Bendavid-Val is a senior editor at National Geographic.
This has been a summing-up year in photography, as it has been in almost everything else. But books with some defined viewpoint and scope have proven to be more meaningful than those that attempt to summarize the entire enterprise of photography.
Peter Beard: Fifty Years of Portraits, exquisitely manufactured by Arena Editions, displays Beard's restless life through the snapshots, clippings, ephemera and memorabilia he has assembled in his diaries. Beard's imaginings and passions erase boundaries between his personal indulgences and public causes, the famous and the anonymous, the fanciful and the real. The modest size of the book makes it a pleasure to hold. The complex detail doesn't always surface in this small format -- I find myself using a magnifying glass occasionally and not minding.
Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works From the International Center of Photography Collection (Bulfinch) whets the human eye. For 25 years curators, photographers, students and viewers have met at the ICP to appreciate the exhilarating ways the photographic imagination sees the physical world. This book of thoughtfully sequenced pictures gives us one delicious example after another from the ICP collection. But even with the insightful essays, it is impossible to get a full sense of the archive. The treat and occasional shock of the individual pictures must suffice, and do.
Mary Ellen Mark: American Odyssey 1963-1999 (Aperture) presents one photographer's encounters with a wide array of characters. A sense of humor, a sense of the ridiculous, goodness, vulnerability, sadness -- Mark finds all these in her subjects and photographs them with a complexity of emotion that keeps them real. The title points out that the pictures were all made in America, and Mark writes that her "travels through America have defined [her] vision as a photographer." But I wonder whether Americanness is the critical element here. Setting the tone for the volume, a poem by Maya Angelou comments on human diversity. Mary Ellen Mark offers that diversity to us with the vitality that is her signature.
In On the Plains (DoubleTake/Norton), Peter Brown shows a seemingly featureless American landscape. Colors are subdued, uninterrupted horizons have the effect of sharpening detail, and simple expansiveness becomes abstraction. The weather and sky seem as present as the utterly flat ground. In these photographs, buildings and people seem featureless too, swallowed by their setting. As this book shows, the empty earth can be fuller than populated places.