I've been reading two very different books about two very different places in the United States. Whether you prefer the cities or the sticks, here are my thoughts.
NY Through The Lens, by Vivienne Gucwa
I came about this book via an aimless search of best-sellers on Amazon. Having visited the Big Apple for the first time last year and fallen in love with the place, I figured it would offer some pleasant street photography nostalgia. And it does.
What struck me is just how accessible this book is. Gucwa has a consistent style, isn't afraid to include shots taken on her iPhone, and while some of the editing might not be to everyone's tastes, this collection of work feels immediately familiar. The images do not feel forced but instead almost entirely unplanned.
It's also great to see the contrast of summer and winter shots - the latter of which I am particularly fond of. Gucwa's shots of residents traipsing through heavy snowfall and cosy, neon-lit eateries during a blizzard are wonderful. Having witnessed New York first hand during one of its coldest ever winters, I can testify that the rawness of these shots is accurate.
While the photos are easily accessible, the narratives are less so. Gucwa uses wonderful imagery in her language, but descriptions like: "these moments, suspended in time, marinate in the severity of their potential to eventually etch themselves into the eternity of the mind" seem slightly forced when compared to the simplicity of her photos. Reading her poetic impression of the city is an interesting element but I found that too often it disrupted the flow.
Some of Gucwa's exposure settings are also unorthodox. Very slow hand-held shutter speeds with low ISOs is not something you expect in a book heavy with nighttime shots. Also the use of f/2.8 and f/3.2 during the day is common, when greater depth of field would arguably have been beneficial. However, having read the book cover to cover, I believe it adds to the accessibility mentioned above. It makes the whole piece of work feel genuine.
If you're looking for beautiful postcard photos of New York City, this book is probably not for you. These images are raw, spontaneous, and have a sense of urgency to them. If you're a stickler for technical details and dismissive of iPhotography then this is definitely not the book for you. But if you are seeking an honest account of New York (through the lens) then there is a huge amount in here to inspire you to visit.
The New West, by Robert Adams
Originally published in 1974 and then re-published in 2015, this book is a collection of images taken in the Colorado Springs and Denver areas. It documents the construction of tract and mobile homes, shopping malls, and general suburbia - the new west.
With the exception of the introduction, the layout of the book is straightforward enough: images on the right hand side, caption on the left. All of the photographs are in black and white and the crisp pages make this a portfolio with a simplicity that would make Apple jealous.
From the outset it is immediately apparent that the concept running throughout these images is "less is more". Admittedly there is not much going on in these shots. It doesn't have the humour of Garry Winogrand or the action of Vivienne Maier. Some will say it is boring. But what it definitely is is a brutally true-to-life documentary.
The New West sets out its purpose clearly and achieves it brilliantly. I was relatively unfamiliar with this period of time in American history and the extent of development that ultimately killed off the Old West, but having gone through the 200+ photographs I feel as if I've studied the subject. It gives such a terrific sense of time and place. You can feel the heat of the Colorado sunshine and the mundanity of everyday life.
The precise focus of the book and its successful execution makes for a rewarding read. Not everyone will be a fan of the subject matter and it will likely be dismissed by some as uneventful and banal. But Adams isn't pretending that it is anything else. What he has captured so well is this fundamental shift in the American landscape - a significant change that has shaped (and continues to shape) the lives of people today in modern Colorado.
Arguably this is a book you are more likely to seek out rather than pick up off the shelf. And that is a great shame as it is an enjoyable body of work and a masterclass in demonstrating the benefits of having a clear, focused objective. It has even been cited as standing alongside Robert Frank's, The Americans. That honour alone should at the very least make you curious to pick up a copy.