Photobooks at TCS in 2020

Photobooks at the Camera Store in 2020 were fewer than in previous years. I curtailed purchasing new titles as COVID-19 limited browsing. The physical transfer of photography in our favourite medium, the book, unlimited by surveillance and power, lasting and sensual, was a victim of COVID. The silver lining, if there is any, is that my purchasing focused on local books, and personal passions. I argued years ago in school that publishing is best when it follows a bottom-up model. This year, we had the honour of keeping stock of books made locally that are thrillingly world-class offerings, by young, exceptionally talented, sensitive photographers. So, in that light, this is my favourite list of books that I have published in the last seven years.

10) Civilization, William Ewing, Thames and Hudson

At what felt like the start of the COVID crisis in March I wrote about Ewing’s brilliant examination of accelerationism. My current view is COVID is a symptom of a greater disease:

“What I have come to know is that I really do not know much at all. I have a feeling that what is called civilization seems to be coming apart. But this feeling has been offset by a new way of looking at said civilization. Seeing history through a new lens is fruitful. Incidentally, these concepts of time I am struggling with are useful to think about for a photographer. The image, taken from the flow of time forms a crystal to peer through, time crystallizes in the moment.”

9) Day Sleeper, Sam Contis, MACK

Dorothea Lang’s photographs are known through the icon of the “Migrant Woman”, one of those images that pervade our understanding of photography, seeing the Farm Security Administration and the Great Depression both come visually to rest in this picture, along with Walker Evans picture of the Gudger family. Contis made a great photo book that I loved a few years ago called “Deep Springs”. In this new book, “Day Sleeper”, she worked with Lange’s archive to make a world around the subject of the “day sleeper”. An inverse of the economic as well as circadian order. I gave this book as a gift to an inimitable Calgary photographer this year. I have worked throughout the COVID epidemic, as have many of my colleagues. I think the Great Depression, like this crisis, exposes how people work for purposes that exceed monetary need. The reality principle in psychoanalysis is of great help in the writing of fiction. Oeconomy has to do with having a home, there is nothing else to it. Contis, harnessing the real of Lange’s pictures, constructs a dream that exceeds the limits of imagination.

8) Ten Thousand Cups of Tea, Louie Villenueva, Self-Published

In July, I wrote this introduction to an interview with the photographer:

“Ten Thousand Cups of Tea” links a considerate grammar of image-making to his pleasing aesthetic, self-assuredly defying reduction. His photographs excite me, probably because I don’t exactly understand them. I am far too literal, Louie is subtle and complicated, confident, and his pictures exhibit a range of emotions that an elder voice in our community referred to as poetic. I am challenged by a picture of a bumper sticker in this book that asks the witness to “honk if you know that you don’t exist”. The dyad of possibilities puts me at odds with what may be Lou’s way of looking at things, given that I am hard as stone on the issue, like Dr. Johnson’s famous “appeal to the stone” (big fan). All’s that I know is I sure as heck love these photos, and I am proud to sell this book at the store.”

7) Transparencies, Stephen Shore, MACK

Reviewed in July, we co-sponsored a talk with Shore and LACMA curator Britt Salveson. This book shows how a photographer can grow through the use of the medium. At the beginning of the journey, Shore is an unconfident young man, and by the end, we have a portrait of the early master. I wrote in July:

“I’m reading a book on composition in the visual arts called “The Power of the Center” by Rudolf Arnheim, where the author notices how terms and concepts in art “have profound philosophical, mystical, and social connotations, undoubtedly pertinent to the full interpretation of works of art.” He continues, “Even so, I resisted the temptation to carry the quest of significance beyond the direct evidence accessible to the eyes.” When I look at pg. 177 of Transparencies and see Shore’s photograph of an open, crammed attaché, carried by a man on his commute to the train, cradling a book titled “Mother and Child in Modern Art”, I can imagine the source of the desire Shore had to take this image, the longing in a young man’s heart, and this reflection, an image of resilience, commitment, and love. What I love about this book is that it forces me away from the comforts of intellectualizing. I get a little closer to the delight of presence and the immediacy of life.”

6) Mnemosyne Atlas, Aby Warburg, Hatje Cantz

While not strictly speaking a photobook, this book is a testament to the memorious qualities of the photograph, the power it has as an aid to memory. I reviewed it in September. I wish I had learned (in time) about a related text, “The Atlas of Anomalous AI”:

The “Mnemosyne Atlas” is of importance to photography. Not only as a testament to the document and the power of photography to represent culture, but also as a reprographic tour-de-force. I am always surprised how elementary people think copy work is when it is some of the most demanding work in the field: Conscientious care for another subject by sacrificing the drive to fulfill the ego by making something original is not easy. Looking through this book I feel the pathos of our lost understanding of culture. I will remember going through this book for the rest of my life. For the artist-photographer seeking to develop an array of concepts and themes, and make your work salient to a culturally curious audience, you can use the Warburg Atlas as a lens to see through. It offers a view of the forest, not only the trees.”

5) Departing, Danny Luong, Self-Published

Poiesis means the calling into being of a thing by language, it is a word that in a network of contexts, for instance thinking about the ecopoiesis, and George Melyk’s meditations on the Poetics of Naming. What I would call poetic photography is antipodal to a philosophical kind of picture-making, which I think of as entrenched in analysis, formalism, system, and logical intervention. Luong, like any other “poet with a camera” seeks. One senses a continuum: Seeking, discovering, and creating. Orienting the camera with the heart, the mind, and the hand. Luong’s camera is pointed by his heart. Readers of his book have reported their tears, their empathy with Luong and his family odyssey, this book is filled with so much pathos.

4) Lightstream and Passing Through, Nigel Grierson, Lost Press

Grierson was the photographer and designer for the record label 4AD, which was a passion when I was young. He uses long exposures, tight macro, and expressionistic palettes to effect feeling. The aesthetics that this duo of lovely books represents a vision of romantic photography, all told. Shooting to the most subjective extremes with long exposures and macro, Rierson molds an emotional content of objective vision. What I love about this approach is that the books deliver a hypnotic overall feeling not dissimilar to the music that I once loved.

3) Death, Majick, Abundance, Akasha Rabut, Anthology

Here Rabut displays her eye for a documentary style that shifts into folklore without any push. A haze of hot pink smoke and sacred motorcycle burn-outs.

2) On Contested Terrain, An-My Lê, Aperture

Actually, Louie Villanueva’s copy that I had for a few hours. The essay on the appropriation of landscape and the art historical approach Lê takes is worth ordering a copy, but a photograph of contemporary Vietnamese tech towers surrounding a pastoral landscape enchanted me, and reminded me of a remix of Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, this one by William Carlos Williams entitled “Raleigh Was Right”. Lê’s revision of landscape gave me a pang for what might not be a reality at any time, or in any place. When I was selling books at the ICP I reviewed but never published a review of a group show called “Perspectives” that I entitled “What is Hardcore?”, referring to a parallelism of expression in photography and music, and thinking in philosophy. I have a tendency to see similes and metaphors, and to read tea leaves, but for all the oscillating discovery of meaning, there is a habit also of feeling very deeply. Lê’s work is ironic in tone, like Williams’ poem:

We cannot go to the country
for the country will bring us
no peace
What can the small violets
tell us that grow on furry stems
in the long grass among
lance-shaped leaves?

Though you praise us
and call to mind the poets
who sung of our loveliness it was
long ago!
long ago!
when country people
would plow and sow with
flowering minds and pockets
at ease—if ever this were true.

Not now. Love itself a flower
with roots in a parched ground.
Empty pockets
make empty heads. Cure it
if you can but do not believe
that we can live today
in the country
for the country will bring us
no peace.

1) Cyprian Honey Cathedral, Raymond Meeks, MACK

From the MACK press release “Raymond Meeks is renowned for his use of photography and the book form to poetically distill the liminal junctures of vision, consciousness and comprehension. In ciprian honey cathedral, he brings this scrutiny close to home, delicately probing at the legibility of our material surroundings and the people closest to us.”

Meeks uses his camera on his partner Adrianna Ault, a great photographer in her own right. These pictures are the demiurge of desire. What it is like to actually behold the tenderness of love lying by your side.

Featured in this blog:

Civilization: The Way We Live Now

Sam Contis: Day Sleeper

Stephen Shore: Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979

Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne

Nigel Grierson: Lightstream

Akasha Rabut: Death Magick Abundance

Raymond Meeks: Ciprian Honey Cathedral

Category_announcements and infoCategory_photo communityCategory_product reviewsCivilizationCyprian honey cathedralDay sleeperDepartingLightstream and passing throughMnemosyne atlasOn contested terrainPhotobooksPhotobooks 2020Tcs booksTen thousand cups of teaTransparencies