These are great times for photography and for photographic books. Or so it seems when you have a dozen impeccably produced volumes stacked up on the coffee table. From the publishers’ point of view, the economics of production mean that these stacks are extremely precarious. So this celebration of the best photography books of the past year actually begins with a lament for the passing of Arena Editions in Santa Fe. In recent years, Arena produced a range of stunning, historically important books, among them Garry Winogrand’s 1964, Richard Misrach’s Golden Gate, Kenro Izu’s Sacred Places. They will be missed.

The most exciting book in an excellent year was Revelations (Random House, $100), the aptly named and long-awaited Diane Arbus retrospective (which will arrive at LACMA Feb. 29). Since her suicide in 1971, a pretty definitive set of images has been left to speak for itself. Essentially these are the pictures gathered for the posthumous 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and reproduced in the accompanying catalog, so our knowledge of Arbus’ work has been almost frozen for 30 years. The new book hugely extends the available range of photos. What makes Revelations essential reading as well as a lavish visual feast, though, is the chronology prepared by Elisabeth Sussman and Arbus’ daughter Doon. Significantly, this is not tucked away at the back of the book but is literally central to it. Drawing on Arbus’ notebooks and correspondence, it amounts almost to a fragmentary autobiography.

Arbus’ voracious intelligence extended far beyond the relatively narrow focus of her own work but always ended up obliquely informing it. Her photographs are like fairy tales in unflinching documentary mode. In keeping with this, she had a fondness for explaining them in weird parables that had their own unerring precision. “It’s like going around a mirrorless world asking everyone you meet to describe you and everyone says endlessly, ‘you have a face even as I do and your eyes are bluer and big,’ and even, ‘my smile when I look at you is you,’ but you don’t believe it and then one day you bump smack into a stone wall and no one hears you say, ‘ouch,’ and your whole problem is solved.” Incredible.

Over the last decade or so, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work has appeared in various thematic collections: America in Passing, Mexican Notebooks, Europeans and so on. The publication this year of The Man, The Image and the World (Thames & Hudson, $75) means that it is possible to wholeheartedly recommend a single edition of Cartier-Bresson’s photography. It’s the best selection of his work ever: more comprehensive than Photographer (the previous best choice) and with useful essays and bibliography to boot.

Robert Frank thought it a shame that nothing had ever happened to Cartier-Bresson “that shook him up, except the beauty of composition.” The jolt of going from C-B’s off-the-cuff eloquence to the casual grime of Frank’s London/Wales (Scalo, $45) is not simply aesthetic. Frank made these photos in 1951–53. When The Americans was first published in 1958, people thought it presented a grim and bleak vision of the States. Well, America seems like paradise compared to Britain. The photos of Welsh miners have the rough-hewn immediacy that one would expect, but it is the London pictures that are most oppressive. It looks like the gloomiest city in the world — which in many ways it was. The photos of bowler-hatted city gents look like they were taken just after the First World War. The people crossing the Thames come tramping straight out of Eliot’s Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”

I’ve never been able to muster up much enthusiasm for Edward Weston’s endless grocery store of forms: the Lisa Lyons pepper, the brain-stem cabbage, the cock-and-balls gourd and so forth. There’s a certain amount of this stuff in A Legacy (Merrell, $75), but more prominence than usual is given to the work Weston made between 1937 and 1938 (after being awarded a Guggenheim) and in 1941 (when he was commissioned to come up with photos for a new edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass). These projects brought Weston closer to the main thrust of the kind of documentary photography we associate with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), while allowing him sufficient freedom to maintain the purity of his own vision.

In John Vachon’s America (University of California, $50), editor Miles Orvell makes a persuasive case for Vachon as a link between Walker Evans’ straight documentary photography and Frank’s more oblique take on things. Like Evans, Vachon worked for the FSA, but he did not become a photographer in his own right until after working as a caption writer. This formative early exposure meant that his own approach was formed by the prestigious examples of Evans, Dorothea Lange and others. Although always working under the FSA’s strict guidelines or “shooting scripts,” he gradually attained a more personal, lyrical style. Unfortunately, the valuable work of assembling a selection of his images is undermined somewhat by Orvell’s making claims for Vachon as a writer that the evidence presented here — letters to his wife, Penny — cannot support. It is a shame that more of the 200 pages devoted to his words weren’t given over to the pictures, many of which are outstanding.

No one could accuse Philip-Lorca diCorcia of verbosity. A Story Book Life (Twin Palms, $80) is stripped of all verbal guidance save a list of place and date captions at the end. The color pictures are simultaneously accidental and posed, ordinary and filmic, eloquent and banal. Some are reminiscent of Jeff Wall and, inevitably, William Eggleston. The whole thing is painstakingly offhand. Each picture hints at a narrative that the next effectively thwarts. You can get a more economical glimpse of diCorcia’s world in the catalog of the MoMA show (Distributed Art Publishers, $24.95).

If diCorcia’s images are like lucid dreams, the pictures in Sugimoto’s Architecture (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, $55) are like the fading memory of a dream. His blurred views of the sharp angles of modernist buildings make you squint in the hope that they will appear, finally, in the light of a vanished clarity of achieved form. It never happens, of course, because the photos have a haunting and time-drenched perfection of their own. In American Night (Steidl, $65), Paul Graham takes things even further, bleaching out his photos of streets until it is only just possible to make out any details in the all-engulfing whiteness. We’ve just got used to peering into this near-nothingness when, with an almost physical shock, we are arrested by the bright color images of immaculate suburban homes from which the homeless African-Americans wandering like ghosts in each of the whited-out images are tacitly excluded.

It comes as a relief to turn from Graham’s subversive
politico-aesthetic strategies to Wim Wenders’ Pictures From the Surface of the Earth (Schirmer, $35). Wenders’ description of Frank as a European besotted by America applies equally well to his own work. Luxuriating in the vastness of Montana and Hopperesque views of empty streets and rundown stores, his pictures are the opposite of original — and all the more seductive for that. They have, almost inevitably, a cinematic quality, but they are not like film stills, more like still films.

Films are also brought to mind by Robert Polidori’s Zones of Exclusion (Steidl, $50). Or, rather, one film in particular comes to mind. Made in the areas around Chernobyl, these pictures are documentary proof that the Zone imagined by Tarkovsky in Stalker exists. But whereas Tarkovsky’s is a source of hope, this is a blighted place, the site of a pilgrimage of the damned. Where Polidori bears witness to the aftermath of catastrophe, Michael Light has assembled an archive of its radiant prehistory. 100 Suns (Knopf, $45) consists of 100 images from the era (1945–1962) of America’s program of overground nuclear tests. The book blazes with a beauty that becomes more terrible with every page.

Mention should also be made of What Remains by Sally Mann (Bulfinch, $50), Los Alamos by William Eggleston (Scalo, $65), The Devil’s Playground by Nan Goldin (Phaidon, $95), and The Wright Brothers’ Legacy: Orville and Wilbur and Their Aeroplanes in Pictures by Walt Burton and Owen Findsen (Abrams, $37.50).

LA Weekly