A Spotlight on the Season’s Top Photography Books
By LUC SANTENOV. 30, 2016
There is possibly no more omnivorous photographer alive than Daido Moriyama. His pictures have an identifiable look: black-and-white, grainy, off-center, tilted, high-contrast — but within those bounds he has covered an encyclopedic range of subjects and approaches in the dozens of books he has published since the early 1970s. (Note that such a figure is not unusual for photographers in Japan, where books are often small, cheap and quickly produced — conditions that favor grain and high contrast.) In his newest, DAIDO TOKYO (Fondation Cartier Pour l’Art Contemporain/Thames & Hudson, $40), he counters expectations: Half the pages are in color. His subject is Shinjuku, the neighborhood around Tokyo’s major train station, historically not unlike Times Square: filled with bars and love hotels, rife with low-level crime and lurid advertising. It has been gentrified somewhat in recent decades, and also features verdant parks and sleek skyscrapers, but Moriyama nevertheless locates all his favorite textures: fishnet, chain-link, steel tubing, tangled cables, broken glass, torn posters, cracked PVC, dust.
Like all of Moriyama’s books, this one invites rapid-fire cinematic immersion. The color photos are full-bleed and crammed together, sometimes four per spread. The second half of the book, called “Dog and Mesh Tights,” is printed on black uncoated stock, the photos black-and-silver, the count here rising as high as eight pictures in a spread. Over all, the photos range from close-up to long shot, and they show people, animals, landscapes, the moon — but primarily they concern the urban surface, in every kind of light and condition. You often don’t know whether it’s day or night, whether an ostensible subject is three-dimensional or an image within a poster, whether it’s merchandise or trash. You are invited to be a fly, landing on a tree branch, in an alleyway, on a store window, in a bathroom, on a dinner plate. One by one the pictures are often astounding, bravura displays of Moriyama’s mastery of light and composition. In bulk they are dizzying, a high-speed chase, and seemingly tossed off like so many phone pictures.
Sally Mann’s REMEMBERED LIGHT: Cy Twombly in Lexington (Abrams/Gagosian Gallery, $50) demands exactly the opposite form of attention: extended quiet contemplation. Mann shared a hometown in Virginia with her painter subject (1928-2011) — a member of the tribe of Southern-born artists who came of age in the 1950s and also included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg — who spent half the year in Italy but always came back to yard sales, Walmart and the studio that is the principal setting of these pictures. Twombly himself does not appear, except metonymically: in his works, his marks, his drips, his paint-saturated rags, his objets d’art, his slippers. But as the title indicates, Mann seeks his essence primarily in light, a warm, honeyed, Southern light that pours in through windows or leaks through Venetian blinds and that persists as a trace of the artist even after he has died and his studio has been emptied and repainted. The light is palpable, seems to possess mass and weight, and if you knew nothing of the context of the photographs you’d still want to give the light partial credit for the wonderful paintings and sculptures it slides across.
Light also takes its place as the hero of Geoffrey Batchen’s EMANATIONS: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/DelMonico/Prestel, $60). People have been making images without the use of lenses, by allowing light to pass around and through objects on sensitized surfaces, since before the dawn of the photographic medium — Nicéphore Niépce was making heliographic copies of engravings as early as 1822 — but the subject has largely been relegated to the margins of the medium’s history. And yet it is a succession of splendors, from William Henry Fox Talbot’s first impression of lace (circa 1834) and Anna Atkins’s glorious collection of marine vegetation on cyanotype (1840s) to the mid-20th-century “Rayographs” of Man Ray and “Schadographs” of Christian Schad to an abundance of recent works. The array includes every sort of picture falling outside the realm of photography as it is usually understood, ranging across art, science and pseudoscience: X-rays; solarizations; effects produced by electrification, magnetization and chemical processes; even Louis Darget’s “photographs of thought,” from the 1890s, which he allegedly realized by placing photosensitized plates on people’s foreheads. Theory aside, all the pictures are dazzling, explosive and liberating to the medium in much the same way that the birth of abstraction freed painting from its earthly bounds.
THE PLANT KINGDOMS OF CHARLES JONES (Thames & Hudson, $24.95), By Sean Sexton And Robert Flynn Johnson. Jones (1866-1959) was an estate gardener, at least in the earlier half of his life; not much is known about his later years. In 1981, Sean Sexton came upon a trunk at the Bermondsey flea market in London that contained hundreds of photos of vegetables, fruits and flowers, all of them titled and initialed by Jones, some of them signed. The trunk had been passed over repeatedly, and Sexton bought it for a pittance. There is no available information about how Jones came to engage in photography, or whether he ever intended to make his work public, but his pictures are not only lush and nearly edible, they are surprisingly, severely modern in appearance — they resemble the work of Karl Blossfeldt, and anticipate that of Irving Penn. The subjects are posed simply, against neutral backgrounds, solo or in pairs or pyramids. The peas in their pods glint like pearls in a velvet compact; the cabbage heads are nestled in their leafy wraps like swaddled babes; a recumbent marrow suggests a Titian nude. Do I need to mention that each specimen appears to represent the very apex of its species?
REAL/IDEAL: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France (J. Paul Getty Museum, $59.95), edited by Karen Hellman. The book primarily focuses on a key group of photographers — Édouard Baldus, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and Charles Nègre — who worked with paper negatives in the 1840s and ’50s, when the practice and technology of the medium were still unsettled, and situates them in the current of realism that was also beginning to affect French painters and novelists of the time. It was an extraordinary break from the idealism and Neo-Classicism that had flourished since the Napoleonic era, and you can see the photographers easing into it by training their lenses on the brilliant details of Gothic architecture and the varied splendors of the French landscape. Very soon we are among the peasants in the country, the buskers and peddlers in the city, the alleyways and the factories and the earthquake ruins and the devastations of floods. And yet somehow all of them, captured in delicate salted-paper prints that luxuriate in ethereal velvety grays, are serenely beautiful. More than any other mid-19th-century practitioners, those French artists now seem like the old masters of photography.
ANTHONY HERNANDEZ (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/D.A.P., $49.95), edited by Erin O’Toole, provides a gripping narrative.
INGE MORATH: ON STYLE (Abrams, $65), with an introduction by Justine Picardie and edited by John P. Jacob, collects much more than just fashion photography. There are charity balls, well-dressed window shoppers in Paris and London, heroic bohemians Vali Myers and Juliette Gréco, sundry aristocrats, the professional debut of Yves Saint Laurent, American models in Paris, debutantes, Harry Belafonte, Vera Zorina, Audrey Hepburn, a training session at the Helena Rubinstein Beauty Salon, Edith Head at work, Andy Warhol with Louise Bourgeois and of course Hollywood. The pictures are varied — some studied and others on the fly, but always as stylish as their subjects — while the book itself is a voyage back to a time of exacting standards and hard-won panache.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON: Portraits (Yale University, $50), by Phillip Prodger. The abundance of recent collections of Eggleston’s work does not diminish the allure of this one, which shifts the focus somewhat from the usual topics — use of color, portrayal of the South — in favor of faces and bodies. Some of the pictures are extremely well known, such as the cover image of a slack-jawed but immaculately coifed supermarket bag boy rounding up shopping carts, while others are less so: page after page of riveting, often untitled character studies, some of them in black-and-white and from very early in his career. A confident young black man in a disco shirt and disco shoes leans on a car, looking like a cousin of Malick Sidibé’s subjects. Marcia Hare in a flowered dress, face cast upward, may be dancing or may be possessed by a spirit; in a more famous picture she lies on the grass in a different flowered dress, clutching a plastic box camera, blissed out. Charles Boykin, sitting on his single bed, displays his revolver in the middle of a long story. Leigh Haizlip, in what seems to be a kitchen, is angry and tearful. The photographer himself, in the possibly drunken embrace of a friend, looks quizzical. There are numerous photos of Eggleston here, including photo booth pictures, which demonstrate that he can rival any of his subjects for sheer style. There are pages of small stills from his uproarious, densely populated home movie, “Stranded in Canton” (1973-74). There is a laconic but engaging interview. If you’re curious about Eggleston but don’t have room for all 10 volumes of “The Democratic Forest,” the boxed set that covers his career in great detail, this book is not a bad place to start.
Luc Sante’s most recent book is “The Other Paris.”