Curiously, thinking back had me pick three retrospectives.
Retrospectives often tend to be drab affairs, boring collections of 'best ofs.' Not so for these three. Each of these retrospectives demonstrates that you can cover a photographer's career in engaging, surprising, and ultimately rewarding ways. In particular:
From Here to There: Alec Soth's America almost feels a little as if it was incomplete, the reader/viewer is left hanging, and you want to see more, which here, in part, means the resolution of some of the issues discussed throughout the book.
The Flesh and The Spirit mixes some expected classics with many unexpected gems from the collection, some of them even replacing other, seemingly more obvious choices. The topic of the book is not the work of the photographer per se; instead it uses the body as a metaphor for Mann's view of the world.
Katherine Avenue focuses on the late photographer's own work, avoiding the famous work he did with Mike Mandel. The book shifts the focus back on a brilliant photographer who, sadly, passed away too early.
The overview of this famous and groundbreaking art academia, a critical assessment of what it did, who was/is part of it; it is hard to see where the Düsseldorf School can go from here. I hate to say this, but still: Maybe we can all move on now.
Released late, Ohio offers one of the crucial intersections between German and American photography. Maybe seeing this work now instead of a few years after it was made is the key to its success: We are reminded that all talk of "schools" ultimately only serves us to a certain extent. So here is a German photographer taking German-American-looking photographs in America, influenced both by German and American traditions.
Is this the Golden Age of photobook making? If it isn't, I really need to hear why. Speaking of Golden Age, there are lots and lots of cutting-edge photobooks being produced in The Netherlands right now, Mariken Wessels' Queen Ann P.S. Belly Cut Off being just one particularly good example. Found photographs, remixed, recycled, re-edited. Brilliant.
Trevor Paglen makes us look at things we have decided so far not to look at. In these times, where so much art is painfully apolitical, Paglen's book reminds us what is at stake for all of us, and he reminds us how visual artists can even deal with something that seemingly is out of sight, invisible.
I don't speak Danish so I have literally no clue what the text of number 20 of Jesper Fabricius's Kunsthaefte actually says. But it looks close enough to German for me to think I have an idea - and combined with these visual snippets from 1970s Danish hardcore pornography magazines the resulting mix is funny and absurd. It's not even pornography, because everything is cut into tiny pieces. If it's porn, it's dada porn. There has been so much trite work produced around/from pornography, Kunsthaefte 20 easily avoids all pitfalls.
What struck me about this book is how it almost perfectly embodies everything that truly makes a great photobook. At a first glance, it doesn't strike the viewer as a lavish affair. For example, it's a softcover - very tactile, and impossible to reproduce online, and it's smallish. But once you look carefully, it is the most lavish affair, and the real luxury here lies in all the small details, ranging from the at first seemingly understated photography, to the very smart design, to the quality of the paper and printing, which so far had every person I showed this book to get weak knees. In a nutshell, it almost feels more like an extremely well made artist's book.
Jörg M. Colberg is the editor and founder of Conscientious, a website dedicated to contemporary fine-art photography. His writing has appeared in books and magazines nationally and internationally. He is also a faculty member at the International Limited-Residency Photography MFA Program at the Hartford Art School.