The 10 Best Photography Books of 2017
Photo: James Baldwin and Medgar Evers © 2017 Steve Schapiro. From James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. Photographs by Steve Schapiro. (Taschen)
The photography book is like a repository of soul, a place where spirits linger long after they have left the mortal realm. Here a fragment of time is frozen forevermore so that we may gaze upon it with awe, with understanding, with curiosity and questions. It is a magical space where three dimension become two, and we can transport into other eras and other realms, into private lives and public spheres of influence.
When collected as a book, the photograph takes on another role: it becomes evidence of the past and a message to the future. It becomes something we bring into our homes and set on our shelves, awaiting the moment we choose to pick it up and nestle it on our laps, absorbing each image page by page in quiet contemplation of wisdom that speaks beyond words.
Crave has selected ten of the best photography books of 2017 that speak to who we are and where we’re been to help us understand where we’re going in 2018.
Perhaps you’ve been gazing upon Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the seminal Prince Street Girls series for so long you, you didn’t realize they had never been published in book form. It just seemed so obvious and yet it’s taken four decades for these iconic works to be printed and bound into one sumptuous volume when Soho was an Italian neighborhood.
Remnants of the era have been all but erased by the broad sweeping brush of gentrification. But for a lone street named “Carmine” you might not ever know—well, that and Meiselas’ photographs taken one summer long ago. The photographs were taken during the era of hot pants and wedges, tube tops and high socks, back when you and your crew used to stroll the block for kicks before hightailing it to the beach—when you used to go outdoors in the summer because there was nothing to do indoors, and it was just too damn hot to be inside.
Meiselas gives us an inside view of life among a crew of girls coming up on the streets of New York as they discovered themselves. The spirit of freedom and rebellion wafts through the work like the smoke from the cigarettes the girls smoke without thought or care. Prince Street Girls paints a portrait of old New York, of a time and a place that has long since disappeared.
These magical moments of yesteryear have finally been published in the TBW Book Series No. 5, a four-book set that includes Mike Mandel: Boardwalk Minus Forty, Bill Burke: They Shall Take Up Serpents, and Lee Friedlander: Head. Read the full review.
Few know Baltimore outside Hollywood’s version of it. The reality of the city is far more nuanced and complex than The Wire portrayed it. As dirty as the cops were, they were heroicized. The truth is that Baltimore is policed by officers like those who beat 25-year-old Freddie Gray into a coma, severing his spine 80% at the neck on April 12, 2015.
In response, the people rose up once again, protesting the abuses of the police in protest. On the frontlines was local photographer Devin Allen, whose photograph of a young black man running from a squadron of police made the cover of TIME— only the third time an amateur photographer’s work has been appeared on the cover of the magazine.
His photographs of Baltimore tell the story of the city from the inside, from the perspective of one of the community who understands the complexities of poverty and the humanity of the people, crafting images that spark dialogue and engage people in open discussion.
In September, Haymarket Books released A Beautiful Ghetto, Allen’s first book: a portrait of the city and its people before, during, and after the protest against Freddie Gray’s murder. Here, Allen reclaims the word “ghetto” from those who use it crassly, paying homage to his hometown with a profound understanding that reminds us of the humanity, dignity, and respect that all people are due, no matter what their background. Read the full review.
More than a thousand years ago, peoples of an unknown origin arrived in Pingelap, one of the 80 atolls scattered through the Pacific Ocean around Pohnpei, in Micronesia. Over a period of eight centuries, the flourished under an elaborate system of hereditary kings, oral culture, and mythology that kept the population of nearly 1,000 thriving.
Then, in 1775, everything changed. Typhoon Lengkiekie swept across Pingelap decimating the island nation. Of the estimated 20 survivors was the king. Of great fortune to the tribe was their extreme fertility. Within a few decades, the population was approaching 100, but with this came the continuation of a genetic condition of the king. He carried the achromatospia-gene; he was colorblind—and soon, so were many people on the tiny atoll.
In Pingelap, an estimated 5% of the population of 700 are colorblind, whereas the figures are closer to an estimated 1 in 30,000 anywhere else on earth. The phenomenon was first documented by neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who set up a clinic in a one-room island dispensary, where islanders described their colorless world in terms of light and shadow, pattern and tone, transforming their history into the book The Island of the Colorblind (A.A. Knopf, 1997).
Recognizing the prejudices, biases, and underlying sense of superiority that runs rampant throughout the book, Belgian artist and photographer Sanne De Wilde set out to visit Pingelap to study “maskun,” the native word for the condition, which translate as “not-see” with an open mind and heart. The result is a reclamation of this world, an incredible, vibrant, evocative work bearing the same name: The Island of the Colorblind (Kehrer Verlag).
Unlike Dr. Sacks, De Wilde traveled to the island without assistants, and approached the people from a perspective of curiosity rooted in profound respect and a desire to translate their experience to a world that could never see as they do. In doing so, she brings the words of French painter Edgar Degas to life, creating a world that speaks to the dictum, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Read the full review.
On February 24, Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang (1987-2017) killed himself in Beijing, jumping from one of the terrifyingly vertiginous buildings that appears in so many of his photographs. His sudden death shocked the world, as Hang had reached a new level of success with the simultaneous release of his first major monograph, Ren Hang (Taschen), along with exhibitions of work at Fotografiska, Stockholm, and Foam, Amsterdam.
Dian Hanson, who wrote the introduction to the book, described Hang as, “an unlikely rebel. Shy, lanky, prone to fits of depression, the 29-year-old Beijing-based photographer [was] nonetheless at the forefront Chinese artists’ battle for creative freedom. Controversial in his homeland, but wildly popular in the rest of the world he says, ‘I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.’”
And what he did is a sight to behold, a provocative blend of beauty, sex, and sensuality that is as unnerving as it is compelling. Hang’s nudes are a wondrous sight, occupying the strange space where the strange and fantastic meet the hilarious. There’s a measure of absurdity that is as disturbing as it is charming, challenging our comfort levels without backing down. Within the body of his work, there is so much feeling evoked, so much that asks the question, “How much can you take?” Read the full review.
If Juergen Teller had a theme song, it would be “My Way,” but not the Frank Sinatra version. No, he would make sure to subvert your expectations at every turn, and cue up the Sid Vicious cover. Like Sid, Juergen is so anti-glamour that he’s chic, always finding a peculiar beauty and joy in the uncomfortable.
His new book, Enjoy Your Life! (Steidl), published in conjunction with the recent exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, embraces the ethos the unexpected. Because what gives life a greater kick than catching you off guard with the curious and the absurd. Teller loves to hone in on things we usually ignore, or look at them from a new vantage point, demystifying their aura and allure. On the reverse, he finds a queer loveliness in things we might otherwise think a bit grotesque, savoring all of the pleasures of our strange and quixotic existence.
Throughout the book we see plates uses as a central motif, some decorated, some filled with food, and others blank and empty. They become curious metaphors for life itself, be it feast or famine, serving or being served. “You know that in German Teller means plate,” the artist asks, giving us a glimpse into his psyche and the way in which names are more than words.
For the plate is the possibility of all that can be—and all that can be lost, shattered, destroyed in just a moment’s time. In one photograph, Teller shows us a spread from a magazine upon which his words appear in a brief statement titled “The Clinic,” underneath which he reveals, “For my 50th birthday, my cousin Helmut gave me the most profound, beautiful and striking present. He made books out of my Dad’s slide photographs, which were stored and forgotten. Looking at those books made me cry. Dad killing himself, but seeing in those photographs it was not all dark days and realizing what a great photographer he was.” Read the full review.
“My life started on Friday events and ended on Monday mornings,” Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger (1921-2006) said in 2000, on the occasion of his first major exhibition at the Museum of Design Zurich. This was the time when he could leave the daily grind behind, forgetting about his work as a warehouse manager at a factory day in and out from 1955 through 1986. It was on the weekends when he picked up his camera and came into himself.
His business card said it all: “My favorite hobbies: the individual portrait and The Extraordinary. Always reachable by telephone after 7 PM.” He refused to photograph people who did not pique his interest, throwing them the ultimate curve with lines like, “It’s easy to snap the shutter, but I’m so busy you’ll have to wait for maybe three to six months to get the photo.”
It takes nerve—and nerve is where Weinberger excelled. He dedicated himself to the raw sexuality of rebels, construction workers, athletes, and Sicilian youths, as well as men who regularly came to his home, undressed, and gave the camera a show. Now you can see it al for yourself in Swiss Rebels (Steidl), a magnificent monograph of Weinberger’s work spanning his entire career, from 1953 through 2006.
As an outsider working in a milieu he created exclusively for his own pleasure and delight, Weinberger amassed a body of work is much a portrait of the artist as the subjects he photographed. Weinberger’s love of the human form was not limited to the bare flesh; he captured the raw sensuality in the very spirit of youth, fully dressed and perfectly coiffed, striking an exquisite balance between teenage lust and campy poseurdom. Read the full review.
The dandy first appeared on the scene in late eighteenth century Britain just as the bourgeoisie was coming into vogue and a new leisure class was becoming a la mode. They aspired to the aristocratic aesthetic and lifestyle, seeing themselves as a cut above the working class in all manner of things. But it was in sartorial pleasures that they distinguished themselves, drawing attention to their status through garb.
For many, clothes make the man—but the dandy makes the clothes, so seamless is his style that he embodies the timeless spirit of chic. The bourgeoisie grew in power and influence at the same time European imperialism conquered the globe. With political and economic oppression and exploitation came an unexpected twist: the transmutation of dandy culture into new realms.
In black culture across the globe, the dandy was more than a symbol of middle class yearnings—it was a radical act of self-expression and independence. The black dandy takes from the traditions of European fashion and subverts the aesthetic by infusing it with elements of the African diaspora. Where the European aesthetic has come to embrace subdued tones, clean cuts, and understated effects, the African sensibility embraces color, pattern, and contrast. The result is visually daring and dedicated to distinction.
Curator and researcher Shantrelle P. Lewis has dedicated herself to examining the dandy in black culture, looking at the ways in which race and ethnicity, masculinity, and style have brought the culture forward. Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style (Aperture) is a majestic document of black men in the twenty-first century. Read the full review.
The Mudd Club was the ultimate spot for those in the know at a time when New York was reinventing itself. Post Punk, No Wave, Hip Hop, and Graffiti artists rubbed shoulders in this den of sin, where everyone from Halston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Bowie to Nan Goldin, Lydia Lunch, and Dee Dee Ramone could be found in the mix.
From 1979 to 1983, the Mudd was the place to be—and now Richard Boch, the doorman, tells the inside history in the fabulous new book, The Mudd Club (Feral House). With Boch as our guide, we get the inside scoop on the wild scene inside this tiny club.
This is the kind of book you simply can’t put down, as you read page after page of juicy little stories that end with lines like, “At 4 a.m. the party was still going strong. I picked up my brandy and swallowed the Qaalude. Gennaro oozed by, high on sweet potato pie. He still had the nickel in his ear.”
Filled with photos from everyone on the scene including Crave faves Marcia Resnick, Billy Sullivan, Maripol, Chris Stein, and Kate Simon, The Mudd Club beautifully integrates pictures and text so that every page brings those heady, hedonistic nights back to life.
The Man. The Myth. The Mystery. Photographer Peter Hujar (1934-1987) was a fixture in the downtown New York scene during the 1970s and ‘80s, creating a seminal body of work that was quietly captivating. He was a fixture in the East Village, where he lived and worked, when it was a magnet for bohemian artists, writers, performers, musicians, and iconoclasts. Back in the days, the neighborhood was rough and raw, in a perpetual state of poverty that bred the avant-garde.
Hujar began his career in the 1950s as a commercial photographer but soon left the market behind, preferring to focus his energies on the creation of art. In an era when the cost of living was cheap, Hujar was able to set up a studio in his Twelfth Street loft and go from there. In Hujar’s photographs, old New York comes to life, a city filled with artists, writers, musicians, performers, and singular personalities that sparkled day and night, from Broadway to the Lower East Side.
Best known for his portraits of icons like Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, and Gary Indiana to Candy Darling, Rene Ricard, and David Wojnarowicz, Hujar also created nudes, landscapes, cityscapes, photographs of animals, and documentary scenes. Yet Hujar remained an enigmatic figure during an era when branding and self-promotion was all the rage.
When he died from an AIDS in 1987, he had only published a single book, Portraits in Life and Death (1976). And so it comes that that in death he is born again. Earlier this year, Aperture released Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, the first major photographic survey of the photographer’s famous and lesser-knownworks. With essays by Joel Smith, Steve Turtell, Philip Gefter, and Martha Scott, the book brings the life of Hujar together in between two covers and gives us an unfettered view of the need for personal and artistic integrity, authenticity, and living by principle. Read the full review.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” James Baldwin wrote in his seminal 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
This insight could not be any timelier for we as a nation continue to face the issues of the past, which have not ended but merely metastasized. To that end, Baldwin lays down the blueprint by which we all may reflect on ourselves, and determine whether we are willing to align our lives in the service of truth and justice.
Taschen has been recognized for doing just this, receiving the 2017 Lucie Award for Book Publisher of the Year for James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. Photographs by Steve Schapiro. The elegant, slipcased volume pairs Baldwin’s work with the Civil Rights photographs of Steve Schapiro in a letterpress limited edition that makes the book a work of art unto itself.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.