Notable Photo Books of 2015: Part 2

December 11, 2015

PDN’s editors—and a pair of guest reviewers—selected 15 book that caught our attention this year, from a troubling photo album to a new look at America’s heartland; from books of historic photos that add new perspectives to key social issues of our time, to books that explore how photographs and image fragments combine to tell a story. Below is Part 2 of our list of notable books of the year. Read Part 1 of our list here.


Edited by Annette Behrens

Fw: Books

128 pages


How must we reckon with grievous epochs in our history? Does erasure and forgetting lay the groundwork for rebuilding, or does silence whitewash the bloody record of our ignominious past? Is there room for compromise between such extremes, or must we adopt fixed and antagonistic positions?

These are some of the foundational questions at work in Annette Behrens’ remarkable book (in Matter Of) Karl. In it, Behrens contends with photography’s capacity to reveal and to seal away in wordlessness the many facets of Germany’s Nazi history. The subject of the book is Karl Höcker, owner of an album of photographs made by high-ranking Nazi officers and auxiliary personnel while running the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, both camps at which Höcker served as deputy commander during the Second World War. The photographs are part of the archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and are the only candid record of the daily life of the Nazis who administered the genocide undertaken in both camps.

This is a nuanced, complex and extraordinarily forthright book that contains rigorous, insightful and evocative research. It is thoroughly and conscientiously contextualized, and it is narrated in Behrens’s small diaristic entries, which detail her immersion into this history, and her ambivalence about the results of her diligent intervention. Behrens’s investigation of Höcker’s photographs opens up old wounds in some who knew him, and in her repeated trips to the Nazi retreat at Solahutte, Behrens reminds us of how hard some have worked to forget or to disavow this complex history.

The book compels us to deal with the dangers of forgetting our past, and asks us to consider the moral challenges involved in any effort to retrieve what has been suppressed. Behrens confronts photography’s tendency to seem like a grossly insufficient gesture in the face of unforgivable acts, and it simultaneously examines photography’s capacity to give us a means to dismantle repression, and come face to face with the iniquities of our past.



By Newsha Tavakolian

144 pages

Kehrer Verlag


Newsha Tavakolian opens her introduction to her new book with these words: “One of the most precious possessions for every Iranian household is the family photo album.” The photo albums documenting her generation, however, typically end in blank pages, Tavakolian says, because the family stopped documenting their moments of joy and pride. “Is that the moment that some became bitter? Or the moment they left the country?” she wonders. In the absence of self-representation, Iranians became subject to outsiders’ perceptions of the country, which tend to focus on its extremists. Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album is Tavakolian’s attempt to counter foreigners’ views by showing moments in the lives of nine ordinary, lower-middle class Iranians.

Each chapter is focused on a different individual. It begins with an old family photo of Tavokolian’s subject and then a few sentences in their own words, which give context for the images that follow: Najieh, a mother, explaining why she is “raising my two sons with Islamic values”; Fahti, who took a job as a maid after her husband lost his job and “I hit rock bottom”; Mehdi, a cafe owner, who says the faces of the young people having snacks and coffee show “how numb they’ve become”; Bita, a model about to undergo lip augmentation, discussing the struggle to make money working Tehran’s underground catwalk shows or the less glamorous, publicly sanctioned runway shows.

In addition to her reportage-style photos of these individuals in the course of their day, Tavakolian observes life going on around them: A taxi driver eyeing the photographer, men hovering at a food stall, a woman peeking under the paper that covers a street poster showing a fashion ad; a mom and kids under a playful mural in a pre-school; a traffic circle seen through parted window curtains. Each chapter includes a posed portrait of the subject taken in a park overlooking Tehran amidst tangled branches and messy patches of grass. The photographer says she hopes her book “communicates the feeling of people here,” and it manages to convey a mix of wistfulness and unease, melancholy and ebullience.



By Danny Lyon


204 pages, 

88 color and B&W illustrations


After documenting the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1960s, photojournalist Danny Lyon turned his camera on the Texas prison system. He spent 14 months photographing inside six different prisons, earning the trust of a number of inmates along the way.

“I was not interested in improving prisons. I wanted to destroy them,” he said at a talk he gave at the annual National Geographic seminar in 2014. First published by Henry Holt in 1971, Conversations with the Dead was a seminal work of documentary photography not only because of Lyon’s immersive “New Journalism” approach, but because it was one of the first photo books to incorporate arrest reports, court documents, prisoners’ artwork and letters, and other ephemera.

First edition copies are now collectible, but Phaidon has recently issued a digitally remastered facsimile edition, making the book accessible to new audiences. (In 2014, Phaidon issued a retrospective of Lyon’s complete oeuvre called The Seventh Dog, while Aperture re-issued The Bikeriders, originally published in 1968).

Lyon’s black-and-white photographs of prisoners are so striking because they’re shot at close range, with much attention to detail and nuance. They capture the experience of incarceration in a visceral way. He makes a case for the injustice and futility of the system through the mind-numbing boredom, drudgery and humiliations of prisoner’s day-to-day lives.

Unfortunately, prison conditions haven’t improved, and the Texas prison population has exploded from 12,500 inmates when Lyon did the work to more than 200,000 inmates today. “If, back in 1968, I thought I could bring down the mighty walls of the Texas prison system by publishing [this book],” he writes in the introduction of the new edition, “then those years of my work are among the greatest failures of my life.” But it’s brilliant work just the same.



By Matthew Porter


132 pages, 145 color photographs


Matthew Porter’s Archipelago, one of the best photobooks I have seen in a while, is not an easily accessible book. What makes it complex and, ultimately, so refreshing and rewarding is that it employs an elliptical way of telling a story that may frustrate those looking for something simpler, with a linear narrative that carries them from a clear and obvious beginning to an equally clear and obvious ending.

Instead, Archipelago works with what photographs do when they are placed in conversation with other images. The majority of spreads in the book contain groups of pictures. Porter also uses similar images throughout the book as visual echoes that tie the spreads to one another. 

Archipelago begins with images of a boat and a sunrise, and then carries the viewer to an island of lizards, rough terrain, strange artifacts, and a few young women explorers. Assuming the perspective of the explorers, the viewer is taken on a tour of the island, inspecting its terrain, flora and fauna. She finds people living on the island, and then she leaves again. The discovery and exploration are the story; what the viewer makes of them is up to her.

If anything, the book shows what you can do with pictures when you abandon the idea of “from here to there,” instead creating a world that encourages viewers to discover things through the photographer’s eyes and become a more active participant in unearthing a story. Photography is a way of making sense of the world—Archipelago makes this clear.

Porter’s book requires patience, which may make the book difficult for some people. But those willing to give it time will enjoy the rewards of beautiful photographs, and strange visual combinations and echoes across spreads. Best of all, while the book could have easily been just clever, it is a lot more than that.



By Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti

Essay by Nicholas Shaxson

Dewi Lewis

224 pages, 80 photographs


To better understand the tax havens corporations and rich people use to avoid taxes and financial regulation in their home countries, Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti spent two years following the money. They traveled to Switzerland, Panama, Cayman Islands, Jersey, British Virgin Islands and other places that offer a variety of methods to stash money, set up shell corporations and elude government oversight. As Woods notes in the book’s introduction, tax dodging is not an obviously visual subject. Stories about tax havens are usually illustrated with stock shots of palm trees on a tropical beach. Woods and Galimberti instead photographed people and institutions who make the global tax-evasion system run: rows of post office boxes in the Cayman Islands; the chief deputy secretary of state in Delaware in his office in the Wilmington State Building where 300 companies are incorporated each day; the finance minister of the British Virgin Islands looking out his office window at, yes, palm trees. They also made numerous photographs of the trappings of wealth and the people who depend on it: a gardener trimming the hedge at a palatial home in Jersey; an architect and builder in the Cayman Islands surveying the site of a new development; high school students in the British Virgin Islands taking part in a financial services class; a heroin addict and prostitute in Wilmington, Delaware, shown at home with her mom. All the photos are bright and crisply detailed, suggesting that the photographers are shining a light on a shadowy system based on secrecy. 

The book’s format imitates a corporate annual report: Woods and Galimberti went to Delaware and, for a tiny fee, quickly set up a corporation called The Heavens LLC. “We now owned a company in a tax haven,” Woods writes. “The book you are holding in your hands is our global company’s annual report.” However, The Heavens is far more lively, intriguing and alarming than anything I can imagine a corporate communications department producing.

Many of the images have a deadpan humor that is well matched by the sometimes ironic tone of Nicholas Shaxson’s text. Authoritative and highly readable, his essay explains in detail how this complicated economic ecosystem allows the rich and powerful to avoid oversight. He explains how schemes set up to protect wealth affect individuals both locally and internationally, and how all of us who patronize hundreds of corporations large and small participate in the ruse. 



Phillip Toledano

78 pages, 42 photos

Dewi Lewis

35 GBP (about $53 US)

Most of us take photos to preserve memories. In his modest but affecting new book, Phillip Toledano uses photography to examine what has been forgotten, to envision remembered dreams and to imagine a past that never existed. When Toledano was six, his sister, Claudia, died; she was nine. He writes in the book that he has almost no memory of Claudia, but he recalls that around the time of her death, he developed a fascination with astronomy and distant planets. One of the first photos in the book shows the surface of a planet and a tiny astronaut in a space suit hovering in the infinite black space just outside the planet’s gravitational pull. It’s an apt metaphor for the feeling of being adrift in the void left by the death of a loved one. After his father’s death, Toledano opened the box in which his mother had stored Claudia’s drawings, snapshots, birth certificate, a locket of her hair, a porcelain giraffe and other items from her room. Toledano’s still-life photographs of these mementoes offer clues to what his sister was like, and also force us to imagine what his parents were thinking as they packed away the remnants of their child’s life into a plain cardboard box. (Full disclosure: My parents had two of these boxes, one labeled “Tommy’s Toys” and the other “Tommy’s Clothes,” which they carried along every time they moved to a new house in the four decades after my brother died at the age of six. Unlike Toledano, I haven’t had the guts to open them.)

Toledano photographed Claudia’s belongings and his imaginary planets in a similar light and style. A note to her parents decorated with Magic Marker drawings is suspended against a dark background and illuminated by a glancing beam of light. The asteroids and hazy landscapes of strange planets that Toledano seems to have created out of fabric, rocks and dust are also lit by shafts of light that appear to come from a distant, unseen sun. One of the most poignant objects shown in the book did not belong to Claudia; it’s a page from a family album showing Toledano at his school’s sports day, just two week’s after his sister’s death. He writes, “I seem so happy. What did my parents tell me? What could they have told me?”

In addition to publishing When I Was Six this year, Toledano also published the book Maybe, in which he uses makeup, prosthetics, hair dye and costumes to create a series of self portraits that show how he might age if the predictions of geneticists and fortune tellers come true. When I Was Six, however, explores not alternative futures but an alternative past. Toledano says of Claudia, “I miss who she might have been, and who I might have been if I’d had her as a sister.”

When I Was Six was published in an edition of only 500 numbered copies, which surprises me. I am sure there are more than 500 of us who appreciate what Toledano has attempted to do in the book: to envision a person who, by her absence, exerted such influence on his imagination, and to honor the strength his mother and father summoned to carry on being caring and devoted parents.



By Larry Fink

Stanley / Barker

112 pages, 48 B&W photographs


Anyone who’s passed time in the Central Cascades or on the Olympic Peninsula has noticed evidence of the timber industry’s lengthy history in Washington State: the uniform spacing of trees in new growth forests; the massive stumps lingering in a clear cut; the switchbacks of logging roads; the old mills and the once-prosperous towns that diminished with the supply of beautiful old trees. For those of a certain age who grew up in the Northwest, the fight between timber companies and environmentalists attempting to protect Spotted Owl habitat is an indelible memory, one in a series of muddy regional conflicts between those struggling for their livelihoods and those fighting the tide of development.

When Larry Fink got a call from the Seattle Art Museum in 1980, offering him a commission to produce a body of work on a subject of his choosing in Washington State, Fink chose to make photographs of loggers. He’d been living on a farm, cutting wood from the forest to heat the home he lived in. After four years of “pain and hardening,” he writes in the introduction to the new book that collects his work from that commission, “my imagination allowed me to be who I wasn’t. I WAS A LOGGER.” This notion was quickly dispelled when Fink and his minder, “A gypo (freelance) logger” named Dave McCardle, got into the first logging camp he was to photograph. “We posed no threat, but were treated as if we had the plague. It was the plague of the outsider.”

Despite his alien status, Fink still managed to make photographs with his Mamiya CC30 and Leica M2 that are sensitive to the telling details of a logger’s life. Photos of men sleeping in their work-wear with hats pulled down over their eyes show how exhausting their work is; raw, cluttered, wood stove-heated cabins indicate time for work and little else. Fink dedicates a majority of his book to images of the dangerous labor itself. His photos are matter of fact and, at times, heroic in the way they depict the men against the scale of their work. Looking at his black-and-white images today, it’s hard not to notice the loggers navigating piles of branches, tangles of destruction of their own making, or the remote, mountainous landscapes, stripped in favor of manmade projects elsewhere. In many photographs, clear cuts of varying sizes form dead spaces with little detail. And while we may lament the loss of ancient forests and be thankful that sustainable practices continue to develop, Fink’s portraits acknowledge the humanity of the timber industry’s laborers, and make it difficult to find fault with the loggers in pursuit of a hard living.



By Dana Lixenberg

Roma Publications

269 pages, B&W photos throughout


The work in Imperial Courts began after the riots in South Central Los Angeles in April 1992, which followed the acquittal of four police officers for the brutal beating of Rodney King, an incident caught on videotape and subsequently broadcast around the world. The last photographs in the book were made after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severed spine and died in a coma after his arrest on the streets of Baltimore in April 2015. Gray’s arrest was filmed, and the footage of his screams circulated the globe during a period of acute and sustained attention to the deaths of unarmed African-American men at the hands of the police.

These are the chronological boundaries that frame this work: The link of crisis and death to public interest in the underserved minority communities of the United States. But such events are not the book’s subject matter, nor does it take as its premise an equivalence between African-American identity and violence. Instead, Imperial Courts tracks the changing shape and of a small, inner-city community within South Central Los Angeles through a beautiful series of portraits of its distinctive inhabitants. It marks the generational passing of time as sons become grandfathers, daughters become mothers, and parents, neighbors and friends pass silently into the grave at the turning of a page.

This is a measured, attentive, powerful body of work. Lixenberg’s luminous photographs do not fixate on calamity, nor do they pathologize poverty. They measure the weight of time in the shaping of identity, and explore the fragility and resilience of fundamental social and familial bonds. Behind the changes in the faces of people Lixenberg photographs for twenty years or more, we see an unwavering constancy of marginal economic life that shames this nation.


Related: Notable Photo Books of 2015: Part 1

You’ve Published Your Photo Book. Now How Do You Market It?

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