A photography mentor once told me that if you want to create a certain type of work, be a connoisseur of that work by other artists. For instance, if you want to sell prints, buy prints. Hang them in your house, admire them, commune with them. This will strengthen your capacity to understand fine art photography. Likewise, if you want to publish a photography book someday, purchase as many books as possible. Have them scattered throughout your house, look at them often, study why they work (or don’t). Each detail of a book is thoughtfully considered by the artist. Examine them very, very carefully and see what resonates with you.
I took this advice quite seriously these last few years, and while I haven’t had the resources to invest in all the fine art prints I would like, I have begun to amass a great many photography books. Each time an artist draws my attention (or sometimes my deep envy) I move heaven and earth to purchase his or her books. My collection is building and these books have become treasured friends I draw inspiration from each and every day. Does this reveal to you a bit about my own future aspirations? Well, yes. Somewhere inside of me, a book is gestating. I feel it, I write about it in my morning pages and it’s becoming more clear and more real with time. But until that day comes, I will continue to savor the wisdom and profound inspiration of the work of artists that have come before me.
Today I am sharing three new photo books I own and adore (in no particular order).
Shtetl in the Sun: Andy Sweet’s South Beach 1977-1980. I first saw this book at a small, independent bookstore in Miami and was instantly besotted. There is a companion documentary that I also recommend, The Last Resort. The two together create a sweeping story of Andy Sweet’s documentation of the life and residents of South Beach, with a particular focus on the Jewish community, many of them Holocaust survivors. It is a joyful book, but poignant too. The Miami in these photos was fleeting and special. It’s is gone forever, much like the artist himself who was murdered in 1982 at the age of 28. This book lives on my coffee table and I relish is daily.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating, Alec Soth. This book is especially important in my collection because with this new book Alec seeks to convey his spiritual awakening in photographic form, something I am striving to do in my own way as well. I have studied this book cover to cover again and again and will continue to do so for years to come. Alec uses portraiture set in interior spaces to express his vision of interconnectedness. I find this fascinating, in part because it is so different from how I might approach a book with a metaphysical underpinning. But this contrast is something I embrace and feel grateful for. His approach, his vision, his book. It’s as simple as that, and I experience that as an invitation to do it my own way someday. I love the touch and feel of this book. The color of the cover, the etched title, the breaks in sequencing. I have so much to learn from the structure and poetry he has crafted.
Wild Pigeons, Carolyn Drake. I had to work hard to get my hands on a copy of this extraordinary book. It’s sold out and difficult to find. I managed to find it through a reseller, and I am so happy I did. I study it often and I am fascinated by the sequencing and layout, the use of different paper sizes and stock, as well as the complex story. In her words, “Traveling through China’s far western province with a box of prints, a pair of scissors, a container of glue, colored pencils, and a sketchbook, I asked willing collaborators to draw on, reassemble, and use their own tools on my photographs of the region. I hoped that the new images would bring Uyghur perspectives into the work and facilitate a new kind of dialogue with the people I met—one that was face-to-face and tactile, if mostly without words. An allegory retold through visual collaborations with Uyghurs in Xinjiang.” The book is lyrical, poetic and layered. I’m still wrapping my head around its complexity, but I admire it greatly and I intend to savor it for years to come.
It has certainly been my experience that surrounding myself with so many extraordinary photography books in recent years has strengthened my visual literacy. And I’d like to think that I am reshaping my creative DNA even just a little bit by having these books populating my home and psyche.
If YOU have photography books you would like to recommend, I am all ears. Share them in the comments below so we can all benefit.