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March 08 2012

December 12 2010

Photography books 2010

Sean O'Hagan picks the year's best, including 50 years of rock photography, the war images of Don McCullin and Larry Sultan's strange take on his adopted home state

Best music book

A Star is Born: Photography and Rock Since Elvis (Steidl £26)

A provocative, and seldom seen, portrait of the young Patti Smith – taken by Lynn Goldsmith in 1976 during a protest by Iranian students against America's support of the soon-to-be-deposed Shah – is just one of many extraordinary images in A Star is Born, a chronological record of photography's reflection of, and impact upon, the culture of rock. Smith (below right), as her T-shirt shows, is also protesting – against the arrest of Keith Richards on drug charges in Canada.

"There is something about the static image that imprints on the mass psyche," notes Mick Rock, whose defining images of David Bowie at his most androgynous are included here. There are several rare photographs of rock greats but also images from fan magazines, seminal periodicals and classic album sleeves. Photographers include Dezo Hoffman and Astrid Kirchner (each of whom styled the Beatles in their own image – wacky and moody respectively), Gered Mankowitz (who famously photographed the Stones stoned on Primrose Hill), Stephen Shore (who shot the Velvet Underground at Warhol's Factory in the late 1960s), and Charles Peterson (who chronicled the nascent grunge scene in Seattle).

A series of illuminating essays also traces the trajectory of rock photography from its glossy showbiz roots to the rise of lo-fi digital photographs taken by amateurs and posted on the internet.

Best genre book

Street Photography Now by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren (Thames & Hudson £29.95)

Street photography made the news earlier in the year when several practitioners were stopped, questioned and, in some cases, held under the Terrorism Act. Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren's book is not an exhaustive study of the form or its trajectory from the halcyon days in the early 70s when pioneers such as Gary Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz roamed the same New York turf. It does, though, provide invaluable insight into contemporary practice as well as collecting some great on-the-ground anecdotes. The 46 contemporary photographers selected highlight the range of styles and approaches that make it such an intriguing – and often provocative – genre. The best images are often the most iconoclastic, as illustrated by Trent Parke's technically breathtaking shots of Sydney and Mimi Mollica's street scenes from Dakar.

Best fashion book

UFO by Albert Watson (Hardie Grant Books £55)

For the seriously style conscious, this big sumptuous book looks back over Albert Watson's 40 years as a fashion photographer. Watson has notched up more than 250 Vogue covers and is the master of clean, clear portraits of the beautiful and the famous, both in moody black and white and pristine colour. There are few surprises here, bar the odd evocative landscape, but Watson can shoot even the most over-exposed model or celebrity and tease out something new in their sculpted features. His portrait of the young Kate Moss is a case in point: he covered her face in a torn lace veil that somehow accentuates her girlish beauty. Oh, and UFO stands for Unified Fashion Objectives – though Objects might have been more accurate.

Best compilation

A Year in Photography: Magnum Archive (Prestel £22.50)

The title is misleading. This is not so much a year in photography as a seasonal compilation that contains 365 images from the vast archive of the Magnum agency – one for every day of the year. As such, it is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the trajectory of photography over the past 60 years. All the big names are here, including Abbas, Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold as well as younger Magnum members such as Alec Soth and Martin Parr. Co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson memorably said the agency should reflect "a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually". That, against all the odds in this digital age of image overload, just about remains the case.

Best war book

Shaped by War by Don McCullin (Jonathan Cape £25)

War photography as it used to be by the greatest living exponent of the genre. This is, essentially, a visual narrative of McCullin's life on the front lines in Belfast, Beirut, Biafra, Vietnam, Palestine and El Salvador. It is also an elegy for the golden age of reportage, containing several powerful spreads from McCullin's time at the Observer in the 1960s and the Sunday Times in the 70s as well as personal documents, mementos and souvenirs. Among the latter is a close-up of McCullin's Nikon F camera after it had been smashed by a sniper's bullet in Cambodia in 1970. In an age where photographers are embedded with troops, this is a reminder of the objective power of great war photography and a testament to 30-odd years of living – and seeing – dangerously.

Best book for families

Where Children Sleep by James Mollison (Chris Boot £20)

A collection of photographs of children in their bedrooms, this book is essentially a clever visual essay on global inequality. Its range is wide: the life of four-year-old Kaya in her toy-packed bedroom in Tokyo is contrasted with that of another (anonymous) four-year-old who lives in a makeshift encampment on the outskirts of Rome, sharing a dirty single mattress with his family. It's a heartrending book that is pitched at adult and child readers alike – the accompanying texts are designed to be understood by nine-year-olds. "I hope this book will help children think about inequality, within and between societies around the world," says Mollison in his introduction, "and perhaps start to figure out how, in their own lives, they may respond." A tall order, but a book that will certainly make you – and your children – think.

Best posthumous book

Katherine Avenue by Larry Sultan (Steidl £45)

Larry Sultan, who died, aged 63, in December 2009, was a mischievous chronicler of the American Dream, whether in his oftenstaged photographs of his immediate family or his unreal-looking images from the manicured hinterlands of suburban California. Sultan's best photographs capture or – to be more precise – re-create the abiding unreality of his adopted Californian homeland. A fitting testament to a playfully serious pioneer.

For more of Sean O'Hagan's 2010 choices read his blog © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 14 2010

Once upon a life: Nick Kent

In 1972 he was sorting mail in a Sussex post office. Twelve months later he was partying with Led Zeppelin. Here, the hugely influential music critic Nick Kent looks back on a year in which he witnessed the birth of punk, the arrival of Ziggy Stardust and the life-changing impact of Iggy Pop

Michael Caine was recently being interviewed on French television when a question about the 1960s came up. The venerable actor set off on a misty-eyed saunter down memory lane about the early years of the decade, when he and his immediate social circle – folk like Terence Stamp, Vidal Sassoon and Harold Pinter – were suddenly catapulted from struggling obscurity to glittering blockbuster success in their chosen fields of endeavour. There was a window of opportunity back then – or so he claimed – that was magically made open to anyone who was young, slightly different-looking and imbued with a certain irreverent outlook on life and good instincts about their profession. That window was now closed, he quickly added, because the novelty of youthful self-empowerment had gone the way of all flesh and the times had simply changed.

His words stirred something in me because I'd known that window, too, albeit a decade later than Caine. It might not have been wide open in the early 1970s, when I came of age, as it had apparently been throughout the 1960s. But it was still definitely ajar – offering just enough space for the young and ambitious to squeeze through in order to go on and make their mark on the world. I was ordained to receive my catapult ride from student nonentity-dom to gainful employment as fledlging celeb journo for the NME in 1972. I began the year sorting mail in a Sussex post office to the baleful strains of comedian Benny Hill singing his No 1 hit single of the day, "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" – His name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west – and ended it in a four-star hotel carousing with Led Zeppelin. It wasn't what you'd call a normal or particularly healthy career trajectory to embark on, but I've never complained. Later on in the decade there would be hell to pay, but it would all seem worth it in retrospect. If I hadn't let myself get sucked up in the career tidal wave that '72 presented me with, I'd have probably stayed in my student garret dreaming my way into an underachieving life as a provincial librarian.

The key events that sparked my rise in fortune and public notoriety are dealt with in microscopic detail in my new book – specifically a long chapter dedicated to the year in question. Mostly it was about being in the right place at the right time, I now feel. From my vantage point, 1972 was the year when 70s culture truly cut itself off from the ghost of the 60s and began to express the real growing concerns and desires of its age. Films such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Martin Scorsese's seminal Mean Streets were all put into production during its 12-month duration. And there was a brand-new sensibility in rock music, too – a turning away from po-faced musical virtuosity (or middle-class prog rock ideal for post-hippie navel gazing) to make way for the emergence of something shorter, sharper, more vanity-driven and impudently audacious. In January, David Bowie first showcased his doomed peacock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on English stages, and it was at that moment that the 70s as we now perceive them were born. David Bowie didn't invent glam rock – Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper had both predated him as hit-making ambassadors of the form – but he was its prettiest and most musically accomplished human asset and, moreover, possessed the requisite charisma and lightning intelligence to change the whole course of popular music that year.

Bowie also had exquisite taste, particularly when it came to choosing other rising forces in the new decade to share the spotlight with. He cajoled both Lou Reed from New York's recently disbanded Velvet Underground and a wayward Michigan-born young man known as Iggy Pop to move to London that year and employ the services of his manager, a loud Colonel Parker wannabe called Tony DeFries. Reed had been Andy Warhol's house minstrel in the late 1960s and didn't waste the opportunity to instil the fey pop artist's glamour-fixated anti-utopian doctrines on British pop culture upon his arrival on our sceptred isle. And Iggy Pop imported his old group, the Stooges, from the Motor City that spring and performed just one concert, in a King's Cross cinema, that was already being called "punk rock" four years before the Sex Pistols and their scheming manager claimed to invent the genre in 1976.

Elsewhere in the metropolis a young US poetess – Patti Smith – gave her first feisty spoken-word recitation to European ears early in the year, while a bunch of snooty UK-based refugees from the halls of higher learning, known as Roxy Music, were busy re-styling art rock with bold camp flourishes and a menthol-cool postmodernist perspective. In short, those of us who'd failed to cast our shadows across the 60s creative landscape suddenly were dealt the opportunity to leave our respective signatures on the decade's trickier successor.

In my case, things took off in January when – tipped off by a friend – I'd taken an afternoon off from studying "linguistics" in a section of the University of London then known as Bedford College in order to offer my fledlging music-writer services to an underground journal based on Portobello Road called Frendz. I just turned up at their office unannounced, but the paper's editors were encouraging. When I returned with three album reviews, they printed them and then offered me the job of becoming their music editor for the princely sum of £4 a month and all the free albums I could cadge from the record companies. It seemed like a sweet deal to me, and it only got sweeter. That spring I went out on separate tours with weird and wonderful acts, like Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind. Sometime in February I met Iggy Pop and discovered in the process my very own lifestyle guru for the years ahead.

The Iggy connection was important also because it was what first drew me to the attention of the New Musical Express. The music weekly had been struggling to keep afloat at the beginning of the 1970s and in early '72 was given an ultimatum by its owners, IPC: either find a new direction and a much larger readership base or get put out to pasture. The editors had exactly 12 issues in which to turn things around and began furiously headhunting young scribes from the (then-ailing) underground press to help swell their ranks and inject a more "irreverently hip" attitude into the copy. Nick Logan – then the assistant editor – phoned me out of the blue some time in the summer and asked me to write a short piece about Iggy for their pages. Once I handed him the text, he offered me staff membership but I politely refused, preferring a role as a freelancer to a (mostly) desk-bound job in the office. He was agreeable to this less structured arrangement and I was suddenly afforded the financial sustenance and mainstream platform to really get my name out to the greater Brit-youth consumer demographic du jour.

What was it exactly that made me so suddenly sought after? I couldn't even type my own copy – I'd scribble everything out in wobbly longhand and then pass the pages over to a long-suffering office secretary to type instead – but the editors never made an issue of my (considerable) shortcoming. I had a problem with deadlines, too. In point of fact I was any self-respecting copy editor's worst nightmare. But they tolerated all this because they evidently sensed I was an overall asset to their general operation. I'd like to think it was all somehow tied in with the excellence of the work I was handing in, but I've reread most of those old early pieces of mine and they're neither excellent nor particularly good.

The truth of the matter is I wouldn't start maturing into a writer of credible "new journalism" for another two years. But I was prepared from the very outset to go to extremes in order to snag a story, and "going to extremes" always gets results (even if – most of the time – they're not the results you may have at first set out to attain). Also, I had good instincts for embracing rising talent and, recognising instantly that the paper's readers were generally afflicted by an extremely short attention span, I thus chose to affect a flamboyant, look-at-me approach to my journalistic endeavours and general comportment when in public in order to keep them (hopefully) hanging on to my every word.

But the key to it all lay in the fact that I was really just part of a winning team. Two other underground-affiliated young writers – Charles Shaar Murray and Ian MacDonald – had come on board roughly at the same time I had, and both proved to be deeply influential on the paper's rising style and substance. And Nick Logan was at the controls, honing the skills that would go on to make him one of the most visionary and successful editors of the late 20th century.

The paper's change in fortunes was practically instantaneous. By autumn of 1972 the NME's weekly sales had rocketed up from 60,000 to approximately 150,000; by year's end we'd become "the world's biggest-selling music weekly", a state of affairs that lasted throughout the decade. But skyrocketing success always brings its share of problems to whoever is tied to the rocket, and we were no exception to that rule. An unhealthy measure of divisive competitiveness soon entered into our office relationships and grew as the paper became more and more widely read. Heads started swelling – and as the youngest contributor to the journal I became more arrogant than most. In due course this would turn to premature jadedness, and soon enough I'd be heading for self-destruction.

My immediate future was blindingly bright: in '73 I'd tour with my heroes the Rolling Stones through Europe, spend two months traversing America on a hectic voyage of (self-) discovery and fall head over heels in love. But a year after that I'd fall into heroin addiction and heartache, and all that early journalistic promise I'd displayed would be hijacked and rendered dormant for the rest of the decade.

But back in 1972 everything still seemed possible. My NME co-conspirators and I were still in our brief-but-blissful honeymoon period of one-for-all-and-all-for-oneness. And I'd yet to become personally tainted by the whole pop process. At heart I was still a callow 20-year-old who'd spent his teenage years in his bedroom lost in music, and now that I'd penetrated the music industry itself and was getting records for free, free tickets to all the concerts and lots of face-to-face contacts with musicians I'd once only dreamt of encountering, I couldn't get over my luck.

When I think back to that year, the memories that shine brightest are the many times I was privileged to see shows in London – and elsewhere – that left me trembling with ecstasy. I caught the UK debut of Germany's groundbreaking Can, witnessed Captain Beefheart speaking in tongues and reinventing electric music to a bewildered Brighton audience, was bedazzled by David Bowie's first Ziggy show in London and equally captivated by Roxy Music's early showcases. Oftentimes those future historic events would attract only a handful of paying punters. Indeed one monumental concert that the MC5 performed in London's West End that summer only attracted three attendees, none of whom had paid to get in. Even the Stooges's now legendary "punk"-inducing King's Cross gig only managed to draw 150 or so spectators. But that show changed my life. Before it I'd been a cautious youth, but when I witnessed Iggy doing somersaults on a moving microphone stand that night, I realised once and for all that – in order to leave a lasting impression on the times I lived in – I had to throw all caution to the four winds and plunge headlong into the fray of whatever fate had in store for me.

By December of 1972, it was official: I'd been expelled from the University of London, exiled from academia. It was bound to happen, as I'd failed to turn up to all my lectures and hadn't even been there to sit an important end-of-term exam. In fact, I'd been out on tour with Led Zeppelin when it had occurred. My fate was already sealed, in other words. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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