The best photography books of 2016

An image by riteshuttamchandani_Mumbai from Life on Instagram
An image by riteshuttamchandani_Mumbai from Life on Instagram
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One of the more zeitgeisty books of 2016 was Curation The Power Of Selection In a World Of Excess, by the writer and publisher Michael Bhaskar. In his introduction, Bhaskar notes that “in the last two years, humanity has produced more data than the rest of human history combined”; it’s a jaw-dropping statistic, particularly when you consider that the rate of production is still growing by 60 per cent a year.

Every time we turn on our desktop computers or unlock our smartphones or tablets, we can dive into an unimaginably vast ocean of information. Trouble is, just as visiting the warehouses of the National Museum of Scotland (which house the vast bulk of the museum’s collections) would be a largely pointless exercise, so the world wide web is something ideally filtered through a curator, or a number of curators.

This is the thinking behind Life On Instagram 2017, an almost heroically bold undertaking by Jim Stoddart, the art director of Penguin Press. A big fan of the photo-sharing site, which at time of going to press has around 500 million users and sees 95 million photo and video posts every day, he has set out to pick just 800 images that have “something idiosyncratic, something that might make you look again”. That’s a fairly vague set of criteria, and the images are not presented in any particular order (“The random upload nature of the platform is something we have enjoyed emulating in this book,” says Stoddart.) The end result, then, is a lot like the real Instagram, with stark, black-and-white shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a Cartier Bresson retrospective co-existing alongside holiday snaps, cute pets, street scenes, landscapes and more. Stoddart clearly has an eagle eye for an arresting image, but his is an extremely relaxed kind of curation, concerned with quality control, “idiosyncrasy” and not much else. The book could perhaps be subtitled: “Some of the better pictures on Instagram, for people who can’t be bothered to do Instagram.”

A very different proposition from the opposite end of the tech-spectrum is Polaroid: The Magical Material, by Florian Kaps. Just as Stoddart is an avid Instagrammer, so Kaps is a big fan of the original analogue instant camera, but he is also a key player in its story. When Polaroid the company decided that the future was digital and started phasing out the old instant cameras that had made it famous, Kaps stepped in, and after many years of campaigning managed to take over production just before the final factory was shut down, albeit under the trade name The Impossible Project. This book, then, is both a very readable romp through the history of Polaroid, from Edwin Land’s development of instant film in the 1940s to the birth of digital, and also Kaps’ account of his own struggle to save an iconic mode of artistic expression.

Another analogue technology supposedly threatened by the advent of the digital age, the printed word, is celebrated in Steve McCurry’s wonderful photo-essay On Reading. McMurry shoots an impressively international cast of readers, including a bag-seller poring over a newspaper outside his market stall in Kabul, an impossibly serene-looking woman engrossed in a book on a park bench in Chang Mai and schoolkids reading in China, Lebanon, India, Germany and Ethiopia. Particular highlights are images of an Afghan couple sitting reading on the street together, again in Kabul, and a shot entitled simply “Over the Atlantic Ocean” in which a man on a long-haul flight reads while those around him sleep, his face illuminated by the eerie glow of his reading light.

More than anything else – even his very considerable gift for composition – it’s McMury’s intimate understanding of the transformative properties of light that makes his photographs so remarkable, and the same could be said of Sally Mann, whose book, Remembered Light: CY Twombly In Lexington, is an attempt to capture the essence of the studio the artist occupied next-door to her own in Virginia, up until his death in 2011. Over the course of several years, Mann made a whole series of images showing not just works in progress but also paint-spattered walls, kitschy ornaments, letters sitting on side tables and the general bric-a-brac of creative life – all of it lit by the diffuse, dreamlike light of the strong southern sun filtered through partially closed Venetian blinds. In the Q&A that opens the book, Mann says this project isn’t an attempt to memorialise Twombly but to give “a sense… of his continuum”, and you can see what she means. He isn’t actually present in any of the pictures, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel his presence, lingering just out of shot.

Of the books by Scottish photographers covered in these pages earlier in the year, three stood out: Disappearing Glasgow, Chris Leslie’s deeply affecting record of the demolition of the city’s great modernist tower blocks; Summer In South Georgia by Jamie Grant, a stunning journey around the island made famous by Shackleton’s Endurance expedition; and The Writer’s Eye by William Dalrymple, in which the award-winning writer and historian proved himself to be almost as talented with a camera as he is with a pen.

And finally: as a long-standing subscriber to National Geographic I’ve often been impressed by Robert Clark’s frequently featured nature photography. Even for existing fans, however, Evolution: A Visual Record is a truly mind-blowing book – the evidence of evolutionary processes as illustrated by 200 hyper-detailed photographs of birds, insects, plants, fossils and mammals. It’s a terrible cliché, but these images really will make you look at the world with fresh eyes.