My favorite photobook of 2014

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I’m a fan, and defender, of year-end lists. While these lists are subjective and at the mercy of fashion and favor-currying, they generally succeed in bringing deserved attention to quality work. They are also a lot of fun to write. Having put together lists of favorite photobooks in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 – I’ve found the process has helped me clarify my thinking about the medium.

Nevertheless, this year I decided I wouldn’t be making a list. My head is not in the game. I didn’t attend the New York Art Book Fair or Paris Photo and LBM is currently on hiatus from publishing while we explore other avenues (news coming soon). I’m still plenty excited about the possibilities of the photobook, but in truth most of my attention has been focused on the production of my upcoming book published by MACK.

So I’ve simply sat back and enjoyed the lists as they’ve poured in. As in the past, Photolia has put assembled a comprehensive list and QT Luong has put together a statistical meta-list. I was happy to see Max Pinckers book, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty,  in 2nd place. I’d actually chosen the book months ago as my favorite for Time Magazine. But since then another book has landed on my doorstep and taken my breath away.

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DIE MAUER IST WEG! by Mark Power is my favorite book of 2014. The book has an incredible story, brilliant design, excellent printing and killer pictures. I confess that I’m not objective. Mark is a good friend. But I didn’t know about the publication of this book and was flabbergasted by it in every way.

DIE MAUER IST WEG! is the product of an incredibly lucky timing. On November 9th of 1989, Power made a trip to Berlin to give one last go at being a photographer before giving up to become a carpenter. After arriving in Berlin, he soon learned that the Berlin Wall would be open for free passage for the first time that very same day. The world was changed. So too was Power’s career.

DIE MAUER IST WEG! was published on November 9th 2014, twenty-five years to the day after its making. While this is a wonderful celebration of Power’s good timing, it is unfortunate timing when it comes to year-end lists. I’m certain very few reviewers had the opportunity to see this book. While I have no doubt the book will sell out (it is self-published in an edition of 1000), I hope it gets the critical celebration it deserves.


My top 10+ Photo Books of 2013 by Alec Soth

1. Emmet Gowin and Sergio Larrain (Aperture)
A double-whammy of perfectly produced career retrospectives of two great and underappreciated artists. Beautifully understated design, great printing and solid scholarship make both books must-haves for any serious photo library.

2. Paris in My Time, Mark Steinmetz (Nazraeli)
After I proclaimed last year that “pretty much any book by Steinmetz is guaranteed a spot on my top 10 list”, I was concerned when I heard the title of his new book. Who needs more classic photographs of Paris? But Steinmetz is just too good a photographer to let this stand in the way. Every single picture negates my preconceptions.

3. Black Country Women, Martin Parr (Multistory)
Nosey Parr-ker hits it out of the park with this hysterically funny yet humane look at working-class women in the English West Midlands. While the magazine format initially seemed like a joke, it actually prompted me to look at an otherwise invisible population and consider my own cultural bias.

4. Field Trip, Martin Kollar (MACK)
“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” Diane Arbus said. “The more it tells you the less you know.” Every image in this Slovakian photographer’s depiction of Israel is a photograph of unintelligible secrets.

5. Hotel Oracle, Jason Fulford (The Soon Institute)
It is incredibly difficult to mix photographs with words without one sapping the life out of the other. Like the best poets, Jason Fulford uses language not to explain, but to expand the mystery of his images. For another successful look at photographs being combined with text, be sure to check out the way Fulford’s images are used in his wife Tamara Shopsin’s 2013 memoir, Mumbai New York Scranton (Scribner).

6. Rasen Kaigan, Lieko Shiga (Akaaka)
The danger of surrealism is that it can easily lead to self-indulgence and repetition. To avoid this trap, Lieko Shiga moved to the Japanese coastal town of Kitakama and became its official photographer. The result is a dreamlike community album.

7. A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, Mike Brodie (Twin Palms)
I really wanted to dislike this book, but I was completely won over by the pictures, design and even Brodie’s essay. “I don’t want to be famous,” he writes, “but I hope this book is remembered for ever.” I have a feeling it will be.

8. Ametsuchi, Rinko Kawauchi (Aperture)
Nothing gives me more inspiration than seeing a great artist successfully shift gears. Rinko Kawauchi made her reputation by making photographs that look as if they were seen through the near-focused eyes of a newborn. With Ametsuchi, Kawauchi steps back, way back, and slows down. The book is a quiet and mature revelation.

9. Dalson Anatomy, Lorenzo Vitturi (Jibilana & SPBH Editions)
No book lives up to the DIY spirit of the publisher’s name – Self Publish Be Happy – than this joyous book of photographs and sculptures made by an Italian artist at a colourful outdoor market in London.

10. The Canaries, Thilde Jensen (LENA Prublications)
Books about medical issues have their place, but I never expected one to show up on my year-end list. Thilde Jensen’s investigation of people suffering from Environmental Illness manages to transcend the boundaries of the subject to become a haunting portrayal of the bubbles we create to protect ourselves from the world at large. My favourite self-published book of the year.

10 things that gave me pleasure in 2012 by Alec Soth

Since my list posted on the Walker Art Center (a) doesn’t work on iphones and (b) has a god-awful picture of me, I’m reposting it here:

“Joy” by Zadie Smith

In her short essay on the difference between joy and pleasure in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith changed the way I think about everything from parenting to the writing of Top 10 lists.

As a die-hard fan of soft-serve ice cream, I’m thrilled about the new, self-serve frozen yogurt craze. It seems like every town has at least one of these new outlets. Gaudy and overpriced, yes, but so damn good.

Juergen Teller’s Pictures and Text
I’m always looking for books that combine text and image in interesting ways. My favorite in this category was this aptly titled book by Juergen Teller. Teller’s naturally gifted prose is as sweet as his pictures are crude. The result is laugh-out-loud funny and strangely moving.

Photography In Abundance by Erik Kessels
I wonder how many millions of pictures I looked at online this year? My favorite was an installation shot of Erik Kessel’s show of every photograph uploaded on Flickr over 24 hours.

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier
My favorite purely photographic book of the year was this uniquely understated reflection on migration, exile, and the longing for connection.

AMC’s Breaking Bad
When I watch an episode of Breaking Bad, I feel like I’m going to church. This year they only gave us a half season, but it was enough to keep me faithful.

Frank Ocean on Saturday Night Live
I’m not sure I saw a single live musical performance in 2012, but I felt like I was sitting right next to Frank Ocean when he sang “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” on SNL.

The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield
In a year where the buzzwords were 99% and 47%, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of a 1% family ended up being the most potent portrayal of recession economics I’ve seen.

Romka Magazine
Described as “a collective photo album in which both amateurs and professionals archive their memories,” Romka Magazine sounds really cheesy. But great curation and beautiful design make this a truly endearing publication.

Brad Zellar’s The Envoy: A Christmas Serial
People throw around the term “genius” a little too loosely, but writer Brad Zellar is the real deal. This December he posted a 60,000-word story on his blog that was not only as good as any novel I’ve read in ages, but I’ll be damned if I can find a single typo. Somebody get this guy a MacArthur grant, pronto.


Top 10+ photobooks of 2012 by Alec Soth

Before working on this year’s top 10 list, I decided to review my previous lists from 2009, 2010 and 2011. It is interesting to see how different themes emerge. Last year, for example, was the year of crime stories. 2012 seems to be the year for looking back. While only one of my selections is a reprint, six of the others were made by photographers digging through their archives.

Needless to say, a top 10 list is as much about the list maker as it is about anything else. At the end of last year, in a post entitled Moving Forward, Looking Back, I wrote “So as the year comes to a close, I’m looking at my old photographs and Robert Adams books and thinking about time.” I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the last year I published a book of my old photos and made a video homage to Robert Adams.

So take the list below mostly as a reflection of my own interests. If anything, I hope it prompts readers to make their own list. So tell me, what were your favorite books of 2012?

Pictures and Text by Juergen Teller (Steidl)
A case study in the potential of photographers writing alongside their pictures. Teller’s naturally gifted prose is as sweet as his pictures are crude. The result is laugh-out-loud funny and strangely moving.

Out to Lunch by Ari Marcopoulus (PPP Editions)
A brilliantly crafted mess of pictures, posters, stickers (and a screenplay!) makes we want to throw away all of my belongings, move to New York and become a graffiti artist.

On the Mines by David Goldblatt and Nadine Gordimer (Steidl)
The genius of Goldblatt’s original book from 1973 is the expansive view achieved by inclusion of three distinct documentary approaches alongside texts by both Gordimer and Goldblatt. This gorgeously updated version (which includes new images and texts) achieves Goldblatt’s goal to “expand the view but not to alter the sense of things”.

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier (MACK)
With the never-ending tide of media bombast coming out of Israel and the West Bank, what a relief to spend time with this understated book and quietly reflect on migration, exile and the longing for connection.

The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel (self-published)
In the thrilling, DIY world of self-publishing, almost anything seems possible. With The Afronauts, Christina de Middel shot for the moon and made the most coveted photobook of the year.

Life’s A Beach by Martin Parr (Aperture / Xavier Barral)
A joyous celebration of fleshy human foibles presented as a photo album. In both form and content, Life’s A Beach might just be Parr’s masterpiece.

American Portraits 1979-1989 by Leon Borensztein (Nazraeli) & Rodeo Drive, 1984 by Anthony Hernandez (MACK)
I’m cheating here, but these two books of pictures from the 1980’s work perfectly together. Where Hernandez’s street photos indulge in Regan-era conspicuous consumption, Borensztein ventures into the living rooms of working class American hoping for their own slice of nobility.

Summertime by Mark Steinmetz (Nazraeli)
Another book of pictures from the 1980’s, Steinmetz is as wide-eyed and lusty for contact as a teenager as he prowls the American summer. Pretty much any book by Steinmetz is guaranteed a spot on my top 10 list.

Jeddah Diary by Olivia Arthur (Fishbar)
How do you photograph the lives of Saudi women if you cannot show their faces? Using this restriction to her advantage, Olivia Arthur beautifully evokes the desire for exposure and loneliness of concealment.

Lick Creek Line by Ron Jude (MACK)
Flipping the pages of Lick Creek Line is like following footprints in fresh snow. The narrative is so quiet it is easy to get lost. But every now and then a branch snaps and you find yourself back on Jude’s mysterious and somber trail home to Idaho.


Top 20 Photobooks of 2011 by Alec Soth

While reviewing my favorite photobooks of the year, I noticed that numerous selections could be classified as crime stories. So in creating this year’s list, I thought it would be an entertaining exercise to categorize all of the books by genre. Given the quantity and quality of books being published, it is now feasible to think of photobooks in much the same way as we think of literature and cinema. These genre pigeonholes are reductive, of course, but like year-end lists, they are mostly a lighthearted excuse to analyze and discuss quality work.


Crime: A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukichi (Xavier Barral-Le Bal). Following a police detective investigating a 1958 murder in Tokyo, Yukichi’s photos almost look like stills from a Chandleresqe noir. Elegantly mixing text and image with perfect printing and design, this is a masterpiece of photographic storytelling. My favorite book of the year. Runner-up: Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson (Mack). Like A Criminal Investigation, Patterson’s book was inspired by a 1950’s killing spree. But rather than a linear narrative, Redheaded Peckerwood is like an investigator’s dossier in the age of Google Images.


Comedy: Paloma al aire by Ricardo Cases (Photovision). A documentary on pigeon racing that manages to be funny, mysterious and strangely touching. Runner-up: Animals That Saw Me by Ed Panar (The Ice Plant). Panar’s book could also be classified as the children’s photobook of the year.


Family Drama: In the Shadow of Things by Léonie Hampton (Contrasto). A mother and daughter try to come to terms with shipping boxes, mental illness and memories. Along with the excellent photographs, be sure to read Hampton’s interview with her mother. Runner-Up: Mom & Dad by Terry Richardson (Morel). A fascinating glimpse into the legendary shock-photog’s roots.


Romance: Eden is a Magic World by Miguel Calderón (Little Big Man Books). A heartbreaking look into a Korean man’s obsession with a Mexican soap opera actress. The second brilliant narrative photobook by Calderón. Runner-up: Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel (Siglio) Told in photo-collages and poems, the fictional tale of a woman who falls in love with Joseph Cornell.


Horror: The Wedding by Boris Mikhailov (Morel). Another hard-to-swallow masterpiece from the great provocateur.  Runner-up: Series by Enrique Metinides. A fascinating opportunity to watch Metinides horrific tragedies play out in time.  Be sure to check out the incredible crime story, The Black Trunk.


Regional/Travel: A by Gregory Halpern (J&L Books). A is for Abandoned, Acrid, Animalistic, American and Ambiguous. Runner-up: One to Nothing by Irina Rozovsky (Kehrer). A beautifully understated Israeli travelogue.


Female artist monograph: Illuminance by Rinko Kawauachi (Aperture/Foil). An exquisitely produced monograph with wide international distribution. This book should make Rinko a household name. Runner-up: About Love by Gay Block (Radius). With the death this year of Milton Rogovin, it is great to see the tradition of quiet and humane portraiture living on in the work of Gay Block.


Male artist monograph: Dirk Braeckman (Roma Publications). Described by Braeckman as “a cross between an artist’s book and a survey publication,” this is a terrific summation of his mysterious and distinctive world. Runner up: A New Map of Italy by Guido Guidi (Loosestrife Editions). Guidi’s complicated excavation of simplicity edited and packaged by John Gossage.


Historical/Archive: Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography by Verna Posever Curtis and Denise Wolff (Aperture).  A beautifully produced book on a fascinating subject. Runner-up: War Primer 2 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (Mack). A searing update of Bertolt Brecht’s Photo-epigrams.


Independent/self-published: Lang Zal Ze Levan (Happy Birthday To You) by Anouk Kruithof. Ten joyous birthday celebrations in a psychiatric institution. Runner-up: Gomorrah Girl by Valerio Spada. Another excellent crime book, this one a mashup of documentary portraiture and a Neapolitan police report

Did I miss any genres? Do you disagree with my selections? What were your favorite books of 2011? I want to hear your comments.

On Lists

For the Flickr Pool I created in conjunction with the Walker Art Center, the first assignment was a sort of photographic treasure hunt. The subjects of the hunt are: Pilots, Amateur Paintings, Unusually Tall People, Museum Guards, Sleeping Children, Neighborhood Bars, Supermarket Cashiers, Sheep, Sedans, Suitcases.

This list was derived from my business card circa 2002. This was the card I used while I was photographing Sleeping by the Mississippi (and is reproduced in the Walker’s exhibition catalogue).

As I said in the introduction to the Flickr assignment, I like these lists because they are excuse to get out the door. But the reason I used the list on my business card is because it explains my photographic practice. I don’t want to just photograph Weimreimers. I want my subject to be, as Robert Frank put it in his 1954 Guggenheim Fellowship proposal, ‘broad’ and ‘voluminous’.

For the record, Frank himself was a list maker:

If you wanna take a crack at my list, come join the Flickr Pool. We’re taking submissions until September 27th. Happy Hunting…