The photobooks to take note of this month

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

From a photographer’s meditation on the gentrification of his childhood home to a facsimile of Jo Spence’s 1982 BA thesis, we round up the recently-released and forthcoming photobooks to have on your radar

Remnants of an Exodus
by Al J Thompson
Gnomic Book, $42

Pregnancy © Al J Thompson.

Al J Thompson describes his debut photobook as “a multilayered musical”. Its stage is a grassy park at the centre of Spring Valley; a verdant focal point of the New York City suburb, located in Rockland County, a 40-minute drive upstate from Manhattan. In 1996, Thompson relocated from Jamaica to join his mother in Spring Valley. The park quickly became the epicentre of his life, as it was for many other members of the then-largely Black community of Caribbean immigrants who populated the area.

However, the park of Thompson’s photobook is not the same as his youth. Nor is the village of Spring Valley that surrounds it. In 2017, Thompson returned to the area as an adult, having left for college a decade before. He found the area’s social fabric had changed drastically, a succession of corrupt mayors having laid the groundwork for ‘gentrification’, as Thompson has described it. Existing residents, including the Black community, found themselves priced out of previously affordable housing. The situation compelled Thompson to explore it with his camera. Far from documentation, Remnants of an Exodus is a poetic and somewhat melancholy meditation on the village and the park at its centre. 

Words by Hannah Abel-Hirsch. 

From Unprofessional © Matilde Søes Rasmussen.

Gothenburg-based artist Matilde Søes Rasmussen was a professional model for a decade. Encased in a bright blue cover, her first photobook, Unprofessional, is predominantly set in Asia, where she travelled for work and chronicles her experience through images that co-opt a fashion aesthetic. The photographs’ subjects veer between performance and life, and collectively parody and question the superficiality and objectification of the modelling industry. Multiple self-portraits of Rasmussen feature alongside still lifes, landscapes, and photographs of friends and acquaintances. A kaleidoscope of colour and form envelops her as she shapeshifts through the pages: hair spiky then slicked; makeup natural then extreme; naked then exquisitely dressed. 

The publication is visually compelling. However, the work also allows Rasmussen to reclaim agency in an industry where assessing and objectifying models, like her, is central. Short texts, almost like diary entries, punctuate the book, revealing Rasmussen’s first-hand experiences and reflections. The prose is simultaneously entertaining and painful, articulating how lonely a model’s existence can be. As one passage reads: “A model generation in China typically lasts from two to three months. No one thinks of you before you arrive. No one knows they need you… And there is definitely no one who thinks of you once you’ve left.”

Words by Hannah Abel-Hirsch. 

Members of Patchwork Community Gardening Group picking raspberries during a meetup. Bedminster. Image © Chris Hoare.

If there is one thing we have learned from social isolation, it is humankind’s innate need for nature. Commissioned by the Bristol Photo Festival – where an exhibition of the work will go on show later this year – Chris Hoare photographed 11 green spaces across Bristol, from allotments to community gardens, and improvised plots on disused lands. Conceptualised before Covid-19, his resulting photobook gained a pertinence in its wake, especially given the renaissance for cultivating green spaces the pandemic helped initiate. 

The generational and demographic changes allotments have undergone compelled Hoare. The traditional allotment system originated in the 19th century to provide land for the working classes to grow crops. Over time, their popularity wavered, and the stereotype of an allotment-goer transformed into a middle-class retiree. However, in recent years the prospect of urban land cultivation has begun to attract younger, environmentally conscious people, families, and more ethnic minorities. “There is a genuine sense of community in these spaces, which is a rare thing in this day and age,” says Hoare, and Growing Spaces depicts allotments as spaces of multiple benefits. Havens away from home; places for sustainable food production; and pastures for genuine connection: all simple necessities that we have yearned for during the past year.  

Words by Marigold Warner. 

Self-portrait in the afternoon light. January 2019. From puberty. Self-portrait before bed. August 2019. From puberty © Laurence Philomène.

Gender is a journey. It lasts a lifetime, leading your body through a path of self-discovery, experiences and, sometimes, restrictions. For some, the gender experience leads them beyond the binary. And this is the case for Laurence Philomène. 

Puberty documents Philomène as they undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT), telling the story of self-care during this journey. By making the series over two years, Philomène captures subtle physical changes that come with transitioning. However, this is not the focus. For Philomène, HRT does not have a set end; there is no goal to achieve. Instead, their journey becomes less transformative and more meditative. Bright colours, domestic interiors and self-portraits, in turn, reflect their life, their body, and their world. The book celebrates the trans experience, functioning as both a diary and memoir. 

Words by Isaac Huxtable.

Kikuo (Reclining Woo-Man)
by Ryudai Takano
Libraryman, €35

Kikuo (1999.09.17.L.#11) (Reclining Woo–Man). 1999 © 2021 Ryudai Takano and Libraryman.

“Do we reproduce the world or transform it? Do we record the world as it has been shown to us, or permit the camera to reveal new ways of looking, thinking or acting?” asks Duncan Wooldridge in the foreword of Kikuo. The publication’s title takes its name from the man at its centre: Kikuo, who has been Ryudai Takano’s muse for over a decade, while Reclining Woo-Man parodies Reclining Woman: a commonplace title among European classical paintings depicting passive and often scantily clad women. Viewers once regarded the paintings as emblems of beauty, but they have become problematised for their objectification of female subjects. 

Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863) challenges this visual trope. The reclining woman stares forward: she is not an object of fantasy and locks eyes with the viewer. And in Reclining Woo-Man, Takano also subverts conventions associated with the pose and photography’s partiality to “airbrushed fantasies and tidy fictions”, as Wooldridge describes. Takano renders Kikuo’s male body visible in all its fleshy glory, capturing it in the reclining posture typically reserved for the feminine. In doing so, he challenges the stereotypes and expectations of masculinity and how the medium reinforces these. He thereby also questions photography’s synonymy with the truth: the camera is not objective, nor is how we perceive what it frames. 

Words by Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Fairy Tales and Photography, or, another look at Cinderella
by Jo Spence
RRB Photobooks and The Hyman Collection, £75

From Fairy Tales and Photography, or, Another look at Cinderella Jo Spence © The Hyman Collection, courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.

In 1979, the late Jo Spence (1934-1992) studied the theory and practice of photography at the Polytechnic of Central London. Her studies led her to consider “how my gendered subjecthood had been constituted”. And “how the capitalist system which I had at one time seen as ‘only natural’ was based on forms of class and racial power, coming out of the structures of patriarchy, which preceded and overlapped them.” Spence turned to folk stories to seek “a more utopian and fantastic future!”. However, in their pages, she saw aspects of contemporary socialisation.

Fairy Tales and Photography, or, another look at Cinderella is a facsimile of Spence’s 1982 BA thesis, complete with her handwritten notes and corrections. The book untangles how interconnected gender and class oppressions run through Cinderella, and indeed all historic fairy tales. But also how these narratives translate into contemporary manifestations: advertisements, magazines and fiction. Spence uses Cinderella to confront contemporary social and sexual expectations: “The worship of the royals, consumer culture, conditions of labour, domestic servitude, political complacency and the abuse of children,” as Marina Warner explains it in an introduction to the accompanying publication, Class Slippers by Dr Frances Hatherley, which provides new insights on the thesis.

Words by Hannah Abel-Hirsch