Category Archives: Books

Top Art Books of 2012: Part II

Who needs a tablet under the tree anyways — I want photo books! Here are 7 works that I read in the second half of 2012 that were an artistic inspiration. And here are more art books from the first half of the year.

Infra: Photographs by Richard Mosse
I saw Richard Mosse’s book Infra when browsing the photo section of The Strand book store in New York last month. My only real association with color infrared is the classic Beefheart and Zappa album covers. Mosse has pulled off an amazing accomplishment. This book contains amazingly beautiful large format war photos from the Congo shot on expired color infrared surveillance film. Lying somewhere between photojournalism and art, Infra is hypnotizing. Hands down the must see book of the year.

William Eggleston: Chromes
While in New York, I thought I was saving money by crashing with photographer Gabriel Biderman for a couple of nights. On top of his excellent collection of photo books was a fresh copy of William Eggleston’s Chromes. The lost scrolls of contemporary color photography? Beautifully produced by Steidl, Chromes is 3 hardcover books in a case. It’s like having 3 more Eggleston’s Guides. The current $345 price tag is steep, and will only get steeper. After spending an evening with this amazing series of photos, there was no doubt that I needed a copy. Hey, $345 is about what 2 nights in a New York hotel would have cost me — so thanks, Gabe!

Bruce Davidson: Outside Inside
Did I mention that Gabe also had a copy of Steidl’s 3 volume set of Bruce Davidson photos? Over 800 images chosen by Davidson. And at $195, this set is reasonably priced compared to Chromes.
John Bartlestone: The Brooklyn Navy Yard
Also on the shelf at Mr. Biderman’s was John Bartelstone’s black and white documentary look at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York’s oldest industrial facility. If you’re interested in the history and transformation of World War II military facilities, this book is a must see. Bartelstone is an architectural photographer, and the compositions are very clean. The book shows a great feeling for the location. Highly recommended, especially if you’re interested in this type of subject matter.
In Camera: Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting
In Camera takes a deep dive into how one of the greatest painters of the 20th century used photography as an inspiration. In addition to the interesting biographical details that emerge from this look at Bacon’s process, we are treated to some insights into how images can trigger feelings and memories. I picked this book up from the returns cart at the library, and it’s a sleeper. Highly recommended, whether you’re new to Bacon’s paintings or already a fan of his work.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Camera
Less plot, more character. Hinting at something. Making you think a little bit. Very subtle comedy — this description of Toussaint’s book could very well substitute for what I’d like my photographs to do.
Chris Ware: Building Stories
Let’s just get this out of the way first — Chris Ware’s 14-piece graphic-novel-in-a-box is a wonderful but melancholy work of art. Building Stories is also a riveting story, and amazingly designed.
Viktor Pelevin: Omon Ra
What if you dreamed of entering the Soviet Space program and going to the moon. And what if you got your wish. And what if it turned out to be something very different than you expected. Life’s funny that way. If you like black humor and space travel, this is your book.

Top 10 Art Books of 2012: Part I

What follows is a list of the top 10 books that have inspired me in the first half of 2012. The list is in no particular order except for Robert Irwin interviews (#1), which is one of the most thought provoking art books I’ve read in a long time. Have you read anything outstanding this year? Feel free to add a comment or connect on

  1. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees – One of the most inspiring books about an artist that I’ve ever read. Robert Irwin has had a lifelong interest in creating art that asks questions about perception. Reading about the evolution of his work from abstract expressionism to altering space itself will change how you see the world. Highly recommended for all visual artists.
  2. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – A new translation of the classic 1972 Russian sci-fi novel that was the basis for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. A really compelling story, even if you don’t typically read sci-fi. Some key plot differences from Stalker make this a really fun read if you’ve seen the film. In the afterword, Boris Strugatsky talks about how one of the original words for the stalkers was prospectors — a great metaphor for those interested in exploring mysterious ruins.
  3. Talking Heads’ Fear of Music – Jonathan Lethem has been on a roll lately and his homage to Fear of Music is no exception. At times the album is really just a point of departure for Lethem to wax poetic about growing up in New York in the late 70′s, and the joy of finding music that speaks to you.
  4. Blue Desert – Charles Bowden has a deep understanding of the effects of development on the Southwest. Recommended reading for desert rats.
  5. Reframing the New Topographics – Don’t be put off by the seemingly academic trappings of this book of 8 essays. There is some very insightful and accessible writing here, and this book is an excellent companion to the book that accompanied the 2010 re-staging of this landmark show.
  6. Daniel Clowes: Conversations – Fifteen interviews over a 20 year period. If you’re a fan of his work, and especially if you draw, this book is a really interesting read. Clowes is sarcastic, funny, and has some great insights into the evolution of his style over time.
  7. The Pond – John Gossage’s book is considered by some to be one of the most important photo books in the post-New Topographics continuum. I find Robert Adams’ landscape work to be too subtle sometimes, but The Pond speaks to me. What a unique sense of framing, sequencing, and ultimately place.
  8. Lee Friedlander: Self Portrait – I don’t like self portraits as a genre. This book is the one exception. Friedlander expresses the pure joy and amusement of making shape, line, shadow, and reflection into a picture.
  9. First Pictures – A collection of 140 photos in 4 bodies of work made by Joel Sternfeld between 1971-1980. It would be easy for this book to be overshadowed by Sternfeld’s next phase that culminated in American Prospects. But First Pictures isn’t just early work that’s interesting when considering the development of an important and influential photographer – there are some amazing, raw, exciting photos here. The printing on the NY street work that was shot with open flash is especially fine – lushly dark, with no midtones. And the photos of people at malls holding up their purchases are hilarious for a child of the 70′s. Highly recommended.
  10. Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate – If you’ve hiked around the bunkers and seacoast fortifications in the Marin Headlands, this book is a must see, and can usually be picked up for under $10 used. The historic photographs of the batteries being built are amazing. Mark Klett’s black and white Type 55 photos are wonderful, and some of the other contributors include Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.

Learning from films: Stalker

The new Geoff Dyer book Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, is a light take on a heavy film — Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In a notable passage, Dyer talks about the time span in our life that we’re receptive to forming our personal favorite works of art. The time in our late teens and twenties when certain films, books, and music become our lifelong favorites. For me, some of these films were Brazil, Blade Runner, and Blue Velvet. At a certain point, this openness may not come naturally anymore. Those of you who are over 40 know what I’m talking about. I want to stay open to that feeling.

I’ve been following author and free-jazz aficionado Jeff Jackson’s Destination Out for a long time, and I’m also connected to him on Goodreads where he gave Zona a favorable review. I really enjoyed Dyer’s photography book, The Ongoing Moment, so I picked up a copy of Zona, and rented Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

If we’re lucky, every once in a while we encounter a work of art that changes our perception of how deeply art can affect us. Something truly exceptional. Stalker is a mind-blowing film. If you’re interested in the strange time warps and dream states that can be encountered in night photography, Stalker is an amazing journey. I’ve never seen a film that captures the state of hyper-awareness of exploring abandoned places so well. The intense attention to every little sound and texture. And the location in Stalker takes on a life of its own.

So do you remember the time period in your life when you were most receptive to artistic input? When a 2 1/2 hour subtitled movie was something to look forward to? If you’re open to that feeling, watch Stalker and let me know what you think.

Stalker is on DVD at Netflix but not available streaming. The DVD is $16-24 at Amazon, or perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a good local video rental store.

If you’re not familiar with the film at all, I encourage you not to look up Stalker online. Don’t look at YouTube or IMDB. Just track down the DVD and set aside the time to watch. If you enjoy the film, Dyer’s book is a lot of fun. If enough people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area are interested in discussing the film and the book, I will schedule a meetup at a bar in April to compare notes. Until then, enjoy your trip to the Zone.

Deep Focus, Steve Erickson, Junkyard Jets, Coen Bros and Heavy Metal

Computer replaces human brain
Spending too much time on the computer lately? Here are some recent book recommendations:

The Deep Focus series is a collection of pocket-sized books that are a love letter to a quirky film. Josh Wilker’s homage to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is one of the most insightful books I’ve read about growing up in the 1970′s. If you had feathered hair, played Little League, and remember Carter vs. Reagan, this book is for you.

The first book in the Deep Focus series is Jonathan Lethem’s wide ranging analysis of the classic John Carpenter film They Live. I really enjoyed watching the film again after reading the book. You can watch They Live on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Lethem also has a forthcoming book in the 33 1/3 music series on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music.

A friend sent me a review copy of Steve Erickson’s forthcoming book These Dreams of You. I’ve been a fan of Erickson’s work since the late 80′s when the same friend turned me on to Days Between Stations. Thomas Pynchon wrote a blurb for this brilliant first novel that holds true for much of Erickson’s work:

Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller.

These Dreams of You follows an L.A. family’s adoption of an Ethiopian girl just after the election of Barack Obama. Erickson weaves his interest in music, politics, and race into the family’s search for their daughter’s history. There are some amazing episodes in These Dreams of You, but overall it’s not as cohesive as some of his other work. Of course any kind of follow up to Erickson’s brilliant ode to cinema Zeroville would be tough.

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While I was in Tucson, I picked up a copy of the book Junkyard Jets at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Junkyard Jets is a look inside the airplane storage and scrapping industry. If you’re a junkyard fan, you need this book!

When I meet someone for the first time, and the conversation turns to movies, I always ask “What is your favorite Coen Brothers film?” I picked up this Virgin film series book used and was pleasantly surprised by the interesting analysis of their first 10 films, and also the information on the critical reception.

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Two dudes gettin’ drunk and stoned and playing with as many amps as we possibly can and basically just playing Melvins and Earth riffs but trying to play them slower than those bands played them. — Sunn O)))

I enjoyed watching the heavy rock documentary film Such Hawks Such Hounds. The full documentary is available above on YouTube, or the DVD is available directly from the filmmakers.

Gift ideas for photographers: Photography books

Duncan the Wonder Dog / Adam Hines
What if animals could talk. Would they feel like second class citizens and revolt? This mesmerizing graphic novel combines traditional comics with drawing, painting, and scanning all mixed together. There’s a 33 page preview here. The book is currently out of print with copies starting at $70. A 3rd printing is scheduled for March 2012. Check your local library or get the digital version for $9.95

Garden / Yuichi Yokoyama
What astonishing parallel universe did this book come from? If you’re a creative person that likes to think outside the box, Garden is a must see.

Errol Morris / Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)
Better in book form than in the paper. A slog at times because Morris is wordy, but the epiphanies are well worth the effort. Highly recommended.

Lee Friedlander / The New Cars 1964
If I had to pick one book that I read this year where I was smiling the whole time, this would be it.

Ann M. Wolf (Editor) / The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment
The new new topographics.

Michael Light / 100 Suns
Essential. Beautiful.

Denis Johnson / Train Dreams
If you’re interested in depictions of the West in early 20th century America, don’t miss this wonderful little novella.

Robert Adams / What We Bought
Photos of tract housing as Denver got built up between 1968-1974. The work is stunning, and the design and printing are top notch.

Previous holiday gift idea lists for photographers: