Weird, dark, and awkward: The best British comedy shows

Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry in Snuff Box
Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry in Snuff Box

The first time I saw an episode of Monty Python on television I was hooked on British comedy. As a teenager in the mid-80's I loved watching The Young Ones on MTV. And now, the last 10 years has been a golden age of British comedy. What follows is not a comprehensive list of every British comedy show -- just a selection of shows that I've watched or re-watched over the last decade. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments. I've loosely organized the list by genre, or by groups of actors who've worked together on multiple shows.

 

Matt Berry, Richard Ayoade, and The Mighty Boosh

Snuff Box

Snuff Box [Amazon | Netflix] - Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher play two hangmen who spend most of their time in a lounge drinking whiskey. The show is interspersed with Python-esque sketches. Snuff Box is only six episodes, and aired once on BBC 3 back in 2006. A DVD was released in 2011, and the show recently became available for streaming on Netflix.  You might recognize Matt Berry as the big boss Douglas Reynholm on the IT Crowd. Both Berry and Fulcher also appeared on The Mighty Boosh.

  • Garth Marenghi's Darkplace [Amazon | YouTube] - A hilarious faux 80's haunted hospital drama starring Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade.
  • Man to Man with Dean Learner [YouTube] - A spin-off of Darkplace, Man to Man is a talk show that's a must see for Richard Ayoade fans.
  • AD/BC: A Rock Opera [Amazon] - A 30-minute 70's style rock opera show from 2004 starring Matt Berry, Julian Barratt, and Richard Ayoade. Noel Fielding and Rich Fulcher have bit parts, too.
  • Toast of London [YouTube] - Matt Berry plays Steven Toast, an eccentric failed actor.
The Mighty Boosh

The Mighty Boosh [Amazon | Netflix] - Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt are out there. The show also features Rich Fulcher, who Noel once described as "the weirdest person I've ever met."

  • Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy [YouTube] - A British Pee Wee's Playhouse set in the 70's on a bunch of psychedelic drugs. Surreal and bizarre.
  • The 2011 offbeat comedy The Bunny and the Bull [Amazon | Netflix] was directed by Paul King, who also directed The Mighty Boosh.
  • Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh was in the 1996 show Asylum alongside Simon Pegg. This show is a bit difficult to track down.
The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd [Amazon | Netflix] - Yes, the infamous "have you tried turning it off and on again" show. Written by Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books), and featuring Richard Ayoade, and Matt Berry.

 

The Legacy of Monty Python

Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python's Flying Circus [Amazon | Netflix] - The movies are fantastic, but the Flying Circus is what originally got me going on British comedy. The box set is indispensable.

The Young Ones

The Young Ones [Amazon | Netflix] - As a teenager, The Young Ones left a lasting impression on me. 30 years later and it's still weird and funny.

  • Bottom [Amazon | Netflix] - Can't get enough? Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson of The Young Ones are bickering roommates in Bottom.
Little Britain

Little Britain [Amazon | Netflix] - Matt Lucas and David Walliams are two strange lads who play almost all of characters in this fun sketch comedy. Some bits are better than others, but when it's good it's fantastic.

  • Come Fly with Me [Amazon | Netflix] The lads play just about every character in this airport comedy. More hit and miss than Little Britain.
The League of Gentlemen

The League of Gentlemen [Amazon | Netflix] - What if you crossed Little Britain with Delicatessen [Amazon | Netflix]? This is a local show for local people. Definitely the darker side of British Comedy.

  • Psychoville [Amazon] - If you're a League of Gentlemen fan, you'll probably like Psychoville.
 

Simon Pegg, Dylan Moran & Friends

Black Books

Black Books [Amazon | Netflix] - Clerks [Amazon | Netflix] may be the ultimate movie about working retail in the U.S., but thankfully there's Black Books for the U.K. Dylan Moran is perfect as the grouchy, nihilistic book store owner, and Bill Bailey is his wacky foil. Simon Pegg's bit role as the chain bookstore manager is hilarious.

Spaced

Spaced [Amazon | Netflix] - Simon Pegg stars in this roommate comedy that's laced with cultural references, weirdness, and inside jokes.

  • Green Wing [Amazon] - More of a dramedy - I know British comedy fans on both sides of the fence about this show.
  • There are 2 or 3 wonderful, full length Dylan Moran standup shows on YouTube
  • A Film with Me In It [Amazon | Netflix] - Dylan Moran stars in this dark comedy where everyone keeps freakishly dying.
  • Burke and Hare [Amazon | Netflix] - I suppose selling cadavers for science counts as dark comedy. Starring Simon Pegg.
 

Awkwardness: The cringe humour of The Office UK, and Mitchell and Webb

The Office UK

The Office UK [Amazon | Netflix] - Ricky Gervais is an acquired taste for some, and funny beyond belief to others. This depends on how comfortable you are being uncomfortable.

Peep Show

Peep Show [Amazon | Netflix] - If you enjoyed cringing your way through the awkwardness of The Office, Mitchell and Webb will test your cringe reflexes to the limit.

  • That Mitchell and Webb Look [Amazon | Netflix] - Highly recommended sketch comedy from Mitchell and Webb with less cringing than Peep Show.
 

Further Explorations

Some additional shows that have been recommended to me that I haven't investigated yet.

  • Big Train
  • Nighty Night
  • Jam
  • Brass Eye
  • Monkey Dust
  • Human Remains
  • Rising Damp

So, Anglophiles, what other shows am I missing? I look forward to hearing about your favorite weird U.K. comedies in the comments.

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WRLD: Grandmaster, Magic, Big Star, Townes, Creation, Cutie, 1-800-MICE, H Day, Abandoned Futures, Coin Locker Babies, Satellites, Mogwai, Exploding Star Orchestra

Watching

The Grandmaster

Last month Martin Scorsese interviewed Wong Kar-Wai about his 2013 film, The Grandmaster. The cinematography is amazing, and overall the film is pretty good [Amazon]. ★★★

Deceptive Practice

The best documentary I've seen in ages is Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay [Netflix, Amazon]. Ricky Jay's dedication and artistry are inspiring, and the film is riveting from start to finish. Highly recommended. ★★★★★

Big Star

This documentary profiles the Memphis rock band Big Star from their early years to post-breakup. Essential viewing if you're a fan [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★★

Be Here To Love Me

Be Here To Love Me is a portrait of singer songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A haunting look at a tortured artist [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★★★

Upside Down

Upside Down is an uneven documentary about the UK label Creation Records. Selling records and partying with Scottish accents, it's half entertaining and half annoying [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★

Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer profiles an 80 year old Japanese artist and his wife who are living in New York and barely making ends meet. I had high hopes for this one after the preview, but the film focuses too much on the antagonistic wife [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★

 

Reading

1-800-MICE

1-800-MICE is bonkers. Blurbed by Daniel Clowes and Matt Groening among others, but none of them get it quite right. Surreal, absurd, extraordinary, and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

H Day

I've been a fan of Renee French since 90's comic books Grit Bath and The Ninth Gland. H Day tells parallel stories on facing pages without words. One side is about migraines, and the other is about an ant invasion. Mysterious, weird, and quite enjoyable.

Abandoned Futures

With a cover photo from the Pearsonville Junkyard, night photography workshop alum Tong Lam presents well crafted photos of some world class ruins. Tong doesn't like the term ruin porn, and instead makes a case for the history of ruin lust. Abandoned Futures contains some of the best writing on the symbology of ruins in recent years, and is highly recommended.

Coin Locker Babies

I've read quite a bit of Haruki Murakami's work, but hadn't read Ryu Murakami until my book club selected Coin Locker Babies. This novel is the story of two orphans who are abandoned at birth in a coin-locker, and are raised in the shadows of a ruined factory town. While the violence was a bit graphic for my taste, there were some hypnotizing sections that gave me new insight into why I photograph abandoned places.

Satellites

Satellites is the result of an amazing 7 year journey exploring the forgotten outposts of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but it's definitely worth seeking out at your local library.

 

Listening

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has been in heavy rotation during January. Maybe because it's good workout music? The Drowned in Sound review of the album is right on target.

Exploding Star Orchestra

The Exploding Star Orchestra takes a wild journey through large ensemble jazz improv with a wide array of field recordings. A wild but engaging sonic ride. Here's a nice review on Dusted.

 

Doing

  • A wonderful English artist is producing a marquetry version of one of my photos. I'm excited to see how this turns out, and will share photos when it's done.
  • I've switched from using a Really Right Stuff pano-head to a Nodal Ninja Ultimate M2. More on this decision later.
  • My office is loud. I tried a lot of noise-cancelling headphones. All marketing hype aside, the Bose QC 15 really do work the best. Audiophile magazine Sound & Vision nails it in this Bose review. If you need to shut out the world, this is 300 bucks well spent.
  • I'm shooting video at work. It's way harder than shooting stills. But fun. I'm learning Premiere, too.
  • A couple of my Holga images are in a recently released color grading book. More info when I get a copy.
  • I'm online less and less these days. I still like looking at pictures on Tumblr. That's about it. You wanna talk? Send me an email. And don't be surprised if my online presence becomes a bit more sporadic this year.
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WRLD: Stanhope, Motorcycles, Yakuza, Cults, Pynchon, Aerial Photos, Feral Teens, Origami, and Prog-Folk

Watching

Beer Hall Putsch

Stand-up comedy is like dance for me -- I can't watch 98% of what's out there, but the 2% that's good is really good. Doug Stanhope is in that 2%. His most recent 1-hour special is called Beer Hall Putsch [Netflix only], and it's over the top. The Occupy Wall Street and NFL fantasy bits are nuts.

Long Way Down

In 2004, Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman went on a 20,000 mile adventure on motorcycles in Long Way Round [Netflix | Amazon]. The series starts a bit slowly, but the hard travel segments in Russia and Mongolia are amazing. In 2007 they rode from Scotland to South Africa in Long Way Down [Netflix | Amazon].

Pale Flower

I recently watched the nihilistic 60's Japanese yakuza film Pale Flower again, and it's still astonishing. Now on Blu-Ray from Criterion [Netflix | Amazon].

The Source Family

The Source Family is a really great documentary about a 70's cult led by Father Yod, who had 14 wives, a health food restaurant, a Rolls Royce, and a psychedelic band [Netflix | Amazon].

 

Reading

Bleeding Edge

The new Thomas Pynchon novel Bleeding Edge will be released on Tuesday, 9/17. The extensive 7,000 word piece on Pynchon published last month on Vulture is a must-read for fans of his work. And Jonathan Lethem's review in today's New York Times really nails what's great about Pynchon.

Around the Bay

The new CLUI publication Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region is essential if you live in the Bay Area. The book pairs aerial photographs with a short history of the industrial sites around the Bay. The companion exhibit, Above and Below, runs at the Oakland Museum runs through February 23, 2014. The big, projected fly-over video of the Bay is fantastic.

Mira Corpora

Jeff Jackson's debut novel Mira Corpora is a dark, surreal coming-of-age story that I could not put down. Featuring a section with feral kids living in the woods on the edge of an abandoned amusement park which is down the way from a crumbling house inhabited by a teenage oracle.


Ametsuchi

I'm really surprised Rinko Kawauchi's new book Ametsuchi isn't getting more attention. I picked this up in a book store and was blown away. Images of controlled burns, constellations, Buddhist rituals, and a unique design with inverted versions of the images behind the pages. Here's a video interview with Kawauchi with a look at the book. Highly recommended.

 

Listening

The Master Musicians of Bukkake are back with a new album called Far West which delves into prog-folk and Morricone inspired soundtrack music.

 

Ghost Capital is still blowin' up the spot with a great selection of hard-to-find world, African, and electronic music.

 

Doing

Despite the crowds, riding a bike on the new Eastern span of the Bay Bridge is a lot of fun. Here's how to get to the path.

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WRLD: Steidl Books, Wayne White, Joe's Junkyard, Black Maps, X-Planes, Black Lung, AAL, Battles, and Electric Wizard

Auto Detailing
Auto Detailing

Watching

How to Make a Book with Steidl

Gerhard Steidl is one of the most respected photo book publishers of the last 20 years. Watch him work with famous photographers on their photo books. Subtle but fascinating. [Amazon | Netflix]

 
Beauty is Embarassing

The wacky world of artist Wayne White. Troy's review got me to watch this one - "he's bitter and says fuck a lot." [Amazon | Netflix]

 

 

Reading

Joe's Junk Yard

Lisa Kereszi's grandfather was a boxer turned junkyard owner in the 1950's in Pennsylvania. Joe's Junk Yard mixes historic photos with Kereszi's images, and also includes her grandfather's scrapbook pages. These elements come together to form a deep, multi-generational narrative of a family's struggles. You've never looked at a junkyard this way before. Highly recommended.

Black Maps

Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime is a masterpiece of modern landscape photography. Absolutely astonishing. Over 100 aerial photos that explore open pit mines, clear cut forests, and human sprawl. If Google Earth was 1000 times sharper and more interesting and somehow turned into a painting that was a cross between Diebenkorn and Rothko, that's what you'd get. This will most likely be my photo book of the year. Get this while it's $55.

X-Plane Crashes

X-Plane Crashes: Exploring Experimental, Rocket Plane & Spycraft Incidents, Accidents & Crash Sites - if you're an aviation nerd, you'll definitely enjoy this book. The crash site research from black ops programs at Edwards and Area 51 paints an interesting history of modern aviation. Required reading for Mojave Desert aficionados.

Blacklung

The graphic novel Blacklung is not for the squeamish. A teacher is shanghaied aboard a pirate ship, and much violence ensues. Dark and intense, Blacklung has haunted me for days.

 

Listening

I'm really impressed by Weightless, the second album from Animals As Leaders. AAL is an instrumental prog rock power trio with a strong jazz sensibility, but also with some heavy, almost Meshuggah-like grooves. Tosin Abasi is a really amazing guitar player without being a noodly show off. Heard this on Pandora.

I can't stop listening to Gloss Drop by Battles. Proggy polyrhythmic post-rock dance music that's completely addictive. The track with Gary Numan is fantastic.

Electric Wizard's Come My Fanatics is a huge, heavy, sludgey, tripped out doom rock masterpiece. Turn your stereo up to 11 and don't hurt your neck while banging your head.

 

Doing

I'm working on a few photography projects. I've been spending considerably less energy on the presentation layer of photography lately. I'm enjoying shooting more, and not worrying about the constant cycle of dribbling out images on social media. When the time is right, I'll turn on the presentation layer again. Although it seems like the less I look at a computer screen, the more I'm smiling.

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WRLD: Indians, Road Movies, Apocalypse, Trance, Deadpan Fables, High-Rise, Math Rock, and Winogrand

Medicine from the 30's and 40's at Ruddy's General Store in Palm Springs
Medicine from the 30's and 40's at Ruddy's General Store in Palm Springs

Watching

Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians [AmazonNetflix]. Amazing photographs, and a story of dedication to a photography project like no other. Highly recommended.

Reading

Driving Visions is an academic book about road movies that's organized by decade. Laderman does a superb job of showing the evolution of the form from the 60's through the 90's. The analysis of 70's existential classics like Two Lane Blacktop is particularly good. The book concludes with a chapter that analyzes the European road film, including a nice look at Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road.


Beta Testing the Apocalypse is what would happen if J.G. Ballard could draw comics. Kaczynski has set the bar really high with the 10 stories in this dystopian graphic novel. Highly recommended.


 

Trance profiles Patty Hearst's time with the SLA using a blend of history and fiction that often gets compared to DeLillo's Libra. I couldn't put this book down. And I also couldn't get the Camper Van Beethoven song Tania out of my head. Trance has really great characters, Bay Area settings, and gave me new insights on the activities of the radical left during the 70's.


Three to See the King is a simple fable by the author of the ultimate deadpan novel about work, The Restraint of Beasts. The subtle themes about home, relationships, and community have really stuck with me over the last few weeks. Recommended if you're already a fan of Mills' work. If you haven't had the pleasure yet, start with Beasts or All Quiet on the Orient Express.


I realized after reading Kaczynski's Beta Testing the Apocalypse that I'd never read Ballard's High-Rise. Wow, that was demented.

Listening

Sleeping People's Growing was a Pandora discovery on the Don Caballero station. If Fripp riffs haunt your dreams, you may want to give this great math rock band from San Diego a listen. Reminds me of Rumah Sakit's great self-titled album on the same Temporary Residence label.

 

Doing

Venice Beach

If all of the press and crowds have scared you off, visit the Garry Winogrand exhibition at SFMOMA in April -- when members get in 1 hour early on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

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WRLD: Film history, MotoGP, a hat, a genius, portolios in space, an aeroplane, and digitizing

School bus reflection under the moon and stars at Eagle Field -- by Joe Reifer
School bus reflection under the moon and stars at Eagle Field -- by Joe Reifer

Planes, helicopters, old WWII housing, star trails, and a big full moon -- a new gallery of night photography from Eagle Field is on my portfolio website.

Watching

The Story of Film

Film historian Mark Cousins narrates the epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey with a mellow Northern Irish lilt. Available streaming on Netflix, this documentary tells the history of cinema in fifteen 1-hour episodes. The mix of film clips and interviews is really well balanced. Big thanks to David Dasinger for turning me on to this series.

 

Fastest is a documentary about MotoGP racing that briefly covers the history of the sport, and dives into the career of Valentino Rossi. Narrated by Ewan McGregor, this one is a must-see for any motorsports fan. Available streaming on Netflix or Amazon.

Reading

I want my hat back

I want my hat back is a deadpan children's book about a bear who's looking for his lost hat. Or maybe it's a koan. This book is about determination, desire, repetition, being polite, and how words communicate beneath the surface. Minutes to read, days to ponder and chuckle about.

Tenth of December: Stories is the latest collection of stories from George Saunders. Propelled into the mainstream by an over-the-top New York Times review, Saunders is reaching a whole new audience. I'd read some of these pieces in the New Yorker, and others are new for me. If you've never read Saunders before, this is a good place to start.

Trevor Paglen's The Last Pictures picks up where Carl Sagan left off with the photos sent into space on Voyager. Paglen updates mankind's portfolio with a new selection of 100 images. And then he goes to MIT to figure out how to make this transmission last a long time. The portfolio gets attached to a satellite and launched into orbit. This is some big "what if" thinking that is backed up by some serious doing. Highly recommended.

Listening

I recently revisited Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I wasn't paying much attention to indie rock when this came  out. This album has been in heavy rotation over the last 2 months and it gives me the chills. Jeff Mangum pushes his voice and emotions to the limit.

 

LPs don't fit in your pocket. I still have about 250 records that I rarely listen to. The ART USB Phono Plus lets you hook a turntable up to your computer, and get those records onto your iPhone. A cool little device that pays for itself quickly if you have a lot of albums to digitize.

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WRLD: Oil fields, comics, curmudgeons, Kaurismaki, Pynchon, tanks, and ALTO!

San Ardo oil fields on Highway 101 -- by Joe Reifer
San Ardo oil fields on Highway 101 -- by Joe Reifer

Watching, Reading, Listening, Doing (WRLD) is an experiment in paring down artistic input/output into quick summaries to refer back to. Disparate inputs help create interesting output. Let's see what's been in the blender lately.

Reading

Charles Burns - The Hive

Charles Burns continues to amaze me with his unique vision in the 2nd installment of his darkly original, narrative-shifting trilogy - The Hive. Highly recommended.

 

 
ASMP Guide to New Markets in Photography

The ASMP Guide to New Markets in Photography was worth reading for the 50 concise photographer biographies. Judy Herrmann's values analysis exercises are also quite good. The remaining material is a high level overview of changes in the photography industry, but the advice is rather general. Worth checking out from the library for photographers of all levels. May be of particular interest to photography students who don't already understand the industry.


Occam's Razor

If you enjoyed David Hurn and Bill Jay's On Being a Photographer, you might try tracking down Occam's Razor. What was true about the art world 20 years ago is even more true today. The photography world needs an articulate curmudgeon like Bill Jay to stay honest. I wish the photo blog world had half of his wit and insight.

 

Watching

Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre blew me away. A bohemian shoe shine man protects an African refugee from being deported. Those of you familiar with Kaurismaki's long history of dour films will be surprised how uplifting Le Havre is. And the cinematography is fantastic. Highly recommended.

 
Thomas Pynchon documentary

I really enjoyed this Thomas Pynchon documentary with music by The Residents. The film is a goofy speculation about Pynchon's choice to remain out of the public eye. Word on the street is that a new Pynchon novel called Bleeding Edge may be released this year.

 
Cul De Sac

Another excellent holiday gift (thanks ss!) was Cul De Sac. In 1995, a 35 year-old plumber and ex-soldier from suburban San Diego dug an 18 foot hole in his back yard looking for gold. Apparently meth was involved. He ended up stealing a tank from the National Guard and went on a rampage crushing cars before the police opened the tank and shot him. A really interesting meditation on the decline of the post WWII 50's suburban dream.

 

Listening

Alto!
Alto!

ALTO! is a three piece band from Portland, Oregon with Derek Monypeny on guitar, and Steven T. Stone / Kyle Reid Emory on drums /electronics. Somewhere between krautrock, outrock, progrock, and experimental. Listen to side one of the album on ALTO!'s Bandcamp page, download a track for free, or name your price to buy the whole album.

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5 disc shuffle, and Noisy People

I'm addicted to putting 5 CD's into the changer and putting it on shuffle. Yeah, you can put a bunch of discs in your computer and have a random jukebox all day long, but 5 discs in the changer is how I've been rocking out since the early 90's, and it works well for me. Here's what's playing on a rainy weekend while I do some image cataloging and finish framing for my upcoming show:

Yeah, it's a strange and eclectic mix, but it's really working. And speaking of strange music, my friend Tom Djll is featured in the documentary Noisy People that screens next Wednesday at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The filmmaker, Tim Perkis, will be appearing at the PFA for the premier with guest performers. I've been a fan of the out there improv scene in the Bay Area for a long time, and I'm excited to see the film!

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New Topographics: Library day

I've got way too many photography books checked out from the library right now -- here's a brief rundown:

  • Photography: A Very Short Introduction / Steve Edwards -- An extremely interesting little paperback that is absolutely packed with thought provoking historical and philosophical interpretation. I'm planning to buy a copy as it's a lot to digest. Also discussed recently by Mark over on The Landscapist. Strongly recommended.
  • Family Pictures / Nicholas Nixon -- A 1991 book of family portraits in the Smithsonian Photographers at Work series. Nixon was part of the influential New Topographics exhibit that I've been examining lately. A small book of intimate black and white family portraits shot with an 8x10 camera. A 35mm feel, but with much more detail and chiaroscuro. Subtle and wonderful. I'm still trying to get a copy of Nixon's The Brown Sisters from the library.
  • Landscapes from the Middle of the World: Photographs, 1972-1987 / Frank Gohlke -- also part of the New Topographics exhibition in 1975. This thin volume shows a mix of projects -- the images of grain elevators are particularly strong. Looking at the rest of Gohlke's books I then found Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape, which I'm planning to track down soon.
  • Meadowland / Ray Mortenson -- This wonderful book was suggested by Chris in a comment on a previous post about Robert Adams. These black and white image of the New Jersey meadowlands are too beautiful to be part of the New Topographics. Great mix of density and desolation. Simple presentation -- thirty seven horizontal images with a one page afterword. Worth seeking out.
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