Late last month, Printed Matter and MoMA PS1 hosted the seventh annual New York Art Book Fair, which bills itself as “the world’s premier event for artists’ books, catalogs, monographs, periodicals, and zines.” Unfolding amidst a bustling chaos that recalls an exceptionally fashionable Moroccan bazaar, the NYABF is many things. Primarily, it is a surprisingly egalitarian marketplace, showcasing art objects that occupy the full range of the ideological and price spectrum—from disposable, shitty-looking zines printed on pulpy newsprint to potentially collectable monographs and limited-edition prints to scarce photo books and artist’s proofs that are already rare and hair-raisingly expensive—all rubbing shoulders with each other on folding tables arranged in rows in loosely-themed rooms, peddled by lanyarded vendors who wear an almost chillingly uniform expression of distance and emotional detachment. It is also a gathering place for wonky designers to swap notes on kerning, stock, binding methods, and print runs; a performance space and sounding board for all types of fringey agendas; and (not least of all) possibly the world’s nerdiest hipster meat market.
Printed Matter reports that over fifteen thousand people attended or exhibited at the NYABF in 2011. Exhibitors come from all over the world, bearing names like Pork Salad Press (Denmark), ANTIC-HAM (South Korea), Ooga Booga, Jimmy the Zine (both California), and Worst Magazine Ever (Poland). Serious publishers of beautifully designed books full of near-impenetrable critical theory, like Sternberg Press and Texte zur Kunst, share floor space with giddily cheeky queer smut (back issues of the now semi-defunct BUTT magazine, printed on modestly sized pink paper, sold out in a flash).
For anyone who grew up being driven by their parents on the weekends to comic book conventions held at faded, roadside motels (at this writer did), elbowing their way past other pimply fans to get to “the good stuff” at one or more pre-researched booths, the NYABF has an air of warm nostalgia: it’s a kind of consumer-driven information overload that feels, in a reassuring way, old hat. It’s a singular pleasure to navigate the (admittedly extremely attractive) crowds from room to room, taking in the incredible range of offerings and making mental (or occasionally written) notes on where to return to spend one’s self-allocated allowance.
As an incorrigible lifelong collector and art buff, but sadly lacking the means to acquire much beyond the odd napkin sketch in the way of real, auctionable art, my weakness the last decade or so has been limited-run photo books. I look forward to the NYABF each year with bated breath (and a rueful awareness of the toll it will inevitably take on my checking account). This year, I went home with a number of great finds. These four were among the very best.
Daniel Everett’s Standard Edition (Etudes Books, France)
Etudes Books is the “evolution” of JSBJ (Je Suis une Bande des Jeunes), the influential French imprint perhaps best known for its extremely-limited-run “blue zines”: editions of fifty copies copies of softbound books by an enviable roster of interesting young photographers, each presented with an original print affixed to the front of the volume. The inaugural book by Etudes is Standard Edition by Daniel Everett. As Jill Dawsey points out in the loosebound notes that accompany the volume, “Everett is drawn to things characterized by nothing so much as an absence of character,” including “blank façades,” “diffuse fluorescent lighting,” “the blank gaze of a surveillance camera.” In lushly printed full color, Everett renders the sterile non-objects and “non-places” (to borrow a term from anthropologist Marc Auge) that fill Standard Edition with an evenness and clinical distance that somehow, almost perversely, renders them that much more beautiful and alluring.
Bertrand Fleuret’s The Cliffs (J&L Books, USA)
Bertrand Fleuret’s work deals with memory. His earlier Landmasses and Railways (also published by J&L in a larger format than The Ciffs) compiled a selection of seemingly loosely-related black-and-white images that created the impression of a dimly remembered journey. The Cliffs, a small, handsome volume of sixty-eight pages, recreates an unusually vivid dream Fleuret experienced. The cover presents a textual account of Fleuret’s dream, originally written in a notebook upon waking. Inside, each page depicts a single image against a stark black background, illustrating a line or two of text. Most of the images are Fleuret’s own original photographs, though some were (intriguingly) sourced from vintage ads and dusty copies of National Geographic. The Cliffs concludes with several pages of reproductions of Fleuret’s sketches and notes on the dream. A great book for the bedside table.
Mårten Lange’s Another Language (SteidlMACK, UK)
As readers of The Last Magazine already know, Sweden’s Mårten Lange is one to watch. His self-published volumes, most notably Anomalies, are masterpieces of composition and contrast. In recent years, he has turned his attention more and more intently toward the natural world, and Another Language is the culmination of those studies. A slim, small volume presented without a dust jacket, Another Language showcases Lange’s deft touch for highlighting the remarkable range of wonderful morphologies that occur in nature. Each page features a single, black-and-white composition with a remarkable form at its center, be it a crystal, a patch of caked earth, a trio of guppies in a shallow stream, a deep hole in the earth or a pachyderm’s eye.
Amanda Marsalis’ Reproduction (Automatic Books, Italy)
Much of Amanda Marsalis’ output is commercial work. That she is a successful travel photographer whose images regularly appears in glossy consumer periodicals makes the intimacy of the photos in Reproduction (as well as its extremely limited run) feel that much more special. A large, staple-bound volume printed on matte, pale grey stock, Marsalis’ book was published in an edition of only one hundred copies. The reproductions in question are unabashedly romantic floral still lifes, shot with Marsalis’ last reserve of Polaroid film, and printed in sumptuously grainy red-and-blue duotone. The book is without text, save for a simple description of the project in a sans-serif font on the back cover: “Reproduction for me is three things,” the photographer writes. “The purpose of a flower, the way the book is being printed, and a woman’s fertility/sexuality.” Marsalis concludes that she identifies with a tradition of photographers who shoot still lifes “as an exercise in image making and self-examination.”