Year In Review: Our Favorite Photobooks of 2022

Overall, 2022 was another strong year for photobooks. There were self-published works that stood toe-to-toe with new releases from the heavy hitters, rediscovered bodies of work from past decades, and comprehensive artist retrospectives, not to mention several book-length essays exploring the nature of photography. As always, it’s an impossible task to choose the best, but here, in no particular order, are five that stood out.

Baldwin Lee by Baldwin Lee (Hunters Point Press)

Untitled, mid-1980s (Baldwin Lee)

Surprisingly, the book that probably made the largest impact this past year is a self-titled monograph, the first from University of Tennessee photography professor Baldwin Lee. In the 1980s, he documented Black life across the American South using a 4×5 view camera, but until recently, that body of work remained largely unseen.

At first glance, Baldwin Lee is an unassuming book from an almost completely unknown photographer. Flip through the pages and its significance becomes clear very quickly. Lee studied with Minor White and Walker Evans, and their influences can be felt in these images. Yet, the work is very uniquely the photographer’s own testament and vision. These are powerful, sensitive, and above all intelligent images that convey ideas rooted in racial and social justice without ever seeming didactic, heavy-handed, exploitative or cliche. There’s much more that can be said about this incredible work–in fact, a ton of ink has been spilled about it over the past few months –but the bottom line is, if you only seek out one book off this list, this is the one.

Cue The Sun by Trent Parke (Stanley/Barker)

Kolkata, India, 2020 (Trent Parke)

Lee established relationships with the people he photographed as he traveled across the American South. Magnum photographer Trent Parke went a different route in his latest book, Cue The Sun. The work was made in northern India in 2020, just before the pandemic. Parke’s images hue closely to a street photography aesthetic. The hook is that every photograph was taken from the window of a moving vehicle, utilizing fast shutter speeds.

The result is a kind of visual travel diary. It’s also a creative exercise in image-making with constraints placed on movement and framing. What makes Cue The Sun worthy of inclusion on this list is the amount of thought and reflection on the photographic process that it can provoke. Specifically, on how much photographers rely on split-second reactions (not to mention instinct and muscle memory) when striving to create meaningful work, and just how fast the creative process happens when photographing, compared to other mediums. What’s more, it reveals how a fraction of a second is all the time that people need to establish an emotional connection or rapport with someone or something.

It’s also an exercise in bookmaking. The work folds out, concertina-style, and separates into two back-to-back sequences: photos taken during the daytime and photos taken at night (when Parke cued his flash, blasting everything outside his window with direct light). This format helps the body of work come together in a way that resembles a journey in and of itself.

The Unseen Saul Leiter edited by Margit Erb and Michael Parillo (Thames and Hudson)

It’s hard to believe there was a time when, like Baldwin Lee, acclaimed photographer Saul Leiter worked in relative anonymity. But that was the case until about 15 years ago. Since his passing, the Saul Leiter Foundation has continued to curate and catalog his vast archive of Kodachrome slides taken on the streets of New York dating back to the 1950s.

Essays by Foundation director Margit Erb and associate director Michael Parillo, offers a window into their curation, preservation, and restoration process. Visually, they provide glimpses of the process as well. Open the book and you encounter several photos of a slideshow projection inside Leiter’s former studio, where the Foundation is headquartered, as well as a montage of slides arranged on a light table printed full bleed. Like old 45 records, these vintage Kodachrome slides, in mounts that sometimes feature handwritten notes from the photographer, are themselves art objects.

But it’s the images on those slides that are truly astounding. The Unseen Saul Leiter unearths 76 color street photographs from Leiter’s vast archive that are as strong and innovative as his other known works. His dynamic compositions make masterful and evocative use of color, blurred reflections, rain-drenched abstractions, wide apertures and slow shutter speeds. These atmospheric photos are presented with black borders instead of white–a nod to the slideshow experience.

Refractions 2 by Ralph Gibson (Brilliant Editions)

In 2005, Ralph Gibson published Refractions, a compendium of insights into the theory and practice of photography. 17 years later, he continues this exploration with a follow-up, aptly titled Refractions 2. Gibson is as insightful here as he was the first time around, going deep into a range of topics. He writes lucidly about the photographic process, visual culture in the digital age, and artistic ways of seeing in general. His written reflections are complemented by gorgeous reproductions of his photos (along with other artwork), including a number of images from his highly regarded Black Trilogy. Like its predecessor (which is sadly out of print), it is at once a manifesto, a memoir, a philosophical treatise, and a how-to guide.

Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti (MACK)

from Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti

Although it’s not a direct sequel, Some Say Ice is, in a sense, a kind of spiritual sequel. Inspired by social historian Michael Lesy’s 1973 cult classic, Wisconsin Death Trip, Sanguinetti spent eight years exploring the environs of Black River Falls Wisconsin, working in the shadow of late 19th Century photographer Charles Van Schaick. As we wrote in our review, “There’s almost an occult feel to some of the images in Some Say Ice and the entire body of work seems haunted by the specters of the past.” Sanguinetti’s monograph is a rumination on the passing of time, existence and mortality, and photography’s potential for interweaving history and memory.

There are many other photobooks that deserve mentioning as well, but these are five that I find myself returning to most often.

And that’s a wrap for 2022! A huge thank you to all of our readers as we finish out our first full year at The Parallax Review. More to come as we expand in 2023!

New and Notable Photobooks: Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti

In her new monograph Some Say Ice, Alessandra Sanguinetti depicts a place that seems to be perpetually enduring frigid temperatures and long dark nights of the soul.

That place, more specifically, is Black River Falls Wisconsin, the town that was the focal point of social historian Michael Lesy’s 1973 cult classic, Wisconsin Death Trip. The influential legacy of Lesy’s book can be felt on practically every page of Some Say Ice.

For those not familiar with Wisconsin Death Trip, it highlights the salvaged wet plate collodion works made by the town photographer, Charles Van Schaick, at the turn of the 20th Century. Van Schaick’s portraits oscillate from mundane to surreal—all the more extraordinary considering they were work-for-hire gigs.

Lesy places short contemporaneous excerpts from a local newspaper alongside Van Schaick’s photographic output. These scraps of text delineate the unusually harsh and tragic fates of many residents while hinting at the struggles, both internal and external, that the individuals in the tradesman’s tintypes may have been experiencing as well. Whether Van Schaick himself realized it, many of his photographs attain a level of intensity and meaning that most artists strive for—something that is augmented by Lesy’s editing and sequencing.

Sanguinetti discovered Wisconsin Death Trip when she was nine years old. In her afterward she writes, “It was the first time my nine-year-old mind understood that many more people had come before me, and I never would have been able to look in their eyes if not for those photographs.” In interviews, she has discussed how this meditation on memory, mortality, and photography, which began at such a young age, has guided her process, dating back to her earliest projects. Starting in 2014, Sanguinetti made repeat pilgrimages to that small Wisconsin town and its environs, working in the shadow of Van Schaick for a period of eight years.

There’s almost an occult feel to some of the images in Some Say Ice and the entire body of work seems haunted by the specters of the past. In Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy describes the photography of the 1890s as a “semimagical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.” That observation is equally applicable to Sanguinetti’s monochrome medium-format images.

Although ostensibly a celebration of birth, the frontispiece of Some Say Ice indirectly references the theme of child mortality in Wisconsin Death Trip. It showcases a homemade circular calendar with a snapshot of a newborn baby affixed to the month of July. Turning the page, the first photo that opens the book proper is of a horse’s torso—almost a perfect mirror image of the opening photo that Lesy selected for his book.

This deliberate echoing continues throughout. One photo eerily recalls a haunting Van Schaick photo of two children who had recently passed. In Sanguinetti’s version, two young boys—brothers, perhaps—dressed in similar outfits, playfully pose upside down with deadpan expressions on an antique two-person sofa. The walls and floor are bare. A hand on the upper right-hand corner of the frame seems to be in the process of ironing and hanging laundry—traditional household chores. Relics of earlier eras are manifold—in fact, there is nothing contemporary about the image at all.

from Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti

Sanguinetti’s studious avoidance of present-day signifiers such as cellphones imbues her work with a certain timelessness. In this regard, the images provide a throughline to an earlier, bygone era.

The thematic resonances help the viewer make those connections as well: antique guns, deer antlers, sparse bedrooms, people in uniforms (a soldier, two prisoners, a boy scout.) Guided by Van Schaick’s work and her own curiosity, Sanguinetti explores the life of the town. A striking image of three young girls casting shadows on the side of their house is reminiscent of her best-known work, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Animals appear throughout in ways that bring to mind her first monograph, On the 6th Day

The images tap into something uncanny that lurks just below the surface of things. Meaning is elusive. The photos are presented without captions and aside from a brief afterword, there is minimal text. Like the world Sanguinetti portrays, the work itself is austere to the point of asceticism. This austerity extends to the front cover, which simply features a tipped-in title card, a small rectangle of white in a glacial sea of black.

from Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti
from Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti

In terms of packaging and presentation, the printing is impeccable, coming as close to realizing the full potential of the images as possible. A tipped-in plate on the back cover adds greatly to its collectability. The book is laid out portfolio-style, in a traditional manner consistent with her previous books.

Ultimately, Some Say Ice represents both a departure and a return for Sanguinetti. It is at once something completely new and of a piece with her other major bodies of work. And it’s easily one of the best photobooks of the year.

Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti. MACK, 2022. 148 pages, 102 photographs. Hardcover.

Binge-Worthy #9: Another Day In Paradise (Larry Clark, 1998)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“Being an artist, censoring myself never came up, because it wasn’t something I thought about doing. And if anyone else wanted to censor me, I said no.” – Larry Clark

With all of the hype around Euphoria lately, several pop culture writers have pointed out that Larry Clark did it first and better with his 1995 breakthrough directorial debut, Kids. What Clark did, exactly, was present a raw, unflinching look at teens experimenting with drugs, sex, and other illicit activities. Set over a roughly 24-hour period in New York City, Kids unfolds in ways that resemble in-depth reportage, as opposed to plot-driven entertainment.

Kids still holds up a master class in neorealism and social realism. It’s shot almost like a Frederick Wiseman film at times, with long handheld takes that wind through clusters of teens, recording fascinating details and scraps of dialogue. Yet, every scene was scripted (Clark pegged aspiring teenage writer, Harmony Korine for the gig) and carefully rehearsed. Over a quarter-century later, it still retains its power to shock, in large part because it rings so uncannily true-to-life. It also retains a strong social conscience.

In 2002, Korine and Clark reteamed for Ken Park, a movie so controversial it never managed to find a distributor. That film and others that Clark made around the same time constitute what loftier critics than I have referred to as “cinematic provocations.” These later works also contain social commentary, but they too often cross the line into exploitation. There’s not enough heart to balance out the shocking and graphic moments onscreen.

I would argue that Clark’s true maturation as a filmmaker occurs in his criminally underseen second feature. Clark’s follow-up to Kids, the nifty, gritty crime drama Another Day In Paradise, may be more conventional and even restrained at times, but it’s also very well made and a lot of fun to watch. Based on a semiautobiographical novel by Eddie Little, but also rooted in Clark’s own experiences with drugs and crime, it portrays the highs and lows of life on the margins of society from an insider’s perspective.

When the film opens, underage speed freak Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser, a few years before getting cast as Pete Campbell on Mad Men) and his slightly older girlfriend Rosie (Natasha Gregson-Wagner) are lying in bed together. Bobbie smokes a cigarette, get dressed, and then heads out to loot vending machines at a community college. His clumsy smash-and-grab attempt draws the attention of a security guard. In the ensuing altercation, Bobbie brutally stabs the guard with a long screwdriver and winds up badly wounded himself. A trip to the emergency room is out of the question, so they get in contact with “Uncle Mel” (James Woods). A former army medic, he helps treat Bobbie’s wounds—and administers heroin as a painkiller.

Mel and his girlfriend Sid (Melanie Griffith, in a subtly heartbreaking performance) take the young couple under their wing. Mel and Sid are, by their own admittance, small-time junkies and criminals only slightly higher up the socioeconomic ladder than Bobbie and Rosie. But they have the experience and competence the younger couple lacks. Moreover, they harbor no illusions about the life they’ve chosen.

Soon, the foursome are working on a potentially large score, ripping off a local pharmacy’s adderall supply and selling the goods. Yet it’s the in-between moments that stand out: an overly indulgent shopping spree, a first taste of champagne at a nightclub. Mel and Sid transition from strangers to mentors to surrogate parents in a relatively short timespan, thanks to the compressed storytelling of cinema, and we see the familial bonds grow stronger.

Clark portrays the hazy glamour of this lifestyle as well as its self-destructive nature. Like a vintage coat from Goodwill, there’s a well-worn coziness to it, and it’s a little rough around the edges in ways that only makes it seem that much more cool, fashionable and desirable. Nevertheless, practically every instance of substance abuse has repercussions—especially alcohol. The more Mel drinks, the more he becomes erratic and mercurial, and his pragmatic self-interest shifts to open cruelty.

Mel is the kind of character that Woods was born to play, a fast-talking grifter who can be charming one moment and threatening the next. Woods owns this role to the point where it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing it.

By the same token, many of the minor characters make indelible impressions as well. Most notably, a self-appointed reverend (James Otis) who delivers sermons to his customers after selling them guns. Later, when an unnerved Bobbie asks Mel what the reverend’s deal is, Mel tersely describes the reverend as “somebody you never want to mess with” and leaves it at that.

Towards the end, Paradise backslides into something more conventional and predictable. (Anytime someone in a movie asks, “have I ever led you wrong before?” you know they’re about to do just that.) But the film hits its stride when it simply allows the viewer to get to know these fascinating and ultimately endearing schemers. 

At its best, Paradise is a slice-of-life hangout movie about junkies, thieves, and drug dealers. The most obvious cinematic comparison would be Drugstore Cowboy. Gus Van Sant, an executive producer on Kids, is an avowed Larry Clark fan and looked at Clark’s classic photobook Tulsa to gain inspiration for some of the shots and scenes in his film. The influence is clearly mutual. There are also strong parallels to Arthur Penn’s 1967 road picture Bonnie and Clyde, which is referenced ironically by Sid at one point.

The action takes place in 1971, just a few years after Penn’s New Hollywood classic was released, but aside from some exceptionally well-curated music cues (including a standout Clarence Carter performance), there are very few cultural markers to anchor it in that era. One gets the sense that this world has largely operated unchanged and independent of the larger culture for quite some time. It’s its own microcosm.

The film’s visual style is as photographic as it is cinematographic—not surprising, since it was made by a photographer. (Although Clark briefly studied photography, he is a completely self-taught filmmaker.) Clark knows how to let a scene or even a passing moment drive the visual aesthetic, and the result is as effective as it is unconventional. Whenever possible, Clark avoids relying on the cinematographer’s grab-bag assortment of static, rote shots. Instead, kinetic handheld camerawork bolsters and underscores the characters’ drug-fueled states while showcasing the spontaneity of the actors’ performances. Whatever critiques one has about Larry Clark (and let’s face it, if he ever somehow broke into the mainstream, he’d likely be instantly cancelled), he has a great eye and a powerful vision.

Ultimately, what differentiates Another Day in Paradise from Kids as well as Clark’s later films is the way that it allows the viewer to ride shotgun alongside the main characters. Kids, for instance, adopts a more sociological perspective, whereas Paradise is a genuinely warm and humane portrayal of people who sometimes act inhumanely. It’s a story that only someone who truly lived the life could tell.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear,” on view at MoMA, Reimagines the Traditional Museum Retrospective

Wolfgang Tillmans’s highly anticipated MoMA retrospective is overwhelming in the best possible way.

Curator Roxana Marcoci has collaborated with Tillmans to create a labyrinthine arrangement that builds on his earlier gallery shows. It is far removed from a traditional or even a chronological presentation of work. Over 400 images of various sizes, some as small as 4×6”, are arranged dynamically on each wall, creating a kinetic ebb and flow. A handful of the photos are framed, many are affixed with binder clips, and many others are held up with Scotch tape. Long tables fill several rooms with yet more works to explore. Every space in the 6th floor galleries is fair game—even the emergency exit doors.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Aaron M. Cohen

Tillmans’s work spans different genres, both straightforward and conceptual, and includes magazine tearsheets, photocopies, video projections, cameraless works, and appropriated images. Each wall, each room is a meticulously organized explosion of imagery and an immersive experience. Compared to more traditional, linear layouts, it’s dynamic, playful, and innovative. The experience of viewing the work is almost as memorable as the work itself.

At the press preview, Marcoci described each wall as a musical partition with different rhythms and intensities, each constituting a “perfect pop song.” That’s an apt metaphor, given Tillmans’s musicality. To extend it slightly, the entire show could be construed as a concept album. Individual pieces combine to create variations on themes as the works simultaneously echo off of and segue into each other.

Even in the rarified air of the fine art world, Tillmans’s work feel immediate, accessible, and direct. As a photographer, he has the power to conjure emotions difficult to put in words. He also endows in viewers a sense of not just connection but also belonging.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Emile Askey

In his most successful images, Tillmans effectively harnesses the language of vernacular photos and builds on that foundation to add layers of meaning and emotion. Take, for instance, his borderline-iconic photograph of two young men kissing outside of a gay nightclub, caught in the flash. The image is at once provocative and celebratory. It’s a sexually charged picture with a social conscience that’s intimate and inclusive. It’s practically a visceral experience, and the more you look, the more you feel like you’re a part of the moment.

The Cock (kiss) (2002). Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

Viewing Tillmans’s work in MoMA, it’s tempting to make a connection to William Eggleston’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition there. To be sure, Tillmans’s work constitutes a democratic forest of sorts in a number of ways. The two photographers also share an uncanny ability to harness the vernacular language of photography in order to cut to the heart of something profound. Additionally, for much of his career, Tillmans, like Eggleston, preferred 35mm over medium- and large-format cameras, steering clear of the type of ornate equipment that typically signifies the “serious” art photographer. Tillmans shoots mainly with a digital SLR these days.

One of his strongest works, “Lüneburg (self),” is a digital image made during the early days of the quarantine. At first glance, it might come across as mundane, but there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface.

For starters, there’s a playful quality to the image. One’s eye is drawn to the accidental phallic-ness of the iPhone/water bottle arrangement before noticing Tillman’s face in the phone app’s tiny frame, engulfed by his digital camera lens. There is also an unsettling quality as well as a profound sense of isolation and disconnect. Nobody is on the other end of the video chat. Instead the screen radiates back empty bedcovers. There’s an institutional feel to the surroundings, as if taken from a hospital bed. Nevertheless, there is also a sense of anticipation and the hope that somebody will appear.

Lüneburg (self) (2020). Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

“There’s more that connects us than divides us,” Tillmans sings on the opening track to his 2021 album Moon in Earthlight. His work in general—and his bold, honest, and intimate pictures of gay life in particular—emphasize human connection and the value of personal relationships. While there is a strong component of social awareness and political idealism permeating his images, they rarely come across as polemical. Rather, they are empathetic, humane, and sincere.

I highly recommend walking through the entire exhibit twice. You’ll be amazed at just how much you overlooked the first time around.

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, September 12 2022 through Jan 1 2023.

((2 revisions & 3 end P’s))

New and Notable Photobooks: Speedway 1972 by Henry Horenstein

When Henry Horenstein revisited a series of old black-and-white photos dating back to his grad school days, what he found was more interesting than he remembered. Centered around the sport of modified stock car racing, the collection of images captured the sparks of a fascinating subculture as it existed half a century ago. Now, those photographs have been assembled into the book Speedway 1972, published by Stanley/Barker.

The catalyst for the series was Horenstein’s brother-in-law, an amateur stock car racer who helped him land a part-time gig shooting for Illustrated Speedway News, New England racetrack Thompson Speedway’s weekly program. For a “historian-with-a-camera in training,” Horenstein writes in his preface, “what better than an old-school sport that would certainly be extinct one day?” He then notes with some irony that Thompson Speedway is still in operation—and their operations have grown substantially.

Nevertheless, Horenstein’s images tap into the unique car culture of the era and evoke a way of life portrayed in classic 1970s movies like Two-Lane Blacktop. Horenstein places the greatest emphasis on the people, whether on the racetrack or in the stands. The various portraits of racers reveal a heavily male-dominated recreational pursuit, while those of the spectators feature a more balanced mix of men and women. There are families, teenage couples, old timers, and young children. Their enthusiasm is contagious, the rough-around-the-edges ethos is alluring, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the daredevil bravado of the participants.

The mechanics’ engineering expertise is also impressive, but thankfully, Horenstein avoids becoming overly preoccupied with the more technical side of things. His square-format photographs provide just enough of a glimpse under the hood to give viewers the gist of how these machines are rebuilt and augmented for racing, while keeping the focus on the more human elements.

One of the most effective images offers a nice view of a racer sitting in a modified open-wheel stock car. There’s not much else, aside from a steering wheel, a gearshift, and a driver’s seat. Large dirt-encrusted tires, a primitive roll frame mounted to a rebuilt chassis, and a large number 28 posted on the side round out the image. Yet, the viewer’s attention quickly gravitates toward the driver: His tense but focused expression, his hand on the gear shift, a bandage on one finger, his goggles resting on his forehead as he gazes out to the left, ready to let loose.

man in racecar
From “Speedway 72” © Henry Horenstein

A portrait of a mechanic standing in front of a wrecked husk of an automobile similarly draws the viewer in. The vehicle’s wear-and-tear gives a sense of the intensity of the races and the risks involved – as well as the skill needed to rebuild these machines into racing shape. Still, the emphasis is on the individual standing front and center, first and foremost.

Many of the strongest images were taken at night. Horenstein’s use of flash is highly skilled and helps provide an aesthetic consistency to the work. (Even early in his career, he exhibits a great deal of technical aptitude.)

The sequencing is another strong point. Generally, each two-page spread features one photo that showcases drivers and crew members, and one that focuses on the spectators and fans, in ways that enable them to complement each other.

One such spread presents, on the left side, a photo of two young boys in the stands, clad mostly in denim, an illicit cigarette in hand. On the right, two men that could be their older doppelgangers tool around the track in a banged-up racecar.

two boys at a racetrack
From “Speedway 72” © Henry Horenstein
two men in racecar
From “Speedway 72” © Henry Horenstein

Similarly, a portrait of a racer posing confidently, one hand on his hip and the other on his racecar’s windowsill, pairs nicely with one of two young female spectators, both of whom are awkwardly figuring out where to place their hands as they try to project a similar confidence.

An abundance of comparable portraits causes the work to sag a little in the middle. Still, there are inherently interesting elements even in the images that don’t quite “get there”—whether it’s something as simple and graphic as a checkered racing flag, an expression, or an article of clothing.

There are no captions, nor are they really necessary. The book’s title provides enough information: what year the images were made—and, generally speaking, where. After reading the preface, if I was a betting man, I’d guess that the opening photo is a portrait of Horenstein’s brother-in-law, the guy who introduced him to this world. Unlike the others, it has a snapshot-like quality to it, and one can sense a close kinship between photographer and subject. What follows is a mix of people and machines, racers and fans, metal, dirt, and exhaust fumes. It’s nice to get lost in the cacophony of it all and just immerse oneself in the scene.

Recently, it seems that a number of established photographers in the later stages of their careers have been reassessing their early work and finding greater value in it than they did initially. Speedway 1972 represents one of the more successful examples of this. It’s a work imbued with nostalgia and a celebration of a specific time and place, photographed with an eye towards history and memory.

Speedway 1972 by Henry Horenstein. Stanley/Barker, 2022. 88 pages. Hardcover.

Announcing The Official TPR Tote Bag

We’re excited to announce the launch of our inaugural fundraising campaign! Now you can show your support for the site by rocking this sleek, stylish, always-in-fashion tote bag! In all seriousness, your support will go a long way towards helping to sustain the site and fuel its growth. All proceeds will be used to maintain and upgrade the site.

And while we’d love it if you purchase a tote bag (more incentives coming soon), first and foremost we’re grateful to have your readership. Visiting the site and spreading the word about it is the best way to support The Parallax Review.

In the Galleries: August 2022

Four women at Chicken Bone Beach, ca. 1960s, by John W. Mosley (Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection)

In The Galleries highlights photography shows and photo-related happening in the Philadelphia area.

On view through August 30 on the first floor of Temple University’s Charles Library, “Chicken Bone Beach: The Photography of John W. Mosley and the African-American Experience in Atlantic City,” curated by Leslie Willis-Lowry, showcases photographs of a historic segregated beach that catered to an emerging African American middle class during the mid-Twentieth Century.

Mosley’s images provide an insider’s look at a stretch of sand near Missouri Avenue in Atlantic City that became a popular destination for vacationing Black families. Since the nearby White-owned restaurants refused to serve Black customers, people brought picnic baskets to the beach, which earned it the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Chicken Bone Beach.” The photos on display cover a roughly three-decade timespan, starting in the 1930s.

In his casual and convivial portraits of African American beachgoers, Mosley provides a window into a specific place and time. The images also serve as a reminder that socially-concerned photography can—and should—show people experiencing joy.

To be sure, there are a lot of posed group shots. People clearly enjoyed the experience of being photographed by Mosley. In turn, he photographed them as if they were celebrities–which, occasionally, they were.

Based in Philadelphia, Mosley enjoyed a lengthy career as a photojournalist, documenting Black society for a variety of publications. These prints were expertly selected from Mosley’s extensive archive, which totals over 250,000 negatives and prints, housed in Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

The several dozen images chosen for display are presented in simple black frames with captions affixed at the bottom. Together, they comprise a celebratory montage of Black life and culture during a more racially divided era. And they further the case for a greater appreciation of Mosley’s work.

The exhibit falters a little when it comes to the second half of the title—“the African-American Experience in Atlantic City.” That’s a topic of tremendous depth and breadth, and a one-room show can only begin to scratch the surface of it. But when the focus is on Mosley’s visual documentation of Chicken Bone Beach, it’s captivating.

New and Notable Photobooks: Recreation by Mitch Epstein

At first glance, there’s little in the way of actual recreation to be found in Recreation. Instead of producing a more conventional survey of the different types of pastimes that Americans engage in, as might be expected from the title, Mitch Epstein brings focus to life’s in-between moments. This newly-published re-edited and expanded edition builds on the previous version originally published by Steidl in 2005.  

The book opens with a classic decisive-moment street photograph of a cluster of stylish women on Madison Avenue searching for something on the ground. The metaphor is clear—the photographer also seeks something elusive. The ambiguity and mystery of the photo helps set the tone for the book.

About halfway through, the viewer is presented with another remarkable, enigmatic photograph. A middle-aged man naps on a small fold-out cot beside his Cadillac, just off the West Side Highway, Twin Towers standing tall in the background. It may not convey the concept of “recreation” the same way that the sunbathers on beach blankets on the next page do. However, the sequencing enables the viewer to make a clear connection.

man sleeping beside car near the Twin Towers
West Side Highway, New York 1977 © Mitch Epstein

Recreation really hits its stride around this point, with several particularly strong runs centered around photos from Martha’s Vineyard and New Orleans respectively. Epstein has created a highly thoughtful edit of the work in collaboration with his wife Susan Bell and photographer Ryan Spencer. But it’s best not to flip through the pages too quickly. The photographs quietly demand closer inspection and further interpretation, revealing new meanings slowly over time.

 Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts III 1983 © Mitch Epstein

The book is laid out in a very conventional format: Each two-page spread features one photo on the right-hand page, printed large with a white border. A basic caption delineating the place and the year that the photo was taken appears on the left-hand page. Beyond that, there is little supplementary text aside from a brief acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

For straight photography, something so traditional tends to work well, and in my opinion, the addition of white space, more often reserved for black-and-white work, is an improvement upon the 2005 edition’s full-bleed printing. Still, re-editing and re-sequencing a project is a tricky business. I know from experience that when you revisit work that you’ve published, you can’t stop obsessing over its shortcomings, however few or many, whether real or perceived, and you can’t stop thinking about how you would do it differently given another chance.

Fortunately, Epstein was granted that opportunity. So, how does the new edition compare to the original? That particular compare-and-contrast exercise is worthy of its own think piece, but the short answer is: Overall, it’s an improvement. It’s a more assured statement by a photographer who has a better sense of what he wants to say and how he wants to communicate it.

One significant revision occurs at the end. Originally, the final photograph (Buena Vista, Colorado 1988) featured two men showing off their elaborate model train set, popping out of the scenery like genial demigods. It’s a wonderfully playful image, but not an ending photograph, per se.

Now it’s the penultimate image. Turn the page and you’ll see an equally playful depiction of an older couple at Glacier National Park peering through separate sets of binoculars. The mountains in the distance nicely echo the painted backdrop of the model train set. And this picture brings the project full circle—like the women in the opening photo, the sightseers are also searching for something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

It’s worth noting that Epstein studied photography with Garry Winogrand at Cooper Union in the 1970s. In terms of content and technique, Winogrand’s influence is undeniable in the images from that decade, and Epstein has never been shy about acknowledging that. There are tilted horizon lines, the occasional use of on-camera flash, and an uncanny ability to make order out of the chaos of the streets. Epstein has since branched out to medium and large format photography, but he made these images using a Leica with a wide-angle lens, the classic street photographer’s setup.

Epstein started shooting color while studying with Winogrand, and he helped pioneer the use of color in fine-art photography, along with William Eggleston and others. Epstein uses color in ways that adds depth and meaning, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of making color the overwhelmingly central aspect of his photos. Take, for instance, an image of two dancers in New Orleans. The picture would work just fine in black-and-white. It would be fascinating even without the serendipitous fact that both revelers are wearing pink shirts. However, the bright pink colors create a visual connection between the two and further pique the viewer’s curiosity about the couple and the event.

New Orleans, Louisiana I 1974 © Mitch Epstein

Starting around the mid-1980s, Epstein’s photos become more carefully composed and more polished compared to his earlier work. That’s to be expected, of course. Styles and techniques evolve, and skills improve. Still, it’s exciting to witness this evolution of style occurring within a single body of work.

And while he may not be quite as prolific as Winogrand (could anyone ever be?), a second monograph, Silver + Chrome, is due out from Steidl in September. It pinpoints the moment in Epstein’s career when he made the leap from Tri-X to Kodachrome. This time around, the title is both poetic and descriptive, and it captures the book’s central conceit succinctly. But whatever cavils I might have with Recreation’s less catchy, more generic title, the dynamic and inspired photographs speak for themselves, and the sequencing brings everything together.

Recreation by Mitch Epstein. Edited by Susan Bell and Ryan Spencer. Steidl, 2022. 176 pages, 84 images. Hardcover.

Binge-Worthy #8: Stranded In Canton (William Eggleston, 1974/2005)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I am at war with the obvious.” – William Eggleston

Stranded in Canton, William Eggleston’s lone foray into filmmaking, somehow manages the neat trick of being both strikingly similar to and completely different from his still photography. Assembled from video footage shot in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi throughout 1974, it’s a non-narrative, quasi-home video that grabs your attention immediately and never lets go. It’s rough, intimate, sublime, disturbing, occasionally profound, determinedly weird, and endlessly fascinating. And, like several of Eggleston’s classic photobooks, it’s an understated, unassuming masterpiece.

Shot on black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape, Stranded is comprised of short vignettes featuring a number of eccentric personalities. Eggleston’s approach could almost be described as ethnographic. However, it’s far more personal. (After all, this was his world as well at the time.) He mainly focuses on a coterie of garrulous and gregarious drunks and eccentrics living on the margins, as they channel their creativity and acquiesce to various transgressive urges. Glimpses of Eggleston’s immediate family and close relatives add some balance to the proceedings.

Eggleston has described his photographs as excerpts from an unfinished novel, and that could sum up the various strands in Stranded as well. An inebriated small-town dentist waxes poetic. A mercurial artist performs a borderline-unspeakable act involving a beer bottle. A tightly coiled country singer brandishes a firearm. Passions erupt and tempers flare. These are cinema verité sketches with a distinctly Southern Gothic flavor.

The film opens with a sustained video portrait of Eggleston’s two children that’s reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s work. There are a number of instances throughout where individuals mug for the camera or otherwise interact with “Egg” (as they call him). Yet, just as often, he is able to record unobtrusively, even when his camera is only inches away from someone. His video camera restlessly winds its way through the various proceedings, searching for the right angle, or perhaps for a different way to capture the scenes that are unfolding around him.

While it’s clear that Eggleston prefers intimate moments over spectacle, it’s also clear that he’s drawn to the performative, whether it be a fantastic blues harmonica riff or an inebriated drag queen’s wobbly attempt at cabaret singing. Late in the movie, there’s a “shockumentary” mondo-style scene that involves a circus geek biting the head off of a live chicken to the drunken jeers of a rowdy audience. How does one seek out a genuine moment in the midst of such a violent and garish performance? I would argue that in the close-up of the geek’s cruelly self-satisfied mouth after completing his act, two gold front teeth gleaming, a stray feather stuck to his chin, Eggleston finds it.

man with sunglasses and hat holding a gun
Country singer Jerry McGill appears in William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Similar to Robert Frank, Morris Engel, and other photographers in this series, Eggleston was shooting fast and loose with minimal equipment and working more or less on his own, employing a largely photographic approach to the new medium. He was also taking advantage of new and innovative technology—in this case, the first video camera manufactured for the consumer market, the Sony Portapak. The Portapak was relatively lightweight, unobtrusive, and easy to use. It featured synchronous sound and decent motion reduction that made it conducive to handheld shooting.

Eggleston saw the video camera as a radical invention comparable to the 35mm camera in terms of its potential game-changing significance. He retrofitted his Portapak with a 16mm film camera lens and an infrared picture tube for low light conditions. The lens gave increased clarity, enabled shooting from a closer distance, and resulted in a shallower depth of field. The heat-sensing vacuum tube resolved tricky lighting issues while giving everything an otherworldly sheen.

A major drawback to using reel-to-reel videotape was that there was no easy way to edit it, so the footage languished unseen for decades. However, a 2001 digital restoration enabled the dozens of hours that Eggleston shot to be cleanly edited into a tight 80-minute film. It was released on DVD in 2005, alongside a book comprised of hauntingly ethereal stills pulled from the finished version.

The editing is as fluid as the camerawork. There isn’t anything that one would deem extraneous—it’s taut and fierce, no small accomplishment. Given the sheer amount of footage, Stranded could have easily would up sprawling and unshapen. A great deal of credit goes to film editor Robert Gordon for giving shape and rhythm to the film. It unfolds like a jazz composition, with variations on themes and recurring motifs. And given Eggleston’s musicality, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

woman with eyes closed
A video still from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Like many, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at Eggleston’s photographs, trying to untangle the mysteries in them and struggling to put into words the rationale behind why I think they’re so incredibly good. As curator and art historian Phillip Prodger writes in Portraits, they have a fundamental inscrutability about them: “Their meaning is open-ended, and their emotional impact is uncontrived. In terms of narrative, they offer provocation without resolution.” The same could be said about practically every moment in Stranded. (Heck, the same could be said just about the title itself.) It’s a significant work from a legendary photographer–and one of the greatest chroniclers of the American South–defiantly following his own muse.

Stranded In Canton (directed by William Eggleston). Video (B/W), 77 min., 1974/2005.

Binge-Worthy Interlude: Alec Soth – On Filmmaking and Photography

Lately, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with Magnum photographer Alec Soth’s YouTube talks. This past month, he posted a two-part series entitled “On filmmaking and photography.” Since I’m currently working on the next Binge-Worthy column, I was eager to gain his perspective.

As it turns out, Soth is trying his hand at filmmaking, which prompted reflection on the similarities and differences between motion pictures and still photography. In the first video, Soth looks at several photography books published by filmmakers and others in the industry (which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad idea for a companion series to Binge-Worthy). In the second, he delineates the differences between editing a film and editing a series of photographs via Helen Levitt’s classic book A Way of Seeing.

He also talks about how, as a filmmaker, he found himself in a situation where he needed to hire a casting director and a cinematographer, pointing out the cognitive dissonance of watching the action unfold on a monitor instead of through the camera’s viewfinder.

Soth is perhaps the embodiment of a photographer’s photographer, and he’s extremely open when it comes to giving insight into his process. Similarly, in his video talks, he focuses a great deal on the process of making photos and photobooks, rather than simply analyzing the end results. He tackles complex questions that many photographers wrestle with (I certainly do), and his experiences and insights, personal as they may be, tap into something universal.

So watch the YouTube videos! And stay tuned for the next Binge-Worthy entry, which focuses on a video project with a strong cult following made by one of the great chroniclers of the American South.