The '90s are Back

Six artists on the photobook at the end of the millennium.

It was the age of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends, grungy flannel shirts and supermodels in Calvin Klein underwear, dial-up modems and fruity-colored iMacs, Lady Di and Tony Blair’s Britain, Bill Clinton’s White House, and the moment when Americans learned what the definition of is is. The fin-de-millennium decade of the 1990s—that “bridge to the twenty-first century”—marked a moment of immense cultural change, most notably with the arrival of the internet and the wired information landscape, the rapid rise of Photoshop, and desktop publishing. The ’90s was also an uncertain moment in photography. Would Kodak and Polaroid survive the leap to digital imaging? Would Corbis and Getty Images control the future of image distribution? Would the interactive CD-ROM become the preferred delivery system for photographers?

In the 1990s, the photobook juggernaut as we know it today was in embryonic form. Its DNA was in place: digital layout, type, and printing techniques were chipping away at the barriers to entry of traditional publishing models. Gerhard Steidl was cutting his teeth as a printer, and working closely with Walter Keller’s Scalo, which made critical contributions to the photobook as a medium. Scalo improved upon traditional models with new titles by Nan Goldin (The Other Side, 1993), Paul Graham (Empty Heaven, 1995; End of an Age, 1999), and Michael Schmidt (U-ni-ty, 1996), as well as with expansive contributions, such the first major monograph on Seydou Keïta (Seydou Keïta, 1997), which remains a touchstone in the world of African photography. Japanese photobooks had begun to reclaim their international stature with titles like Nobuyoshi Araki’s Tokyo Lucky Hole (1990) and Takashi Homma’s Tokyo Suburbia (1998). By the 2000s, advancements in technology allowed for far superior printing and reproduction quality, and DIY publishing became easier than ever. With the saturation of smartphones worldwide and the popularity of tablets and e-readers, the photobook—an object to be held, placed on a shelf, and shared hand-to-hand—may have become all the more valuable, an artwork in itself. Looking back at the decade that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, and ended amid the inconvenient truth of the 2000 US presidential election, what did the photobooks from that era mean to photographers coming of age in the 1990s and early 2000s? —Lesley A. Martin and Brendan Embser


Richard Billingham, Ray’s a Laugh, Scalo, New York, 1996

Laia Abril on Richard Billingham, Ray’s a Laugh
I perfectly recall the first time I saw this book. I remember something ripping through me as I stepped inside Richard’s father Ray’s house, as if I could smell the dampness of the carpet mixed with the sweet-sour taste of overripe fruit, the acidity of alcohol infused with his mother Elizabeth’s tobacco roughness. I remember the intensity of the colors, the overwhelming composition, the stifling layout. I remember turning the pages as if moving through the corridors, facing their unfiltered, raw intimacy and dancing between the hate-love of a tedious routine frozen in time. I remember empathizing with Richard’s frustration, with his own photographic catharsis.

Laia Abril is a multidisciplinary artist.

Gerhard Richter, Atlas, Distributed Art Publishers, New York, 1997

Hannah Whitaker on Gerhard Richter, Atlas
Flipping through Gerhard Richter’s Atlas now is different than it was in the ’90s: the gridded image archive lacked the strong association with the digital milieu. Reissued in 1997, it was the time before the proliferation of writing on the proliferation of images.  Then, it seemed to say something about negotiating the personal and the universal, apparently a preoccupation of many twentieth-century Germans. Now, its prescience is overwhelming. What has remained constant in looking at Atlas is its defiance of a photograph’s habitual instrumentation—that is, to show, sell, or remember something. Its seemingly endless grids of iterative images show that photographs can also be mute. They can be blunt objects, incapable of meaningful operation outside of a system, like a neuron without a brain.

Hannah Whitaker is a Brooklyn-based photographer.

Neil Winokur, Everyday Things, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1994

Matthew Leifheit on Neil Winokur, Everyday Things
The Smithsonian Institution’s seminal Photographers at Work series published Everyday Things, Neil Winokur’s only monograph to date, in 1994. With an essay by Vince Aletti, the slim paperback abridged Winokur’s vast archive, showing the democratic treatment he continues to give to all objects, people, and animals that cross in front of his camera. In the book’s sequence of images, a portrait of Andy Warhol sits between a close-up of a woman’s shoe and a study of an ear of corn standing on end. They are followed by a toy gun, then a picture of an Irish setter named Doc. A few pages later, one of my favorite photographs of all time is reproduced: a blue, full-frame still life of a cold glass of water, ripe with condensation. All are given the same semi-glamorous, semi-weird isolated treatment against an atmospherically neon-hued background. It’s somewhat like a commercial studio, but less slick, purposefully nodding to the genre of amateur photography, to family snapshots, to the things that actually matter in peoples’ lives. Winokur’s this-equals-that approach to both public and private representation set a precedent for the quasi-commercial work of photographers such as Roe Etheridge, as well as for the torrent of brightly colored still lifes common on websites like Tumblr since the early 2010s.

Matthew Leifheit is a photographer, curator, publisher, and interviewer.

Mike Mandel, Making Good Time, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1989

Clare Strand on Mike Mandel, Making Good Time
Mike Mandel’s Making Good Time currently travels in the trunk of my car. I’ve been driving around with it for the past four years or so, and it has transferred through at least one change of car. I’m an advocate of driving books around and keeping them close. I think of the phrase “book osmosis”—the idea being that one doesn’t necessarily have to read books, but can consume them through close proximity.

Making Good Time is an awkward book. It doesn’t fit well on a shelf—another reason it’s in my boot—and with its glossy, hardback cover, it has the object quality of a withdrawn local-library book that has been sold off in a charity store. This is partly why I like it.

I bought Making Good Time in 2004, when I was researching a new work, The Betterment Room: Devices for Measuring Achievement, which referenced the savvy American husband-and-wife team Lillian and Frank Gilbreth. I attached a homemade set of lights to my hands and recorded the act of making a photograph—the intangible rendered tangible, or perhaps the tangible made intangible; I’m still working out if there is a difference when it comes to photography. Ideas and propositions seem central to Mandel’s work—making photographs for the stomach, which then direct the eye. Mandel’s oeuvre, for me, rejects visual repetition and “styles” in favor of the need to understand the photographic medium, and, more important, the idiosyncratic nature of life. With its absurdist aims and disco lighting, Making Good Time is a perfect example.

Clare Strand is a British conceptual photographic artist based in Brighton, England.

Jita Hanzlovà, Rokytnik, Museum Schloss Hardenberg, Velbert, Germany, 1997

Gregory Halpern on Jitka Hanzlová, Rokytnik
One of the great, underrated photobooks of all time, Rokytník  consists of pictures Jitka Hanzlová made in her hometown, Rokytník, Czech Republic, in the early 1990s. Between 1982 and 1990, Hanzlová lived in Germany, in exile from the Communist regime that had taken power in her homeland. When Communism fell, she returned to Rokytník and began this work, photographing old acquaintances, neighbors, and other people known to her family. The passage of time—and its losses—are ever-present in the work: the book opens with a clothesline in summer and ends with the same clothesline in snow. She disproportionately photographs children and old people, and she does so with a kindness and sensitivity that steers clear of romanticism. Her photographs of children are particularly profound, as they manage to describe the vulnerability of childhood as well as its pleasures and wonders. A direct, powerful work that never tries too hard, Rokytník’s power lies in the visual glory of what simply is. Unlike any other, this book reminds me that simplicity—in style, form, and concept—is powerful when the content is good.

Gregory Halpern is a photographer who published five photobooks of his work, including ZZYZX (MACK, 2016).

Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home, Abrams, New York, 1992

Hank Willis Thomas on Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home
When I was a student at NYU, I was a library monitor, so I sat in a room full of photobooks and had nothing else to do because there was no internet. I looked through photobooks all day throughout my shift and that was really what gave me an encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s and ’90s photobooks. Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home was in a lot of ways inspiration for my book Pitch Blackness, about my cousin’s murder and my family’s—and my own—response to that. Larry’s book made the personal and private, public. It showed a level of vulnerability of the artist, and his family members as collaborators in the making of the work. I think Pictures from Home really helped me to see how a photographic project can actually translate beyond just what happens in the camera, and what’s presented in a book, through the use of text, interviews, and archival images as well as the photographs that Larry took. I think it really taught me a lot about how multifaceted a photobook can be.

Later, I went to go see Larry give a talk about his work and collaborations with Mike Mandel; that, and also seeing Jim Goldberg talk about Rich and Poorand Raised by Wolves, led to my going to the California College of the Arts and to Larry’s becoming my mentor and friend.

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist based in Brooklyn.