Top 15 Books of 2015

  By John Veldhoen

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of viewing so many photographs that taught me, were so pleasurable, or so intriguing. This list is not only a raft of remarkable pictures, but is a decidedly semic code, with books that entwine with literature; the quality I looked for on this list is work that shows, rather than tells. I think these books possess honesty, vision, and brilliance, but this list is not meant as a list of Christmas books, per se. I wanted to express gratitude and admiration, for pictures and ideas, by writing this. Of course, if you are looking for a book for the holidays, I think these will be gratifying, and will inspire photographic practice, and lead to new perspectives, but I also wanted to invite readers of the TCS blog, and our customers, to feel free to email me for specific recommendations. I hope I have learned some of the art of finding just the right book, and The Camera Store has a notable collection of technical books, monographs, and catalogs to draw from, and I can order specially, from near and far.

With no further ado, my favorite books from the last year:

15) The Adventure Game, Sandstone Press
TCSTV honcho Jordan Drake’s recommendation, despite that my idea of “roughing it” is a three-star hotel. I’m always amazed at the sheer fortitude of photographers, their willingness to forego the question of why to do something to address how to do it. I admire the shear force of will, and have come to see these types of images as a sort of visual history, even if practitioners of this type of photography (or in this case, cinematography) reply to the question of why they do it as others offer when answering the motivation for climbing Everest, simply saying, “Because it is there”. A high-quality, deluxe format new title for readers of Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void”, or Jon Kracauer’s “Into Thin Air”.

14) The Little Screens, Afterall Books
While Lee Friedlander’s work is well known, this body of work has had less recognition than other parts of his oeuvre. This book argues how Friedlander’s pictures came together at a time when modern art and photography merged; distinctions between art and photography diminished against the dominance of television in American media. This book is finely argued, high-flying criticism. It introduces a useful grammar to scrutinize a historical shift that I can’t help but think of as taking place in a similar way in the age of the Internet by interpreting the writings of Stanley Cavell, among others, vis-à-vis Friedlander and television.

13) Walter Chandoa: Cat Photographer, Aperture
This is a great book. I have put it on the list despite having found a note on my door, written poorly, on nibbled paper, that I should, “if you know what is good for you”, signed “Rex”.

12) The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits, Aperture
Like Dutch golden age painting, Van Meene’s work links the tenuous nature of growing-up with images that are (to me) unabashedly beautiful. A colleague mentioned how the subjects of the pictures seem to share an expression of sadness, and wondered if the meaning of that repeated expression has to do with the way young people today see the world? I think it is a good question.

11) The City is A Novel, Damiani Editore
While I maintain the content of my earlier review concerning “The City is a Novel”, that I cannot recommend it highly enough, inasmuch as I do not claim to understand it, nor can I fully commend it as something that I “like”. Reviewing my own comment, I have found that I do like it, and I like Titarenko’s process and images, even if it is mysterious not knowing precisely why.

10) Lead Kindly Light, Dust to Digital Press
The title, taken from a 19th century poem, that was later converted into a more famous hymn, fits to the content of the book, which is made up of vernacular photographs from the American South in the early twentieth century, and two compact discs of musical recordings originating from the same era. I would recommend reading Hermann Bausinger and Friedrich Kittler, and in a somewhat separate, but still related vein, Ursula Franklin, to compliment a subject that I think the compilers of this collection, Sarah Bryan (a folklorist by training) and artist/photographer Peter Honig, are tracing. I love this book, the music is joyous, but in writing this, I wanted to give a curious reader some wider context.

9) Umbra, Prestel
Essentially a catalog from Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam and l’Atelier Néerlandais, Paris, Sassen’s photographs “seduce and confuse”. The push/pull of these challenging images bear my recommending them. I’m also convinced that a recent tendency I have seen towards geometrical abstraction in contemporary photography has roots in Sassen’s work. I don’t find myself responding positively to that mode of photography, by-and-large, but Sassen is an original. Strange and similarly adumbral Lorca-esque poems by Maria Barnas are set between pages that have not been cut apart, forcing the reader to peer between the folds and shadows, a subtle addition to the book’s design.

8) Ponte City, Steidl
A vast 54-storey tower complex in Johannesburg, South Africa, Ponte City was a prototype of urbanism. In the 1980’s, the adjacent neighborhood disintegrated with the influence of drugs, and by the end of apartheid, the tower became a paragon of failed architecture and planning. Technically, the book Ponte City is from 2014, but I received it this year, and Micheal Subotsky and Patrick Waterhouse won the Deutsche Börse prize for this body of work this year, as well. The book is unlike anything I have ever seen, built out of a custom cardboard box containing a variety of smaller books, and one large hardback, encompassing found images, plans, found photographs, and critical writing. Booklet XVII impressed me especially, recognizing the prescience of novelist Georges Perec within the sphere of urban studies and architecture, and his books “Life a User’s Manual”, “La Disparition”, and his essay “Ellis Island”.

7) Rochester 585/716, Aperture
Photos by ten Magnum agency photographers performed over the course of three weeks in the city of Rochester, a place famed in the history of photography as the home of Kodak. The goal was to make a documentary archive of the place, using the skills of the photographers, and to pair with community organizers, residents, and students and faculty from the Rochester Institute of Technology. In so doing, the project displays the ongoing power of photography as a means for education, and social engagement.

6) Badlands, Rocky Mountain Books
I wrote earlier this year, “I recommend this book as a challenge for thinking about landscape photography, and as a combined work of literature”. I was fortunate to hear Webber speak at an event supporting the book held by The Camera Store, and I was convinced how great photographers follow their intuition. It is amazing to me how pictures can delve into the subterranean in the frame, and the viewer.

5) With the Eye of the Mind, Moderne Kunst Nurmberg
In June I wrote, “Jeff Wall is my favorite living photographer. I like his photographs because he thinks about them, they are complicated to some, but I have always found them relatively simple.” In retrospect, I don’t think I have a favorite photographer, living or otherwise, but I was trying to keep it simple. We have another new book about Wall with excellent writing by Aaron Peck. As a visual introduction, this newer catalog is better, but “With the Eye of the Mind” is more interesting as a synthesis of concept, text, and image, and is better in terms of book as object.

4) When I was a Photographer, MIT
Written by Nadar, a photographer who was called “the greatest in the world” by Barthes, this book has no pictures! What is it doing on this list? It is utterly delightful. Nadar was the first to ever use artificial lighting, the first aerial photographer (he was a balloonist!), and Nadar uses a style of “written photograph” to bring back a period of time which helped maintain a sense of contemporaneity, excitement, and freshness. Incredibly enjoyable, I could put it as my first pick, as this book can be read as terribly entertaining, wonky, 19th century French symbolist literature, if you’re not terribly interested in photography.

3) Silent Dialogues, Fraenkel Galley
My appreciation for Silent Dialogues has only increased, especially for Howard Nemerov’s poems. I’ve since become enamored by his correspondence with objective idealism, and the writer and philosopher Owen Barfield, as well. This book opened a new layer of experience for me, not necessarily a new appreciation of Arbus’ work, but we’ve added the seminal monograph to the store, which is the best trove of her pictures.

2) Walking in the Light, Steidl
These are pictures that make no claim, they are grainy, sometimes out of focus, and are technically deficient according to all the worst criteria for evaluating the world’s best photographs. A characteristically fine-looking book from Steidl, but better for the soul of engagement and meaning found in the pictures throughout, all sharing an “air of goodness and clarity” reminding me of a portrait by Richard Avedon, and Roland Barthes’ corresponding caption, “no impulse of power”.

1) Tiny Streetwise Revisited, Steidl
If realism means anything, and supposing that it does, this is a necessary book in a time when pictures have lost authority. Mark’s work, despite the inherent difficulty, never lapsed into a depressive self-report, or crisis. Instead, the viewer largely feels like they’re in the hands of a compassionate entity, her camera was an extension of what was her strength, empathy, concern, great care, and love.


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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.