A Richard Avedon portrait is instantly recognizable; as a fashion photographer and as a chronicler of political and cultural figures, he had few peers. Avedon: Murals & Portraits (Gagosian/Abrams, $100) centers on four gigantic works (from 20 to 35 feet wide) created between 1969 and 1971. Each is a charged subject: The Chicago Seven; the members of the Mission Council in Saigon—“the eleven men who ran the Vietnam War”; Andy Warhol and the film stars of his Factory; and the extended Allen Ginsberg family (including father, poet Louis Ginsberg). The oversize, beautifully produced catalog includes working prints, magazine layouts, contact prints, and four-paneled foldouts of the murals. Informative essays by historian Louis Menand, journalist William Shawcross, Corcoran curator Paul Roth, and Ginsberg authority Bob Rubin add vital contextual contributions, and photo-historian Mary Panzer’s essay, “State of Emergency,” immerses you in Avedon’s work in the 1960s and 1970s.
In W: The First Forty Years (Abrams,$75), editor-in-chief Stefano Tonchi presents a strikingly diverse collection of images highlighting W’s outstanding coverage of fashion, art, architecture, music, and design. The pictures are complemented by specially commissioned essays from some of the magazine’s frequent contributors, such as Lynn Hirschberg. As other publications have shrunk their offerings, both editorially and physically, W has maintained its out-sized coverage and format. While the book may not fit easily on a newsstand, it is tailormade for coffee tables. Here’s to forty more years!
What do you see when you look at a photograph? In his fascinating study of the act of looking, the filmmaker and writer Errol Morris considers a half-dozen images and questions the prevailing view “that photographs provide a magic path to the truth.” Rather, Morris treats each picture as a “mystery,” and shows that a large part of what we get out of one depends on the assumptions—about subject, context, photographer’s intention—we bring to it, that in fact Believing is Seeing (Penguin Press, $40). Morris is an intrepid detective, even traveling to the Crimea to see the site of an 1855 war photo by James Fenton. He similarly investigates the identity of the hooded man in an Abu Ghraib image, talks to a photographer who covered the 2006 Israeli attacks on Lebanon, tracks down the descendents of a dead Civil War soldier identified only by the ambertype of three children he had in his pocket. The book becomes a collection of evidence, including maps, diagrams, doctored images, along with letters and interviews. Ultimately, Morris’s questions overshadow any answers. Oh, and the truth? In photos that’s “an elusive notion. There may not be any such thing.”