Pandemic park life and a secret knitting cult: the best photography books of 2021 – The Guardian

Pandemic park life and a secret knitting cult: the best photography books of 2021 – The Guardian

The photography book that I returned to more than any other this year was Encampment Wyoming by Lora Webb Nichols, an extraordinary record of life in a US frontier community in the early 20th century. Comprised of photographs by Nichols and other local amateur photographers, it emanates a powerful sense of place. Domestic interiors and still lifes punctuate the portraits, which range from the spectral – a blurred and ghostly adult plaiting the hair of a young girl – to the stylish – a dapper, besuited woman peering through a window. An intimate, quietly compelling portrait of a time, a place and a nascent community.

Lizzie Nichols at Willow Glen 1899 Encampment, Wyoming Photograph: Lora Webb Nichols/Fw:Books

Perhaps because of the strangely suspended nature of our times, I was also drawn to contemporary books that dealt in quiet reflection. Donavon Smallwood’s Languor was created during the lockdown spring and summer of 2020, as he wandered through the woods in the relatively secluded north-west corner of New York’s Central Park. Smallwood’s images of glades, streams and ravines suggest stillness amid the clamour of the city and are punctuated by his deftly composed portraits of the individuals who were regularly drawn there during the pandemic. The book’s subtext deals with the fraught history of Central Park, a space that has often echoed the city’s racial tensions. “What’s it like to be a black person in nature?” asks Smallwood in this quietly powerful debut.

Russian-born photographer Irina Rozovsky’s In Plain Air trained her acute outsider’s eye on another bucolic New York landscape, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which, in summer, is a microcosm of the city’s multicultural dynamic. Again, the pandemic is the looming backdrop for these studies of people in human-made nature: walking, resting, working, playing and interacting with each other and their surroundings. A masterfully sustained study in mood, atmosphere and landscape.

Vividly atmospheric … a photo from Hoda Afshar’s Speak the Wind. Photograph: Hoda Afshar

A much more otherworldly landscape is the setting for another impressive debut, Speak the Wind, by the Iranian-born photographer, Hoda Afshar. She was drawn to the islands of Qeshm, Hormuz and Hengam in the strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by an age-old local belief that the wind that has shaped the dramatic terrain is also the source of sickness and possession by spirits. Her vividly atmospheric portraits and landscapes evoke the otherness of the islands, but also suggest the invisible and intangible forces, historical and communal, that have shaped this in-between place, and helped form its customs and beliefs. An ambitious, multilayered narrative that repays close attention in its glancing approach to myth, ritual, landscape and the long shadow of colonial history.

‘The Essential Solitude’ …….