6 New and Notable Photobooks
From LaToya Ruby Frazier’s chronicle about Flint, Michigan to a survey of Nigel Shafran’s innovative fashion photography, here are reviews of six recent books.
Arko Datto, photograph from Snake Fire (L’Artiere Edizioni, 2021)
From The PhotoBook Review in Aperture magazine’s fall issue, “The 70th Anniversary Issue,” six writers consider a selection of recent photobooks.
The Citadel: a trilogy by Mame-Diarra Niang
Grief estranges the bereaved from the mourned and clarifies that certain emotional distances are unbridgeable. When the French artist Mame-Diarra Niang first returned to Dakar, Senegal, in 2007, it was to bury her father. Niang’s book The Citadel: a trilogy (MACK, 2022) combines these facts of loss and image making to propose an idea larger than the sum of biography and composition. This is perhaps best represented by the spectral presence of Anchises from Virgil’s Aeneid—a figure moving through epochs, outside time and place, who points his son Aeneas to the world as it will yet become. As Niang has said, it doesn’t matter that her photographs were made in Africa: “I want to express a simple idea that my body is always somewhere else; it is always connected to somewhere else in the world.”
The Citadel constitutes a three-part examination of place. It begins with Sahel Gris, an assortment of ocher-toned images that show construction sites, stray beasts of burden, and a jumble of bricks on weedy earth. At the Wall is a closer look at what is formed on the surface: buildings incomplete yet inhabited, unattended to, or hastily finished; walls weathered by time and neglect; the occasional presence of pedestrians or laborers, who flit into view as though the city were made mostly of concrete. In Metropolis, the conclusion, no building is under construction; the photographs are glimpses of a panorama, views of a city at once grand and impossible to behold.
Portions of the Aeneid are interspersed throughout Metropolis, as though establishing the mythological parameters of Niang’s work. In the final excerpt, the following is said of Anchises and Aeneas: “So they wander here and there through the whole region, over the wide city plain, and gaze at everything.” Wandering, the wide city, a gaze at everything: this is the triangular basis of The Citadel. The vision belongs to a wanderer, whose sights, as in Sahel Gris, are lone and hurried. Yet it is a hurry that doesn’t dispense with compressed attention, in which walls of a storied city can seem like meditations on how much a surface can hold, and how much is kept from view.
The trilogy, collected in an embossed slipcase, is serialized in the order of conceptualization: a movement across three volumes, from the wide-angled imagery of Dakar and Abidjan to a further tightening of the frame in Johannesburg. Each book is treated to its own idiosyncratic format and papers—accordion fold, hardcover, and Japanese fold—making The Citadel throb with melancholy and conscientiousness.
Niang grew up between France and West Africa, “in a state of constant metamorphosis,” as she describes her childhood. She incorporates that experience into her artistic journey, formulating the fragmentary as an ethos. Her photographs are never about what is whole or total or fully seen but, rather, what is angular, oblique, halved, seen sideways, and knowable only in part—a vision of tensions that occur on the exterior, as though to present the viewer with a background fit for introspection. —Emmanuel Iduma
Serial Grey by Jeff Weber
In recent years, a small but growing cohort of information-obsessed knowledge workers have tried to build “second brains.” By this, they mean the organization of their thoughts with digital archives and note files that will, they hope, help them to find connections between their ideas and “unlock [their] creative potential.” One patron saint of this group is the late German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, whose own repository involved thousands of intricately annotated index cards housed in cabinets.
The fifteen-year practice of the Belgian artist Jeff Weber is characterized, in part, by a search for tools and methods of “unlocking creative potential”—to devise systems that produce photographic images and films. Early in his career, Weber established his own Luhmann-style archive, which he sardonically termed An Attempt at a Personal Epistemology with the Help of a Cardfile as Generative Mechanism (2009–10). “It was meant to form an interactive tool that could mirror the self and that I could work with—or, rather, rely on to create art,” he says. The frustrations of that project put Weber on the path he has followed since. Serial Grey (Roma Publications, 2021), his new book, documents both an exhibition at Carré d’Art–Musée d’art contemporain, Nîmes, and the evolution of his art.
The book is initially forbidding in its seeming austerity: the cover depicts an unprepossessing grid of small squares in varying shades of gray, an image seen in six more variations before you arrive at the table of contents. But persistence is rewarded with the slow disclosure of an idiosyncratic and all-too-human search for connection (it’s a “personal” epistemology, after all).
The heart of Serial Grey is a collection of casual-seeming snapshots in a rich range of moody grays. In them, some figures recur, such as a young woman with short dark hair, alternately posed and unposed as she interacts with others, travels through sunny landscapes, and visits museums. Those galleries provide another theme: snapshots of artworks and objects from ancient cultures, mute testaments to human creativity. Yet other pictures focus on doorways and portals, or render a city roofscape, suggesting untold stories.
Weber made many of these photographs in relation to Kunsthalle Leipzig, an institution-as-artwork he ran out of an apartment from 2014 to 2017. By entering into extended creative dialogue with those he invited to exhibit at the space, Weber made images that are simultaneously records of his subjective experience, of creative processes (his and theirs), and of fulfilling relationships.
After Kunsthalle Leipzig closed, Weber returned to impersonal generative technologies: the patterned grids in the early pages of this book are, in fact, recent photograms resulting from a hacked-together combination of artificial neural networks, torn-open LCD displays, and a traditional photographic enlarger. Such oblique strategies require explanation for their impact to be fully felt. But, as hermetic and aloof as the book can seem, it is both intellectually fertile and, surprisingly, emotional. Serial Grey makes plain that Weber derives meaning from reciprocity, whether the relationship in question is with another person, with a tool, or, above all, with art. —Brian Sholis
Snake Fire by Arko Datto
Although Arko Datto’s journalistic photographs are firmly grounded in the lived encounters in his native India and other countries across Southeast Asia, his artistic practice is not solely tethered to a truthful representation of his subjects. Reimagined in filters and tints that infuse the frames with striking, saturated hues, Datto’s portraits and landscapes verge on dreamscapes, where illusory, chimerical combinations of light and color come into tangible focus.
In his new book, Snake Fire (L’Artiere Edizioni, 2021), Datto, who is based in Kolkata, continues to expand his constructed world, where reality is reconfigured to generate a trance vision. A compilation of arresting, and at times unsettling, photographs that portray anonymous creatures of the night, derelict urban landscapes of Southeast Asia, and inadvertent collisions between nature and human civilization, the publication features a hundred or so images, taken in Malaysia and Indonesia, printed in full bleed from one page to the next. Here, we see an old man treading along a deserted road with a cadaver of a pig cut in half; a crocodile floating in muddied water; a riverbank inundated with heaps of trash and rubber tires where a dilapidated boat is parked; and a pair of godlike figures carved in stone, on which pieces of fabric and other paraphernalia are attached.
Resisting the grammar of photobooks built around the narrative potential created by the pacing of images with empty spaces in between, Snake Fire opts to submerge the reader in a succession of frames with such acute, rich colors that the images are rendered ethereal. A coat of silver and fluorescent ink sprayed atop numerous pages heightens the surreal aesthetics of Datto’s photographs, allowing each scene to appear differently according to the amount of light on the spread. Perhaps counterintuitively, these postproduction effects dissociate the images from the palette one typically associates with the region, despite the iconography of snake and moth that firmly root the frames in the natural environments of Southeast Asia. Instead, they invoke a fantastical parallel world produced by the layering of a colored filter onto a reality in which Datto’s eerie images could be conjoined to create an ecosystem.
Datto’s documentary work, featured by Time and National Geographic, seeks to inform the spectator of such pressing issues as migration and urbanization as they unfold in South and Southeast Asia. But Snake Fire takes a psychedelic direction, as if in opposition to reportage. Instead of flattening its images into an orderly assortment of discrete moments, Snake Fire offers a collection of hypnotic encounters that simultaneously activate the reader’s sense of sight and touch. In doing so, it disputes the status of photobooks as incomplete, albeit decent, alternatives to prints. As a satisfying counterexample of the genre, Snake Fire lets itself drift as a site of handheld dreams. —Harry C. H. Choi
The Well by Nigel Shafran
The British historian Raphael Samuel once noted that consumer society sees the world as a shop window display. Nigel Shafran is a photographer who has lingered long around high street plate glass. It’s easy to call him a fashion photographer, but his engagement with the urban vernacular and his disinterestedness in seeking commercial jobs placed him for many years on the margins of the industry. Yet The Well (Loose Joints, 2022), a newly published survey of Shafran’s work to date, notes the quiet revolution his photography has ushered in. Threaded through a chronological selection of published editorials, portfolio pieces, and outtakes is a conversation—like a series of interconnected captions—between the photographer and his collaborators, including stylists, models, editors, and art directors, recounting projects across a more than thirty-year period.
In one exchange, the stylist Anna Cockburn tells Shafran, “Your work has always celebrated the banal, the things that we don’t clock anymore,” to which he replies, “I like how you use the word clock, it’s like time.” Shafran hones details that become emblematic of a time period and, in turn, of time passed. The changing window displays he’s drawn to are, in their perpetual state of flux, no different from the young people he portrays in their moment of becoming. The subjects of his Teenage Precinct Shoppers (named after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) appear like buds before they open, while their early 1990s tracksuits today appear set in amber.
The Well, edited and designed by Linda van Deursen, charts time as a form of loss: from working in the ’90s for British style magazines such as i-D and The Face, where there was more time, more freedom, but more film to process, to working for international titles in the first decade of the twenty-first century, where the budgets got bigger and the credits got longer, but the possibilities contracted. Shafran’s later images articulate something found, a staging and reenactment of the joyful forms of lived experience, but with models and celebrities now. Bella Hadid appears daredevil cycling, her feet on the saddle, her hands gripping the handlebars, but Shafran shows her posed in the studio with three assistants holding the bike upright. It’s an absurdist play about the everyday, what Samuel described as “theatres of memory.”
In a photograph taken on Baker Street in 1992, a young window cleaner, squeegee in hand, stands on the street looking directly at the lens, his baggy black outfit and slicked-back hair fresh from a night out. It’s only when you notice the streaks running down the right of the frame that you realize Shafran must have been inside the shop to take the image, internalizing his view of the world as a shop window—the boy in that moment the best fashion plate he could ever be. Shafran’s work describes a discontinuous world, but its manufactured heart beats steadily: hopes and desires just as shallow in depth, just as temporary, just as glorious as what lies out for sale. —Alistair O’Neill
Flint Is Family in Three Acts by LaToya Ruby Frazier
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Flint Is Family in Three Acts (Steidl and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2022) chronicles how artists and activists—family by blood, choice, and common cause—came together to bring fresh water back to Flint, Michigan, after the city’s catastrophic decision in April 2014 to switch its water supply from a treatment facility to a toxic river. Residents were forced to consume contaminated water that made them sick, with some developing chronic medical conditions as a result. Throughout all of this, Flint’s citizens—predominately Black and economically poor—were still required to pay their water bills. Frazier was initially commissioned by Elle magazine to photograph the man-made crisis, and her project grew from there, culminating in a book coauthored by the Flint activists Shea S. Cobb and Amber N. Hasan; Shea’s father, Douglas R. Smiley; and Flint community members.
Expansive and elegant, with an inviting, textured cover, Flint Is Family is at once monumental and intimate. As with her earlier book The Notion of Family (Aperture, 2016), it involved many participants and a concern for social justice. Frazier described in a panel discussion organized this spring by the Gordon Parks Foundation how relationships and dialogue were essential to the Flint project, including to its editorial process: Frazier and Cobb laid these photographs out on a kitchen table and talked about every detail as if poring over a family album.
The three acts in the title are an organizing principle based on the Bible: Act I begins with a poem by Cobb titled “No Filter,” accompanied by an aerial photograph of Cobb at the center of a bridge over these troubled waters. Act II brings Cobb and her daughter, Zion, to Newton, Mississippi, back to their family land with its fresh springs and horses. Act III pivots to Hasan, who moves to Puerto Rico and meets a man named Moses West who has a solution. With help from Frazier, Hasan and West find the financial support to bring an atmospheric water generator to Flint, providing free and fresh water to all who need it. Frazier and the book’s editor, Michal Raz-Russo, who also contributes an essay, remain thoughtful about the divinity of these intertwining lives and events, down to the typeface used throughout, which comes from the Amplified Holy Bible.
In addition to its Judeo-Christian elements, we can see Flint Is Family through another tradition: the spirit of African American photography. The book crescendos from primarily black-and-white images into colorful, jubilant portraits of residents drawing fresh water from the generator in Flint’s Black business district. The green generator with blue solar panels becomes an open-air studio for Frazier, recalling James VanDerZee’s and Dawoud Bey’s Harlem; Richard Samuel Roberts’s Columbia, South Carolina; and the Black portrait studios that peppered the United States throughout the twentieth century. Her respect for portraiture converges with the rich documentary tradition of Gordon Parks, who himself moved between black- and-white photo-essays and the color portraits seen in Segregation Story to evoke changes in time and tone over the course of a life.
By the end of Flint Is Family, we certainly feel the change. —Jovonna Jones
Strajk / Strike by Rafał Milach
Strajk / Strike (Jednostka Gallery, 2021) presents many photographs the Polish artist-activist Rafał Milach took of people standing on balconies or looking out the windows of Warsaw apartment blocks. These images of figures framed within the gridded structure of residential facades are also a framing device for this record of the Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), the popular uprising in Poland in the last months of 2020 in response to a near-total abortion ban. Spurred by the ruling of a conservative Constitutional Tribunal, the wave of mass protests that continued into early 2021 stood in opposition to the overwhelmingly Catholic country’s right-wing government, which in recent years has rendered the position of women, LGBTQIA, and minorities increasingly perilous.
The protests were a pressing subject for Milach—a member of Magnum Photos whose work is primarily concerned with systemic structures of power and state control—who has since covered the war in Ukraine. Bolstered by essays printed in English and Polish by Aleksandra Bockowska, Karolina Gembara, and Iwona Kurz, the book considers the function images played in the months-long Women’s Strike. What did it mean to photograph the protest, and why does it matter? While the movement’s demands were not met, Strajk / Strike’s tone is vaguely hopeful regarding the way photographs can constitute a call to action and visualize enduring forms of solidarity. Nearly square in format and printed on newsprint, the deep-red, light- weight book bears on its back cover the lightning bolt that became the symbol for the movement. You can almost imagine the bolt itself being brandished as a protest sign, clutched in a hand extending into the air.
And, indeed, Strajk / Strike suggests that images hold a power that can be wielded. In Kurz’s essay, “Snapshots from a Protest: A Coalitional Image,” she broaches the sense of “us” versus “them” that structures much protest photography, in which the contrast between opposing sides of a conflict is often amplified aesthetically by the photojournalist. Milach supplants this binary with a dialogue between photographs of protesters—mostly close-up headshots of young women, many with bright-red eye shadow or face masks embellished with lightning bolts—and photographs of people looking down on the street from their homes. In line with Kurz’s claim that these demonstrations stemmed less from polarization than from an effort to envision a society that made space for multiplicity, Milach’s photographs of the onlookers underscore a sense of ambiguous plurality. Some waved, pasted lightning bolts to their windowpanes, or recorded the procession below with their phones; others peered down ambivalently, perhaps signaling support with their presence. The protests took place as COVID-19 surged in Poland, keeping many people home as they quarantined or avoided risk of infection.
In her text, “Gaze,” Gembara analyzes the posture of these onlookers in terms of the scholar Ariella Azoulay’s theory of photography as a civil contract, dismissing the passivity that can be associated with the medium and situating the act of taking or observing a photograph as something inherently active. Her concluding sentence pithily encapsulates the book’s motivating thrust: “Our seeing, a mutual responsibility.” —Camila McHugh
These reviews originally appeared in Aperture, issue 248, “The 70th Anniversary Issue,” in The PhotoBook Review.