May, my wife, has this look she gives me that says, “Are you really going to do that?” We have been together for almost fifteen years now and, if I am honest, I see that look often. If I continue to be honest, I generally deserve it. I suppose it appears most of all when I decide that it is a good idea to open another bottle of wine. The other occasion when the expression sees the most frequent light of day is when I decide to order yet another photobook.
The routine is always the same. The work of an artist catches my eye. I call her over and ask her what she thinks. I wait for an approving nod, expression, or comment before asking, “Can we get their photobook with a limited-edition print?”
Her follow up question is always a slightly resigned, “How much?”
“Two hundred dollars,” I reply.
And then the look appears.
To be fair, this slightly repetitive and comedic routine does make sure I consider the purchase of the book fully before parting with the cash. Without it, our collection of photobooks would probably be three times larger than it already is. Mind you, the collection is already rather large and is cross-continental. There is a bookcase full at my parents’ home in England as well as a couple of large boxes that my sister-in-law kindly stores in her basement here in Toronto. The bulk of the collection is on our bookshelves though, and it is something that I take great delight in.
What I want to talk about in this article is where I think photobooks make their strongest contribution to the art world. It is not in “best of” collections, but in the books that are about something: the ones that tell a story. The photographs that fill books like Steve McCurry’s The Iconic Photographs or Ernst Haas’s New York in Colour 1952-1962 are undoubtedly beautifully shot (whatever one feels about the issues of representation in McCurry’s work), but I do not feel the same way about them as I do about Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibility, Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, Robert Frank’s The Americans, or Robert Polidori’s Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl. These books, along with others, are riveting. I find myself going back to them time and time again. I am always looking to unlock another of the seemingly endless troves of secrets that they hold.
Sleeping by the Mississippi is a work that has profoundly affected my own creative practice. I began a Master’s degree in photography in mid-2019 and completed it successfully in April this year. The course required me to produce a significant body of narrative and meaning-driven photography. This was not something that I had really contemplated before and seemed an immense challenge. As I embarked on my own photographic journey, I thought it best to try and understand how the finest photographers approach these sorts of problems.
I started by buying Soth’s Niagara (1). It is an excellent work. There are probably a few too many photographs of male genitalia in it for my taste but it is still an impressive portrait of the falls and its people. Soth himself described the work as his “penis project” to give the unfamiliar a sense of the amount of John Thomas-driven imagery the book contains. This led me to his earlier work: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2).
Getting hold of a copy of the book was a nightmare. Unbeknownst to me, the most recent print run had sold out. I ordered it from our local book chain, and it took months to arrive. When it did land on our doorstep, it became apparent that the supplier had needed to source the book from an obscure store somewhere in a rural part of the USA. Reflecting on the book’s content, this now seems rather appropriate.
The book contains a series of large format images that Soth collected during his journeys along the Mississippi River. Beyond a slight overemphasis on the “sleeping” part of the title, there are too many images of beds, the book is a masterpiece. It contains an eclectic cast of characters that leave me wondering about their fates: the sinister Joshua whose collar declares him a “preacher man” but whose facial tattoo marks him as a killer; the bereaved Lenny who wants to “live to 100 and look the way I do now”; Sheila who wears her Christian fundamentalism as a badge of pride, or Charles who wants to take flight and dreams of possibilities. Soth makes me want to know every one of their stories.
It is packed with non-linear narratives. Topics are visited and revisited throughout the work. In its closing essay, Annes Wilkes Tucker notes that, “Soth alludes to illness, procreation, race, crime, learning, art, music, death, religion, redemption, politics, and cheap sex.” It deals with these topics with aplomb. There is no doubt that this brilliant work inspired me throughout my studies and helped me to develop new directions in my own work. It is a book that makes me dream.
Paul Graham’s A Shimmer of Possibilities is a very different work to Sleeping by the Mississippi but is no less impressive or profound in its impact. Graham, arguably the UK’s most renowned contemporary photographer, has a string of powerful essays to his name. His book Beyond Caring (3), recently republished by MACK, is a damning indictment of the devastation the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government left on Britain’s social fabric.
However, it is for A Shimmer of Possibility (4), part of his American Trilogy, that Graham is probably best known, and it is a work that is almost impossible to pin down. As well as images that stand alone and non-linear narratives, it contains linear stories. The most notable of these is a series of photographs of a man mowing a lawn at sunset who is interrupted by a shower. Another features a woman eating fast food and smoking a cigarette, and another a couple walking home carrying a case of soft drinks. The photographs could not be more mundane. Yet they are also full of questions and the possibilities of the title. They are also quite beautiful. My favourite from the book is an image of what appears to be red glacé cherries spilt onto the footpath. The cherries glow magically in the soft light. It is a wonderous image that illustrates that if you look hard enough, perhaps Look Closer enough, you can find beauty everywhere.
The work was also original in the style of its first publication. It was published as a set of twelve volumes. One of these volumes contained sixty images, another only one. This quirky approach is entirely appropriate for this innovative project. A Shimmer of Possibility is clearly a work that is about something. I have seen it suggested that the work is about time. This is definitely true, but there is more going on in here. What that is, is a task for the viewer to contemplate. This is a contemplation that starts anew every time I reopen the book.
One fascinating exercise that I sometimes like to carry out with our collection is to compare how different artists treat similar subjects. How do they tell their stories? What message do they get across? Does one do it more effectively than the other? This can sometimes lead to surprises. One such surprise came with two books that examine another favourite indulgence of mine: coffee. If I asked you who would produce a more effective book on the lives of coffee producers and the hardships they endure, Sebastiao Salgado or Steve McCurry? I suspect that most people would answer Salgado. Yet, that would not be the case here. Salgado’s book The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee is, to my eye, overblown, overprocessed, and self-indulgent. It seems more like an advert for the industry than a statement about the lives of the workers. When compared to the magnificent work that he produced for books such as Gold, Genesis, and Terra, it is a disappointing offering. Perhaps this is the reason why it is the only Salgado book that I have ever picked up from a bargain book bin!
On the other hand, McCurry is often criticised for producing work that can be categorised as “poverty porn”. The critic Teju Cole went further and described McCurry’s work as “astonishingly boring” in a New York Times article. I have mixed feelings about some of McCurry’s photographs as I think that sometimes he makes human misery look beautiful, but Cole’s criticism is grotesquely unjust. In From These Hands, I think he gets things mostly right. The book is humane and humanistic, and effectively examines the challenging lives of coffee producers around the work. It might be a little sentimental, but as Sontag once pointed out, “Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.”
The books that this article has discussed have all been about something rather than just being a collection of the artists’ best single images. To me that is the vital ingredient that makes them transcend the commonplace. I will not tire of flicking through the best work of Soth, Salgado, Graham, and so many others. They make me happy, sad, contemplative, and enraged. They make me laugh, lament, and dream. Our collection is still growing. As I write, I have received confirmation that our copy of the new book Mementos by Paola Franqui, professionally known as Monaris, is on its way. I very much look forward to seeing it and framing the print we have purchased with it. How about you? Which photobooks have had the greatest impact on you? I would love to know.
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>