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A Thousand Words

A roundup of the best photography books of the year
Kim Kardashian, North West, and Kanye West, Los Angeles, 2014. From Annie Liebovitz Portraits 2005-2016 © Annie Leibovitz/Trunk Archive

Annie Leibovitz Portraits 2005-2016 by Annie Leibovitz. Phaidon Press, $89.95.

Let me start with this: I idolize Annie Leibovitz, but she frustrates me. I don't always like her work. But I always pay attention. I subscribe to Vanity Fair for her work alone. Undeniably, Leibovitz still has an incredible career and body of work, not to mention a level of access unrivaled by just about any photographer on planet earth. She is a titan who has done it all; she's shot everyone and continues to grow. And yet, at times in Portraits 2005-2016, it seem to be solely about who's in the picture — a kind of photographic name-dropping. Whereas in others, the idea, setting and epic production overpower the subject. It's when she lands a perfect pairing of the two that she blows me away. And the book has many portraits that find that balance. Like the KimYe photo-behind-the-photo-behind-the-photo photo, that controversial shot of Miley Cyrus looking like a Manet painting, David Hockney sketching in his car or what really went on under Jon Stewart's desk.

 

 

Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985. From La Calle: Photographs from Mexico © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

La Calle : Photographs from Mexico by Alex Webb. Aperture, $60.

La Calle get its name from the Octavio Paz poem, which is pure genius for a book on street photography in Mexico. The collection showcases more than 30 years of Alex Webb's work in that country. Even though over-referenced, his work brings Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous words to mind: "We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment on the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance." In Webb's compositions, the stars seem to align, the chaos quiets and everything falls into its right place. But, really, he has just mastered recognizing that decisive moment some photographers strive their entire career to catch. The photos, along with commissioned passages from five Mexican and Mexican-American authors, help us better understand the roles the streets have played for generations.

 

 

Mayors, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, 2009. From In That Land of Perfect Day © Brandon Thibodeaux

In That Land of Perfect Day  by Brandon Thibodeaux. Red Hook Editions, $60.

Brandon Thibodeaux's first book explores his time spent in the Mississippi Delta. I first saw a lot of this work in early 2016 in an accompanying exhibit ("When Morning Comes") that preceded this book in my hometown of Columbus, Mississippi. His powerful portrayal of the land and its people fully relays the complex beauty and perseverance throughout a suffocating history of poverty and racism. In the subjects, you see the struggle and the light that keeps them going. We get glimpses into rural towns like Alligator and witness the soul-piercing stares of a man named "Dance Machine." We also get reminded of the simple pleasures of childhood, like hiding in a cabinet or a backflip on an old mattress. What started out as a personal journey for the photographer teaches us all we need a little more joy, faith and determination in our lives.

 

 

From Good God Damn © Bryan Schutmaat

Good God Damn  by Bryan Schutmaat. Trespasser, $40.

Shot in Leon County, Texas, over the course of ten days, Good God Damn documents the last days before Bryan Schutmaat's buddy Kris went to prison. The photographer gives the reader no information about Kris' sentence and never mentions the details of the crime, because that's not the point. It's about that one last romp. It's also about forging a lasting connection to the land we assume he calls home — a grounding before being uprooted. The images are desolate but celebratory, as the two friends spend their time drinking around campfires, hunting and mudriding in the woods. Schutmaat's collection doesn't omit that looming darkness, but he reassures his friend that the fire will still be burning when he returns.

 

 

From Ya Heard Me © Michelle Elmore
From Come See About Me © Michelle Elmor
From Let's Go Get Em © Michelle Elmore

Ya Heard Me, Let's Go Get Em, Come See About Me  by Michelle Elmore. Artvoices Art Books, $60 each.

There is no place in the world like New Orleans. The music and culture is live and breathing. Anyone who visits can feel how special it is. And Michelle Elmore found it to be the only place she ever felt comfortable in her own skin. This trilogy is her way of paying homage to the place she grew to call home and the people that became family.

Ya Heard Me showcases tight shots of shiny grills and the NOLA hip-hop and bounce scene. She catches artists like Mannie Fresh, Juvenile and 5th Ward Weebie posing for frames (and even ended up shooting Juvie's wedding when his photographer flaked).

Let's Go Get Em is a tribute to the Mardi Gras Indians, their rich traditions and meticulously "pretty" suits. 

Come See About Me documents the second line so vividly you can hear the brass bands. Elmore explains how she became known as "the picture lady" and returned every Sunday with prints for the subjects. 

Like countless others, Elmore lost a lot to Katrina, but luckily she moved her negatives before the storm hit. This power trio is the product of sifting through those twelve salvaged boxes.

 

 

From Prince: A Private View © Afshin Shahidi

Prince: A Private View by Afshin Shahidi. St. Martin's Press, $35.

Beyoncé's foreword puts it best: "Truth be told, the word 'icon' only scratches the surface of what Prince was and what he remains to me." Prince: A Private View shares a good mix of moments on and off stage. Afshin Shahidi captures Prince reviewing tapes of his own late-night performances like a coach after the game, clowning at the airport, window shopping, impromptu album cover shoots and the star-studded 3121 private parties. The captions go beyond the basic details of the image, letting us in on the story behind and beyond the shot. The geek in me loved learning how they reviewed the work together and how it led to Prince's having a stronger appreciation for long exposures/shutter drags. 

 

 

Winter Reading 2017 - Nonfiction & Essay Reviews

Winter Reading 2017 - Fiction, Poetry & Young Adult Reviews

Tell Me The Old Story - The Odyssey rendered by a woman

Failsafe - Eugene author Howard Libes debuts sci-fi novel When All Else Fails

Doing It Yourself - The year in local self-published literature

By Design - A selection of books on graphic art