A few times a year, we like to take the opportunity to review some of the new photography books that come across our desk. After reviewing novels and nonfiction week in and week out, it's nice to feast on purely visual books, and no art is suited for bound reproduction better than photography. Here are some of the indispensable titles we've enjoyed recently.
Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work by Susanne Lange (MIT Press) Husband and wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher (Bernd died last June) are two of my favorite characters in photography. For over 40 years, the duo has made thousands of variations on the exact same photograph, and virtually nothing else. They photograph water towers, blast furnaces, and other anonymous industrial sites from the exact same vantage point on identically cloudless days; after doing so since the late '50s, they've amassed an enormously deep catalogue of nearly identical images. I have to admire and chuckle at their single-minded asceticism, wondering if somewhere there's a stash of colorful nudes or rainbow photos that will surface after their archives are open. Life and Work suggests not, but opens, for the first time, the Bechers' working methods and techniques, complete with incredible and fascinating sketches, interviews, and photos of the duo in "action," most of which have never been seen before. (It also provides gorgeous reproductions of the Bechers' iconic works.) This behind-the-scenes look at photography's most straight-faced duo might be a little wonky for the casual viewer, but for real art lovers, it's a goldmine.
In the Face of History, by Kate Bush and Mark Sladen, eds. (Black Dog Publishing) Although photography was born in Europe, the continent has never had as tidy of a photo history as America. From Stieglitz to Soth, the 20th century Yankee trajectory is fairly easy to trace, but Europe, with its splintered politics and myriad artistic cultures, has never had an agreed-upon history of the medium. In the Face of History doesn't provide a textbook narrative of how European photography developed, but it does lay out a reasonably sturdy outline for high points along the way. The book chooses 22 photographers—some no-brainers, some less familiar names—and lumps them into themes intended to reflect the "European experience" of the 20th century, the bulk of which evidently revolves around various wars and their interludes. By sticking to these "European experiences," the book hedges close to traditional documentary approaches, and avoids some of the best avant-garde art of the last century. I'd venture that Claude Cahun's gender-bending self-portraits, John Heartfield's anti-Nazi photomontages, or Anton Bragaglia's technology-obsessed movement studies reflect just as much of the human experience in the last 100 years as do Henryk Ross's photos of the Warsaw ghettos, included here. But as In the Face of History's goal is to reflect photography's documentary applications, it succeeds, bringing together well-known work with more obscure names to create a tentative story about the growth of an art form and a continent at the same time.
Joel-Peter Witkin by Eugenia Parry (Phaidon) As far as I know, the world wasn't clamoring for another collection of Witkin's greatest hits, but Phaidon's reprint of their 2001 monograph is welcome for two reasons: It's slim and affordable, and it was written and edited by Eugenia Parry, one of the best photography writers working today. Witkin is a little passé among those long familiar with his work, but his images of amputees, transsexuals, anorexics, corpses, contortionists, and the morbidly obese in mythic, haunting tableaux have lost little of their power over the past 25 years. If Witkin's sole strength lay in his ability to shock or revolt, he'd be sequestered to goth-y underground bookstores, but he's an amazing printmaker as well, and his images are loaded with art historical references and increasingly complex arrangements of bodies and props (a preserved penis, for instance). Unfortunately, this book doesn't set new standards in the reproductions department, and a lot of the subtlety of his printing is lost in these high-contrast plates. Witkin often serves as a "gateway artist," leading nascent audiences into the world of fine art photography, and this book would be a fine starting point for just about anybody, especially given Parry's concise and informative texts that accompany each image. For seasoned audiences, there's not a lot of new info in Phaidon's thin monograph, but for newcomers, it's a well-guided tour into the heart of Witkin's grotesque beauty.