Books That Rocked Our World in 2020

These are some of the books that stuck in our minds as we bore through 2020, irrespective of their publication date. They are books that have changed significantly what we know or how we think about photography.

The C4 Team

As It Is
Rinko Kawauchi

Kawauchi made the most human book of the year and one that cuts through the fog of isolation, anxiety, despair and hopelessness we all felt in some way this year. The photographs chronicle the birth of her daughter through the first few years of her life. The atmosphere is light, uplifting, and full of Kawauchi’s trademark visions of fleeting moments and simple beauty. Interspersed are short pieces of text written by the photographer, adding to the diaristic feeling of the work. The pictures of Kawauchi’s daughter show an innocence and pure joy that we all long for as the heaviness of adult life sinks in. The other main motifs are nature, shown in its simple and innate glory, and domestic spaces filled with calm light and family life. Sometimes no deep intellectual meaning or discourse is needed in a photobook, but just the joy of looking and feeling, a connection to visceral human emotion. Kawauchi manages again to pierce straight to the heart of the viewer and offers a glimmer of hope for all of us.

Chose Commune, 2020
Chosen by Andy Pham

The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography
John Bevis

Richard and Cherry Kearton captured the first photograph of a bird’s nest in 1892. Bevis details not only the rigor required for using old plate cameras and tracking elusive bird species, but also the artifice and showmanship that followed “nature photography” from its inception. From the employment of ox-shaped bird hides to Cherry accompanying President Roosevelt on his bloody African safari, Bevis explores the politics and medium-centric disputes that surrounded the Kearton brothers. Many of the questions regarding photographic truth and journalistic standards vary only in lieu of technological innovation — Cherry Kearton, the younger of the pair, was first and foremost a businessman, and would acknowledge these difficulties from the very beginning, while simultaneously pushing them out of the way with ruthless pragmatism. In his less than selfless pursuit, he and his late brother encouraged in generation upon generation of budding naturalists an appreciation for nature’s small wonders.

Uniformbooks, 2016
Chosen by Callum Beaney

Watering My Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall
Xiaoxiao Xu

Ambitious and warm, affectionate and historical, layers on layers on layers, best way that a photographer examines the past using the present in recent memory. Never felt heavy handed or bloated, which is crazy given how much there is. While I read approximately none of the text, Xu’s photos do enough, incredible range and dexterity in well trodden paths. Travel photography, cyclical journeys, colourful celebration, insider/outsider points of view and landmarks are all tropes used and she overcomes each cliche in a subtle and quiet way. Design and printing are standouts, with great use of the way colour works on uncoated paper. No one photographs children as well as Xu, a worthy addition to some of the best photography about and of China in recent years.

The Eriskay Connection, 2020
Chosen by Matt Dunne

Dunne wrote a more in-depth write-up on Xu’s work here – ed.

Jon Cazenave

For some time now I’ve been really drawn to books that invite questions about the way photographic meaning is shaped and experienced – books that push expectations around connotation and narrative and the certainty of vision. I’m still trying to put words to the way that such books make me feel –  probably futilely, because part of what fascinates me about them is that they don’t respond particularly well to conventional descriptive or analytical language. Galerna considers questions of identity without resorting to portraiture. Instead, it deals with something more elemental – a feeling of belonging that’s grounded in land and legend, and expressed here in darkly euphoric photographs that blur the boundary between flesh and earth. What I find compelling about this work (and other ‘noisy’ photobooks, like Daisuke Yokota’s Matter/Burnout, Maya Rochat’s Living in a Picture, or George Kitchen’s Interfere 1) is the way that it seems actively to discourage probing the image for ‘meaning’ in favour of something less structured – allowing the photograph’s substance to flow through you in a kind of hum or drone. I’m aware that I’m mixing metaphors here, but this synaesthetic element – how to think about it, how to write about it, how to align it with more customary accounts of photographic meaning – has really changed the way that I understand photography. 

Dalpine/Atelier EXB, 2020
Chosen by Eugénie Shinkle

The General’s Stork
Heba Y Amin

Amin explores a bird-eye view of military technology through the true tale of a migratory stork detained for espionage by the Egyptian authorities. Not a photobook, but rather an accessible academic publication which presents the bare bones of artist research. This book is part of a series edited by Anthony Downey, which offers a space for artists to share their preliminary research materials. Amin blends archival images, maps and interviews, in an interrogation of the aerial view and how it has come to dominate images of the Middle East. Starting with aerial photography’s evolution – from camera carrying pigeons, to google maps and today’s bird-like drones – she shares a thought-provoking investigation into the thin line between paranoia and state surveillance. 

Sternberg Press, 2020
Chosen by Lucy Rogers

Under The Yuzu Tree and Wood, Water, Rock
Feiyi Wen

I met Wen in London shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak, where we spoke and shared work over coffee. Wen’s work is deeply rooted in the aesthetics of the landscape in Chinese and Japanese art, where a viewer’s emotional response to and relationship with nature is seen as interconnected, rather than separated. It has raised conversations about cultural exchange, the role of artmaking traditions, and about how culturally-rooted ways of seeing can be experienced through images. An article on her work will be published on C4 Journal in due course.

Unpublished, 2019
Chosen by Callum Beaney

The Levee
Sohrab Hura

This was the most frustrating book of the year, but also the most thought-provoking. The book might have faltered under the weight of expectation, given its intriguing subtext and backstory. Hura follows the Mississippi River down through the American South, a reversal of his father’s journey north up the same river on a cargo ship years before. The documentation and execution of this story, however, feels contrived and unoriginal, too familiar in a long lineage of American road trip photography. The work suffers from a mythologizing of the American South, leaning heavily on motifs that perpetuate a stereotypical and often misleading perception of the region: bibles, empty signage, dilapidated buildings and forsaken landscapes. The majority of Hura’s human subjects are black, and just about all of them are shown in the context of unmistakable socioeconomic squalor. The magnification of this demographic feels vaguely manipulative and fails to show the true diversity of the region. Focusing on marginalized groups of society is admirable, but here it is done through an almost predatory lens, cold and detached, lacking the empathy that should ideally accompany such intention.

Nevertheless, The Levee raised important questions that I’ve been contemplating often. How can an outsider photograph a place in a way that incorporates truth and objectivity while also allowing the photographer’s own voice or agenda to inform the work? Is such an endeavor even possible? At the same time, can one really photograph a place when they are too familiar with it and cannot detach themselves enough from it? The dual nature of this conflict is one that might endure for as long as the medium of photography does.

Ugly Dog, 2020
Chosen by Andy Pham

Salters Cottages
Gary Schneider

I could describe Salters Cottages as the “book version” of a film, or perhaps a film translated into a book, but that seems to suggest that the film and the book are two mutually exclusive forms whereas “reading” Salters Cottages feels like much more of a cinematic experience than a bibliographic one. The book’s raw material – a mundane yet playfully erotic short film made about a group of friends in a small cottage community on Long Island in the summer of 1981 – has been disassembled into sequences of stills over a number of double page spreads, interspersed with individual frames that appear like sudden flashbacks.

In one of the more straightforwardly upsetting scenes in Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz studies an extreme slow motion version of a Nazi propaganda film shot in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, rewinding repeatedly, searching for the face of his mother. When seconds are broken down into increments we can study, movement tends to adopt an uncanniness, and otherwise natural gestures seem strange; awkwardly performed or infused with a new poignance.

It’s not that Salters Cottages is an upsetting book, although within seven years of that summer Peter Hujar would be dead from AIDS along with so many others. Schneider has said that the sequences depicting Hujar – smoking, grooming, dressing, larking – have more presence in the book than the film, and you get a sense that Schnieder, like Austerlitz, might have rewound this footage again and again for a chance to fix something lost. The seaside cottages are almost cell-like in the closeness of their architecture, and even the outdoors is defined by its boundaries – namely, the unknowable “beyond” of the ocean. Salters Cottages is really about the sexual tension of these boundaries; frames, apertures, screens and windows appear on almost every page, slicing up space and creating channels through which to peep and exhale smoke.

Dashwood Books, 2019
Chosen by Lillian Wilkie

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees
Lawrence Weschler

This is a book about Robert Irwin, the Southern Californian artist of light and
space, a leader and a loner, “who one day got hooked on his own curiosity and decided to live it.“

A celebration and extended effort to understand Irwin’s work (play) and thought, the book surveys the arc of the artist’s long career, via a series of conversations with Lawrence Wechsler that has lasted over 30 years. Charting artistic transformations and evolutions, while giving due prominence to the influence on Irwin’s practice of his ‘non-artistic’ interests: surfing, gambling, and (particularly) cars, this collection of conversations considers what it is to perceive and to be an artist engaged with the world. It’s an irony that for many years Irwin would not permit photographic reproduction of his work, due to a sense that the photograph could only convey image, not presence. Lastly, it’s not necessary to love Irwin’s work. Instead, what this book offers is an example of an artist in constant flux. Open. Which is to say, an example for

University of California Press, 2008
Chosen by Nick Scammell

Jack Whitefield

This earthwork-cum-photo publication explores the artist’s physical interaction with burned gorse bushes. Immersing himself in the charred landscape, Whitefield is shown laying sheets of paper down upon burnt branches, procuring gestural and energetic charcoal marks with details of such appearing throughout the book. This publication is a hybridisation of monochrome full-page photographs documenting the artist’s actions and process as well as details of his paper works, materials and the landscape. With echoes of primal humankind reverberating from this body of work, Whitefield’s practice compels me in the way photography should, through a gripping visual experience.

A publication so fitting in its raw and simplistic newsprint construction, it is my hope that including this photobook on this list challenges any preconceptions that an outstanding photobook has to be high budget, encouraging more creatives to work within this format.

Tarmac Press, 2020
Chosen by Louis Stopforth

Photographs 1980s – Now
Jo Ractliffe

Prior to the publication of her first book, Terreno Ocupado, in 2008, Jo Ractliffe’s work was little known outside of her native South Africa. Even after that, despite an Arles Discovery Award in 2011 and a solo show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015, she’s remained inexplicably under the radar. So it’s very gratifying to see a publisher like Steidl putting out a monograph as comprehensive as this one. And it’s even sweeter to discover that her early work – which I’d never seen before – is as extraordinary as her later efforts, and laden with the same kind of strangeness and tension: what Ulrich Baer has referred to, in a different context, as a ‘framed emptiness.’ Longer review to follow soon.

Steidl, 2020
Chosen by Eugenie Shinkle

Heaven is a Prison
Mark McKnight

Formal pictures in blistering light, really personally inspirational to see someone embrace unflattering and difficult natural light, design manages to be actually kind of interesting in a way that most publishers were too safe with this year. The images themselves weren’t the most interesting part to me, rather, it was the way that McKnight consistently mixes incredibly visceral and raw acts with a tact with the camera that results in an attractive image of something you wouldn’t have thought you’d like. That’s such a fascinating challenge as a photographer, this book is almost a guide for how that can be done – can you enjoy a photo of someone being pissed on without recoiling? In this work you can. Can a landscape so harsh it feels like sandpaper look romantic and welcoming? In this work it does. A really welcome refutation of seductive surface level colour work, refreshingly restrained in some ways, absolutely balls to the wall in others. Rare case of substance meets surface and both are great.

Loose Joints, 2020
Chosen by Matt Dunne

I Walk Toward the Sun Which is Always Going Down
Alan Huck

Living vicariously through Huck’s free meandering, I felt liberated from the confined existence so many of us have experienced this year. Both monochrome and colour photographs interact harmoniously with the artist’s thoughts and experiences in written form, collating in an immersive journey. Presenting chronological time unevenly only adds to the viewer’s experience as a participant, navigating the book’s structure as a journey in itself. Certain photographs appear with what one imagines to be mere seconds or minutes separating shots, whilst others stand as singular records thus disrupting a typical progressive pace to that of an exploration. Not only do Huck’s photographs present all things – no matter how banal – as visually fascinating, he also provides a conscious literary monologue of perception that elevates the work as a whole. His writings reveal in full disclosure the associations that arise from his perceptions, providing a comprehensive historical, cultural and sociological knowledge. An intelligent, thoughtful photobook that intimately offers a vision and transparency of thought, so well put together that it’s hard not to feel like a wanderer yourself.

MACK, 2019
Chosen by Louis Stopforth

Buried កប់
Charles Fox

Buried is the result of a collaboration between Fox and the Rama family, who annotated a collection of images of their family history, beginning with images taken during Cambodia’s communist regime, and ending with their lives present-day in Los Angeles, USA. Documentary, archive, art, post-conflict, anthropology. Buried has changed fundamentally how I think about photography’s relationship with these fields; Buried does not fit squarely into any of these fields, but includes elements of all of them. Rather than being consequently superficial, Buried pushes beyond many of the technical, conceptual, and ethical limitations of each. Buried is about the lives of these people as people, but also demonstrates a more fundamental respect for humanity, memory, and for how deeply intimate trauma is. An article on Buried will be published in due course.

N.B. I know Fox professionally, through both his academic work and through his publisher. Though I consider my appraisal of Buried independent to this relationship, I do not wish to hide this familiarity from readers.

Catfish Books, 2019
Chosen by Callum Beaney