By Mike Johnston
In case you haven't been following along, recently we've tried to provide an extensive selection of book recommendations. The recommendations are for books that are available now, because so many photo books go in and out of print quickly and many "classic" recommendations aren't available—that's the raison d'etre of these lists. (I recently revisited my Amazon Listmania! list called "Readings for Practicing Photographers," compiled a number of years ago, and was amazed to see how many of them have gone out of print. All but one or two of them were available new when I compiled the list.)
Even in the time it took to put this list together, two books I wanted to include have gone out of print! It's ridiculous. It's like trying to fill a bucket of water with holes in the bottom. I'm afraid that if I delay the list any longer, some of the books listed below will be gone.
I realize we might have run you up to the limit of your book budget already. But assuming you haven't run out of patience or money, here's my own June 2008 list of a few "sure bet" new photo books that you can currently buy for retail price or lower.
1. Andreas Gursky (Snoech Verlag; Ram Distribution, 2007). The darling of international art dealers and art museums alike, German photographer Andreas Gursky has indisputably been one of the leading art photographers in the world over the past fifteen years or so. As such, each one of his many books have become instant collectibles. They tend to go out of print quickly and, just as quickly, rise in price.
This title is a retrospective of Gursky's 21st-century work. It's a big, slender volume, with excellent reproductions (except, curiously, in the case of Gursky's most famous picture of this decade, "99 Cent," which is not well reproduced. Don't ask me. Maybe it's just too small in the book—his originals are very large). The book's covers are laminated, with no dust jacket, and there are five cover photographs: the one I have is pictured below right. (All the cover pictures are of people in a Korean stadium holding up cards to form pictures or designs from the other side of the stadium. You can't pick which one you prefer except in a hypothetical bookstore that would stock all five.)
Published in early 2007, this particular Gursky appears to be in the last stages of availability. Even though only 20% of the edition was slated for the U.S., the book is now unavailable in most parts of the world (and already selling for up to $150 on the used market in some places), but for the time being it's still available in the U.S. for $75. That makes for a golden (and decidedly temporary) opportunity for U.S. buyers or any others who don't mind dealing with the U.S. Amazon.
I confess I don't care for Gursky's work all that much myself—it's not the sort of thing that really floats my boat. Despite that slight personal reservation, this is a good sampler of his later efforts. If you want a chance at it, don't hesitate—no matter what the current situation really is, it won't be available for long. And I can virtually guarantee that it will be a good investment that will rise in value.
2. Larry Towell, The World From My Front Porch. It might seem perverse on the face of things to introduce a mid-career retrospective from a globetrotting Magnum photojournalist with pictures he made largely at home on his Ontario farm. But Larry Towell, who might be described as a poet and folk musician before the term photographer even turns up (his business card reportedly reads, simply, "Human Being"), isn't really a photojournalist in the classic sense. Rather, he's a type more true to the roots of Magnum: a world citizen who poses as a photojournalist as a cover for work that is in essence artistic and humanitarian.
I've always felt a certain slight distance from Towell's work...his radical compositions are dynamic and graphic, and there seems a certain insistence in that, to my eye—you might say his pictures "try too hard" if that weren't pejorative; "insistence" is better. I've always valued a certain offhandedness in pictures, a relaxed quality, a sense that a great picture could have been a snapshot. (Just my taste.) Towell (Eugene Richards too) always seems to be trying to bat me over the head with just how virtuosic he is, just how jazzily the subject elements can be loaded into the frame, like a pianist who is always showing off with too many trills, or a musician afraid of silence.
But this is Towell's best book, I think. It includes a great many wonderful pictures, including some of his most famous ones. Just don't expect the book as a whole to be too coherent an argument. (Do I choose my words carefully enough? More bluntly, it's the only way I know of to get the front porch work that I particularly enjoy. And then you get a "greatest hits" from his photojournalism thrown in.) Often beautiful. Certainly virtuosic. I'm coming to love many of these.
3. Luigi Ghirri, It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It... (Aperture, 2008) The very first book ever published in the U.S. by the Italian "cultural landscape" photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992). Ghirri became famous in the early '70s for his project "∞," which consisted of photographs of the sky made on 365 consecutive days. Although he died young, his sense of humor and his faith in plain objects and ambiguous juxtapositions was hugely influential. Much of the stuff you'll see today in art museums and on sites like Conscientious and Flak Photo bear some trace (direct or indirect) of Ghirri. There have been literally dozens of books of his work published in Europe, but he remains almost unknown in America. I don't own this one yet, but I think it's a safe bet and a good opportunity. (I hope you won't beat me up too thoroughly for recommending a book I don't own yet; I plead poverty.)
4. Peter and David Turnley, McClellan Street (Indiana University Press, 2007). My next three picks are books we've written about before on TOP. The Turney twins' latest book was their earliest project, the one that was their ticket out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and into the world of high-powered international photojournalism. For much of the project—made within the stretch of just a few blocks of an impoverished local street—the two brothers shared just one camera, with just one lens. A humane and vibrant record, elegiac of an era just past, respectful toward its subjects, and bursting with visual talent and the exuberance of youth. Reviewed previously on this site.
5. This next one was reviewed by Geoff Wittig: Helen Levitt (Powerhouse, 2008). I found it fascinating that Joe McNally, in the Talks @Google video we linked to a couple of weeks ago, said something like "human gesture trumps everything." His point was that the light can be bad, the composition can be bad, but if you manage to catch a genuine human gesture you'll still have something. Helen Levitt likes good light and has a nice sense of composition too, but she is possibly the greatest photographer of the authentic human gesture—one of the greatest, surely—and I believe every personal library should contain at least one volume of her work. For pleasure, of course, not for duty.
6. And of course I've written several times about Looking East (Phaidon, 2006), the lovely large-scale sampler of the work of Steve McCurry. Apart from being a nice bargain, I just think this is a special book, that any photographer might return to again and again for pure enjoyment of its photographic riches.
I think that the best way to learn photography is not to read instruction manuals and look for advice online, or seek out critiques, because all those methods are essentially negative. They'll tell you what not to do. A better way of learning is to pay close attention to great work. Look at it often, enjoy it, make decisions about it (decide what you like best, what you don't like so much). Let your eyes rest on it; drink it in. Let your thoughts go where the images lead...it will sink in, infect your seeing, maybe even without an effort. It's a more organic way of learning—more difficult day-to-day, I suppose, but more positive, more organic in the long run. It allows you to follow positive role models and grow into your own concerns, your own eye.
Anyway I love the reproductions in this book; they're so rich, so deep. If you have an interest in portraiture you should own it.
7. ...And as a bookend for It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It… an even more pure colorist, a guy I think can legitimately be described as a master of color: Fred Herzog. The book is Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007) (the link is to Amazon Canada, the only source for the book). One of our readers, Jeff MacMillan of U.S. News & World Report, turned me on to Herzog. He's a guy who must have practiced a form of photography similar to what Henry Wessel has done, just taking walks around where he lives and photographing whatever interests him; if you do this concertedly enough, sure enough, you build up a coherent record of a place and time. In Herzog's case it's Vancouver, B.C., in the later half of the 20th century. These are quiet but beautiful pictures.
It's difficult to reconstruct this now, but Herzog worked in a time when being a color photographer (he worked in Kodachrome) made him a maverick, even an outsider, and limited his opportunities. He sacrificed a lot for color. And he's a true colorist, I think. Notice how often his pictures are constructed out of a very particular color palette, and how color accents work in his pictures, balancing and echoing each other. In his work you really have to pay attention to the color, not just the scenes or the action or the way he's composed formal elements.
As far as I know you can only get this book from Amazon Canada; Photo Eye doesn't even list it. In case you're not Canadian, it's a little more difficult ordering a book from Amazon in another country, but in this case the effort is well worth the trouble. This will be a long-term treasure in a good photo book collection; I prize my copy.
If you don't like it, keep it in good condition, enjoy it for a couple of years, and then sell it for a nice profit.
(Note: Part I of this series covered currently available reissues; Part II, although not marked as such, was the reprint of Martin Parr's Best Photo Books of 2007—most, although not all, of which are still obtainable new. Still to come are two more lists, one by a guest author and one by Geoff Wittig, who has written a number of book reviews for us already. —MJ)
Featured Comment by Michael: "The recommendation of Herzog is great. I thought it was a Hopper, until I read your description."
Featured Comment by Tom V: "The Fred Herzog pictures shown sent chills down my spine! Did anyone else see Edward Hopper in those two? Down to the hunch of the shoulders in the man crossing the street?"
Featured Comment by Alastair Bird: "...and Fred is one of the nicest, most gentle fellows you'll ever meet. I ran into him once, several years ago at the lab and we had a wonderful chat about his work and about how much I loved his use of colour. The show last year at the Vancouver Art Gallery was stellar—amazing to see so much colour from so long ago."
Featured Comment by Ken Ohrn: "Hi: When the Vancouver Art Gallery put on the Fred Herzog show, I went five times. The first time was to just scope it out. It was knockout city. The second time, I decided to concentrate on composition and lighting. The third time was to try and get a sense of something strange—how far away from his subjects was Herzog, and what angle of view did he use (I know, weird). The fourth time was colour. And the fifth time was with my pool-playing buddy Paul, to try and find the emotion in the photos.
"Each time, I came out with my world-view changed. I saw photos everywhere.
"I obviously bought the book, but as usual, even those excellent reproductions don't hold a candle to the huge, lovingly-made prints in the VAG's show. Not to be a shill or anything (I have no affiliation, I'm just an old goof with a camera), some of his prints may still be available from the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver."