Photo Book Grab Bag

One of the ways we approach the process of teaching ourselves about photography in its many forms is to always be on the lookout for photo books that we can add to our library, even if their subject matter doesn’t fit with our specific collecting themes. At this point, after many years, we’ve built up a pretty strong group of books centered on the photographers key to our collection, with a wider smattering of books representing the rest of the history of photography. But we’re still expanding our knowledge, and new books are always being published, so whenever we hear about a book (new, old, out of print) that sounds interesting and is not already on our shelves, we order it on the Internet, from one of a variety of sources (Amazon, Abebooks etc.). This produces a wonderful element of surprise to the receipt of the daily mail – will there be a photo book (ordered weeks ago) in the pile? We’re not particularly fussy about first editions or perfect condition; we just like having a solid copy as reference.

So today’s post outlines (in summary form) a handful of books that we’ve have piled up in recent weeks. I don’t believe there is any pattern to this particular group, but plenty of interesting material nonetheless:

1.) Light Readings, A Photography Critic’s Writings, 1968-1978, A.D. Coleman, University of New Mexico Press, 1998 (second edition)

Believe it or not, we had never heard of this book until recently, when it came up in passing during an email exchange with gallery owner Joseph Bellows. I have since spent time reading each and every essay in this volume, and can wholeheartedly recommend finding a copy and reading it for yourself. These essays show what it was like to be a photography critic in the late sixties and early seventies, and you can clearly see Coleman struggling with what that meant and how to approach the task. What I appreciate most is that he was unmerciful. When he didn’t like a show or a book he read, he said so, with a level of scholarship, intelligence and wit that is virtually absent from our public discourse on photography today; when he did find something of value, he was eloquent in his support. Overall, the level of craftsmanship in the essays is consistently high. This book has been inspiring to me (in the context of this blog) to work to reach for a higher standard of quality in our posts, and to be honest in our appraisals of what we see (rather than simply reporting that everything is wonderful), even when it might be unpopular. Go out and get this book if you don’t have it already.

2.) Think of England, Martin Parr, Phaidon Press, 2000

We have run across the work of Martin Parr in quite a few places recently, and since we didn’t have any books of his in our library, we decided to start with this one. Parr is famous for his humor, and while this is clearly evident in these images, I was struck by the careful framing and thoughtful use of color across this entire volume. These are very well made, memorable photographs.

3.) Delta West, The Land and the People of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, Roger Minick, Scrimshaw Press, 1969

While these images were made in the 1960s in the Sacramento delta in California, they echo images from the FSA in the 1930s, full of dusty roads, falling down shacks, and farm workers. This book has high quality reproductions of the photographs, interspersed with commentary from the residents.

4.) Dan Graham, Gloria Moure, Ediciones Poligrafa, 1998

Dan Graham’s color photography of houses and buildings in the 1960s seems to be coming up again and again for us, and so we needed to get some background on his career. This book has some excellent examples of these housing tract images, as well as a solid retrospective of all his work, from video and performance art, to conceptual installations and other structural elements. While his photographs aren’t particularly representative of all that he has done, they would clearly fit well with Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams.

5.) It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It…, Luigi Ghirri, Aperture, 2008

We’ve seen a few Ghirris in the past months, and are looking forward to the Ghirri show to be held at Aperture in November (which we will certainly visit). We bought the book to get a fuller view of his work, especially in the context of trying to get our heads around color work from the 1970s and 1980s. It’s an excellent volume, showing an extended exploration of how color can be used as an element of picture making.

6.) Roy DeCarava, A Retrospective, Peter Galassi, Museum of Modern Art, 1996

We have been exposed (pardon the pun) to a city scene or two by DeCarava that might fit into our collection, so I wanted to get a better picture of DeCarava’s career (since we weren’t particularly familiar with it) and thus we bought this retrospective book. In looking through this exhibition catalogue, there are indeed some terrific city views of Harlem that would match our collection. But these bare, geometric prints are a minority in a spectacular body of work that is focused on people and their lives. These images are a testament to the power of photography in capturing the quiet, fleeting moments of life. I was also impressed by the tonal range of these prints, especially the dark greys and blacks, and how well they are handled; there is some amazing craftsmanship at work here.

7.) Sequences, Duane Michals, Doubleday, 1969

Duane Michals will likely never be represented in our collection, but we’ve seen so many of his sequences over the years that we felt the need to have a book to better understand how all the work fits together. This is a simple volume of thought provoking works that explore the nature of narrative and time in photography.

The library is always expanding, so by all means, tell us about great photo books we may have missed in the comments section.

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One comment

  1. A. D. Coleman /

    I appreciate your thoughtful discussion of my 1979 book of essays, Light Readings, in your October 30, 2008 blog entry, “Photo Book Grab Bag.”Glad to know that you found the book rewarding as it nears its 30th birthday. Much of the material therein came from my columns in the New York Times from 1970-74, so I was interested to read your detailed analysis of recent coverage of photography in the Times in the next day’s blog entry. Given the explosion of photographic activity since I opened the Times’ pages to photo criticism in 1970, their coverage of the medium clearly hasn’t kept pace.It might interest you (and some of your younger readers) to know that I’ve continued to write and publish since Light Readings came out. There are four other volumes of my essays out, as well as other books. I maintain the longest-running website of any of my colleagues (it made its debut in 1995): C: the Speed of Light, at It’s not a blog, but I post reports on my activities 5 times per year in that space, and have a large and growing selection of my writings archived there as well.Presently, as previously, I work as an independent critic, historian, and lecturer specializing in photography and photo-based art. Since 2005, exhibitions I have curated have opened in China, Finland, Italy, Rumania, Slovakia, and the U.S. In the past few years I’ve concentrated much of my attention on China.Godd luck with the blog, and with your collection.

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