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Photobook “Best-Of” lists sprout like wild-cakes this time of year. Among selections, we are not always guaranteed variety, but we are guaranteed quantity.

Aperture tends to preempt many of the main runners and riders in the autumn with its shortlists for the Aperture/Paris Photo Book Awards (30 books total). Then the deluge beings.

A deluge that which Photolia has made an inventory. It’s a list of Photobook “Best-Of-2013” lists; a list of 80+ lists!

Furthermore, QT Luong at Terra Galleria has taken all the individual titles of those 80+ lists, broke down the votes and constructed a meta-list that cumulates each book’s number of votes. Some titles have votes in double figures, and the “winner” Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan has 22 votes.

By years end, Best-Of lists had been written and checked twice by Wired, American Photo, Time, Mother Jones, New York Times, Dazed DigitalLens Culture, Washington Post, Brain PickingsTom ClaxtonMicrocordEric GundersenConscientiousTim ClarkMonsters & MadonnasValerian and Discipline and Disorder just to name a few.

The Guardian made two lists — one for best indie books and one for offerings by established photobook publishers. Not to mention Alec Soth and Martin Parr‘s eagerly anticipated annual dispatches. Roger May shifted the formula and picked his favorite book purschases . The Artists Book Cooperative maintained their cheeky approach with the year’s worst photobooks.

So what does all this mean? Head to Blake Andrew’s analysis of the best of the “Best-Of photobook lists. Hilarious.

Well, who am I to reject this ubiquity of Photobook “Best-Of” lists? A few weeks ago, I was asked by Photo Eye to name my highlights for the PhotoEye Best Photobooks 2013 feature. I picked seven titles. Here they are. And, below they are.

Bumbata, Cosmin Bumbuţ (Punctum)

bumbutBeyond the prison subject matter which is, of course, very appealing to me, Cosmin Bumbuţ’s book is the best of design with beautiful binding, a punctured front cover, and thoughtful essay. Those elements compliment pictures that are, frankly, some of the closest, least judgmental I have seen of incarcerated peoples. Bumbuţ spent 3 years visiting a single prison. The portrait he paints is of a closed but relatively stable environment with equal representation. Staff and prisoners feature in similar amounts. The variety and color is something beyond that of most American prison photographers. Here is a documentarian who has worked hard to form an understanding with his subjects.

In December, I spoke at length with Bumbuţ about his project and the book.

Tales From The City Of Gold, Jason Larkin (Kehrer Verlag)

larkinIt is astonishing that with such a distinct and consistent approach to image-making that this is Jason Larkin’s first monograph. His work seems so familiar. Once more, the Englishman Larkin has entered (with his 4×5) a peculiar faraway place with peculiar and depressing social and environmental history. Johannesburg is one of the world’s most successful mining cities but waste dumps litter the landscape. South Africans have built communities in the mines’ hinterlands. The price of gold is spiking and the lives of people who live and work in the region is tied to our global commodities market. Larkin casts a curious but not a judgmental eye over our priorities at the dusty and noisy point at which commerce and daily life intersect.

Photojournalists On War, Mike Kamber (University of Texas Press)

kamberEnd of year lists often prioritize photo books with fancy design elements; books that are small run, hand-sewn delicate things. But what about those books about photography that are a bit bigger? What about books put out by a large press, such as UT Press, say? And what about books with more text than image? Photojournalists On War is a brick of a book. Mike Kamber interviewed 89 photographers who covered the War on Iraq. If we are to understand the nature of that flawed conflict then we should pay attention to the journalists whose activities were meant to makes sense of it at the time; make sense of it for us. But, what sense do they make of it now? By virtue of the breadth of opinion and depth of questions, Photojournalists On War is THE reference book for any discussion of the War on Iraq and photography. In much the same way as Photographs Not Taken in 2012 delivered us personal reflections and new entry points to photographic thinking, so Photojournalists On War in 2013 surprises and delights with the first-hand and imperfect narratives. Truth is not usually found in a photograph, but perhaps it can be found in a photographer’s words?

Swell, Mateusz Sarello (Instytut Kultury Wizualnej)

sareeloSea foam smells, threatening birds, big clouds. Swell is a rough experience. As was Mateusz Sarello’s break-up. This book is in two halves. Each half is a visit to the Baltic Sea — the first with his girlfriend, and the second without as part of some therapeutic turn. So different are the images and mood of the images it’s effectively two books in one. Both books’ exposed spines reflect the vulnerability Sarello has embraced in creating a book about his crushed love-life. 88 pages of fragile hand-made loveliness. Handle with care. Given the proliferation of east-of-Western-Europe sea photography projects (think Petrut Calinescu, Rafal Milach, Mila Teshaeiva, Mikhail Mordasov and even Rob Hornstra), it’s tricky to do something novel in this sub-sub-genre, but Sarello pulls it off with focus on the hyperpersonal. And he’s not afraid to use Instax Fujifilm either. I was skeptical at first, but later blown over by the earnestness of the well-edited and understated grouping of images.

Rasen Kaigan, Lieko Shiga (AKAAKA)

shigaBetween 2006 and 2012, Lieko Shiga lived and worked in the region of northeast Japan worst hit by the 2011 Tsunami. Shiga is part photographer and part conceptual artist, so it makes sense that these images (many of which abandon formal photographic considerations) look nothing like the photojournalism we saw in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Darkness, hard-flash, plants, flowers, sweaters, sand and minerals. It’s all very earthy … and strange. But then again, that region is a geography and a collective psychology transformed. Despite Shiga’s camera experiments, we are still presented images of Japanese communities on the mend, making do, building up, tilling the land and doing the simple things that they must. Big disasters are met with small victories. Shiga’s volatile approach is a reminder that the uncomplicated things she photographs only exist because of massive tectonic force.

What might be otherwise read as an assault on the senses is a celebration of the senses — a celebration of life and of living.

Control Order House, Edmund Clark (HERE Press)

clarkThe images are boring; but the concept is exhilarating — which is exactly the point. Edmund Clark photographed the interior of a “home” inhabited by a UK terror suspect under house arrest. A dull suburban 3-bed semi in no-name Britain. Clark worked within pre-agreed, tightly controlled parameters set out by the UK Home Office. Clark and HERE Press include scans of his contracts and official correspondence. The act and the access is more important than the images; the images are only evidence that Clark made a sortie into this never photographed territory before. (In April, I wrote about Control Order House for Wired.)

So many projects these days comment on control from the outside, but here we see images from from within, and according to, control.

Two Rivers, Carolyn Drake (Self-published)

tworiversCarolyn Drake’s photography has long impressed me, so I’m not surprised her first book is a triumph. Dutch book-designer Sybren Kuiper brought considerable style to Two Rivers. Apparently, it was Kuiper who proposed starting the book’s sequence at where the two rivers appear to end versus Drake’s original idea to begin where the rivers originate high in the mountains. Drake has visited the vast expanse of central Asia that lies between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers 15 or more times in recent years. Judging by the images, it remains a region that beguiles Drake. Two Rivers abandons traditional documentary sequencing and reveals the creators own feelings, uncertainties, awe and brief encounters. One slimmer book is words and notes for the chapters in the other larger book containing pictures of fuzzy narrative, refused objectivity and love. The wrap of images around the Japanese style bound pages is stunning.

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A few weeks ago I wrote, for Wired, a piece about Edmund Clark‘s latest body of work Control Order House. The piece carried the irreverent title This Incredibly Boring House Is a U.K. Terror Suspect’s Lockdown but the details of the project it gets into – two years of negotiating access, Clark’s process which riffs on surveillance and forensic photography, Clark’s the decision to present every photograph he took in the order he took them, etc. are important, mildly complex and worth getting one’s head around.

The house Clark documented belonged to a pre-trail UK terror suspect, under house arrested, referred to in legal documents as CE.

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I wrote:

Control Order House is the only existing photographic study of a residence occupied by a person under a UK control order. It is not an exposé, however. Given the legal sensitivities, every image was vetted by UK government officials. Clark was not allowed to reveal the identity of the terror suspect — referred to in legal documents as “CE” — nor his location.

“To reveal CE’s identity would be an offence and in breach of the court-imposed anonymity order,” says Clark. “All the photographs I took or the documents I wanted to use had to be screened by the Home Office.”

For Clark, the project is best appreciated in its book form. Control Order House was published by HERE Press and released May 2nd.

Clark refers to the book as an “object of control” because at a point, he accepted that, with so many attached limitations, his photography was almost an extension of the state power he was documenting. All of his equipment had to be itemized and registered with the UK Home Office before his three visits.

Wired created a Scribd document (that has no URL, but is embedded in the article) with six pages of Clark’s correspondence with both the terror suspect and the UK Home Office employees.

“Even CE’s lawyers made it clear to me that the I had to careful about what I spoke to him about because the house was (very probably) bugged and that my telephone communication with him would be monitored,” explains Clark. “All my material, even my words here [in this interview] could become part of CE’s case.”

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Control Order House is a finely balanced project. It is hampered by so many obstacles to unfettered depiction that our traditional notions of what photography is supposed to do are frustrated. It is not exposé; it is completely descriptive of its own limitations. It’s these limitations from which we must depart in thinking about photography in highly policed spaces. Control Order House should kick-start considerations of lesser seen photographs from the Global War On Terror (GWOT), namely, images of drone strike aftermath, Aesthetics of Terror (as, in this case, distilled by artists), redacted images in magazines distributed at Guantanamo (scroll down), Kill Team trophy photos, American personnel’s own vernacular war photography, and Jihad suicide posters.

Control Order House is about the act of photography. It’s self-referential as kids’ MFA work that deconstructs photographic process, but — unlike those studio experiments — it has roots in a clearly identifiable political territory. It shows us more than we knew but not as much as we would like to know. In so doing it reminds us of all the operations, violence and war crimes carried out on our tax dollar that we never see, never know.

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