Pandemic Park Life and the Secret Cult of Knitting: The Best Photography Books of 2021 | Photography
Jhe photography book to which I returned more than any other this year was Wyoming Camp by Lora Webb Nichols, an extraordinary account of life in an American frontier community in the early 20th century. Comprised of photographs by Nichols and other local amateur photographers, it emanates a powerful 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 – a dapper, costumed woman looking out of a window. An intimate and quietly compelling portrait of a time, a place and a burgeoning community.
Perhaps because of the strangely suspended nature of our times, I have also been drawn to contemporary books that deal with silent reflection. Languor by Donavon Smallwood was created during the spring and summer of 2020, while wandering through the woods in the relatively isolated northwest corner of New York’s Central Park. Smallwood’s images of glades, streams and ravines suggest calm amid the clamor of the city and are punctuated by his skillfully composed portraits of the individuals who have been regularly drawn there during the pandemic. The book’s subtext deals with the turbulent 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 nature?” asks Smallwood on this quietly powerful debut album.
Russian-born photographer Irina Rozovsky Outside trained his keen outsider gaze on another bucolic New York landscape, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which in summer is a microcosm of the city’s multicultural dynamic. Again, the pandemic is the looming backdrop for these studies of people in man-made nature: walking, resting, working, playing, and interacting with each other and their environment. A masterfully sustained study in mood, atmosphere and landscape.
A much more otherworldly landscape is the setting for another awe-inspiring beginning, speak the windby the photographer of Iranian origin, Hoda Afchar. She was drawn to the islands of Qeshm, Hormuz and Hengam in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by a centuries-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 vivid atmospheres evoke the otherness of the islands, but also suggest the invisible and intangible forces, historical and community, which have shaped this intermediate place and contributed to form its customs and beliefs. An ambitious, multi-layered narrative that pays careful attention in its chilling approach to myth, ritual, landscape, and the long shadow of colonial history.
Originally self-released in a now sought-after limited edition, The essential loneliness of Tereza Zelenkova is an entirely 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 Denis Severs, an eccentric who inspired him with his imaginary idea of what an 18th-century Huguenot dwelling might look like. Influenced by often esoteric literature, from decadents to transgressive thinkers like Maurice Blanchot and George BatailleZelenkova’s work is rich in symbolism and suggestion, her singular gaze capturing the disorienting and grandiose atmosphere of a house haunted by the extravagant imagination of its creator.
A sense of foreboding also accompanies the American photographer Caroline Drakeit’s mysterious Knitting club, another ambitious atmospheric meditation on place and community. Framed 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 narrative is borrowed from William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, while his deftly constructed imagery nods to clandestine rituals and contested history in the American South.
An often invisible United States powerfully emerges from the pages of Matte Blackit’s epic American geography, which spanned six years, the photographer traveled across the country by van and Greyhound bus to visit communities with poverty rates above 20%. He was interested, he told me in 2016, in “the psychology of poverty”, and he managed to evoke this complex dynamic in austere and haunting monochrome images. The visual narrative is punctuated by his own observations, snippets 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 Whatever you say, don’t say anything, by Gilles Peressa two-volume epic of his photographs unrest 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 those violent times. Above all, what impresses is Peress’ uncanny ability to capture unique dramatic moments – of violence, mourning, resistance, brutality – which repeat themselves throughout as small variations on a larger theme of tribal and political division. The narrative is overwhelming, as it should be, and a companion volume, Annals of the North, provides some much-needed context. An extremely important, yet prohibitively expensive book, aimed directly at the photo book collector market.
Two exhibition catalogs marked me this year: James Barnor’s Accra/London: A Retrospectivewho accompanied the photographer of Ghanaian origin exposure at the Serpentine Gallery, and Coming for airpublished alongside Stephen Gill‘s survey show at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. The former showed how Barnor, who is 91, moved effortlessly between genres – portraiture, photojournalism, fashion – while creating a vibrant record of the lives of ordinary Africans in his native Ghana and the diaspora in the UK. . The second was a journey inside the inventive and restless mind of one of Britain’s most original contemporary photographers that traces Gill’s mischievously subversive gaze from Hackney town center to rural Sweden. Both are highly recommended.
In a banner year for books by women photographers, I was also drawn to Nancy Floyd’s self-portrait epic, Aging time, which she describes as “my visual diary, personal archive, and record of how my body and environment have changed over the past 30+ years.” Since 1982, Floyd has tried to photograph himself every day, mostly standing, unmoved, occasionally doing stuff with a dog or a family member. The book is edited from over 2,500 images, all of which are fairly ordinary, but which acquire deep resonance when sequenced chronologically.
Finally, perhaps the most quietly resonating photo book I’ve received this year is Odd Time by Mirjana Vrbaski, in which a selection of austerely beautiful portraits nodding to the Dutch Old Masters give way to almost ghostly images of the deep forest landscapes of the Dalmatian coast. There is a strange purity in the two sequences, but it is the portraits of the young women who haunt the imagination with their presence 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 unsettling presence that is difficult to pin down, yet extraordinarily palpable. A perfectly formed little book in which the images speak for themselves.