Top 10 Books of 2016

  By John Veldhoen

After the fact, it is after the fact that people make an evaluation. So my preamble on the best books of 2016 is less actual than whatever overall impression my list makes, and I don’t want to colour that impression outside the lines. Perhaps leitmotifs appear in the books I recommend this year, a theme tinting everything, but I do not want to be so bold as to write what it may be. Besides which, it might be different, what I see, and what you see.

What I do appreciate is that the sighted can see, and that linkage, even so virtually, works to connect us. Our faculty of sight places us in a group, and even further, the fact of seeing unites us even to those who are blind. I think that is why the Camera Store deigns to put up with the bizarre practices of bookselling, despite the challenges to the book coming from the vast array of new technologies for communication in 2016.  The profit motive in selling books is poor, so it is a labour of love. As time goes by, it seems that I am learning how to be the curator of a reading library, as well as a purchaser, and a bookseller (an activity that has engaged me, in one form or another, for nearly two decades).

Photo books are permanent records of sight, the regime of sight, the visible becomes artfully added to the archive, and the domain of photography, and becomes part of the discourse of photography, which has to do with everything else in the whole wide world. These are, in my estimate, the best books that we received, and tried to sell, this year.

10) Telling Time: Renontres de Bamako, Institut Francais, Kehrer Verlag.

A volume from what was in fact the 2015 biennale, this is the tenth-anniversary catalog of the exhibition. It showcases work from Mali and across Africa. As a printed specimen it is very fine. What is especially noticeable in this collection is how a vast group of varying photographers and artists perceive the subject of history, and time in their work. It is telling how the perception of time is integral to personality itself, and these “multiple temporalities” come through visually in the work of a diverse group. I was particularly taken with descriptions of Wanuri Kahiu’s sci-fi films, and Camille Turner’s work, gathered under the rubric of an exhibition called “To the Future and Back”, and a group exhibition entitled “Against Time”.  The rear of the book is concerned with a history of the biennale itself.

9) In Flagrante, Chris Killip, Steidl.

A reprint that I wrote about in August, along with a book by Angela Graurholz : “Chris Killip’s recently re-printed book In Flagrante Two, is necessarily anti-aesthetic. In fact, I’d argue that Graurholz is pre-occupied with the document; it has an archive fever, so to speak. While Killip’s work suddenly breaks free of the tacit social conditions of its creation (Margaret Thatcher’s working-class England) as his images become startling for their evocation, (take two of my favourite photos ever, “Cookie in the Snow, Lynemouth, Northumberland” or “Boo on a Horse, Lynemouth, Northumberland).” This book could easily go higher in the list, but I don’t think I am writing this in any particular order. I have great affection for an interview I watched this year with Killip, especially the story he relates regarding ideas about “history” vs. simply speaking about “what happened”.  

8) Remembered Light, Sally Mann, Abrams/Gagosian Gallery New York.

A subtle, gentle act of evocation and remembrance of the painter Cy Twombly’s presence in the studio, Mann’s photographs have always exhibited affection, care, and memory for life. I’m left, in the end, with an absence, and a certain sadness, looking at this work. It seems to neglect a second set of values, outside of sympathy, and recollection, transcending the situation of life itself. Historian Simon Schama’s introduction “An Absence Turns into Presence” inverts what I believe is true about life, but I am still sympathetic to the humanist dialog, after all. I try to separate my interpretations of what I see from seeing, but all this writing stuff is after-the-fact. I was struck at times with Twombly’s painting, and the painter’s mark elicits my high regard. An interview with Edmund De Waal is also at the front of the volume; I came across his work this year independently, also.

7) Inherit the Dust, Nick Brandt, Edwyn Houk Editions

We received this book late, as I think it is from last year. I am surprised I am putting it on this list in a way, it goes in many ways against things that I hold firm on in my heart and mind, and looking over what I have written so far, much of this work does. But seeing is something that I can separate as a particle of human affect, maybe separating from what I would call vision, which is an inner experience. Brandt’s anxious, nature-conscious imagery carries with it monumentality, and sentiment, characteristics that I think belie an over-arching allegory for our own age, where images, and messages, trump substance. Nevertheless, my critical manner has to first and foremost apply to the image itself. Many of these pictures are technically a tour-de-force. Made of scans of 6×7 negatives, the resultant panorama prints installed, and then re-photographed as in situ site-specific works, do not change how I am infinitely more impressed by the mystery of creation that belies the images, than by the appearances.

6) The Artist as Photographer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Kehrer Verlag

These are photographs of an entire world within, a visionary section of images that include a swath of Kirchner’s contemporaries, like painter Robert Wehrlin, and, Alfred Döblin, master novelist and author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and designer, painter, and architect Henry Van Der Velde (who has been called the inventor of modernism, by some). The theologian Eberhard Grisebach had an association with Kirchner, and it is the latter that is of the largest interest to me, in the context of photography, especially certain questions that he asked in his writing about what exists outside of perception, logical proof, and personal identity. Kirchner was an artist who was trying, in success and failure, to express his inner self, through every medium, including photography. This is a book that shows us the inner and outer world of the artist, how they redouble outside of an artist’s intentions. This is a remarkable book; I find some of the images beautiful, especially the scratchy, imperfectly printed portraits. This book as fits in at number one on what would be a wholly personal list, Kirchner and his milieu is so interesting to me.

5) Tender is the Light, David Julian Leonard, Kehrer Verlag

Leonard is a cinematographer who has worked as a grip and as a cameraman, and a director and editor. His friendship with William Eggleston makes him an heir apparent to a tradition of colour photography in America (Tender is the Light includes photographs of Mr. Eggleston, and a picture of Stephen Shore’s cat).  Some of us here at the shop spent some time in the time-honoured way trying to suss out how Leonard made some of these extraordinary photographs, using large format cameras, or maybe using old lenses on digital cameras. The joy not knowing exactly makes it great, how I love how he uses soft focus, and colour as a layer, for a feeling. These photos are all about that southern Gothic mood, and they’re great.

4) The Blind Photographer, ed. Julian Rothenstein, and Mel Gooding, Princeton Architectural Press

In September I wrote about this wonderful book: “I am so proud that I was able to get behind this book long before I ever saw it. The Camera Store sells books, which is a bit of a marketing challenge, given our name, as you might imagine… When I order books, I read descriptions, and I become acquainted with presses, authors, editors, track records, details, but sometimes what finally comes to the shop is a little less, and sometimes, hopefully, a lot more than I expected. I’ve become familiar with the designer of The Blind Photographer, and Julian Rothenstein’s Redstone Press. I love the vibrant colour of his De-Stijl-y designs, and I have been in love with books, and page design all of my adult life, from David Carson’s wonky illegible type frenzy and Raygun magazine to the eminent rationality of the statistician Edward Tufte’s work. I love books and magazines that play with form. This book is a little more restrained, but look at the multi-coloured braided headband, this small flourish, this detail calls out, it announces a personal love of the gift of sight, and so touchingly.” Even for the sighted, or especially for the sighted, this is the essential book on this list, and I think the most instructive for those trying to make better photographs themselves.

3) Depth of Field, Walker Evans, Prestel

This is a catalogue for a travelling exhibit of Evans’ photos, presently still at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I wanted to go to see it, as Evans is very nearly my favourite photographer, but my commitments limit my travel time. It is ok because I bought the book, and it is stunning. I think Evans’ in particular suits the form of the book; the prints I’ve seen of his are small (the few I saw were at the MoMA, years ago). I know someone who saw the show, and said it is stunning, and sent me some photographs from it. Strangely a duo of photos of an Atlanta barbershop that were reported to me as not in the exhibition, one by Evans, and one by the much lesser known Peter Sekaer. A funny thing happened as a result of owning this book, I was reminded of Sekaer’s work, and I think I prefer Sekaer’s take on the same Atlanta barbershop, and I have started to re-evaluate my assessment of Evans work in total, as a result. Seeing the work of photographers side by side illustrates the personality differences that are so integrally part of photography.

2) Paz Errazuriz, Aperture

In October I wrote a review for the store, saying “This book is an invaluable introduction to the work of a photographer, a survey of vision. That I would account for my experience as a viewer differently than an author of an essay is not meant to detract at all, I would only encourage you, dear reader, to see for yourself.”

1) Anthony Hernandez, SFMoMA, Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.)

Last month I wrote that this would likely top my list, and my view has not changed: “Photographs are then iconic, making memories of memories, concepts. Images remain; they are not simply consumed, negated, forgotten. I think Hernandez’ photographs are appreciable for their unbroken gaze. For me, this is the best photo book of 2016.”




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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.