The Best Six Photography Books Of 2015

A Lebanese journalist’s archive, prisons worldwide, gay cruising, child labor in DRC, an inside view of Chinese celebrity, and a newspaper about a newspaper.

Editor’s note: This is the second in Vantage’s six-part series of year-end “Best Of” proclamations. See the Best Nature Photos, the Best Portraiture, the Best Exhibition, the Best GIFs, and the Best San Francisco Street Photographer of 2015.

It’s been another year for photobooks. Some got made. Others have to wait. Mmm, smell that ink. What’s the paper? Was it printed in China? The rollicking debates are endless. Blink at that flipping book and you’ll miss a flipping page. How to keep up?

Photoeye, Slate and Time have done lists. Others have too. Lists in their dozens! Olia at Phot(o)lia is keeping a list of the photobook lists! The voluminous “Best Photobooks Of” lists are as Christmassy as eggnog. They’re the gift that won’t stop. They’re rammed down social media channels to you, by virtue of their titles that include a numeric and the words “Best” and “Of.”

The year-end “Best Photobooks Of” lists-frenzy sometimes cut through the fog and instruct us on what’s attention-worthy. At other times they add more fog. I’m perplexed by how exactly the photo-world goes about constructing its holiday exhortations. So much so that Joachim Schmid’s polite takedown of the Photobook-Industrial-Complex is just the best thing. (Actually, you should just click on over to Fotokritik, read Schmid’s piece in full and abandon my here listicle all together.)

For those of you still reading, a quick note about the title of this post: Of course these aren’t the best six photobooks of 2015. Duh. And, of course, I used that headline to grab eyeballs and clicks. Please rewrite, in your head, the title and subhead to:

Six Books Pete Picked Up This Year and Liked

How four books mailed to the author and two other books he bought in crowdfunding campaigns made the grade

Ah, that’s better.

Honesty pays. So they say. Or in this case, sending me a press copy of your photobook pays. No, no, let’s dismiss that myth right now. I am not bought. Sure, I see a photobook if it lands in my mail box, and I might not have otherwise have known it existed. But, I get sent a fair number of books and the ones I don’t like, I don’t mention. The ones I do, I yell about a lot.

In no particular order…

In The Vale of Cashmere by Thomas Roma (Powerhouse)

Disclosure: I learned about the book via an email press release. Powerhouse’s PR person sent me the book after I made a request for a press copy.

Thomas Roma’s portraits of gay African American and Caribbean men in a small pocket of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park are thrilling. How the hell did Roma get so close and so intimate? The simple answer is that he photographed over years, but the truer answer is that there must be something in the rapport he and his subjects built. 9 out of every ten requests he made to photograph were declined, but the book has hundreds of portraits. That’s a commitment of hours.

From within the midst of a hushed and furtive social milieu these men — these cruisers — stand in confidence and with knowing gazes. Roma wasn’t considered a snoop, or rejected. Conversation and respect underpin this work and allowed Roma — an outsider — to capture the individuals of this community.

In The Vale of Cashmere does what all good photobooks should do; it reveals a subject and then wraps around it a full and rounded narrative. Through its comprehensive and careful description, the book becomes the authoritative portrait of a previously invisible population.

Read Vantage’s full book review: Loving Portraits Of Gay Black Men Cruising In Prospect Park

Roma’s collaborative portraits retain a mystery and they are a tribute to a subculture that exists on the edge, proudly.

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Fan by Rian Dundon (Modes Vu)

Disclosure: Rian is a friend. We both live in the Bay Area. We worked very closely throughout the second half of 2015 as co-curators of a photography show called Status Update.

Years ago, Rian Dundon worked as a English coach to one of China’s biggest celebrities — singer and actor Fan Bingbing. He had the inside view any fashion photographer would envy and any one of Fan’s millions of adoring fans would die for. But for a kid from Northern California, the pantomime surrounding the TV appearances, wardrobe choices and soccer stadium shows were nothing short of bemusing.

In Fan, Dundon’s signature grain, expert composition and potent dark humour deliver a stripped down version of celebrity that you’ll feel like you weren’t supposed to see — as Dundon puts it “an elaborate reality masking as humble performance.”

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Pony Congo’ by Vicente Paredes (This Book Is True)

Disclosure: I was in email contact with an owner of This Book Is True about another matter. During that chat, I was offered a copy of this book unsolicited.

Okay, we get it. Some countries have money, some less so. Some children experience opportunity in the form of labour, and some experience it in the form of luxury. Pony Congo could have been an all-thumbs hack-job of epicly offensive proportions. But it’s not. Unbelievably, Vicente Paredes makes a subtle point of none-to-subtle disparities.

Pony Congo pairs photos of Spanish kids at horse stables and dressage competitions with photos of kids from Matadi in the Democratic of Republic Congo, who are playing, working jobs or doing chores (carrying things, often). The portraits of the Spaniards are printed on glossy paper, the photos of the DRC children on matte paper. The choice of materials heightens the sense of impropriety; it is as if we only let ourselves see what we already know when Paredes presents the differences so starkly.

In 1955, Edward Steichen put together The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was one of the anchors with which photography was tied to documentary and social truth, and why photography cannot free itself of those chains. Pony Congo is a response to idealised visions of children for the consumption of Western audiences; instead it is Paredes isolated and prodding note to the vagaries of life and to the manipulative nature of photography.

People are going to read into these images what they will. None of the kids are suffering. Many of the kids from the DRC are performing. The biggest amounts of stress seem reserved for the Spanish kids locked in competition. It’s not clear if Paredes is critical of horse competitions for children (something we assume is an activity for the middle and upper classes) but by pairing European kids in a milieu of luxury with African kids at work, he forces the viewer to assert — maybe knee-jerk at first — a moral response. Sure, the compositions and control of colour is noteworthy, but the images generally are unremarkable for their content. And yet they provoke such a large response in the audience.

This is a book more about spectatorship than the act of photographing. Paredes clearly had approved and open access to his subjects and yet at some point in the process (I suspect before shooting) it was decided the identity of the Spanish kids must be protected by black-bands Photoshopped across their eyes. This points directly to the bureaucratic protectiveness afforded to kids by adults in Spain and it begs the question: Why don’t all kids, and these kids in DRC specifically, not have the same “safeguards”?

Weird and brilliant.

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A Lebanese Archive’ by Ania Dabrowska (Bookworks + Arab Image Foundation)

Disclosure: I gave £20 to Dabrowska’s Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the publication of this book.

There’s not enough books like A Lebanese Archive that come along. That’s usually because if archives get saved, they get stored with hundreds of others, or if archives stay together they do so until a garage sale. Photos can tell personal stories but they can also tell stories of an era and a nation.

Fortunately, Diab Alkarssifi, a former photojournalist from Lebanon, kept his prints and negatives. Through civil war and conflict, Alkarssifi held on to family albums, and photographs from studios in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. In 1993, he moved to the UK. Fast forward 18 years and, by chance, he and Polish photographer Ania Dabrowska meet at a London hostel for the homeless where Dabrowska was working as an artist-in-residence.

Alkarssifi’s collection covers over 100 years of cultural and political history of Lebanon and the Middle East.

“It documents his student years in Moscow and Budapest, the Lebanese Civil Wars and local events in his home city of Baalbeck, close to the Syrian border,” says Dabrowska who imagined Alkarssifi’s collection might be preserved, re-presented, made accessible to the public and become a catalyst for consideration of archives in contemporary context.

Not since Andrea Stultiens’ History in Progress Uganda has an artist devoted such time and care to other people and a distant culture by relying on images to bring them together. If art is about connecting people then A Lebanese Archive provides a blueprint for community engaged projects. Fortunately, for reasons yet to be fully understood, people have an intense connection with their images and they’re preserving their archives as best they can. Dabrowska reminds of the magic within the physical print. And she shows us how to tap that to see, to really see, our neighbour.

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Al Campbell, copy editor, 8:09pm, 2009. © Will Steacy, from ‘Deadline’

Deadline’ by Will Steacy (b.frank books)

Disclosure: I once had dinner with Will in 2012. He sent me a copy of Deadline unsolicited.

Will Steacy’s homage to, and examination of, a downsizing Philadlephia Inquirer is a workers’ history of a newspaper that in the eighties was known as the “Pulitzer Machine.” Deadline honors the labor of the copyboys, the reporters, the inkers and the editors equally.

TL: Old Computers, 5:59pm, 2011. TR: Cubicle. Arts and Features Desk. 2011. BL: Steacy’s DEADLINE. BR: Sunday Advertising Supplements, 5:01pm, 2011

Decorated journalists reflect back on the Inquirer’s “Golden Age” and Steacy’s dad reflects on generations of their family working in newspapers. In five sections, the amount of research, fact-checking, phone-calls, line-editing and captioning in Deadline is astounding. Unrepeatable. Unbeatable.

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Law & Order’ by Jan Banning

Disclosure: I spent $60(ish) on a copy of the book via Jan’s successful crowdfund campaign of pre-sales.

Since 2012, Jan Banning has, made photographs in prisons, courts and other criminal justice administrative buildings in four nations: France, Uganda, Colombia and the United States. The series is called Law & Order.

Everyone knows the prisons in the U.S. are a human rights crisis, but the comparisons Banning makes with other systems hammer home that legal institutions are man-made and they can be man-unmade. This is tough material but in some strange way Bannings leaps across continents offer hope that we’re not all hopeless in watching the authorities lock folk up without presenting options for the convicted to improve themsleves. Some courts seem quiet, some archives are overflowing. Some prisons look squalid, others look sterile, even manageable.

Read Vantage’s interview with Jan Banning: How Do the Prisons of Colombia, France, Uganda and the United States Compare?

If we’re a global village, Banning is interested in seeing what works and what doesn’t — not only for those who are locked up but for those who work in these spaces and crucially, for society as a whole.

The pictures are a triumph. Cold critical views are followed by generous people studies. Sometimes subjects seem unaware of Banning’s presence and other times their stares meet the camera directly. There’s never a feeling like we’re in places we shouldn’t be though. Banning humanises his subjects and celebrates their routines. Often it might only be their routines that get them through.

Read Vantage’s interview with Jan Banning: How Do the Prisons of Colombia, France, Uganda and the United States Compare?

Making this work was no cake-walk; Banning particularly loathed his final experience photographing in Colombia. He found the U.S. prison system tumourous and stomach-churning at times but he saw, at least, an awareness that programs were needed to give men and women a chance if they were to return to society and succeed. Ultimately, crime, courts and prisons are the result of larger forces at work in a society. After everything he saw, Banning could only actually be certain about one thing: Gross inequality will ruin a society.

“We can definitely say that the bigger the social difference between the richest and poorest, the higher the crime rate,” says Banning. “That is an interesting point to put to an American audience, don’t you think?

We do.

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