PRINT April 2002


The Book of 101 Books

STRIP AWAY THE LUSH trappings of The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century (PPP Editions/Roth Horowitz, 2001), and you basically have a list. But what a list! It begins with The North American Indian, Edward S. Curtis's twenty-volume portrait of “a vanishing race” from 1907, and ends with LaChapelle Land, David LaChapelle's 1996 book of personal kitsch. In between, you can chart the progress and regress of the photographic book over the course of the twentieth century.

Each title gets the royal treatment: a spread (at least) including several sample pages and a brief text by critics. David Levi Strauss or Vince Aletti. But how to approach this book of books? As a narrative plowing through the twentieth century? As a catalogue to its companion exhibition? A best-of list to argue with? A shopping list for potential collectors? One way not to read the list is as a grand history. An essay by historian Shelley Rice rehashes a lot of the material in order to create some ligature. It doesn't work. With the lines of influence among the books running every which way, a straightforward story of progress seems forced and flat.

This book is made for jumping around (though its heft interferes with the light-footed approach). For example, you can witness the budding of the book as object, beginning with, say, El Lissitzky's fold-out monument to Industrial socialism, and then watch it flower in the '60s. In 1965 there is Kikuji Kawada's book commemorating the atomic attack on Hiroshima, The Map, described by Aletti as “part surprise package, part letter bomb.” Then comes Ed Ruscha's 1966 book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, shown in its entirety, and Andy Warhol's Index (Book), which includes a kind of red pop-up accordion, shown as it was originally issued in 1967: in a plastic bag, with a yellow $12.95 price tag.

If you skip around enough, you'll see that some books bounce nicely off one another. The arrangement of abstract nudes in František Drtikol's Žena ve světle (Woman in light) prefigures Bill Brandt's Perspective of Nudes by three decades. Ralph Meatyard's pictorial fiction The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater puts on an air of friendly freakishness that plays off Diane Arbus's work.

Once you start looking for affinities, you will notice that most of the great ideas for photo books are at least seventy years old. All those surrealists playing with creepy biomorphic forms—Joan Fontcuberta, Georges Hugnet, Jindřich Štyrský, Frederick Sommer—can be traced right back to Karl Blossfeldt. The serialists, Helmar Lerski, Walker Evans, Ed Ruscha, and the Bechers, got their one-thing-after-another method from August Sander. The idea of an abstract photo book came to Paul Strand first, in 1917. And the photo-narcissist chronicle—a favored form since Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency—goes back at least to Claude Cahun's transgender self-portraits of the '30s, in Aveux non avenus (Avowals not admitted). Indeed, it looks as if just about everything that could be done was done by the '30s.

It is hard to make any generalizations about this metabook. But one thing seems true: The books within it are as much about words as pictures. Consider their titles: On the Needles of These Days; Naked City; Many Are Called; The Sweet Flypaper of Life; Wisconsin Death Trip. Where does all that poetry come from? Maybe it reflects the fact that many of these photographers were once close not only to painters (Matisse designed the cover for Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment, and Léger wrote the introduction to Moï Ver's Paris) but also to poets and writers. Carl Sandburg wrote the text for Steichen the Photographer. Claude Roy made his words mimic the shapes in Paul Strand's photos. Langston Hughes composed a piece of fiction around Roy DeCarava's pictures. And Jack Kerouac put his indelible kiss on Robert Frank's Americans.

Slowly if fitfully, the photography book seems to be drifting away from its literary roots. Many of the words in contemporary photo books are no longer texts composed by poets but those scavenged from streets and billboards. Even the stylistic ties to print are disappearing: Black-and-white photographs have been left behind for color, and margins have been lost in favor of the full-bleed photo, as if the pictures were resisting bookishness itself. (Take a look at Richard Prince's Adult Comedy Action Drama and Christian Boltanski's Menschlich.) Has the photobook lost its way? Or has it come into its own and cut the apron strings that once attached it to the printed page?

Sarah Boxer writes on photography for the New York Times.