American Photography 25 (not to be confused with the monthly magazine of the same name) is the 25th silver anniversary edition of one of the most interesting annuals ever published. AP25 is very serious, elaborately produced, full of professional photography -- much already published in leading media outlets -- and selected by an all star print media/art jury lead by Kathy Ryan of the New York Times. It is almost all color and all sharp, and almost all commercial photography. It also includes photojournalism, self generated personal projects, still life, illustration, editorial and advertising, and a pinch of scientific photography that adds to the stew.
Photography annuals are always strange, like the Wunderkammers of old, "cabinets of curiosities," odd collections of natural history things. All annuals are strange, but not just because they provide a window that opens up on very specific time and that different juries select/produce different "texts." But the medium of photography and the year 2008 is the only thing some of these photos have in common, which makes it a real challenge to pull them all together under one big tent. The photographs are presented one to a page in double page spreads. Occasionally, a single image is splashed across two pages or an image is presented next to a blank page. Compared with some previous issues, this demonstrates restraint. The designers, Fred Woodward & Rob Hewitt, had the very difficult job of making some kind of sense out of an alphabetical-by-photographer bunch of photos, but they have done a superlative job well worth studying at length. With the previous 24 years of AP to look at, they probably had a very good idea of what to do and, more importantly, not do. AP annuals are closer to the wildly experimental Visionaire in design than to the dreadfully uniform encyclopedia look of most of the annuals done in the 20th century. I exaggerate. AP is after all a book, which is a very conservative thing. But it has had some outrageous packaging (covers) over the years. By my rough calculations, in 25 years they have presented nearly 10,000 photographs, an immense collection that occupies almost eight linear feet of necessarily very sturdy shelf space. Monumental is a word that applies.
AP 25 is a big, heavy silver block of a book. Its 406 pages reproduce the work of 354 photographers chosen to represent the year 2008 in photos. These were selected from 1,200 photographers and 10,000 photographs, and published in December 2009. At the back of the book is a list of 105 photographers not included in the book but whose work appears on the website AI-AP.com as part of AP25 image collection, which is very nice. In addition to contact info for all the photographers, there is a Creative Index, which is in effect a directory to the print media industry, followed by a colophon of sorts that could choke a horse. The only thing they don't tell you is how much the book weighs, (a lot). I should mention the endpapers are shocking pink and visible, for some reason, through two grommets in the front and back covers.
2008 (remember 2008?) was Obama's year, so the book has a theme of sorts. It begins with photographer A (Finoa Aboud) and an image of the first baby born in NYC the night of the election. The newborn is wearing an Obama outfit and appears to have a raised fist clenched in a black power salute (!?). Necessarily, Obama makes cameo appearances throughout the book. We see him exhausted, talking to press, resting, doing chin-ups, juxtaposed with a photo of an eagle (full page bleed), and, finally, laughing that particular laugh of his, not like the famous Teddy Roosevelt full frontal toothy heehaw photo but that shy, almost embarrassed looking down and away from the viewer, as if he is saying lets-get-this-frivolity-out-of-the-way-and-seriously-lets-get-back-to-work-now laugh, (by Peter Yang). A few pages later we get to photographer Z (Andrew Zuckerman) and see an amazing photograph of ...a porcupine. To quote Walter Cronkite's famous last words on the CBS Evening News: "And that's the way it is."
In between there are many, many things, way too much to take in with one viewing or even several, as is the case with photo annuals in general. Without getting into the often clever, sometimes brilliant photos, layout and juxtapositions, I can say that in this book you will see the reality of photography today from the point of view of the industry's heavy hitters. And this is worth the price of admission.
Alex Sweetman teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has helped assemble one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of 19th and 20th century photography books in the world. In 1985 he mounted the first comprehensive exhibition of photography books, "Photographic Book to Photobookwork," nearly 400 books and 100 photographs at the California Museum of Photography.