OK, first things first: My vote for the best photobook of the year goes to Gilles Peress’s self-described “documentary fiction” Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.
I could give that honor just for the title alone. It presents a riddle without a solution, and it perfectly captures the absurdity of war. The book is the product of several decades spent covering war-torn Northern Ireland, beginning with the infamous Bloody Sunday event in 1972, which Peress witnessed, and continuing throughout the 1980s. It’s overwhelming both in terms of actual size (over 1300 photographs, stretched over 1000 pages across multiple volumes) and in terms of content. And it’s of a piece with Peress’s highly influential works Telex Iran and Farewell To Bosnia.
Peress seeks out the human in the midst of the inhumane and elucidates the tragedy of ordinary people trying to survive in the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of political violence. In a recent video, Magnum photographer Alec Soth gives a nuanced and insightful critique of the book and expresses awe and admiration that so many of the photographs hold up — especially when you consider that most photographers struggle to string together 50-100 strong images when compiling a book.
The hefty price tag will cause all but the most fervent and dedicated collectors to balk, but fortunately one of the volumes, entitled Annals of the North, is also available separately. Annals features over 300 images and a great deal of text (by Chris Klatell) that provides context–especially useful for those who aren’t as familiar with the conflict and the issues at stake.
Honorable mention for Best Photobooks of 2021 goes to three books that I can’t seem to stop looking at or thinking about. Jonas Bendiksen’s deepfake fake-out The Book of Veles is a fascinating exploration of media manipulation in the digital age and the technological potential to convincingly fabricate misinformation. On the more traditional end of the spectrum, I loved Mel D. Cole’s American Protest, which largely focuses on the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020. Cole incisively captures the overwhelming tensions and emotions in a divided country via an insightful and visually powerful series of black-and-white images. And finally, I can’t get enough of Gillian Laub’s brave, intimate, visually stunning, and endlessly fascinating work Family Matters. It’s every bit as strong as her previous works, and looking at it has inspired me to push myself a little more as a photographer.
There are many others that deserve mentioning as well. So, before we close the book on the inaugural year of The Parallax Review, we’d like to leave you with a roundup of notable lists of the best photobooks of 2021 from other publications.
A huge thank you to all of our readers, and stay tuned–we have big plans in store for 2022!
Best Photobooks of 2021 Roundup