New Photography Books – The New York Times

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Photography
Some of the year’s best photography books come from artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Susan Meiselas, Rosamond Purcell and Lorna Simpson.
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In the early 1970s, before she gained fame for her photojournalism during the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas documented the “girlie shows” that were a feature of county fairs then. She went back year after year during the season, to a series of small towns primarily in Maine and Vermont. The shows were often raw, with customers permitted physical contact. No women were allowed into the tent, but Meiselas won the trust of the performers and was able to shoot backstage and eventually cover the entire event, sometimes in male guise. She interviewed the women at length, and incorporated transcriptions in the resulting book, CARNIVAL STRIPPERS (C/O Berlin/Steidl/D.A.P., 301 pp., $95), which was originally published in 1976 and is now in a lavish new two-volume edition. As Meiselas wrote in 1976, “Like the show, the book represents coexistent aspects of a phenomenon, one which horrifies, one which honors.” The pictures, which were shot in smoky low-light on black-and-white film in the original volume, cover both sides with candor and equanimity: the skin show of imperfect bodies and primordial gawkers out front and the world of female intimacy backstage. You can feel her affection for her subjects, but none of the other emotions on display are quite that simple. It’s a complex tale of need, work, lust, yearning, abasement and endurance.
Carrie Mae Weems firmly established her place in photographic history in 1990 with the “Kitchen Table Series.” Using the simplest means — a room, a table, some chairs, a hanging lamp and a shifting array of pictures on the wall — Weems and her friends and family enacted a variety of domestic scenarios, from solitude to child-rearing to volatile male-female relations. The series purified the formal conventions of the snapshot, with its consistent framing and impeccable range of pearly gray light, while formalizing its wayward emotional content, making tableaus that represent widely shared human experiences. That Weems and her family are Black and middle-class is a given, just as it was long a given that the people in advertisements were middle-class and white. As CARRIE MAE WEEMS: A Great Turn in the Possible (Fundación Mapfré/D.A.P., 283 pp., $75) shows, however, that series is just one among nearly 40 that Weems has made over the past 40-odd years, in which she deploys text, rephotographs or reconstructs classic photos, arranges pictures in elaborate installations, constantly questioning the medium and her place in it.
While Weems is a conceptual photographer who imports other media, Lorna Simpson, who intersected with her as graduate students at U.C. San Diego in the 1980s and also takes Blackness as a given in her work, is more an artist who makes use of photography. LORNA SIMPSON (Phaidon, 239 pp., $69.95) displays a protean range of interests and approaches, in which photography is a constant, at least as a means to an end. The most lavishly photographic of her works, such as the studio portraits shot using 1940s movie-star conventions (“Call Waiting,” 1997), are in fact stills from her videos. A series of large-scale landscapes from the mid-90s are silk-screened onto multiple panels of felt or Japanese newsprint; the experience they render seems tactile and textural even in reproduction. Another such work from 2016, using press images of police actions against Black people in the ’60s and printed on claybord, seems to evoke Andy Warhol’s silk-screens of similar images. She makes collages, applies ink and paint to her photographs, arranges her photos in wry or angry sequences or sculptural configurations, and never takes the expected route in any circumstance.
FLORIDAS (Steidl/D.A.P., 191 pp., $65) is a fascinating project that juxtaposes photos of the state taken by Walker Evans mostly in the 1940s (as well as a few paintings he made a couple of decades later) with pictures made in recent years by the Russian-born Anastasia Samoylova. Many of Evans’s photos are unfamiliar, and some of Samoylova’s are in black and white, so that now and then the reader can be momentarily unsure who took what. The two photographers share an appreciation for the collage-like incongruities the state seems to offer in abundance, for the degree of artifice that produces them and the pictorial flatness they generate. But where Evans was chronicling a Florida on the verge of expansion from tourism and construction, Samoylova shows us a state already battered by climate change, not to mention overbuilding. They both enjoy the outlandish roadside attractions, the hot colors, the folk art, but Samoylova’s pleasures are tempered by the presence of gun culture, poisonous politics, and environmental destruction now and to come. Water is mercurially beautiful, as she shows in her shimmering reflected surfaces, but it will sooner or later cover everything.
The powerful and various work of the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide is chronicled in dramatic sequence in HELIOTROPO 37 (Fondation Cartier/D.A.P., 295 pp., $55). The only color photos by her appear at the beginning, and they show massive hewn stones. After that come telephone wires, leafless vines, stands and thickets of rebar, clouds of birds, stocking seams tattooed on a woman’s legs, stray dogs, market displays, wrapped and splinted cactuses, the weather-sculpted faces of inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert, carnival backdrops, religious processions, Day of the Dead costumes, dead chickens, market women, transgender people, dead iguanas, sacrificed goats and the shadows of East L.A. cholos throwing gang signs. The border between life and death begins to seem porous. Iturbide trained as a filmmaker and had already made two movies before the great Manuel Álvarez Bravo asked her to be his apprentice. She reflects his native-born Surrealism and that of his wife, Lola, and goes beyond it. Her work seems to reflect all the great modernist photographers of Mexico, from Agustín Casasola to Tina Modotti by way of Sergei Eisenstein’s fragmentary film “Que Viva Mexico.” And all this with a technical mastery that makes the grimiest surfaces look sensuous.
Since the late 1960s, Rosamond Purcell has used large-format Polaroid cameras; since the early ’80s, when she was first permitted into the inner recesses of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, she has used them to construct a vast cabinet of wonders. Her subjects include crowds of taxidermied birds; a box of deformed eggs; the brain cast of a tiger, kept in a cigar box; a carpet of flattened moles with little jazz hands; a trunkfish that has picked up the pattern of the cloth used to wrap it; a two-headed lamb, with a shared Chagall-esque eye, that once belonged to Peter the Great; and murre eggs that look as if they were decorated with calligraphic patterns by Henri Michaux. She is a sensualist of decay, who has also made beautiful studies of trash accumulations, broken glass and books inhabited or partly consumed by various nonhuman creatures. ROSAMOND PURCELL: Nature Stands Aside (Addison/Rizzoli Electa, 207 pp., $65), edited by Gordon Wilkins, is a frequently eye-popping survey of her work.
As A WORLD HISTORY OF WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS (Thames & Hudson, 504 pp., $85), edited by Luce Lebart and Marie Robert, demonstrates, women have been involved at every stage in the development of the medium, frequently in the front ranks. The story begins at the start, with Anna Atkins, whose “Photographs of British Algae” (1843) was the first photographic book. There are many famous names in this vast survey, from Julia Margaret Cameron to Francesca Woodman, but the surprise pleasures are the lesser known: Gabrielle Hébert, who shot startlingly contemporary-looking nudes sprawled on the grass in 1888; Zaida Ben-Yusuf, whose New York studio at the end of the 19th century was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau aesthetic; Josefina Oliver, yet another precursor to Cindy Sherman — in Buenos Aires around 1908; Janina Mierzecka, who in 1939 published a monograph devoted to photos of workers’ hands; Constance Stuart Larrabee, who sympathetically documented Black rural popular culture in South Africa in the late 1940s; and hundreds more, the youngest born in 1981. Ideally, the book would show more than one or two photos by each, but then it would be 5,000 pages long.
Diane Keaton may not be well known as a photographer, but as a collector she has been enormously influential in expanding collective knowledge of vernacular photography, beginning with her book “Still Life” (1983, with the curator Marvin Heiferman), which explored the waxworks appeal of 1950s Hollywood color publicity photos, and going on to books on the Texas commercial photographer Bill Wood (also with Heiferman) and the defunct Los Angeles Herald-Express. In SAVED: My Picture World (Rizzoli, 208 pp., $55), she offers a tour of her visual interests and experiences, in no particular order. The book begins with a selection of stills from 1950s science fiction movies, followed by the printed results of cracked and moisture-damaged glass negatives, followed by found scrapbook pages, followed by studio portraits of people with bad teeth, and so on. She includes non-photographic objects (tin signs, wooden and terra cotta figurines), and eventually her own collages and photographs: blunt shots of people of all descriptions seen along Hollywood Boulevard. The text is charming but slight; there are compelling images in the book, but they are scattered. The whimsically associative nature of the enterprise unfortunately makes it better suited to people curious about Keaton’s mind rather than about photography per se.
The real-photo postcard — which refers to photo cards individually printed in a darkroom, rather than on a litho press — had its American heyday between 1905 and 1914. It is a vast and barely mapped phenomenon, consisting of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of images of all sorts made by photographers of every level of skill, training and imagination. Until the 1980s, it wasn’t taken seriously even by postcard collectors — Walker Evans’s collection, preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, contains maybe three. Because the artists all worked on a strictly local level, and few of their archives have survived, it is a genre without famous names (aside from a few carpetbaggers, such as Jessie Tarbox Beals). It presents a landscape as huge and flat as the Great Plains, where it flourished, and the books on the subject have been either free-associative or else devoted to one specific micro-subject. (Disclaimer: My own book on the phenomenon, “Folk Photography,” has recently been republished by the Visual Spectrum.)
The collection of Leonard A. Lauder had to be different from the common run. He was a fixture on the postcard circuit for decades, present at every show and buying up all the best stuff, and he had his own curatorial staff to manage his collection. It comes as no surprise, then, that REAL PHOTO POSTCARDS: Pictures From a Changing Nation (MFA Publications/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/D.A.P., 311 pp., $45), by Lynda Klich and Benjamin Weiss, is beautifully lucid, among the finest published collections thus far. It does its best to be encyclopedic about a subject that resists such treatment. In practice it is reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”: an almost positivistic visual reference. Each four-card spread (the cards are mostly reproduced actual-size) covers variations on one topic: freight delivery, road workers, store interiors, cobblers and barbers, lunch stands, bars, nickelodeons, band concerts, and so on through what might as well be the complete range of experience. In the process it serves up a panoramic view of the United States in the early 20th century, the time inevitably alluded to in official cultural nostalgia. Despite a chapter largely on disasters, and a striking picture of a criminal gang, the tone remains cheerful and upbeat throughout. There are no photos of the Mexican border war, for example, and no postcards of lynchings. By contrast, the book offers a much rarer image: a convention of Black suffragists — beautiful, well-dressed women in a tent hung with American flags, circa 1912.
Lucy Sante’s most recent book is “Nineteen Reservoirs.” She writes a regular column for Maggot Brain.
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