Late last week, Jonathan Worth, who runs Phonar [fo-'när], a free and open undergraduate photography class, at Coventry University, in the UK, asked a number of writers and photographers to put together a list of photo books that are “notable/ inspiring/ seminal/ provocative, in [their] narrative structure/approach or perhaps in [their] ‘discussion’ of narrative.” Many notables in the photo world responded, including Alec Soth, Gilles Peress, Joel Meyerowitz, Nathalie Belayche, Geoff Dyers, Wayne Ford, Stephen Mayes, Jeff, Brouws, and David Campbell. The results are fascinating. You can see their lists, here.
And, to save you the trouble of clicking through, here's mine. It's got a problem, however, one that I address below.
* * *
American Photographs, Walker Evans.
Very probably the most influential of all photo books. Demonstrated that photographic narrative can be carried along by the sequencing of images and that meaning (elusive though it may be) can be produced by their cumulative weight. Can also be read as a road trip (it was actually the work of several).
The Americans, Robert Frank.
The impact of Walker Evans’ American Photographs can be felt on every page. Not coincidentally, Evans helped to secure the Guggenheim that put Frank on the road across America.
South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, David Goldblatt.
Another of Evans’ photographic off-spring. As in American Photographs, buildings outnumber people — decidedly so, in Goldblatt’s case. An implied, although not actual, road trip, through what was then the land of apartheid. The built environment and the sequence in which it is seen reveals the complexity of the nation’s character.
Paterson, George A. Tice.
Tice does for a small industrial city, in New Jersey, what Evans and Goldblatt did for entire countries. Carefully sequenced, plainspoken, large-format images led viewers through and into the city. Buildings dominate, but people and the natural environment insist on being part of this story of grit and endurance.
JazzLife, William Claxton.
The road trip that Robert Frank would have made if he’d been in love with jazz and the people that play it. A long, rich voyage of discovery, with photographic sequencing that evokes the rhythms of jazz.
House of Bondage, Earnest Cole.
Cole, who despite the name, was African, takes viewers on a journey into day-to-day reality of a South Africa shaped by apartheid. Anger informs, but never overwhelms, the images and text. The impact of the photos makes the words almost superfluous.
The Sound I Saw, Roy DeCarava.
DeCarava first invites viewers to share his vision and sensibility before leading them outward into an exploration of African-American life in New York, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His photos convey meaning and emotion that is beyond words, much like the music — jazz — that informs DeCarava’s way of seeing.
Moving Spirit: Spirituality in South Africa, Paul Weinberg.
Another inward journey that eventually leads outward. Another implied, though not actual, road trip. An examination of the many, changing facets of South African spirituality — traditional, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu. A photographic style developed during the height of the struggle against apartheid turns to contemplative subjects with great effect.
Seconds of My Life, Jamel Shabazz.
An exuberant, extroverted engagement with African-American popular culture in the post-Civil Rights era. Shabazz finds meaning in the faces, clothes, and postures of the men and women, boys and girls that he encounters, mostly on the street. Narrative is implied as styles and backgrounds change.
* * *
I'm pretty happy with my list. It's not meant to be definitive. Instead, it's a list of books that I like a lot. I've spent a good deal of time looking at and thinking about them over the years. There is a problem with the list, however. There are no women photographers on it.
The absence of women reveals a blind spot in my view of photography. I can't believe that I left out, for instance, Cindy Sherman, who has spent much of her career exploring narratives of various sorts. I'd like to hear other suggestions -- women photographers who have used photo books to create narratives or to investigate their nature. If you have any, please leave a comment.