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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 Encampment Wyoming by Lora Webb Nichols, an extraordinary account of life in a frontier community in the United States at the turn of the 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.

Lizzie Nichols at Willow Glen Camp 1899, Wyoming Photography: Lora Webb Nichols/Fw: Books

Perhaps because of the strangely suspended nature of our times, I have also been drawn to contemporary books that deal with silent reflection. Donavon Smallwood’s languor was created during the spring and summer of 2020, as he wandered 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.

In Plain Air by Russian-born photographer Irina Rozovsky has set her sharp 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.

Vividly atmospheric...a photo from Speak the Wind by Hoda Afshar.
Vividly atmospheric…a photo from Speak the Wind by Hoda Afshar. Photography: Hoda Afshar

A much more otherworldly landscape is the setting for another impressive debut album, Speak the Wind, by Iranian-born photographer Hoda Afshar. 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.

“Essential Solitude” by Tereza Zelenkova Photography: Tereza Zelenkova/Void Books

Originally self-published in a now sought-after limited edition, Tereza Zelenkova’s The Essential Solitude is an altogether different imaginative response to a mysterious location. 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 Dennis Severs, an eccentric who designed it on his imaginary idea of ​​what it might look like. an 18th century Huguenot dwelling. Influenced by often esoteric literature, from the Decadents to transgressive thinkers like Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, Zelenkova’s work is rich in symbolism and suggestion, her singular gaze capturing the disorienting and grandiose atmosphere of a house haunted by extravagant imagination of its creator. .

A sense of foreboding also accompanies American photographer Carolyn Drake’s mysterious Knit 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.

Allensworth, California.  2014. Fence post.
Allensworth, California. 2014. Fence post. Photography: Matt Black/Magnum Photos

An often invisible United States powerfully emerges from the pages of Matt Black’s six-year epic American Geography, with the photographer crossing the country by van and Greyhound bus to visit communities with poverty rates above 20% . He became interested, he told me in 2016, in “the psychology of poverty”, and he succeeded in evoking this complex dynamic in austere and haunting monochrome images. The visual narrative is, however, intertwined with her own observations, snippets of overheard conversation, and everyday ephemera encountered at bus stations, truck stops, and roadside cafes. A masterpiece of contemporary documentary.

Photo books: Gilles Peress Whatever you say, don't say anything
Gilles Peress Whatever you say, don’t say anything Photo: Steidl GmbH Co. OHG

Perhaps the photographic highlight of the year was the long-awaited publication of All You Say, Say Nothing, by Gilles Peress, a two-volume epic of his photographs of the Troubles 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.

Drum Cover Girl Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966, from James Barnor's Accra/London: a Retrospective.
Effortless…Drum Cover Girl Erlin Ibreck, London, 1966, from James Barnor’s Accra/London: A Retrospective. Photograph: Courtesy autograph

Two exhibition catalogs stood out for me this year: Accra/London: A James Barnor Retrospective, which accompanied the Ghanaian-born photographer’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, and Coming Up for Air, which was published in parallel with Stephen Gill’s investigative exhibition 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.

An image from Nancy Floyd's Weathering Time.
An epic self-portrait…an image from Nancy Floyd’s Weathering Time. Photography: Nancy Floyd

In a banner year for books by women photographers, I was also drawn to Nancy Floyd’s self-portrait epic, Weathering Time, which she describes as “my visual diary, personal archive, and recording of the evolution of my body and my environment over the past. over 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.

Olga, 2017 Mirjana Vrbaški from Mirjana Vrbaški: Odd Time
Olga, 2017 Mirjana Vrbaški from Mirjana Vrbaški: Odd Time Photography: 2020 Courtesy of Mirjana Vrbaški

Finally, perhaps the most quietly resonant photobook I’ve received this year is Odd Time by Mirjana Vrbaski, in which a selection of austerely beautiful portraits that nod to the Dutch Old Masters give way to almost ghostly images of the deep forest landscapes of Dalmatia. rating. There is a strange purity in the two sequences, but it is the portraits of young women that 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.