The Guardian’s photography critic selects his top photobooks and exhibitions of 2019
Every year, BJP-online asks a selection of industry leaders to recommend the photobooks, exhibitions, and projects that stood out to them most. Throughout December and January, we will be sharing their nominations for the Best of 2019.
Sean O’Hagan began his journalism career writing about music for publications including NME, The Face, and Arena. Observing a lack of coverage on the medium, it was during this time that he became interested in photography. “It was usually left to the art critic or whoever else was available to review a big exhibition or book,” he explained in an interview for 1000 Words. “It was not taken seriously as an art form – still isn’t, but to a lesser degree – compared to, say, theatre or film or dance.”
After interviewing several big names for The Observer’s review section — including the late Robert Frank and William Eggleston — O’Hagan became increasingly focused on photography. In 2013, he became the sole photography critic for The Guardian, and has since interviewed some of the biggest names in contemporary photography, including Cindy Sherman and Alec Soth. Below, O’Hagan shares his picks from 2019.
Sohrab Hura: The Coast
For me, Sohrab Hura’s The Coast is, hands down, the most vital photobook of 2019. I love the way Hura plays with narrative and sequencing through his use of repeated photographs in different juxtapositions and how he employs text — several variations on the same elliptical and knowing short story — alongside often unreliable images. There was something viscerally powerful and provocative about his willfully extreme vision of contemporary India, a country currently convulsed with alt-nationalist populist politics, conflicting religious and caste affiliations and the rapid growth of new, predominantly young, elites. Absurdist and politically astute, The Coast is a photobook of and for our turbulent times, echoing the free-flowing deluge of our global Internet image culture, and simultaneously critiquing it.
Libuše Jarcovjáková: Evokativ
Exhibition at Église Sainte-Anne, Arles’ photo festival (July to September 2019)
I had never heard of Libuse Jarcovjáková until I walked into the Église Sainte-Anne at Les Rencontres d’Arles. Her retrospective exhibition, Evokativ, which was brilliantly curated by Lucie Černá, stood out for its raw immediacy and unrelenting honesty. A diaristic record of Jarcovjáková’s wild younger life in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was by turns exhilarating and disturbing, her quest for personal freedom blurring into a kind of dogged self-destructiveness. There was, perhaps, an unconscious punk aesthetic at work here, but it frequently gave way to moments of vivid self-reflection, not least in the series that evoked a miscarriage in a state hospital. Close-ups of opaque water jugs on a window sill were accompanied by unflinching recollection: “I crept silently to the toilet. Jugs full of urine of pregnant women gleamed on the windowsill. They were wonderful! I took some photos and did some squats. In the end, I miscarried. All that remained were the jugs.” Unforgettable.
Mark Duffy: In the Wake of Brexit
Over a weekend in November, Irish photographer, Mark Duffy co-curated an installation with his partner Briony Carlin called In the Wake of Brexit, for they turned their home into an exhibition space devoted to the ongoing lunacy that is Brexit Britain. Having been fired by the House of Commons, where he was the official photographer, for supposedly bringing it into “disrepute”, his mission has been to shed light on the shenanigans taking place there in a slightly obsessive, darkly humorous way. Images, propaganda and oddball artefacts, including a Boris Johnson voodoo doll, filled every room, while the top floor bedroom hinted at the personal cost of his one-man crusade against the bureaucrats in Westminster. Subversive, topical and oddly unsettling, it evoked the national identity crisis in a domestic setting.
John Goldblatt: The Undressing Room
In October, The Photographers’ Gallery staged one of their irregular Soho-themed shows, which includes a series called The Undressing Room by the late John Goldblatt. Shot over four consecutive nights in the dressing room of a Soho strip club in the late 1960s, the images were wonderfully intimate and revealing without being sleazy or exploitative. Goldblatt’s fly-on-the-wall approach captures the downtime between performances, the women resting and relaxing in their underwear, reading comics or the tabloids, chatting, daydreaming and generally passing the time. An intimate, understated portrait of another Soho that suddenly seems incredibly distant.
Of the current wave of young female artists using photography to address the personal and the political, Alix Marie seems to be the most inventive and mischievous. Her mini-survey show of surreal photo sculptures disrupted the often blandly commercial thrust of Photo London, while Shredded, her critique of male bodybuilding culture, was an almost overwhelming experience that made maximum use of the minimal space that is the Roman Road gallery in east London. Influenced by the transgressive writings of George Bataille and the fetish doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer, her work explores notions of desire, gender, the unconscious, and the irrational. The results, by turns compelling and disturbing, are utterly singular. David Cronenberg would almost certainly approve.