This year, confronted with a richer and more diverse photobook scene than ever, we decided once more that we couldn’t assemble a “best photobooks” list all by ourselves. So, we reached out to over 45 of the world’s foremost photography experts and asked them for their favorite picks of 2016.
From the broad spectrum of responses we received, these 14 titles bubbled to the top, each having left a deep impression on multiple experts from all over the world. The first few garnered particularly widespread praise—Sugar Paper Theories appearing on six different experts’ lists alone—but all of these publications demonstrate the remarkable vibrancy and seemingly inexhaustible creative energy offered by the photobook community over the past year.
We hope you enjoy our list and have the opportunity to spend some time with these worthy books in the months to come!
—Alexander Strecker, managing editor
[Editors’ note: Don’t miss Part II of this list: 32 Personal Favorites]
Sugar Paper Theories
By Jack Latham
Published by Here Press and The Photographers’ Gallery
In Jack Latham’s Sugar Paper Theories, questions about the purpose of photography, the nature of truth, and memory dominate. Central to the investigation is this query: should viewers consider photography evidence or interpretation?
Using as its starting point the disappearance of two men in 1970s Iceland, Latham’s photobook probes deeply into the long-cold murder case in an attempt to illuminate the “confusion, controversy, and the unreliability of memory in a captivating manner,” to quote Mariama Attah. Traditionally, photographs are used to argue one side of a case as evidence, but here Latham connects with suspects, bystanders, witnesses, and critics alike—and the photographer presents all of them in the same format. The book weaves between “dead ends, memory lapses, conspiracy theories, and police files,” notes Clare Grafik; the design beautifully reflects “the contradictory nature of memory” and the way it positions shaky, contradictory beliefs against the “backdrop of the still, frozen landscape.”
Winner of the 2016 Bar Tur Photobook Award, Sugar Paper Theories includes original photography by Latham of the people and surrounding area in addition to ephemera, vintage photographs, text, case notes, and images of related objects. Like several other books on this list, many pages of Sugar Paper Theories are printed with silver ink on black paper.
Iata Cannabrava applauds the book for “alluding to the origins of photography—the silver salt plate” and observes how the “meticulous graphic design” demonstrates that the book should be “taken more seriously than the police investigations.” Accolades for the book’s layout and carefully thought-out sequencing abound. Celebrated book designer Ramon Pez’s concise review says it all: “Great storytelling, beautiful pictures, excellent design.” Bravo Jack.
Clare Grafik, Head of Exhibitions, The Photographers’ Gallery
Matt Shonfeld, Executive Director, INSTITUTE
Teun van der Heijden, Co-Founder/Book Designer, Heijdens Karwei
Iata Cannabrava, Founder, Studio Magdalene
Mariama Attah, Program Curator, Photoworks
Ramon Pez, Creative Director and Founder, Ramon Pez Studio
By Gregory Halpern
Published by MACK
Selected as the Photobook of the Year at the 2016 Paris Photo-Aperture Photo Book Awards, Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX is a seductive, contradictory portrait of modern California. The book follows a westward trajectory, moving from the desert to the east of Los Angeles, through the city, and ending at the coast. Halpern has managed to capture unassuming moments in the daily lives of people who reside in and around Los Angeles, and his candid images reveal the multifaceted nature of life in California: self-destructive but strangely serene; commonplace and yet increasingly unpredictable.
Named for a small town approximately 100 miles south-west of Los Angeles, ZZYZX is a mixture of portraits, still-life images, and landscapes that manage to convey the multiple worlds existing alongside one another under the harshly revealing sun’s rays. His visually striking imagery—forthright and honest at every turn—resonate with a sense of place and take us on a “sun-drenched, dark journey” that is at once “complex and immediate,” in the words of Anne Bourgeois-Vignon. Indeed, the photographs wordlessly pull us along as Halpern progresses in his “metaphorical” drive towards the west. As Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi noted, the book’s “smart and intense sequencing manages to “immediately transport the viewer into a world which is very much real…but feels utterly unreal.”
Surprisingly, Halpern is not a local, but nevertheless manages to treat his subject with the intimacy and careful attention of someone with deep roots in the area. As Peggy Sue Amison put it, ZZYZX’s “fantastic editing” leads the reader to feel that they are “beside the photographer in the passenger seat on a deeply profound journey.” Or to say it more simply, Alvaro Matias’ declaration: “Pure poetry, the book of the year.”
Peggy Sue Amison, Artistic Director, East Wing Gallery
Alvaro Matias, General Director, La Fàbrica
Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, Co-Founder, Chose Commune
Anne Bourgeois-Vignon, Global Digital Director, Magnum Photos
By Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick
Published by Chose Commune
In this debut book by photographers Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick, commonplace scenes and items take on an enigmatic, otherworldly significance. Astres Noirs is a collection of black-and-white photographs that capture quotidian objects—puddles, clouds of dust, sparks and particles from a fire—and transform them into unrecognizable landscapes and apparitions. At once elegant and peculiar, these photographs (shot on the photographers’ smartphones) are presented with an intensity that is reminiscent of photogravure.
Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi and Vasantha Yogananthan of Chose Commune discovered Koenning and Protick’s photography on Instagram. This movement across media—from Instagram to the printed page—could be a detriment to some books, but not Astres Noirs. As Regina Maria Anzenberger said, the photographers “have perfectly translated their pictures from the digital to the analogue medium.” This is, in part, a result of their chosen printing technique: silver ink on black paper, a creative decision that lends “an extra touch of intensity to their esoteric content,” to quote Erik Vroons. Called “shimmering and astounding—a jaw-dropping study of light that is deeply poetic” by Peggy Sue Amison and “a book that makes you dream” by Francoise Callier, Astres Noirs is one of the most visually arresting publications to emerge in 2016.
Regina Anzenberger, Founder, Anzenberger Agency/Gallery/Bookshop
Erik Vroons, Editor-at-Large, GUP Magazine
Peggy Sue Amison, Artistic Director, East Wing Gallery
Françoise Callier, Curator and Program Coordinator, Angkor Photo Festivals & Workshops
By Michael Christopher Brown
Published by Twin Palms
In one of this year’s most affecting, harrowing and forceful works of photojournalism, Magnum’s Michael Christopher Brown looks back on what it felt like to be in Libya during the 2011 revolution. His mix of poignant writing and hard-hitting photos lay the foundation for the remarkable sense of place that Brown builds in this body of work. The world of Libyan Sugar is vividly real and incredibly tense, a masterful vision of war that is both close and personal. The intimate details Brown sprinkles throughout the text immerse us in his actual experience: as readers, we feel that we are growing alongside the photographer as he explores his new milieu. Meanwhile, the penetrating simplicity of Brown’s camera-work—the entire book, save one image, was shot on a smartphone—place us firmly on the front lines. Page after page, we slip into the rarified view behind the lens.
In the words of María García Yelo, Browns takes us “as close to the conflict as his camera allows him to,” offering us “an almost unbearable push to look.” Not only are we personally affected by the intensity of this work, but we sense ourselves unusually close to Brown’s own feeling as a result. As Anne Bourgeois-Vignon told us, “The eminence of the first person gives an intimate insight into Brown’s motivations as a photographer, and, most importantly, as a human being, in creating these images.” Or perhaps Alvaro Matias put it best: “A project that from the first photo leaves you knocked out.”
Jonas Cuénin, Editor-in-Chief, L’Oeil de la Photographie
María García Yelo, Director, PhotoEspaña
Anne Bourgeois-Vignon, Global Digital Director, Magnum Photos
Alvaro Matias, General Director, La Fàbrica
[Libyan Sugar was reviewed in full by LensCulture earlier this year.]
Snowflakes Dog Man
By Hajime Kimura
Handmade photobooks continue to grow in prominence in the world of photography and this year, in particular, saw a set of promising publications that were lovingly crafted by their artists. Hajime Kimura’s Snowflakes Dog Man is one of these publications. Created as a reflection on the death of his father, Kimura’s books contain a set of intimate, pensive images that ache with the pangs of reminiscence. Many of Kimura’s photographs are faded, a stylistic choice that closely mirrors the book’s subject: the slow deterioration of memory, the blurred, indistinct quality that eventually overtakes our recollections.
Called “beautiful” by renowned book designer Teun van der Hieijden, Kimura’s book is, in reality, two separate volumes: Snowflakes and Dog Man. Taken together, they offer a portrait of Kimura’s father and the artist’s experience of returning home to someone who is steadily slipping away. Snowflakes Dog Man is Kimura’s attempt to envelop himself in the experiences of his father: perhaps by following in his literal footsteps, he would absorb some knowledge of his personal history.
While Dog Man is Japanese-bound with uncut pages, Snowflakes is held together with simple thread inside a thicker cover. As a whole, Snowflakes Dog Man is a true homage to the Japanese tradition of photobooks.
Provoke: Between Protest and Performance
Edited by Diane Dufour and Matthew Witkovsky
Published by Steidl
A short-lived but widely extolled Japanese experimental photography magazine, Provoke, published only three issues overall yet looms large in the memories of photography connoisseurs around the world. Applauded for its blunt representation of fine art, critical theory, and protest photography in a post-war climate, Provoke left behind a mark far exceeding its short print run. In the words of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, “really [Provoke] was like a bomb.”
Though the magazine provided an integral launching pad for such legends as Daido Moriyama (and Araki), many of the talented photographers published by Provoke are only now gaining widespread recognition—Shômei Tômatsu, Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi. An overdue acknowledgement of this group’s influence on the medium has been accomplished both through this catalogue and a widely acclaimed traveling exhibition—the first to ever spotlight the magazine and its founders. While the show has gone from Vienna, to Winterthur, Paris and now Chicago, the catalogue is available for anyone curious to learn more.
Called “beautiful” by Nathalie Herschdorfer and picked by Teun van Der Hieijden as a personal favorite, this catalogue does proper justice to this seminal moment in the history of both protest and photography.
[Don’t miss our interview with the Paris (Le Bal) exhibition’s scenographer, Cyril Delhomme]
By Eamonn Doyle
Published by D1
End., the concluding work in Eamonn Doyle’s trilogy of works about Dublin (the first and second books are i and ON), “expresses the vibrant simultaneity of a busy city.” Doyle’s complex publication—”photobook” alone doesn’t do it justice as it includes a poster, vinyl record, map, and more—was made in collaboration with David Donohoe and Pony Ltd., a graphic design studio. Indeed, since End. was created, from the outset, as both a publication and an installation, the project’s robust multidisciplinary nature is integral, mixing Doyle’s photographs, Donohoe’s sound and design and Niall Sweeney’s abstract drawings.
Even as a book, End. does not follow any of the predictable formats that the viewer has come to expect. As Nathalie Herschdorfer observes, there is no discernible beginning, middle, or end; instead, “because it was conceived as an installation…there are many ways to enter the book.”
This unique media pairing—installation and publication—could fall flat if the artists were unable to live up to their ambitious vision. But clearly, Doyle and his collaborators made sure that nothing was lost in translation. Called “the most shocking and thrilling exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles this year” by Alvaro Mattias, the show “immersed” visitors in “an extraordinary atmosphere” thanks to its thoughtful assembly. End.’s “astonishing” presentation made one thing clear: Doyle is a photographer to watch out for.
Golden Days Before they End
By Klaus Pichler
Published by Edition Patrick Frey
Capturing the fading glory of Vienna’s dive bars just weeks (sometimes days) before their closure, Golden Days Before They End pairs Klaus Pichler’s photography with writing by Clemens Marschall, thus producing a nostalgic homage to the city’s seedier yet irresistibly character-filled establishments.
The idea for the project came about when Marschall noticed that many of the bars he knew in Vienna faced imminent closure as their clientele and owners passed away. After enlisting Pichler’s help, the duo set about to document the inimitable atmosphere of these spaces while they still could.
Picked by Martin Parr as one of his favorite books of the year, the book features “riotous behavior” and “tacky and beer-stained carpets and décor.” And yet, “everyone does seem to be having fun.” If anything, the big personalities of these bars are “a far cry from the anonymous bars that are now so prevalent,” and that idiosyncrasy is refreshing.
It goes without saying, this is documentary photography of a particular nature. Marschall and Pichler manage to record a range of genuine emotions as well as eclectic furnishings; Verena Kaspar-Eisert notes that the book contains a range of “aggression, sadness, and despair” in its “thorough documentation” of the spaces. Lovers of writing and photography alike will be drawn to this photobook: in addition to “brutally direct and honest” pictures, it also contains interviews with bar owners and patrons, ultimately leaving us with an “outstanding survey, full of empathy.”
By Alma Haser
In Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery, the faces of the photographer’s subjects are mutated and transformed as a result of Haser’s interventions. More specifically, after photographing her family and friends, Haser isolated a section of their faces, then folded that image into an intricate, 3D-origami structure. She then laid it over the original image and photographed it again. The resulting images, to quote Mariama Attah, are “beautiful, bizarre, and clever.”
Cosmic Surgery the book plays with our spatial awareness: on some pages, Haser presents us with a simple photograph; on others, the entire page unfolds into a complex and tactile object that shoulders its way into our space. Concepts of identity, self-perception, and external perception are clearly a consideration for Haser, but they don’t bog us down either; as Deborah Clomp Ching says, Cosmic Surgery is “delightfully well-conceived…playful yet conceptually strong.” She notes that the tactility of the book—and its interactive qualities—wonderfully heighten the reader’s experience.
Containing Haser’s photographs as well as words by science writer Piers Bizony, Cosmic Surgery is a multimedia experience. Haser is currently working on a second Cosmic Surgery book—the first edition of Cosmic Surgery sold out in two days!
[See our original feature of Cosmic Surgery, published in 2014.]
The Difficulties of Nonsense
By Robert Cumming
Published by Aperture
The first overview of Robert Cumming’s work to date, The Difficulties of Nonsense features the artist’s conceptual black-and-white photographs dating from the 1970s. Flipping through the book is an exercise in stretching the certainties of perception—almost everything requires a closer look. Second-guessing is a common side effect of viewing Cumming’s photographs: rarely is our first impression accurate, or even near to correct. Some images elicit a feeling of delight when the reader finally manages to settle the niggling questions that linger on the tip of the tongue; other images remain vexingly but fascinatingly unsettled.
Cumming has played with several media throughout his career—including painting and sculpture—and photography, for him, is clearly a medium amenable to toying with concepts of fantasy and reality. Indeed, the two are constantly edging each other out and battling for dominance; many of his photographs are akin to a mental tongue-twister.
“Enthralled” by Cumming’s “off-kilter point of view,” photo editor Alyssa Coppelman also salutes the book’s design, observing that it “really suits the content, with the material, font, title, and cover image all hinting at what’s inside.” Or as gallerist Janet Borden says, “Robert Cumming is a genius, and this book is a reminder.”
By David Fathi
Published by Skinnerboox
Combining one of the driest image archives imaginable—CERN’s photos from 1960-1985—and one of the most deceptively “truthful” media—photography—David Fathi has achieved something special: the fantastical history of a physicist’s ghost haunting the halls of one of the world’s great bastions of science. Under Fathi’s capable guidance, we come to see how quantum physics, like photography, is animated by its own sort of spooky magic.
Fathi’s work, which draws on his own university studies in computer science and math, mixes CERN’s archival imagery with his own (Photoshopped) sleights of hand. Thankfully, the two are indistinguishable. Carried out by a less capable mind, this would come off as clunky and forced—instead, Fathi has created something distinctive and memorable. In the words of Alessandra Capodacqua, “the book is full of humor, mystery and paradox—an ode to failure and a questioning of photography as a document.” Or as Simon Karlstetter said, Fathi’s work shows us the “power of photographic images to generate countless different readings and thus infinite meanings when seen in a different context.” This is no easy volume, to be sure, but for those with the inclination, it is well worth the mental contortions that ensue.
Simon Karlstetter, Founder, Artistic Co-Director, DER GREIF
Alessandra Capodacqua, Independent Curator and NYU Florence Instructor
Negative Publicity: Artefacts Of Extraordinary Rendition
By Edmund Clark & Crofton Black
Published by Aperture and Magnum Foundation
This unusually structured but remarkably powerful project uses a “perfectly measured” mix of images and documents to explore the hidden systems of state control in America’s decades-long worldwide “War on Terror.” Peggy Sue Amison said, “This is not so much a ‘photobook’ as a truly in-depth investigative collaboration.” By combining archival research, newly shot images by photographer Edmund Clark and input from counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black, the book tells a terrifying story of the surveillance apparatus that has been built up in the West since September 11th. Incredibly mundane material—photocopied receipts or heavily redacted documents—layer with images to leave a deep impression and reveal to us to the gravity of our current situation.
As María García Yelo wrote, “Between 2001 and 2008, an unspecified number of individuals disappeared into a labyrinth of secret prisons organized by the CIA. Although no public records were kept, this publication shows these activities through a puzzle of ‘accountability’ documents and photographs of government locations, detention sites and detainees’ homes. This is a devastating proof of the Machiavellian mechanisms that underly the contemporary destruction of our basic civil rights.”
By Harley Weir
Published by Loose Joints
Harley Weir’s new book, Homes, is a distinct departure from the photographer’s usual subject matter. The young UK artist is in high demand as a fashion photographer, but in her new publication about the infamous Calais Jungle, she makes clear that her virtues as an artist are not delimited by the strictures of fashion editorials. Moving from a sexy, polished realm to the uncertain, fragmented world of refugees is an abrupt transition but Weir pulls it off while maintaining the quality, honesty, and conviction of her work.
Specifically, Weir documented the fragile, temporary interiors of migrant shelters in the since demolished refugee camp in France. That her lens focuses primarily on the camp’s structures rather than its inhabitants is a surprising choice considering Weir’s familiarity with photographing the human body. Yet by rendering the camp’s shelters as abstract layers of fabric and colors, we are shown a presentation that Michael Mack says “offers a gentle perspective on the…notorious Jungle.”
A closer look at Weir’s images reveal subtle evidence of the human beings occupying this small space: a set of mugs drying haphazardly in a net, waiting to be used; toothbrushes and toothpaste bound to tent walls. Thus, this topical—and critical—subject in contemporary photojournalism is approached with quiet humanity. Anne Bourgeois-Vignon praised Homes for bringing to life “the troubled and impermanent presence of the camp” and called it a “noteworthy piece of social documentary work.”
We would also like to note that proceeds from the sale of Homes go to La Cimade, a French charity that protects the rights of migrants.
By Panos Kefalos
Published by Fabrica
This powerfully executed long-term project tackles the subject of an Afghan refugee community in Athens, Greece. Built up over the course of three years, Kefalos carefully and deliberately got closer with his subjects, convincing them to allow him into their most personal spaces. In the words of Enrico Bossan, “We often hear stories regarding the lives of immigrants, but rarely are we admitted to share their intimacy. These photographs’ expressionist—sometimes cinematographic—style gives us the impression of touching these people.”
The book itself is simple but wonderfully done. As Pavlos Fysakis told us, “Reminiscent of [Anders] Petersen’s and [Jacob Aue] Sobol’s strong, contrasted aesthetic…the design highlights the artist’s talent and storytelling ability.” Bossan, talking of both the images themselves and their expression in print, said “Here, photography is not only a medium—it transforms into a sensorial experience.” For a young and very promising photographer, this is encouraging work. Keep your eye on him in the years to come.
[Kefalos was also named a juror’s pick in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2016]
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, really.
Texts edited by Coralie Kraft, assistant editor at LensCulture.