Pandemic Park Life and the Secret Cult of Knitting: The Best Photography Books of 2021 Photography
The book of photographs that I have returned to more than any other this year was Encampment Wyoming by Lora Webb Nichols, an extraordinary testimony to life in an American border community in the early 20th century. Comprised of photographs by Nichols and other local amateur photographers, it exudes a strong sense of place. Domestic interiors and still lifes punctuate the portraits, which range from the spectral – a hazy, ghostly adult braiding a young girl’s hair – to the elegant – an elegant, dressed woman looking out a window. An intimate and captivating portrait of an era, a place and a nascent community.
Perhaps because of the oddly suspended nature of our time, I was also drawn to contemporary books which dealt with quiet reflection. Donavon Smallwood’s languor was created during the Spring and Summer 2020 lockdown, as he strolled through the woods in the relatively secluded northwest corner of Central Park in New York City. Smallwood’s images of glades, streams and ravines suggest stillness amid the city clamor and are punctuated by his skillfully composed portraits of the individuals who were regularly drawn there during the pandemic. The book’s subtext deals with the busy history of Central Park, a space that has often echoed the city’s racial tensions. “How does it feel to be a black person in the wild? Smallwood asks in this quietly powerful debut album.
Russian-born photographer Irina Rozovsky’s In Plain Air took her keen outsider gaze to yet another bucolic New York landscape, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which in summer is a microcosm of the city’s multicultural dynamics. . Again, the pandemic is the looming backdrop for these studies of people in artificial nature: walking, resting, working, playing, and interacting with each other and with their surroundings. A masterfully sustained study of mood, atmosphere and landscape.
A much more otherworldly landscape serves as the backdrop for another impressive debut film, Speak the Wind, by Iranian-born photographer Hoda Afshar. She was drawn to the islands of Qeshm, Hormuz and Hengam in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by an age-old local belief that the wind that shaped the dramatic terrain is also the source of disease and possession by the spirits. His portraits and landscapes with lively atmospheres evoke the otherness of the islands, but also suggest the invisible and intangible, historical and community forces, which have shaped this intermediate place and helped shape its customs and beliefs. An ambitious and multi-level narrative that pays great attention in its approach to myth, ritual, landscape and the long shadow of colonial history.
Originally self-published in a now sought after limited edition, The Essential Solitude by Tereza Zelenkova is an altogether different imaginative response to a mysterious place. In this case, the setting is the dark interior of a Grade II listed house in London’s East End, which belonged to the late Dennis Severs, an eccentric who designed it on his imaginary idea of ââwhat might look like. an 18th century Huguenot dwelling. Influenced by the often esoteric literature, from the Decadents to transgressive thinkers such as Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, Zelenkova’s work is rich in symbolism and suggestion, her singular gaze capturing the confusing atmosphere and increasingly blurred. ‘a house haunted by the extravagant imagination of its creator. .
A sense of foreboding also accompanies American photographer Carolyn Drake’s mysterious Knit Club, another ambitious and atmospheric meditation on place and community. Conceived as a collaboration between the photographer and an anonymous group of women, part fraternity, part secret cult, the book is a mischievous play on the Southern Gothic tradition that also contains a subversive feminist subtext. Drake’s shifting tale is borrowed from William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, while his skillfully constructed imagery nods to underground rituals and contested history in the Southern United States.
An often invisible United States emerges powerfully from the pages of Matt Black’s epic six-year American Geography, which spanned six years, the photographer crossing the country in a van and Greyhound bus to visit communities with over 20% poverty rates. . He was interested, he told me in 2016, in “the psychology of poverty”, and he succeeded in evoking this complex dynamic in austere and bewitching monochrome images. The visual narrative, however, is threaded with its own observations, snatches of overheard conversation, and everyday ephemera encountered at bus stations, truck stops, and roadside cafes. A masterpiece of contemporary documentary.
Perhaps the photography book of the year event was the long-awaited publication of What You Say, Say Nothing, by Gilles Peress, a two-volume epic of his photographs of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Structured in 22 semi-fictional days, the book is probably the most visceral and certainly the most ambitious evocation of what it was like to live in the tumult of these violent times. What impresses above all else is Peress’s astonishing ability to capture unique dramatic moments – of violence, mourning, resistance, brutality – which repeat themselves throughout as small variations on a larger theme. wide of tribal and political division. The narrative is overwhelming, as it should be, and an accompanying volume, Annals of the North, provides much-needed context. An immensely important book, but prohibitively priced aimed directly at the market of photo book collectors.
Two exhibition catalogs particularly marked me this year: Accra / London: a Retrospective by James Barnor, which accompanied the exhibition of the Ghanaian-born photographer at the Serpentine Gallery, and Coming Up for Air, which was published in parallel with the Survey exhibition by Stephen Gill at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. The first showed how Barnor, who is 91, effortlessly transitioned from one genre to another – portrait, photojournalism, fashion – while creating a vibrant recording of the lives of ordinary Africans in his native Ghana and of the diaspora in the UK. The second was a journey into the inventive and restless mind of one of Britain’s most original contemporary photographers who traces Gill’s mischievously subversive gaze from downtown Hackney to rural Sweden. Both are highly recommended.
In a strong year for women photographers’ books, I was also drawn to Nancy Floyd’s self-portrait epic, Weathering Time, which she describes as “my visual journal, my personal archives, and the recording of. my changing body and my surroundings over the past. Over 30 years. Since 1982 Floyd has tried to photograph himself every day, mostly standing, impassive, sometimes doing things with a dog or a family member. The book is edited from over 2,500 images, all of which are fairly ordinary, but acquire a deep resonance when sequenced chronologically.
Finally, perhaps the most calmly resonant photo book I have received this year was Mirjana Vrbaski’s Odd Time, in which a selection of starkly beautiful portraits that nod to the old Dutch masters give way. place to almost ghostly images of the deep forest landscapes of Dalmatia. rating. There is a strange purity in the two sequences, but it is the portraits of the young women who haunt the imagination with their composure and their unreadable expressions. The silence that emanates from Vrbaski’s portraits speaks of a deep engagement with his subjects and invests his images with an almost disturbing presence, difficult to pin down, but extraordinarily palpable. A perfectly formed little book in which the pictures speak for themselves.