The best photography books of 2021 | Books

IDuring colonial times, European settlers from Brazil viewed the snake-infested and malarious Amazon jungle as a “green hell”. The superb of Sebastião Salgado Amazonia (Taschen) sees it as a black and white paradise, or as a paradise in the process of being lost – not closed to unworthy human beings but hewn up by farmers and churned by mining. Salgado mythologizes the landscapes he photographs, and his documentation of six years in the Amazon looks like a cover of the first week of Genesis. As the torrential rains recede from the smoldering, seemingly molten earth, the dry earth solidifies; the tribes come out of the river and begin to grow and multiply; the alliance of the creator with his biodiverse creation is renewed by a rainbow which arches above the mountains.

‘Perverse Paintings’: Lauren Hutton, Miami, 1989, after Helmut Newton’s Legacy. Photography: © Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin

Salgado portrays the Amazonian natives as noble savages, innocent yet surprisingly stylish with their feathered headdresses and patterned face paintings. Ejected from Eden, their descendants of the last days perform erotic warlike dances in Helmut Newton’s play. Heritage (Taschen). Newton, who liked to reduce his sophisticated female subjects to a primitive state, saw clothing as fetish clothing that revealed the body rather than covering it up. The models were undressed after the end of the show, then ordered to resume their poses of strutting: is their bare skin also a disguise? Jerry Hall squeezes a rare slice of beef to his face, and another model shows off the Bvlgari jewelry on his wrists and fingers while chopping up an uncooked chicken. In Newton’s perverse paintings, beauty is an act of violence, an armed assault on nature.

Matt black’s American geography: an account with a dream (Thames & Hudson) is a tragic atlas, documenting long months on the road in impoverished parts of the country. The palette is austere, inky black and icy white, with flocks of evil Hitchcockian birds masking a faded or ashy sky. If the sun is shining, it shines on junk liquor bottles, and the music that accompanies Black’s hesitant progress is made by the squeaking of plastic seats on a Greyhound bus. When the western horizons open up, space seems desolate, not overwhelmingly primordial like the Amazon of Salgado. Still, the photographs lend a stoic dignity to these exiles of America’s brilliant promise, and Black’s diary notes reveal how compassionately he listened to their casual tales of doom.

Novice monks wearing face shields at Wat Molilokkayram Buddhist temple in Bangkok, April 2020, from the year that changed our world
Novice monks wearing face shields at Wat Molilokkayram Buddhist temple in Bangkok in April 2020, the year that changed our world. Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP

The year that changed our world (Thames & Hudson) tells the story of the pandemic in vivid, sometimes lacerating colors. It begins by exhibiting something that no one wants to see, as a cyclist passing through Wuhan ostensibly ignores a corpse slumped in the street. Surrealist quirks soon captivate the eye. Indian policeman wears spiky red coronavirus blast as helmet; in Virginia, mannequins in evening dress occupy alternate tables in a chic restaurant to enforce social distancing. Towards the end, the nave of Salisbury Cathedral becomes a vaccination clinic, while at the Barcelona Opera House, a string quartet serenades an audience of 2,000 potted plants. Both shows are post-apocalyptic but somehow reassuring: religious faith gives way to medical science and the greenery inherited from the mistreated Earth.

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