Influential photographer Martin Parr has presented a list of inspiring photography books, published in 2007 (The Sunday Times, 2 Dec 2007). His focus on monographs, artistic creativity, originality and small independent photography publishers distinguishes by far his list from other similar ones appearing these days (such as The Guardian’s poor fixation with fashion and ‘national geographic’ aesthetic, no link provided!).
So here’s what Martin Parr has singled out:
- Hackney Flowers by Stephen Gill, is Martin’s favourite book of the year and Gill’s fourth book on his neighborhood area. He has collected various discarded photos found in the local flea market and combined these with some of his own images interspersed with ones of pressed flowers and berries, also derived from Hackney. View one of these photos at the left or the whole fascinating work in the artist’s website here.
- The Genius of Photography by Gerry Badger, a book written to accompany the BBC series, presents a comprehensive account of the complexities and history of photography. It examines the wider, social, political, economic, technological and artistic context of its evolution.
- I’m a Real Photographer by Keith Arnatt, a highly respected conceptual artist of the 60s and 70s, who changed direction and the following decades concentrated on working in obscurity as a photographer. This book tells the story of this journey in 19 series of photographs. Each series features prosaic subject matter – his dogs, the local rubbish tip, everyday objects photographed in his studio, notes that his wife Jo left for him – exploring the conventional with a distinct edge and humor. Seen together, for the first time, the threads and themes of Arnatt’s work connect to make a coherent statement about the act of photography and its relationship to the history of art, as well as produce a moving and profound documentary of everyday life.
- The Mother of All Journeys by Dinu Lee, maps the journey of the photographer’s mother from Hong-Kong to Manchester and reconstructs her memories after several intervening decades. A sensitive and emotional work about personal experience, diaspora, and the gap between memory and reality. Read more and see photos in my review of the exhibition in Leeds here.
- Welcome to Pyongyang by Charlie Crane, is a collection of formal looking portraits of a huge range of people from North Corea, after the photographer managed to get the blessing of the authorities with the help of a tour guide and local guides. But as Martin Parr points out, that these guides were later invited to write the captions and they have composed them in true propaganda style, is what gives this book its edge.
A China Chronicle by Zeng Li, is a documentation of contemporary China. Zeng Li comes from Liuzhou, Guangxi, and is a well known stage designer working for theatre and film productions. The photographs deal with a country being transformed in one of the most dramatic building booms in history. Documenting change and visually preserving a quickly disappearing urban fabric is the main theme of the book. “My wish is to become an author of ‘images’ and to construct an image ‘museum’ archiving and presenting our history of today and yesterday writes Zeng Li in the book’s introduction. (For a similar historical approach see Sze Tsung Leong’s work in this blog here). Hutong lanes, standardized blocks of flats, factories and polluted rivers resist the ideals of the country’s tourist board, or give way to soaring residential towers and glittering shopping malls. This book shows “what China really looks like now” according to Martin Parr.
A Shimmer of Possibility by Paul Graham, a British documentary photographer now living in America. The images “depict a slightly downbeat view of America, and tantalisingly, very little appears to be happening” writes Martin Parr. He goes on that this is a bold and successful attempt to rewrite the rules of documentary and the ways that photographs are presented, by a very innovative photographer.
- In England by Don McCullin, a photojournalist who began as a dyslexic child with talent in drawing -growing in London’s poor areas, and established a career scattered with amazing stories, such as having his life saved by his Nikon camera stopping a bullet intended for him. He became well-known recording war-zones and humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Vietnam War, the conflict in Ireland and the AIDS epidemic. In 1982, his work was considered so powerful and evocative that the British Government refused to grant him a press pass to cover the Falklands War. In an interview given in 1987 he announced his change of direction: “I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.” The book combines forty years of shooting, iconic early images with shooting from 2006, which highlight his thematic return to the cities and landscape he knew as a young photographer. In the introduction McCullin points out his fading away “tolerance or stamina to continue much longer… I am not at the end of my work, but I’m close to the limits of what I can accomplish.” And he continues ‘This is not the England of 1955 … there are new phenomena sweeping the land: obesity, selfishness and the hand gestures and postures of the young that I cannot understand.” It is interesting, however, how many of these new images could have been taken thirty years ago and that McCullin’s lens shows us, with humor and lyricism, a perpetuating and clearly defined social division between the affluent and the impoverished. Martin Parr remarks, “black and white, grainy images of people at either end of the wealth spectrum offer an almost cartoon like rendition of the English”.
- An American Index of The Hidden and Unfamiliar by Taryn Simon, presents photographs from strange places, such as the missile-control centre on the USS Nevada and the death-row cage at Mansfield correction institution. These are places which normally we would never see in person unless we are in some big trouble, writes Martin Parr.
- Nein, Onkel (Snapshots from Another Front 1938-1945) edited by Timothy Prus and Ed Jones, is an archive of war imagery and specialises in snapshots taken by soldiers. This compilation shows Nazis having parties, dressing up and generally entertaining themselves in ways that we have not customarily associated with Nazis, thus questioning our assumptions of evil.
- Fashion Magazine by Alec Soth, who is the third Magnum photographer (after Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden) to produce the agency’s annual ‘Fashion Magazine’, with this one entitled Paris Minnesota. Here Soth explores the world of French high fashion and photographs ‘high-style’ Parisians as well as the ‘gentle folk’ of Minessota in the latest creations. (Notably, similar space is devoted to photos of winter snow across a JC Penney parking lot). The juxtaposition and contrast is what makes this compilation irresistible. “What is interesting is the space between us” writes Alec Soth about his work Paris Minnesota. A wider view of this portfolio can be found here, accompanied by two interviews. In one of those, Alec Soth talks about his out of desparation, but hugely successful, approach in creating advertisements. He acquired various top brand items which he planted in the landscape inviting the viewer to engage in a Where’s Wally game. For Martin Parr, these are the most ‘oblique’ advertisements you’ll ever encounter, differentiating themselves from the pretence world of fashion industry, which would never hold your attention for so long.
- Magnum, Magnum, is a huge tom celebrating the 60th anniversary of the famous co-operative photo agency, in which Martin Parr is a member. Interestingly, the photographers have chosen to select not their own but other members’ photos for presentation, writing also the commentary. As Martin Parr points out, the book weighs 6.5 kilos and costs £95 which works out at £14.62 per kilo: about the same price as cod.