By Mike Johnston
8 Recommended Reissues
Mike's pick of the current crop of classics.
1. Robert Frank, The Americans (Steidl, 2008). For some reason, despite a lot of hoopla about re-releasing this book on the 50th anniversary of the original's publication in France—May 15th—the book is still not shipping. But don't let that stop you—it'll be along. Get yours piping hot off the press. Here's my original post about it.
2. John Szarkowski, William Eggleston's Guide (Museum of Modern Art, 2002). Like it or not, this book is an important part of how color photography came of age in America. Also, a very enjoyable little book. I've returned to mine many times over the years for pleasure. Before this reprint came out, the book had become a rare collectible in the $300–$400 range. When this reprint expires and current supplies dwindle, that will happen again. I notice that Amazon is currently "Out of Stock," which sometimes evolves into "Unavailable," so now could be—I say could be—your last chance. Please don't blame me if you can no longer get it.
While I'm on the subject, I have to add that I'm tired of people claiming ostentatiously that they don't "get" Eggleston. It's not that hard, folks. It's snapshot-aesthetic Americana, circa 1976, the apotheosis of the old 3R (3 1/2 x 5") Kodacolor drugstore print which was the form of demotic photography in America for a couple of decades. Read the essay, look at the pictures. They're just pictures; it's not some sort of secret society with a little peephole on the door with a secret password no one's told you about.
3. John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye (Museum of Modern Art, 2007). I laughed (out loud, as they say on the internets) at one "review" of this book that said, essentially, "it's just a bunch of pictures." ...Which, if you habitually scan pictures like you're leafing through a fashion magazine, might indeed not be enough. What with the demotic and democratic rag-and-bone shop of the online world heralding detritus from every forgotten corner of everywhere nowadays, it might be not be recoverable that academic photography once needed this sort of...broadening. There are pictures from historical societies in here. There are snapshots. The works of "photographers unknown." Art mavens once found it shocking. I still find it bracing, although that might be the honoring of old memories. In any case, this was the book that did the trick at the time.
However, you have to bring it to this book. Do not browse; peruse. Look carefully, look long. Think of it like the great curator handing you pictures to look at from out of an endless pile, and attend.
4. Bill Owens, Suburbia (Fotofolio, 1999). The original 1972 book had a hint of the subversive about it, some iconoclasm, typical of inscrutable critiques of America in those old hippie days. But Owens' take on suburban living is really essentially neutral and accepting, equal parts fond and sardonic. The pictures are rich with detail and truly document a style of American life both specifically and generally.
The new book is not a reprint, strictly speaking. It's a new edition, a rethinking. Weak pictures have been deleted, new pictures (many color ones, most obviously, but also some black and whites) have been added, the ordering's been changed, and a new introduction's been added. Overall it's the same book, though, just better in every way—better reproductions, better sequencing, better picture selection—"new and improved" indeed, as the starburst on the cover brightly proclaims.
Sadly, I can't recommend Bill Owens' recently published retrospective from Damiani, the one with the beautiful weed-whacker cover. The B&W reproductions just do not meet my minimum standards.
5. Lisette Model (Aperture, 2007). (The name, by the way, is pronounced "moe-DELL," not as if it's the word for pretty women who pose for fashion photographers.) A reprint of the 1979 original, which was the first book ever published of Model's work—pretty amazing when you consider that the one-woman show at the Photo League that made her famous took place in 1941. The Aperture monograph, a surprise best-seller, came out a mere four years before her death.
Steichen said of Model's pictures that they "...are often camera equivalents of bitter tongue lashings. She strikes swift, hard and sharp, then comes to a dead stop, for her work is devoid of all extraneous devices or exaggerations."
6. Robert Adams, The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range (Aperture, 2008). You've probably noticed that Szarkowski (his name is pronounced "shar-COUGH-ski," not "zar-COW-ski" as it is often mispronounced) is all over this little list—but that's only because he was all over American photography in the second half of the 20th century. He wrote the introduction for this book, a landmark of the "New Topographics."
Some "movements" in photography are essentially back-formations—"The New York School," which John Gossage and Jane Livingston pretty much made up out of whole cloth for a 1992 book about a bunch of disparate photographers who all happened to have worked in New York, is a case in point. (Good book, though.) The New Topographics was a more coherent movement. It took its name from a seminal 1975 exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House in Rochester (I used to have the catalogue, and I gave it away, if you can believe that, which I still regret). Again, the work needs to be seen in its historical context: the heroic, unpeopled landscape photography of Adams and Weston et al still prevailed in those days, at least among the public, but was becoming increasingly alien to the actual condition of the American West. Robert Adams reputedly promised himself early in his career that he would not take a picture that didn't contain some trace of human presence. I personally think Adams's From the Missouri West is a better book, but this one was more closely tied to the movement and was more influential. And you can get this one. The New Topographics as a whole had an enormous influence on photography in both the U.S. and Europe.
This is a straight facsimile reissue, a solidly well-made book, as clean as sunlight. Some of Adams's most memorable work.
Two I haven't seen
Rather than straight recommendations, these last two are books I recommend you look at yourself before buying, because I haven't seen either of them. Recently, I drove all around my city, surveying the available bookstores. I'll post about that experience separately, but nowhere in my peregrinations did I see either of these titles. Of course I know the originals very well, but you should look at these for yourself and only take a flier on them if you accept the risk for yourself. Sorry about that, but I can't buy everything—this writing-about-books project is already costing me a bloody fortune.
7. Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (Aperture, 2005). I have to say Stephen Shore is too goddam lucky to like. No disrespect intended, but he's no better than any of a hundred or even a thousand other photographers who never got any attention at all, but he seems to have been given infinite and infinitely tender credit and attention for everything he's done literally since he was a kid. Still, there's no denying the influence of Uncommon Places (the hortatory title of a book of pictures of eminently, one might even say quintessentially, common places). I think you almost have to be a photographer to appreciate these pictures; Shore really does have an exquisite eye for framing. There a fine mini-video flogging around YouTube of Shore working, and the most revelatory comment he makes in the program is when he says, "I've discovered that this camera [the 8x10] was the technical means in photography of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness." Amen, and bravo. The current book is not a reprint—it's more like an anthology, containing the work from the original book and a lot more like it.
8. Lee Friedlander, Self Portrait (Museum of Modern Art, 2005). As a young art-dawg in photo school in D.C. I grew up puzzling over Friedlander, but he had nearly limitless cred. I and my friends attempted photographing ourselves with bare lightbulbs in the frame and with the camera on self-timer on the hood of the car, of course with results nothing at all like these. Friedlander's startling iconoclasm and unflinching self-regard set the tone of introspective art photography in America for half a generation.
Any I missed?
So that's Part I of my list—I also plan to add sections about great current books and great didactic titles. What do you think—did I miss any worthy reissues you would have named?
Next in this series: Martin Parr's list.
Featured Comment by _#_: "One of the most important books on the early days of color photography that I am aware of and have been impressed by is by photographer Saul Leiter, titled Early Color. Now there's a painter taking color "snapshots." Eggleston Schmeggleston! ;-) "
Mike replies: That's true, but Leiter's Early Color is one of the paragon examples of the current mania for photo book collecting, whereby recent out-of-print books are bid up to price levels that put them out of reach for most of us. The whole point of my current lists is to name books that are both sure bets and are also available new for no more than retail price. Take a look at this page, which lists a few "used" copies of Early Color for sale. What's more, copies are scarce even at those prices.
Featured Comment by Allen George: "I used to feel the same way about Stephen Shore. I passed up Uncommon Places multiple times—found the subject matter banal, found the photos unappealing. That changed completely last year. I don't how to explain it or why it happened; it was as if it suddenly expressed how I saw the world. There's a certain...distance (maybe dispassion?)...when it comes to the photographs in it. It's almost as if an outsider stepped into the 1970s and started very intently staring at things. I guess that's one of the strongest sensations I got from Uncommon Places: that of being an outsider. And I don't know if this comes under the heading of framing, but another aspect of Uncommon Places that struck me: that so many of the photographs—especially the outdoor ones—are about geometry, about the relationship between blocks of color, between lines and forms…Anyways, if you've passed up Uncommon Places in the past give it a try again—you may be surprised."