A Spotlight on the Season’s Top Photography Books

A Spotlight on the Season’s Top Photography Books

The city chronicled by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) chronologically overlaps with Abbott’s and Webb’s, although his is the aspect of the city that made the news: murders, fires, car crashes, floods, along with a few leisure activities. New York is depicted more often than not at night, its citizens at emotional extremes, its tenements and storefronts often disfigured by violence of one sort or another. You get the whole package — which also includes puppies and kittens, charity balls, wartime curfews and meat rationing — in Daniel Blau’s EXTRA! WEEGEE (Hirmer/University of Chicago, $55), which presents 359 images, presumably the entirety of the work by Weegee found in the files of the parent company of Acme Newspictures, his longtime syndicate. I’m guessing that the editorial labor that went into the book consisted primarily of herding the pictures into subject categories, since no selection on the basis of quality appears to have been made. All of them were sent around to newspapers, as evidenced by the caption slugs reproduced alongside, and they all had some news value at the time, but far too many are second- or even third-rate as photographs, and much of the news is deservedly forgotten. Some of Weegee’s greatest pictures are all but lost in the profusion of unmemorable everyday mayhem. This one is strictly for institutions and completists.

Edward Grazda, working in the 1970s and early ’80s, depicts a more chaotic city than Weegee’s, and Grazda wasn’t even looking for lurid subjects to feed the tabloids. MEAN STREETS: NYC 1970-1985 (powerHouse, $35) derives from his having lived for decades on Bleecker Street, at the northern end of Little Italy and steps away from the Bowery, the neighborhoods that loom largest in the book. It presents a reminder of just how many people seemed to live in cars then — and the cars were certainly big enough — while others made do with park benches, or failing that the sidewalk, perhaps with head inserted into a box for privacy. Certainly a great many people lived on the street even if they weren’t sleeping there — the prostitutes who lined Broadway in Midtown, the three-card-monte operators on the edge of the sidewalk, the vague knots of guys who hung around outside bars or bodegas or freight entrances. Grazda’s pearly black-and-white finish preserves the raggedy, stuporous air of the time with great dignity and pays its occasional menace the proper respect. Perhaps the most menacing image shows the Christmas window display at the Ravenite Social Club, of John Gotti fame: white silhouettes of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman against a black background, like outlines of corpses on the street.

People continue to live on the streets even if we are not as aware of the fact now, as Khalik Allah shows in SOULS AGAINST THE CONCRETE (University of Texas, $50). In 2011, Allah began taking his camera at night to the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, a drug spot for more than half a century, and established a regular post there. When he got to the point where the regulars trusted him and he could take pictures of people by simply asking, he also realized his method: color film and available light — from streetlights, store windows, cop cars. The combination makes faces appear especially vivid, emerging from the darkness like ships at sea. Many of the faces belong to ravaged smokers of K2, a treacherous marijuana substitute that remains legal in New York State and is sold nearby, but Allah also takes in people who are just walking to the subway station. The result is a panorama of human emotion: sadness, passion, bewilderment, pride, suspicion, amusement, exhaustion — all the faces of the night. “Time is over, and the world has ended,” Allah writes. “Only the Light continues.”

William Gedney, who died of AIDS in 1989 after a 30-year photographic career mostly spent under the radar, also had a tendency to post himself in locations to observe: his grandparents’ upstate farm, the el stop across from his apartment in Brooklyn, the home of a coal miner’s family in eastern Kentucky, hippie crash pads in San Francisco, the alleys and courtyards of Benares and Calcutta, India. Gedney, in addition to being a deeply closeted gay man for most of his life, was also an unhappy lifelong isolate who connected to the world primarily through his lens. But his images certainly do connect; they are tender, searching, hugely understanding of even the most chaotic or circumscribed existences. WILLIAM GEDNEY: Only the Lonely, 1955-1984 (University of Texas, $40), by Gilles Mora, Margaret Sartor and Lisa McCarty, depicts a photographer emerging from the grand American documentary tradition (much of his early work looks like a direct homage to Walker Evans) and gradually finding his own identity, as well as a meticulous craftsman and record-keeper who planned 14 books of his photographs and made mock-ups of seven of them — none of them published. Even as his pictures can be joyful, it is impossible not to feel deep sadness for this man who had so much love to give and apparently received so little.

Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb are a married couple of photographers (friends since 1988, married since 1999) who have pursued separate careers — six books for her, 16 for him — although, inevitably, they have affected each other’s perspectives. SLANT RHYMES (La Fabrica, $45) is their attempt to chart some of these cross-influences, although, as the titular allusion to Emily Dickinson suggests, in a decidedly nonliteral way. Every spread contrasts a picture apiece by each of them, and the connections between them are mostly delicate and elusive — a hue, a texture, an incidental structural effect, now and then an object. She is more attuned to the natural world, he to the vagaries of human existence; both of them are intoxicated by color and enjoy making layered compositions in which the eye flits from close up to far back. By the end of this modest but exquisite book, even viewers unfamiliar with either of the Webbs will have a pretty good idea of their individual strengths and tendencies as well as of, as it were, their house style.

STEPHEN SHORE: Selected Works 1973-1981 (Aperture, $80) hands the selection over to 16 people — photographers like An-My Lê and Thomas Struth, writers including Francine Prose and Lynne Tillman, the artist Ed Ruscha, the film director Wes Anderson, as well as Shore himself — tasked with choosing from among the lesser-known, mostly unpublished images in Shore’s “Uncommon Places” archive. (Disclosure: Shore is a friend and my colleague at Bard College.) “Uncommon Places” is Shore’s extensive road-trip project — perhaps the ultimate photographic road-trip project, taking in most of the lower 48 (with the occasional glimpse of Europe) over eight years, employing a 4-by-5 view camera and then an 8-by-10 to document what can now be seen as the old, layered and improvised, pre-corporate America. Each of the selectors has a particular approach: Lê focuses on women, the photo historian Michael Lesy on cars, Shore on his uncommon vertical compositions, many of the other photographers on pictures they might have taken themselves. The result feels not at all like a collection of B-sides and outtakes but rather another volume of Shore’s apparently inexhaustible supply of immersive images, an archive that keeps on giving.

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