Artful Volumes

Vivian Maier, New York City, 1959, C-print, 10 × 15".
Vivian Maier, Miami, FL, 1960, C-print, 10 × 15".

The entry of Vivian Maier—a Chicago nanny who died in 2009, leaving an enormous trove of unpublished and often unprinted images—into the first rank of American postwar photographers has proved as revelatory as it was precipitous. During her lifetime, she refrained from bringing her photos to venues where they might have been judged, perhaps fearing that they would have been dismissed as the work of an amateur. But the several volumes of photographs that have been published since her death evidence a remarkable artistry and consciousness of craft. Vivian Maier: The Color Work (Harper Design, $80) constitutes another bulletin from this burgeoning posthumous career, one that documents her late-style transition to color film, which began in earnest in the 1970s. The colors here feel enticingly softened and tactile, owing to her use of Ektachrome film. Selected from the nearly forty thousand slides she shot in the last thirty years of her life, these images carry forward her previous explorations of sidewalk happenstance, idiosyncratic faces, and the play between shadow and light. The photos reveal a sensitivity to how harmonies and contrasting patterns among pigments can transfix a viewer’s eye on, say, the ordinary sight of a gray jacket on a silvery coatrack against a red and pale-yellow wall. It’s unlikely that Maier acquired her discernment from reading Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color (Circadian Press/Sacred Bones Books, $35), since the book has been largely out of print since its publication in 1902. A watercolorist of some reputation, Vanderpoel penned this exacting investigation of chromatic perception and the intricate kinship between colors decades before Josef Albers’s landmark text Interaction of Color. Vanderpoel illustrated her treatise with over a hundred presciently modern grids, each of these Mondrian-like schemes demonstrating how, for instance, “hues grade softly into one another from edge to heart,” or how “if two unbroken masses of the same quantity of strong color are put side by side the result may be unbearable.” Maier and Vanderpoel—each a creator of uncommonly distinctive work that only now is gaining deserved attention—shared an aesthetic, one Vanderpoel asserts on the first page of her book: “The relation of color to light is much the same as that of music to sound.” —ALBERT MOBILIO

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, Color Note from a Shadow on White Ground, 1901, watercolor on paper, 7 5⁄8 × 5 5⁄8".

Emeka Okereke and Emmanuel Iduma, untitled, 2014. From the series “A Walk in a Daraa,” 2014.

In one of the most indelible moments of the photo-and-text travelogue A Stranger's Pose (Cassava Republic Press, $15), Emmanuel Iduma finds himself in Mali at the home of renowned photographer Malick Sidibé. “He learnt what he knew about photography by observing closely,” Iduma writes of Sidibé, who passed away in 2016. “To observe is to be alert, to find precision, balance.” Iduma’s work is rewarding not only because he aspires to cultivate precision and balance, but also because he’s acutely aware that these qualities are a challenge for documentary photographers to acquire. A Nigerian critic, writer, and photographer currently based in New York, Iduma fills the bulk of this slim volume with seventy-seven snapshot-like vignettes of a continent in motion. His prose walks through the dense thickets of class, race, and language like a spectral presence. Cities are “untethered to their countries.” Estrangement becomes a form of intimacy, a tension reflected in Iduma’s use of embedded photography—both his own and that of others, including celebrated Eritrean photographer Dawit L. Petros. A Stranger’s Pose will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the work of writer-photographer Teju Cole, who pens the book’s foreword, but Iduma’s approach is more playful, self-deprecating, his ekphrastic passages and nested anecdotes calling to mind the irreverent fictions of Roberto Bolaño. Iduma foregrounds his flaws. Absent-minded, relatively unworldly (he knows only English and often feels out of place in a continent teeming with polyglots), he spends six hours in a Chadian jail for capturing a disturbed couple with his digital camera. An unmistakable undercurrent of shame—tied to the traveler’s sense of conditional privilege when faced, as Iduma so often is, with migrants and refugees seeking sanctuary—courses through A Stranger’s Pose. It is the shame of the artist and his “cosmopolitan anxieties,” poaching moments and hoarding stories throughout a continent haunted by colonialism, global capitalism, and conflict. There are enough African travelogues—even loving ones—to fill a library, but none quite as idiosyncratic or romantic as what Iduma has achieved here. —MIK AWAKE

Orhan Pamuk, Cihangir, Istanbul, 2012–13.

Orhan Pamuk, the novelist and preeminent chronicler of his native Turkey, is also something of a shutterbug. The Nobel prizewinner recently released a book of photographs, shot over the course of four months from his balcony—the book’s titular “balkon”—in Istanbul’s sea-hugging Cihangir neighborhood. By his own account, Pamuk shot eighty-five hundred photographs, or about seventy a day: These moody snapshots depict the minarets of Cihangir Mosque at dusk and offer glimpses into strangers’ backlit apartments; they capture gulls coursing across the city’s gray skyline and the ships that traverse its fog-blanketed coast. The writer seems especially captivated by the sun breaking through clouds, devoting multiple photos to a single progression of this effect. With the exception of Pamuk’s introduction, Balkon (Steidl, $40) is entirely without captions or text. In his essay, Pamuk admits that the project was largely initiated as a means of procrastinating writing his latest novel. But he is frustratingly coy about the book’s central question: Why publish these ultimately mundane pictures? Balkon registers less as a conceptual durational project than the product of happenstance. Pamuk writes that he never expected anyone else to see the images, but in the end it seems he couldn’t resist sharing them. One can sympathize with the desire for validation of what is so often a solitary and uncelebrated act of creation, even if what results is merely a diversion from the main event. —CAT KRON

Gertrude Abercrombie, Strange Fruit (Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting), 1946, oil on Masonite, 18 × 21 7⁄8".

A masterful opening essay by Robert Storr sets the scene for this new Gertrude Abercrombie (Karma, $50) monograph: Hyde Park, Chicago, in the middle of the twentieth century, a historic neighborhood undergoing a demographic transformation from white to black (and then back to white again). The self-styled witch and surrealist painter spent nearly her entire life in the neighborhood, as the book’s first hundred pages of essays and photographs make clear. Some of the most remarkable of these images document Abercrombie’s surprising closeness with bebop greats like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, who, we learn, often stayed at Abercrombie’s house when they were in town for a gig. Given all of this exposition, one can assume that Strange Fruit (Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting), 1946, an oil-on-Masonite depiction of a moonlit landscape occupied only by a wizened tree set up for a hanging, really was Bird’s preferred work—a tragic insight given his famous struggles with depression. Strange Fruit stands alone in Abercrombie’s oeuvre in its explicit engagement with the racial politics of the pre-civil-rights era. The bulk of the paintings reprinted in this survey, which spans from 1933 to 1971, convey the artist’s image of herself as a lonely necromancer, accompanied on life’s journey only by her familiars in the form of cats, seashells, and switches. Abercrombie, in an astonishingly proto-goth style, renders her almost exclusively female figures—all thinly veiled self-portraits—as sullen queens of a desolate, haunted psychic realm. The catalogue closes with a number of late-period paintings of unhinged doors, signs of the process of “urban renewal” (read: gentrification) underway in Hyde Park at the time. There goes the neighborhood. —CANADA CHOATE

Kristine Potter, Heart’s Anvil, 2014, ink-jet print, 25 × 20".

In Kristine Potter’s Manifest (TBW Books, $45), the American West, one of photography’s favorite subjects for mythmaking and willful prettifying, is depicted as jarringly unheroic—bleak, hot, cracked. Potter’s sharp, often high-contrast black-and-white shots of the Colorado landscape are pleasingly desolate and, as the title implies, compellingly literal—dirt, trees, rocks, scrub, animal bones. The dream is over; “destiny” has been lopped off the tail end of the familiar phrase. Potter offers an unsentimental vision of nature, but when it comes to man, here represented by photographs of a scraggly crew, the tone is mixed. In one image, a glowering guy clutches a fistful of hair near the scalp, a gesture of both anxiety and menace; in another, a sweetly unguarded Peter Hujar–esque portrait, a man sprawls on a scavenged outdoor couch, napping in the sun with a happy cat on his stomach. One dramatically lit headless male torso hints at familiar ideas about brute masculinity, but the photo feels out of place. More representative are the tender pictures of men lounging, swimming, or just hanging. It’s clear they’re comfortable with Potter; it’s harder to tell whether the feeling is mutual. That wariness is suggestive—not of the old myths but of their discomfiting consequences. —DAVID O’NEILL