilian and North African fronts as well as his portraits of jazz musicians, but the real heft of the book is in the Hollywood work. Stern’s touch here is light and sure; his subjects look unusually comfortable in front of his lens, and the photos have clearly been chosen with an eye for the genuinely candid moment. In one famous instance, that involves Monroe looking nearly as pained, puzzled, and lost as she does in her Avedon portrait. But several pages later, there she is, strolling alone through the Goldwyn Studios lot looking effortlessly radiant and relaxed, possibly because she was unaware of Stern’s vigilant eye. (The picture is part of a terrific series, taken from a window above the street, that also includes a jaunty Gregory Peck.) Even Stern’s staged publicity shots (some in ravishing color) have a you-are-there freshness, but he’s a master at movie-star spontaneity: Dean clowning in a coffee shop with friends, Audrey Hepburn glowing on the sidewalk between Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, a strikingly dandified John Wayne at ease in Acapulco, and a whole bevy of celebs buzzing around John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala. Stern understands star power but never seems cowed or awed by it. He leaves that to us.