By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Carlos Gallegos carried a pair of photographs with him during two tours in Iraq. One was of his young son, and the other was an idyllic snapshot of his parents from the late ’70s, the two of them just sitting together, hugging affectionately, happy. “This is the greatest photo ever taken,” he told photographer Zoe Strauss, who found him working the front desk at a hotel in El Paso, his marriage broken, suffering from posttraumatic stress and now back living with his parents. But the war vet could still cling to that picture as evidence of something better, of a fleeting moment of genuine harmony that might once again be attainable.
Strauss recognized something profound in the picture, and photographed it against the flowery, heavenly blue surface of Gallegos’ empty bed. It is a stirring image from her first collection of photographs, America, a kind of full-color, postmillennial reinterpretation of Robert Frank’s grim 1958 photographic milestone, The Americans. Strauss is a Philadelphia-based street photographer with her own point of view, but it’s just as raw and disturbing as Frank’s, with fresh images of decay and despair on both coasts and many states in between. In one picture, a gunshot victim is having a smoke as he’s strapped into a gurney. Another features a little boy showing off his first rifle. And one more has an ominous road sign by the New Jersey Highway warning, “Report Suspect Activity.”
The collection is just one of the many intriguing books of photography, art, comics and architecture released in these final months of 2008. California gets a similar, Larry Clark–like treatment in Tony Stamolis’ Frezno, lo-fi pictures of dried-out landscapes, empty pill bottles and shotguns in your face. It is Central Valley purgatory, with fresh blood droplets on the floor and feces in the easy chair. The book is dedicated to the woman who gave Stamolis’ father a job in Fresno “so that I could be spawned in such a sweet place.”
Life is sweeter but just as complicated in Danielle Levitt’s We Are Experienced, portraits that capture modern high school kids in their natural settings — with all the smoldering energy, frayed nerves, innocence and malevolence of adolescence. In one picture from 2003, awkward 15-year-old lovers in sneakers embrace on the grass. The photos are honest but sympathetic, wrangling another disaffected generation of metalheads, gangstas, punks, jocks, skate kids, freaks, winners and losers in beautifully crafted scenes as rich as epic romantic paintings.
Annie Leibovitz has published at least nine books in her career, but the newest is easily her best since Photographs 1970-1990, published nearly two decades ago. Annie Leibovitz at Work has relatively few images on its pages. It is instead a book filled with words, as the acclaimed photographer for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair recounts the key events of her career and the stories behind the pictures. It isn’t photo-philosophy on the level of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” but the book manages to enlighten anyone as interested in the process of portraiture as in her celebrity subjects. At Work also reaches back — notably witnessing the deposed President Nixon’s exit as his chopper lifted off from the White House lawn — to her early photojournalism, a medium she mostly abandoned as portraits and glamour increasingly defined her career.
Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives, 1961-1971 unearths the loving snapshots of a true country-music fan, before the C&W establishment began to resent its own twang. Kagarise photographed these singers and pickers casually in outdoor settings, taking it all in just a few feet from the stage and a buzzcut George Jones, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe or pretty ladies like June Carter Cash. And Kagarise wasn’t beyond bursting into tears at a particular moment of beauty or high musical energy.
In I Am My Family: Photographic Memories and Fictions, Rafael Goldchain explores a century of Polish-Jewish ancestry by photographing himself in character as members of his extended family, a kind of Cindy Sherman approach to replacing photo albums lost in the turmoil and murder of World War II.
Local artist Jeffrey Vallance first revealed himself in 1979 with “Blinky,” the supermarket chicken he laid to rest in a Calabasas pet cemetery, with a wake, coffin and headstone. His book Relics & Reliquaries collects the larger arc of his ouvre in the great tradition of serious art with a wicked sense of comedy. There is a follow-up with poor Blinky (the body exhumed, an autopsy, etc.) and new adventures and artifacts of Elvis, the Soviet Union, the King of Tonga and Richard Nixon, all meticulously encased in elegant reliquaries.
In Mythtym, writer-artist Trinie Dalton gathers some fave words and artwork from her zine projects, with contributions from Eddie Ruscha, Dennis Cooper and others about high and low art, pop culture and Shelley Duvall, mad dogs and werewolves.
Dope Menace by Stephen J. Gertz collects the lurid cover art of drug-themed mass-market paperbacks from the postwar years, with self-explanatory titles like Orgy Town, Narco Nympho and Marijuana Murder. Crusading Rep. Ezekiel C. Gathings claimed the books promoted “sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy.” (Something for everyone.)