Depth of Field, Walker Evans (Prestel)
More than anyone else, Walker Evans made the vernacular a respected field for photography, taking the documentary style of newspapers and magazines to the level of art, holding a mirror up to ordinary life. This book is a retrospective: not just his classic, dispassionate work of the Depression era but material from before and after those years. He managed to do nearly all his work as paid assignments, a remarkable achievement, and his famous New York subway project was a rare exception.
This book is packed with photographs that cannot be forgotten, like the ‘Alabama Cotton tenant Farmer’s Wife’ that captures dignity and goodness in the scrubbed face of a woman standing against a wall of her clapboard house. Her willingness to pose so unaffectedly is more understandable in the light of knowing that Evans spent three weeks in Hale County, Alabama getting to know people and win their trust. He was there with James Agee on a writing assignment for Fortune magazine and looking at the photos Evans took it comes as no surprise to learn the magazine declined to publish them.
Evans’ early work is more formalist than the photography he became famous for in later years but it is also reflective. In New York in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, he took to capturing the presence of Brooklyn Bridge, the barges moving below them and workers taking lunch on the streets and people on the sidewalks. Faces interest him but in his search for what he called ‘contemporary truth and reality’ he photographs people not just for their unique individuality – he likes them to look straight into the camera — but also for the social semiotics they embody. This shows in his Cuba photographs of 1933 and it never leaves him although he finds meaning also in buildings, gas stations, billboards, the interior of a barber’s shop. Middle-class suburban life has little interest for Evans.
The New York subway work, lasting from 1938 to 1941, came after Alabama but there are many sections in Depth of Field that bring less well-known projects to our attention. In 1941 he was photographer for a book called The Mangrove Coast: The Story of the West Coast of Florida but five years later he is back on city streets doing what he likes best, taking unposed pictures of working people going about their lives, and it continues into the 1950s. Formalist concerns return in his late work of the ‘60s and ‘70s when he sets about celebrating ordinary hand tools—‘the fine naked impression of heft and bite’ in a wrench or ‘the beautiful plumb bob’—and in more of his own words he says something about them that extends to his achievement as a whole: ‘…small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor, and purity’.
Missing Buildings, Thom and Beth Atkinson (Hwæt Books)
A book about London architecture but only in the peculiar sense that it photographs buildings that no longer exist. Empty spaces where people’s homes once stood, where they lived their lives, until blown out of existence by bombs from enemy aircraft during the Blitz in World War II. Sometimes the space is not empty, having being filled in by new homes incongruent with the existing style of building or the neighbouring homes that survived bearing traces – roofshapes or chimneys– of the houses they once adjoined: ‘the syntax’, as David Chandler puts it in the book’s afterword, ‘of repair, reinforcement and renovation echoes across the images’.
The photographs, compiled over six years by a brother and sister, have a compelling presence notwithstanding the low-key, documentary style of Thom and Beth Atkinson, as dispassionate and yet engaged as the approach found in the work of Walker Evans. The pictures communicate meaning and melancholy in a way that war memorials representing generals and the likes of Bomber Harris in London completely fail to do.
Thom Atkinson has remarked: ‘The bombing has left its mark on the physical landscape, but it’s also left a mark on our imaginations – in the mythology of London – and a missing building in London just means something different to one in say, Paris or Edinburgh. For us that’s where the depth of the project lies – in the myth.’ Every city has its own missing buildings and its own myths and maybe this book won’t resonate as deeply with non-Londoners but, if not, it is up to the reader to seek out the missing buildings in their own homeland. They might not have been destroyed by the Luftwaffe but their empty or inadequately filled spaces will be there.
Conversations with the Dead, Danny Lyon (Phaidon)
Until this new edition of Danny Lyon’s 1971 book, Conversations with the Dead, you would have had to pay too much for it and public libraries couldn’t be relied on to hold a copy. ‘Late in 1967 I was given permission to photograph, without restriction, the convict life of Texas’– the opening sentence of the forward by Lyon – an innocuous-sounding statement for a set of photographs that are powerfully moving. They are not shockingly visceral, quite the opposite because it is the ordinariness of the scenes that brings home the sense that there is something profoundly wrong at the heart of the USA. This was the first book of photographs about American prison life and, while we are all now familiar with movies and images of prison life, the experiences they project have little in common with what Lyon records in the late 1960s in Texas.
At that time there were 250,000 thousand men imprisoned in the US and Lyon visited six of the places in Texas where some of them were kept, ranging from The Walls, where ‘it was a blessing to be assigned to’, to the less-than-lovely Ellis. Lyon focuses on a small number of the prisoners—I knew each of them as well as a free man can’—including Billy McCune, a sad character who waits for his execution in the electric chair until his sentence is commuted to life in 1952. He never receives the psychiatric care he obviously needs but he writes the introduction to Conversations with the Dead and tells the reader something about his life at the end of the book.
Three Moments of an Explosion, China Mieville (Macmillan)
there is no new thing under the sun
Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new?
It hath been already of old time, which was before us.
China Mieville has consistently played around with this notion from Ecclesiastics, apparently robustly refuting it only to so how in another way it is true. Nothing is absolutely necessary – anything’s non-existence is never impossible – except God; if we believe in God there is unity of essence and existence: God exists because existence follows from what it means to be God. Mieville’s world is outside and beyond such a theology. In his world(s) what is possible becomes rational when its possibility becomes actuality: contingency is everywhere and goes all the way down. The ground around a person begins to collapse, forming trenches and turning the person’s place into a castle’s keep but with no drawbridge; collapsed oil rigs resurrect themselves from the seabed or icebergs appear in the sky over London. Events occur for which there are no protocols, as in the thanatological shift in ‘The New Dead’ that occurs when corpses start to rest horizontally with their feet always pointed towards an observer (even when multiple observers are looking from different directions), but then procedures and an etiquette develop and the bizarre becomes banal. Mieville’s imagination is prodigious, his writing defies categorisation into genre because his style and subject matter changes at a dazzling, adrenalized pace. Read him slowly and be amazed at how there is nothing new under the sun until it appears beyond, behind or inside the sun.
The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud (Oneworld)
There was a time when to be seen reading Camus’ The Outsider was a copper-fastened sign of one’s hipness. It was cool to think of oneself as an existentialist and having a copy of The Outsider was a badge of good intentions in that direction. The unnamed Arab who is murdered in Camus’ novel is the named brother of the narrator in The Meursault Investigation and one book reads, investigates, the other. It’s a post-colonist reading that critically examines what Algeria has become as well as what it was when under French rule.
This is a deadly serious novel, echoing the killing of Algerians in Paris in 1961 and the killing in the following year of Europeans in Oran, but its writing is light as a feather, never polemical, always metaphorical and throughout doubling The Outsider: holding up a mirror existentialism and seeing something else which is also the same, ‘like a sun in a box’ as a character says of Camus’ book in Daoud’s novel.