The Best Photo Books of 2017


There are great photo books every year, and 2017 was no exception. But something about the strained times intensified my feelings about the work I saw this year. The role of art felt more urgent, both as a response to the general political disorder and as a refuge from it. I didn’t merely like or appreciate the best work I saw; I needed it. The photo books that made my list range from large scholarly catalogs to poetic little volumes. They were published in seven different countries. Some were more conceptual in approach, while others were freer and more visceral. These winners all had in common the special qualities of great photo books: the pleasure of turning pages, the precision of thoughtful book design, the tactility of paper and the glow of the afterimages in the mind long after the book is set down.

Stephen Shore, “Selected Works 1973—1981.” Aperture, 272 pages, 150 images.

Until Stephen Shore began making his color photos of breakfasts, beds, intersections, parking lots and just about everything else that drifted into his visual field, no one else annotated the banal surfaces of American life with quite the same level of unjudgmental aplomb. “Selected Works 1973-1981” is a gorgeously printed collection that encompasses some of the modern master’s lesser-known pictures, as chosen by 15 curators, writers and artists, each with his or her own fascinating rationale. Contributors include Taryn Simon, Francine Prose, Wes Anderson and the curator Quentin Bajac, who organized the current (and unmissable) retrospective of Shore’s work at MoMA.

Debi Cornwall, “Welcome to Camp America.” Radius Books, 160 pages, 70 images.

The civil rights lawyer turned artist Debi Cornwall knew she would not be allowed to take undeveloped negatives out of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay. So she came to the notorious detention facility with her own color developing kit. Her photographs of the “Gitmo” facilities and of some of the oddities she found in the gift shop (items like key chains, lip balm and plush toys) are presented in “Welcome to Camp America.” She interleaves these images with portraits made elsewhere, depicting some of the detainees who have been released — photographed from behind, a nod to their unresolved traumas — and she includes fragments of their testimony or their communication with her. The book also contains official documents, sometimes redacted, about the torture of detainees. “Welcome to Camp America” is a sustained look at a shameful and ongoing violation of human decency by the U.S. government.

Daniela Baumann, Joshua Chuang, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, “Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art from the Walther Collection.” Steidl, 384 pages, 110 images.

“Great” artists seem suddenly to appear by some mysterious consensus, but of course the mystery is not that deep: Exhibitions, publications, reviews and other forms of attention form artistic canons. The Walther Collection, through collection and exhibitions, has been making signal contributions to contemporary African photography for some years now, and this catalog features the work of 14 young photographers, many of whom are thinking about questions of landscape and cityscape. Names like Mame-Diarra Niang (who was raised in Senegal, Ivory Coast and France), Dawit L. Petros (from Eritrea) and Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (from Kenya) — all three of them exciting, brainy photographers — might well be among the ones we find ourselves reckoning with in coming years.

Nguan, “Singapore.” Maybe Hotel, 128 pages, 82 images.

We all have cameras now, many of them made to rather similar specifications, and perhaps this is why most photos look alike. It’s a pleasure to encounter a photographer whose visual identity is totally distinct. The Singaporean artist Nguan shows us a cotton-candy world of pinks and blues, an endless dream that is not so much pensive as it is otherworldly. This is not the Singapore of authoritarian leadership or unrestrained capitalism, but rather one in which a rainbow is painted across an apartment building, colored staircases spiral up to the sky and bored cats doze in the daylight. Sure, there’s lots of post-processing here, but you wonder whether the world really does contain so much pink and Nguan is simply attuned enough to find it all.

Laurence Rasti, “There Are No Homosexuals in Iran.” Edition Patrick Frey, 156 pages, 53 images.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Iran and punishable by death. But that does not mean homosexuality doesn’t exist, no matter what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed in a 2007 address. Laurence Rasti’s compassionate book centers on gay and lesbian Iranians living in southwestern Turkey, in the city of Denizli, while awaiting final placement to a third country as refugees. She depicts some of them directly, out and proud. But some are photographed with their faces turned away or hidden behind foliage, and we understand that portraiture is as much a matter of intensity and intent as what is actually seen.

Sanjay Kak, “Witness: Kashmir 1986—2016 / Nine Photographers.” Yaarbal, 400 pages, 200 images.

There is a lot of grace in this compendium of photojournalism about Kashmir, and there is much despair as well. This book about the region, the product of nine photojournalists working over three decades, merits the title “Witness.” The photographers are not outsiders visiting on assignment. They are all Kashmiri — from Meraj Ud Din (born in 1959) to Azaan Shah (born in 1997) — and the impact of their familiarity with and emotional commitment to the place shows. Put together by the New Delhi-based Yaarbal press, the book is an exceedingly beautiful art object, despite its grim contents.

Henry Roy, “Superstition.” Études Books, 48 pages, 24 images.

“They murmur the secret language of a world free from what contaminates us,” writes Henry Roy of the photographs in his slim, allusive volume “Superstition.” He is deeply sensitive to dreamscapes and to the borders between this world and the next, qualities that he credits to his Haitian background and his knowledge of vodou. This book, full of people sleeping and shadowy trees, is like a collection of poems in a once known but now forgotten language. Stylistically speaking, his work sits somewhere between Saul Leiter and Viviane Sassen, but it is its own thing. I wanted it to be twice as long, but no, it is more mesmerizing at this wispy length.

Masahisa Fukase, “Ravens” (reissue). MACK, 148 pages, 100 images.

This reissue of Masahisa Fukase’s 1986 classic “Ravens” brings back before an Anglophone public one of the great Japanese photo books. Japanese photography has long revered the book as the ideal way to show photographs, and Fukase’s sequencing in “Ravens” is flawless, an education in form, mood and technique. The titular ravens are numerous in the book, singly and in flocks, but the real thrill is to see the nonraven pictures and where they are placed: industrial landscapes with stacks spewing smoke, a fleshy sex worker on a bed, bird tracks on freshly fallen snow and, somewhat astonishingly, a scatter of gulls. It’s all very sad, and it all works, mightily.

Sam Contis, “Deep Springs.” MACK, 155 pages, 99 images.

The young men in Sam Contis’s “Deep Springs” look like taciturn farmhands and cowboys in a Hollywood film. They are in fact undergraduates at Deep Springs College, a small degree-granting institution in rural eastern California, near the Nevada border. The students at Deep Springs (all male since the school’s founding in 1917, though that seems set to change soon) work on a ranch and a farm as part of the curriculum. Contis observes the boys with the same frank interest she takes in the landscape, horses and farm implements. Throughout the book is an unobtrusive tenderness, a submerged savagery and an elusive but insistent sensuality that one would call homoerotic were the photographer not a woman. Interspersed are archival photographs of the college and its terrain, made by early-20th-century Deep Springs students. They are sometimes hard to distinguish from Contis’s own photos. A seamless, pensive, masterly book.

Anouck Durand, “Eternal Friendship.” Siglio, 100 pages, images throughout.

Anouk Durand’s photo-novel (or is it a photo-memoir?) is bewildering, peculiar and smart, a matryoshka doll of a story. Durand, a Frenchwoman, recounts the story of Refik Veseli, a young Albanian-Muslim photographer. Veseli sheltered the Albanian Jewish photographer Mosha Mandil and his family after the Nazis invaded Albania; decades later, after rising in the ranks of the Albanian propaganda establishment, he tried to elude the censors and make contact with Mandil, who had immigrated to Israel. It all happens against the backdrop of Albania’s doomed friendship with China. Durand’s narratives nest inside each other in dizzying fashion, and all the absurdity of state control under communism during the Cold War is conveyed with images from personal and public Albanian and Chinese archives. A brilliant rerouting of photography that reminds me of those strange documentaries by Werner Herzog, say, or Chris Marker.

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