Photobooks of 2019: Rémi Coignet

Ben Brody

Photobooks of 2019: Rémi Coignet

Ten books I enjoyed this year, alphabetised by author.

New Dutch Views by Marwan Bassiouni
The title references the rich tradition of Dutch landscape painting while the images, at first sight, evoke Candida Höfer. Interestingly, these banal Dutch landscapes are all shot through the windows of mosques. Cohabitation of different cultures within the West, then, is the subject. Yet the photos, perfectly sharp, with evenly lit foreground and backgrounds are almost technically impossible to create. Bassiouni admits in his foreword that they are composite images—digital montages—which of course leads us to the question of documentary in the 21st Century. Can an image be a “record,” or can we believe an author when s/he states that the image attempts to capture reality?

Photobook Belge 1854 – Now
Books on photobooks have become an essential tool for photography-lovers, collectors and researchers alike. Photobook Belge adds a new layer to this growing collective pursuit. While the young Belgian scene is very active, and some masters such as Gilbert Fastenaekens, Dirk Braeckman or the overly discreet Marc Trivier are internationally recognised, many gems remain undiscovered, mainly in the fields of artists’ books and photo-text books. The most impressive entry, though, is the long chapter on the Belgian Congo. I doubt many other European colonisers would have had the guts to face this past and its thorny consequences.

Attention Servicemember by Ben Brody
From 2002 to 2008, Ben Brody served in the US army in Iraq as a military photographer. His job, as he told me, was to produce propaganda. While this may be apparent in some images, others, taking some distance, and seen through European eyes, appear subtly critical. In parallel to the propaganda work, Brody took snapshots of soldiers’ everyday lives. In 2010, he became a civilian photojournalist, dispatched to Afghanistan to cover the conflict there—an outsider, perhaps, but with a keen knowledge of the military “inside.” The book, beautifully designed by Kummer & Herrman, is divided into four chapters: Iraq; screengrabs showing public use of his propaganda images; a very personal text; and Afghanistan. This is by far the best war book I’ve seen since Why Mister, Why? by Geert van Kesteren.

Parce que… by Sophie Calle
Parce que… (Because…) is made of answers to non-asked questions. Or, to put it another way, answers to ostensibly mundane photographs hidden in the folds of the book’s Japanese binding. Once you carefully extract them, you start to create a relationship between texts and images. A somewhat clear meaning begins to emerge, partially revealing Calle’s way of thinking.
Because it’s Sophie Calle, because it’s the last book she worked on with the late Xavier Barral, because it’s a very good book, Parce que… is essential.

¥€$U$ by Pawel Jaszczuk
The title’s typography says it all: the merchants of the Temple are back. And the cover image further testifies to just how kitsch their merchandise is. After ten years abroad, Pawel Jaszczuk returned to Poland to be stuck by images of Christ everywhere – from the most mundane to most scandalous objects, from plates or jewellery to sexy underwear or even sex toys! Surprisingly, both believers and consumers embrace these products, oblivious to any blasphemy. Bright, flash-lit images are printed on high-gloss paper. Content and form fit perfectly. At once funny, critical and political, ¥€$U$ is one of the most cheerful books of the year.

Ads by Pierre Leguillon
Ads consists of print advertising from the 40s until today in which all the models are artists, organised in alphabetical order from Marina Abramović to Aaron Young. In his practice, Leguillon plays with hierarchies of art, questioning its political role in society. But Ads is often funny and surprising. In the 60s, for example, Jean Cocteau promoted a television. Don McCullin posed for the luxury brand Dunhill, while superstars sold their images to popular brands: Vanessa Beecroft posed pregnant in an American Apparel bikini; Ed Ruscha donned Gap blue jeans; Andy Warhol sold hi-tech products. Ads is a book of pop culture.

Montöristen by Carl-Mikael Ström
Montöristen is not a photobook. It is a book of symbolist poetry in text and images. It deals with eternal human questions. The passage of time, life and death, and most importantly, “Who am I?” The author’s taste for craftsmanship, and his determination to be timeless, are inextricably linked both in form and substance. The old fashioned silhouette gracing the cover, much like the exquisite images produced by various darkroom experiments, testify to this desire to be beyond time. Similarly, the typography and composition evoke some classic novel or play. But words and sentences have been crossed out, transforming them into visual objects. As Ström once told me, he is never nostalgic because everything changes. But the beautiful paradox is the book form always freezes the state of things.

Gankotoshi by Issei Suda
Until he passed away in March 2019, Issei Suda was working on his archives. He had decided to put together a series of photographs representing images of eyes, or images of images of eyes, collected during his everyday practice of snapshots. Gankotoshi (which translates as “Eye Light City”) is the result of this ultimate work. From Caïn to Georges Bataille, the history of the eye is too long to be told. But if the eye is not the tool of photography, it is its source. Perhaps Gankotoshi is the ultimate book of self-reflection on the medium.

EDF – Électricité de France by Eric Tabuchi
EDF is the first chapter of a new long-term project for Tabuchi: Atlas des Régions Naturelles (Atlas of Natural Regions). EDF is the French state-owned electricity company. In this volume, Tabuchi creates a typology of power distribution stations, usually simple concrete parallelepipeds. His mischievousness and taste for the strange led Tabuchi to foreground how, in some areas, for unlikely reasons, EDF decided to adapt its transformers to local architecture. In the Val de Loire, for example, one building echoes the allure of a nearby castle. In the North, some are built with the same red brick as the mining country’s working class dwellings. Beyond the State utility company’s comic architectural fantasies, Tabuchi’s work reflects on the relationship between tradition and modernity.

Rooted by Henk Wildschut
Further to Shelter and Ville de Calais, Rooted closes Henk Wildschut’s migrant trilogy. Traveling to refugee camps in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, the photographer was struck by the small gardens these uprooted people created around their shelters. In this book, there are no portraits. Rather, pictures of plants rooted in tin cans or plastic buckets. The narrative tells the story of the gardeners. Thus, the trilogy ends on a fragile hope: planting a garden indicates a willingness to be rooted again, with hope for the future.

Rémi Coignet is the editor in chief of The Eyes magazine. He is also the author of two books, Conversations and Conversations 2 which discuss the current state of the photobook in a series of interviews with distinguished photographers.

Images: top – Attention Servicemember by Ben Brody, below – Montöristen by Carl-Mikael Ström, Photobook Belge 1854 – Now