Photobooks continue to be one of the most exciting and popular ways to appreciate contemporary photography. This year—like the last, and the one before—was a wonderful time to be passionate about the medium. Thanks to such abundance, it’s hard to even see and review all the great publications that are released annually. So, we reached out to 75 experts from countries around the world to share their favorites with us, and asked them for a few words about what made each book special. This is a list of the top 11 that were chosen by numerous individuals—a global, critically acclaimed consensus.
In 2017, the primacy of ideas is evident. Whether exploring the mysteries of color, the crimes of Monsanto, the status of masculinity, the fate of America, the role of religion in the 21st century, the intricacies of memory, or Human Nature itself, none of these publications could be faulted for their lack of ambition. Indeed, many of these books caught our attention this year specifically because of their scope and breadth. These books remind us of the enduring power of the medium thanks to their willingness to take on something vast and ultimately embody it between two covers.
The immortal Henri Cartier-Bresson once wrote, “Magazines end up wrapping French fries—books remain.” It is a safe bet that many of these publications will remain on our shelves and in our minds not because of a concept or a gimmick, but rather because they tackle some of the most pressing issues and complex questions of our time.
—Alexander Strecker, Managing Editor
Editor’s note: We polled 75 experts to produce this list. Many of their selections were not included here. But we will be publishing more of their favorites in the days to come!
Also, please note that you can scroll to the bottom of this article to see 77 spell-binding preview images from all these top books.
Every year, it seems, there is one photobook whose sheer photographic quality and visual force allows it to stand head and shoulders above the rest. In 2015, for example, Imperial Courts, the decades-long project of Dana Lixenberg shot in a housing project in LA, dropped into our lives with an unavoidable heft. The book was beautiful, but more than anything, Lixenberg’s persistence and palpably vibrant connection with her subjects stood out from everything else. In 2016, another painstakingly researched project captivated our attention—Jack Latham’s Sugar Paper Theories, which detailed a murder mystery in Iceland. In this case, the design, attention to detail, and conceptual wit of the book stole the show. It was like our favorite television whodunnit transformed into photobook form.
All of this is relevant to this year’s favorite, Sanne De Wilde’s The Island of the Colorblind. De Wilde’s book combines stark photographic power, a magnetic connection between photographer and her subject, and a remarkably original presentation all within the bounds of a single tome. In the words of Barbara Stauss, “The whole book is a gem.”
Our story begins on the Pacific atoll Pingelap, in the 18th century. A killer typhoon swept over the island, leaving few survivors, save, by some twist of a fate, the island’s genetically color-blind king. Many generations later, 1/3 of the island’s resident have the same achromatopsia—a partial or complete absence of color vision. This is a ripe site for a photographic investigation, and so the Belgian-born De Wilde steps into the scene, using social documentary techniques as well as a bold, experimental approach to tell this extraordinary tale.
Indeed, De Wilde captures the island as she saw and experienced it, but she takes us one step further by mixing black-and-white images with an otherworldly mix of intense pinks, yellows, and blues. As Azu Nwagbogu tells us, “This is a work of documentary photography that feels fictional and mythological”—a potent combination. De Wilde’s images create a portal—not only to a distant place we’ll likely never visit, but also to a way of seeing that many of us can only imagine.
As Arianna Rinaldo says, “This work challenges our own perception of the world. What colors do we see and how do we define them?” Verena Kaspar-Eisert writes, “De Wilde exquisitely engages the viewer to imagine an achromatic world and enables them to reflect on the influence, power and necessity of colours.” Or in the words of Erik Vroons, “Her artful method gives access to a more arcane sense of seeing.”
In the end, the book’s strengths are many: its “gorgeous images” (Alyssa Coppelman), its narrative strength, which makes it “feel like a novel, building up an excitement of colors and anticipation with each image” (Nwagbogu) and its ingenious design topped off with a UV-sensitive cover “that changes with the sunlight, revealing an image that we could initially only guess” (Stauss).
Or, as Rinaldo wrote, “This is a big-format book that you need to browse by stepping back in order to take all the images in. The colours. The psychedelic feel. In short, experience the journey.” We absolutely agree—truly one of our favorite photographic journeys of the year.
Arianna Rinaldo, Artistic Director, Cortona On The Move
Alyssa Coppelman, Photo Editor
Verena Kaspar-Eisert, Curator, Kunst Haus Wien
Erik Vroons, Editor-at-Large, GUP Magazine
Azu Nwagbogu, Founder and Director, LagosPhoto Festival and the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF)
Barbara Stauss, Photo Editor & Curator, MARE – Die Zeitschrift der Meere
Every time we think street photography has its run its course, or has nothing new to show us about the world, the endless vitality of the street rises to the occasion. As Joao Linneu admitted, “I wasn’t expecting to be stunned by a street photography book. And it happened.” In this case, we have to thank Chinese photographer Feng Li and his book White Night for rousing us anew to the possibilities of the venerable genre.
Although for many of us, this work will be a fresh, unexpected discovery, Li has been working towards this moment for a long time. Sarah Allen tells us, “This culmination of 10 years photographing Chengdu and nearby areas comes together excellently in this carefully sequenced and well-paced work.” Or as the ever tuned-in Martin Parr writes, “I have been a fan of this truly original Chinese photographer for many years, but only now does he finally put his work into book form.”
To properly understand the strength of the work, we’ll let another award-winning street photographer, Panos Kefalos, talk us through the book’s allure: “Li uses the violent burst of his flash as the first building block in the fashioning of his personal universe. His restless photographic style never holds back: thanks to his unique talent for isolating and manipulating color, he can constantly reshape every landscape, object, human or animal presence and mold them into new forms. This is what gives the sequence its momentum and ties every single page of the book together, paired with an obsessive quest for patterns and repetitions that provides each snapshot with its proper structural weight.”
Or as Parr puts it, “Finding the most surreal moments in daily life, Li manages to make the world a very sinister and dark place, yet embraces it with his distinctive visual wit and cunning.”
In the end, words only go so far. The energy of the street can only be experienced firsthand, or failing that, through a captivating frame. But we’ll let Kefalos do his best: “Feng Li’s fast-paced work will leave you gasping—but if you can keep up until the end, it feels as rewarding as a breath of fresh air.”
Some photographers become associated with exhibitions, others with the book form. Often, the work itself dictates which format predominates. Over time, the truly great photographers are able to transmit their vision in both media, though this is by no means a given.
In the case of John Chiara, the challenge was particularly keen. Given that Chiara’s images are immense to begin with — “like three-dimensional sculptures infused with light,” in the words of Jim Casper — and produced with a one-of-a-kind, mural-sized camera, it should come as no surprise that his work has long found a home on the walls of galleries and museums all over the world but resisted reduction into the bounds of a book. Thankfully for us, this gap has been addressed with this year’s California, published by Aperture. Built on a painstakingly edited selection of work spanning the course of 18 years, California at last brings Chiara’s luscious images to life on the printed page.
An oversize book (yet perfectly proportioned to the dimensions of the work therein), each page is a joy to discover. Several fold-out spreads accommodate essential diptychs, and images seems to leap and grow before our eyes. As Casper wrote, “Somehow — through the mix of the direct process, hand-cut photo paper, filters, and chemicals — everything looks real but ‘charged’ with a heightened energy.”
Or perhaps a fellow Californian, Alyssa Coppelman, puts it best: “The book immerses one immediately in warm, yellow California light with a gradient of lightening, sunshine-toned end papers. The printing is luscious, and the sequencing transports the viewer from south to north throughout the pages. Sometimes slightly bleak (drought-brown hillsides tell tales of past and future wildfires), sometimes magical (in-camera techniques that morph and bend colors), and always with a very specific attention to the quality of light that hints at the ghosts of California history…”
In the words of Anne Bourgeois-Vignon, this is “a truly unmissable book, from an artist whose processes render his photographic works more akin to sculpture and performance.” Add in the excellent essay at the start written by Virginia Heckert, and you have “one of the year’s gem’s” (Kaycee Olsen). Chiara’s camera, his photographs, and finally, his book, were many years in the making, and we are glad to say that they were all well worth the wait.
The American West has long exerted a pull on artists of all kinds, but photographers, in particular, have left us with some of the most indelible documents. From Timothy O’Sullivan’s pioneering mid-19th century landscapes to the widely celebrated work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, there is a truly rich lineage of documentarians. But this lineage, like the mythic cowboy and lone ranger-dominated imagination of the West, is largely male. Enter the subtle, yet revealing, lens of female photographer Sam Contis and her first book Deep Springs.
Contis cleverly uses the tiny, all-male college of Deep Springs as her starting point. As James Joyce once wrote, “In the particular is contained the universal”—in Contis’ case, this luscious investigation of the college offers a survey of life in the vast landscape of the American West. Alona Pardo describes the work as “Infused with an unpredictable sensuality [that] emphasizes the intimacy and shared sense of openness that thrives within this isolated and tightly-knit community.”
“The work doesn’t just show cowboys and manhood,” says Caroline O’Breen, “but also something soft and tender.” Fragile portraits (both in color and black-and-white) sit alongside images of the landscape, archival photography and much more.
In the end, Contis’ book holds an important “investigation into the shifting perspective of masculinity set against the backdrop of the American West,” says O’Breen, in the form of a thoughtful, carefully crafted book. “It is this combination of different elements, poetically united together, which makes the book absolutely my favorite.”
Caroline O’Breen, Owner and Founder, Galerie Caroline O’Breen
Nera Lerner, Director, Danziger Gallery
Alona Pardo, Curator, Barbican Art Gallery
Jennifer Pastore, Photography Director, WSJ
Alyssa Coppelman, Photo Editor
Many books on this list treat important subjects through poetic, conceptual, or even sidelong fashions. Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, however, drives its point straight home: the horrific crimes committed by the Monsanto corporation throughout the 20th century deserve no sleight of hand. Rather, through the unflinching gaze of investigate reporter, activist, and photographer Mathieu Asselin, we are forced to confront the consequences of Monsanto’s activities head-on. As Irene Attinger tells us, “It is difficult to quantify the exact number of victims from the plastics, pesticides and GMOs produced by Monsanto since its founding in 1901. Yet the victims easily number in the hundreds of thousands, and the company has become a symbol of the most harmful aspects of commercialization for the sole benefit of a few.”
Alessandra Capodacqua writes, “Through portraits, landscape and still-life photos, plus archive materials (documents, objects, videos, testimonials, articles), Asselin has conducted a rigorous, multi-level investigation that conveys Monsanto’s story. The book clearly shows the facts, with no ambivalence.”
The photos themselves are largely without pretension but do the important job they need to. The book itself is similar: powerful yet also fundamentally transparent, allowing the message to hit its mark without unneeded detours. Barbara Stauss describes it “as if Asselin were presenting a criminal case.” Sarah Allen says, “It is excellently designed…bringing into sharp focus Asselin’s extensive research.”
In the end, Stauss tells us, “The result is an unprecedented investigation of the fabrications and lies of a global corporation. This book is THE book of the year for 2017, because it’s exactly what I imagine contemporary photojournalism to be. It defines the future of documentary photography because it goes beyond anything formal (beautiful pictures, layout, book design) and rather provides content that can educate us towards a sustainable, open mind.”
Irene Attinger, Head of Library and Bookstore, Maison Européenne de la Photographie
Barbara Stauss, Photo Editor & Curator - MARE – Die Zeitschrift der Meere
Sarah Allen, Curator, Tate Modern
Alessandra Capodacqua, Independent Curator and NYU Florence Instructor
Tuesday, June 6, 1944. 50 miles of beach on the Normandy shore. Called D-Day, but much more than that: one of the largest military and logistical operations in human history. An eternal moment when everything seemed to hang in the balance. How could one possibly tell this vast story, especially 70+ years after the fact? If you are photographer Donald Weber, you begin with the grains of sand crunching underneath your feet.
As Erik Vroons writes, “Sand, as a medium, is mnemonic. For Weber, at least, it is a repository that stores the actual, yet quasi-fabulous, war stories of his grandfather, who once served as a commando in the Canadian army.” Beginning with a forensic analysis of a grain of sand, the entire story of this now-mythic day unfolds across the many pages of Weber’s book, War Sand.
Despite his initial, microscopic focus, Weber brings many perspectives to bear: as Jenny Smets tells us, “Weber employs a combination of different media, from his photography to maps, crossword puzzles, stills from Hollywood depictions of the war, and even diorama recreations.” Indeed, Weber’s varied sources speak to the fact that no single perspective can possibly capture this day. It will continue to be told, retold, and re-interpreted for as long as it is remembered. Sand, like photographs, may hold memories, but like any vessel, only imperfectly.
Although Weber’s task may be ultimately impossible, his effort remains noble. As Maarten Schilt writes, Weber is “almost fanatic (in the good sense of the word!)” Ultimately, with the help of Dutch book designer Teun van der Heijden, all the varied materials are keenly, harmoniously brought into cooperation—much like the combined armed forces of the 15 nations and regions who hit the beach for the Allied side on that historic day.
And like D-Day itself, this is a book that will be re-examined often. As Jim Casper says, “It keeps readers engaged from start to finish, with most people starting again from the beginning to discover additional clues and nuances.” For all its complexity, in the end, Weber has produced something simple and pure: the perfect convergence of intellect and storytelling.
Erik Vroons, Editor-at-Large, GUP Magazine
Jenny Smets, Director of Photography, Vrij Nederland
Maarten Schilt, Publisher/Director, Schilt Publishing and Schilt Gallery
Jim Casper, Editor-in-Chief, LensCulture
Although no one can be absolutely sure, there is little doubt that the best-selling, most widely distributed book of all time is the Bible. Taking on the world’s most venerable publication is a tall task, but Magnum’s Jonas Bendiksen takes on the challenge with aplomb in his new work The Last Testament, and designer Stuart Smith offers a steady, yet gilded, touch to the realization.
In the book’s preface, Bendiksen helps contextualize his attraction to this age-old story. Bendiksen points out that in Jesus’ time (and immediately afterwards), the Near East was chock-full of prophets, messiahs, and saviors. How did Jesus’ message cut through the noise? A surprisingly timely question in our contemporary, media-saturated age.
Bendiksen also admits that he is no way religious himself—but then again, neither was Saul of Tarsus before he saw the light on the road to Damascus and became St. Paul. Bendiksen may not have become an apostle, but he feels a calling to travel the world and locate seven men who truly believe they are the second coming of Christ. Through Bendiksen’s lens (and recorder—the book is full of extensive and fascinating texts where we hear the voices of the men), we grapple with varied expressions of fervent, even fanatic, belief.
Much like Broomberg & Chanarin’s celebrated 2013 publication titled The Holy Bible, the provocative format has something to say. What were the early Christian apostles if not witnesses to something miraculous—and what are photographers today if not witnesses to moments that have to “be seen to be believed”? In the words of Alona Pardo, “Bendiksen takes the viewer on a global, spiritual quest…while portraying himself as a photographic apostle, asking why the Biblical prophecy of the Second Coming has remained so potent thousands of years on.”
Every design touch adds something to the experience. The golden-edged pages, the use of incredibly thin Bible-paper for the extensive tracts of modern “Scripture,” the font, the cover, the binding…The Last Testament is simply a top-notch, carefully conceived object.
As Matt Stuart writes, “The book is funny, sad, and surreal—a real labor of love.” And with a touch of mischief concludes, ”this is a perfect gift for Christmas!”
It is hard to write too much about this book when one of its signal virtues is its mystery. In Susan Bright’s words, “For a long while I didn’t read anything about this book because I wanted to simply enjoy it on a visual level. I liked the fact that I didn’t ‘get it.’” Or as Ramon Pez tells us, “Using simple elements and splendid collages, the beautiful images here create a narrative that is both playful, profound and intelligent. The reader is invited to use their cognitive and emotional intelligence to make sense of the apparently disconnected events.”
So often, we search and search for meaning, expending words to make some sense of what we’re seeing. But isn’t part of photography’s pleasure its soundless, expressive geometry? Its simultaneously irrational and perfect way of ordering the world?
The least we can say about Milach’s The First March of Gentlemen is that it has “the charm of a children’s book, with its thick card cover, colored pages” (Bright), and examines, in its own circumspect way, the role of Communism throughout the 20th century in Poland. Given the contemporary situation in the country, there is an added layer of urgency beneath the whimsical surface.
But already, this might be framing too much. In the end, perhaps it is best to wait and discover the book for yourself. By popular demand, a 2nd edition will be released next year—keep your eyes peeled so you don’t miss the chance to give this distinctive publication a proper, careful look.
When the Guantánamo Bay detention camp was opened in 2002, no one could have foreseen the 15 years that would follow. Much like the nebulous and ongoing “War on Terror” which was used to justify the creation of this extralegal American prison camp, Guantánamo itself resisted definition, clarity, and, finally, closure. As a presidential candidate, one of Barack Obama’s central campaign promises in 2008 was to shut it down. Eight years in the White House came and went, yet the prison remained open. And now under President Trump, its fate seems secure for at least a while longer…
Given this difficult subject, photographer Debi Cornwall must first be applauded for her persistence and courage in showing the world this important, and purposefully obscured, place. The result of her labor, Welcome to Camp America, Inside Guantánamo Bay, is “one of the smartest artist-made photobooks of this year,” in the words of curator Anne Havinga.
Cornwall had to wait a long time to obtain the proper permissions to even visit and begin photographing at Guantánamo. Thanks to her patience and drive, she was permitted to visit on three separate occasions. The results that we hold are, in the words of Jim Casper, “like a dossier: a file of criminal evidence, interviews, interrogations, testimonies, reports, photos.” The amount of material incorporated in the book paints a powerfully complete picture—though in many cases, this completeness is marked by the absence of what could not be shown. As Casper says, “We are given incomplete, government-censored pieces of an elaborate puzzle, one piece at a time. As vague stories begin to clarify, emerging from the fog, they suddenly become frightfully real.”
Besides the vast array of visual data, the words should be attended to carefully for the awful import of what they say. Casper wrote, “The language of the declassified documents is often cold, clinical, removed from any sense of humanity or any acknowledgment of human suffering.” And as Karen Haas put it, this is “one of the most successful compilations of text and image and design that I have seen in a long time.”
But lest they be overlooked (which can happen when a book conveys such a density of information), the pictures themselves are searing and powerful. As Haas wrote, “several are forever etched in my memory.” In the end, this is a book that needs to be looked at and grappled with, each page considered with the sobriety and attention that went into producing it.
At the end of 2016, it was a common refrain in the United States (particularly on American social media feeds) to bemoan that the year had been the worst, most depressing, most difficult in living memory. This year, it seems, many people have learned their lesson—what is the point of crowning 2017 in a similarly dismal fashion if we have no guarantee that 2018 will bring any happier news?
It is against this dark backdrop that we should understand Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael’s latest book, Buzzing at the Sill. The title, drawing on a poem by Theodore Roethke, combined with the buzzard tapping on the window of the cover, prefigure what will be a difficult, at time disturbing, journey across America’s increasingly fragmented landscape.
Although van Agtmael has traveled and photographed across the world, underlying his journeys is a recurrent, almost magnetic pull towards American history and, particularly, American power. His now decade-long investigation of his homeland began at a distance—namely on the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. His first book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die, showed photos from his embeds with military forces embroiled in the country’s longest-running conflict, alongside scattered photos of soldiers trying to reintegrate back in the States after their tours of duty. His second publication, Disco Night 9/11, shifted back and forth between the battle front and home front, as van Agtmael found himself slowly circling back to the conflicts’ roots: America itself. This third book, Buzzing at the Sill, puts the country solely in the frame, ranging over dozens of disparate locales, from booming areas like Brooklyn and LA to Natchitoches, Louisiana and Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
What emerges is a sensitive yet urgent understanding of America from someone who has spent a great deal of time over the past 10+ years exploring its many, many sides. One part Robert Frank, another Walker Evans, a dash of Garry Winogrand—all brought up to date to our troubled times, and all the more urgent in America since it often feels, lately, that the country is truly on the precipice of disaster.
As fellow Magnum photographer Michael Christopher Brown wrote, the project “carries with it a foreboding sense of America in the early 21st century—and perhaps some insight into what’s to come.” Markus Schaden said, “This is Peter van Agtmael at his best. A visual statement about the fragile ‘status quo’ of the USA. Outstanding.”
All of us respond to disaster in different ways. Often the urge is to look within, to retreat, to attend to one’s immediate surroundings. But rather than turn inwards, artist/photographer Lucas Foglia decided that the situation was too urgent to think only of himself.
The context for Foglia’s latest book, Human Nature, centers on his long-term concern for the relationship between people and the environment—specifically, and most pressingly, the subject of man-made climate change. Yet the specific instigation for this project was the devastating impact that Hurricane Sandy had on his family’s farm in 2012. What followed was an urge to “explore sites all over the world in which people and the landscape intersect in dramatic ways. Whether capturing an image of a ‘green’ Singapore skyscraper complete with infinity pool swimmers…or an erupting volcano in Hawaii flowing into the ocean alongside a sightseeing boat full of tourists, his digital images are often lusciously beautiful, but also conceptually strong—sometimes even wryly humorous.” (Karen Haas).
Indeed, Foglia is at his best when spanning several different approaches. As Erik Vroons writes, “The photographs, monumental in scope, aim to trigger both our wonder and worry, smartly linking a number of stories from all over the world.” Some of the most brilliant sequences occur when Foglia bridges the gap between art and science by working closely with researchers who are trying to understand the catastrophic consequences of what we’re doing to our environment. Besides resulting in unexpected pictures, Foglia drew recommendations from the scientists about what we can actually do. Vroons says, “A list of books is included in the final pages of the book for anyone who wants to learn more about how we change nature or how spending time in wild places changes us.”
That is perhaps the most admirable aspect of this book. Foglia could have confined his photography solely to the aesthetic realm (just as he could have kept his concern for the environment limited to his family farm), but he breaks down all these barriers in order to draw our attention to real, tangible actions we can take concerning our relationship to the world. In the end, his work is pleasing to the eye, but hopefully, it also compels us to do something more.
Editors’ note: We’d like to offer a BIG thank you to all the people who contributed to make this article possible. We couldn’t have done it without you!