At MoMA, we believe in the essential role of the photobook. The first book illustrated by a photographic process, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins, was published in 1843, at the dawn of the medium. Although the 20th century was marked by major publications that contributed to the recognition of photography as an art form, our current century brings the photobook into a whole new light. Since 2000, the number of photobook publishers has multiplied by five, and the genre itself has achieved a new level of inventiveness, experimentation, awareness, quality, and sophistication. It is not uncommon to meet young photographers who are more preoccupied with publishing their first book than having an exhibition. In short, the photobook has never been so essential as an element of photographic creativity.

MoMA has played a vital role in this development. Published in 1938, Walker Evans: American Photographs accompanied the first monographic exhibition dedicated to a photographer at the Museum, marking the beginning of a rich book publishing program. Today, MoMA continues to actively support the photobook phenomenon. Alongside prints, paintings, and sculptures, a collection of photographic books are currently visible in the collection galleries of the Museum. Our Library pursues an intensive and carefully curated program of acquisition and preservation of publications, which are available to the public.

Together, we are launching a new yearly celebration of the photobook. The list below comprises our 10 favorite photobooks of 2021, dating between July 2020 and August 2021. These books are now part of our Library collection, and are also available for anyone to purchase in the Design Store. Here, we’ve invited our colleagues across the Photography and Archives, Library, and Research Collections departments to contribute short descriptions of these standout titles.

And join us at the Forum on Contemporary Photography on December 8, 1:30–3:30 p.m. ET, for The Photobook Phenomenon, 1999–2021.

–Clément Chéroux, Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, and Michelle Elligott, Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections

Selected by Clément Chéroux

• Stefen Chow, Huiyi Lin, The Poverty Line (Lars Müller Publishers, 2021)
• Bieke Depoorter, Agata (Des Palais, 2021)
• Rahim Fortune, I Can’t Stand to See You Cry (Loose Joints, 2021)
• Samuel Fosso, SIXSIXSIX (The Walther Collection, Steidl, 2020)
• LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Last Cruze (The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2020)
• Seiichi Furuya, Christine Gössler, Face to Face (Chose Commune, 2020)
• Tarrah Krajnak, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (Dais Book, 2021)
• Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
• Pacifico Silano, I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine (Loose Joints, 2021)
• Taryn Simon, The Color of a Flea’s Eye, The Picture Collection (Cahiers d’Art, 2020)

Cover of Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin’s The Poverty Line

Cover of Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin’s The Poverty Line

Opening the newsprint cover of The Poverty Line, by the Singaporean, Beijing-based duo Chow and Lin, feels reminiscent of unwrapping street food at a market. Inside are fruits, vegetables, protein, snacks, and grains, each representing the quantity of food that one could buy with a day’s worth of poverty-line wages. These photographs were made in 36 countries, with each food positioned over a page from that day’s local newspaper.

This typological project inherently invites transnational comparisons. The abundance of spinach that can be purchased in Norway accentuates the unaffordability of fresh vegetables in other nations, suggesting that some governments set their poverty line at an unlivable standard. In the US, the wealth gap is evidenced by a mound of dried pinto beans overlaying an article about vacation homes. And the impacts of imperialism on developing countries can be observed in Madagascar, where 75% of the population falls below the poverty line. There, a single fish consumes the day’s wages, and is presented atop a French newspaper, alluding to histories of colonization and revolt.

The cumulative effect of viewing morsel after morsel of delicious food is hunger—a response that feels fitting for a book dedicated to making poverty palpable by expressing it literally, as sustenance, or lack thereof.
–Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography

An art-squat room with walls painted in pink; a young woman in a fuchsia swimsuit with a cross tattooed between her breasts; and a typed letter in which the photographer announces that she wants to stop working with her model adorn the powerful cover of Agata, the latest self-published book by photographer Bieke Depoorter. Born in Belgium in 1986, and educated at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Depoorter is part of the new generation of women photographers who have deeply renewed Magnum, the famous cooperative of photographers founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David Seymour (Chim), and William Vandivert. For the past 10 years, Depoorter has been developing an intense and inventive body of work, essentially based on chance encounters that turn into collaboration.

Depoorter’s fifth book was made with Polish artist, performer, and sex worker Agata Korbus (aka Agata Kay), who is the unique subject of the book. The two women met in a strip club in Paris in 2017. A fusional and episodic relationship then developed: each one of their meetings, in Greece, Lebanon, Germany, or France, offered opportunities for an important production of images that constitute the different chapters of the book.

Designed by Ramon Pez in collaboration with Depoorter, the book is presented as a large, flexible volume. The images, almost all taken at night, are reproduced on black pages, which gives the work a rather dark tone. Messages between the photographer and Agata are interspersed between the photographs. In order to create fluidity that would not be interrupted by the spreads, some images are cut by the external edge and continue on the following double page. Even more interesting: the volume, which was Japanese bound, has other images hidden in the folds of the pages, as if there were a book within the book.
–Clément Chéroux, Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography

Cover of Bieke Depoorter’s Agata

Cover of Bieke Depoorter’s Agata

Cover of Rahim Fortune’s I Can’t Stand to See You Cry

Cover of Rahim Fortune’s I Can’t Stand to See You Cry

Rahim Fortune’s I can’t stand to see you cry begins with an arresting portrait of a man: shirtless, pierced, inked, with leather pants layered over denim, arms down, fingers outstretched. His resolute gaze meets the camera, and his position in the book might stand as an invitation to attend to the intimate images of Black life in Texas circa 2020 along with this figure. The next photograph focuses on the sharp winter shadows of a tree beyond the frame, cast on a white picket fence. Several pages later we see an empty bed, in a home, with medical equipment, the quiet of the scene gently rocked by the motion of a ceiling fan and a blurred figment near the wardrobe. Such evocative presences, finely contoured or spectral, recur throughout Fortune’s photographs, as the temporal precision of each exposure swings from the ephemerality of a breeze catching the laundry to the mangled metal gate and plywood-covered storefront that indexes the aftermath of an unseen event. Similarly, Fortune’s focus turns from tender embraces, as on the cover, to violent impacts, as in the stitches running through a tattoo outline of the state of Texas repairing a wound from a police officer’s bullet.

I can’t stand to see you cry touches on the declining health and death of a parent, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protests and uprising in response to the police murders of Black people around the nation. The volume’s relative dearth of text allows the photographs to lead, and an impressive precision guides the sequencing of pictures. Part elegy, part essay on time and place, Fortune’s book grapples with love, grief, family, community, and the presence of history and of those who precede us, all finely rendered in the subtle tonal gradations of black-and-white photographs.
–Phil Taylor, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography

According to Cameroon-born, Paris-based photographer Samuel Fosso, misfortunes always seem to follow him around, and inspired his Polaroid-style series SIXSIXSIX. Fosso explains that the series is named after the Devil’s number (a number of misfortune), as described in the Bible.

Over the course of two months in 2015, Fosso would sit in a chair to maintain his body in the same position to capture a wide range of emotions. He staged himself against the same rich, red-colored background, which never appears too dark or too light, drawing focus to his face. These images are identical, and at the same time very different. What Fosso was able to capture throughout this book is how we, as humans, can feel and emote a wide range of unique expressions. Paging through the 666 large-format self-portraits, it’s difficult to find a repeated emotion, though the emotion from the previous image lingers. Whatever Fosso was feeling in the moment is captured. As he explains, “Just as there are moments of happiness, unhappiness, fun, etc., in life, the face expresses these different moments and does so until the end. Because as long as we live, we really go through the mill!”
–Jillian Suarez, Head of Library Services, Archives, Library, and Research Collections

Cover of Samuel Fosso’s SIXSIXSIX

Cover of Samuel Fosso’s SIXSIXSIX

Cover of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze

Cover of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze

In The Last Cruze, LaToya Ruby Frazier documents the ripple effects caused by General Motors’ decision in November 2018 to “unallocate” its plant in Lordstown, Ohio. After more than 50 years in operation, in March 2019 GM called off production of the Chevrolet Cruze, leaving some 2,000 factory workers and their families uprooted. The events caused a historic loss of heritage in Lordstown, bringing intensified attention to the small Rust Belt town, which emerged as a subject of political dispute. The book pairs Frazier’s black-and-white portraits of working-class Americans with their unflinching testimonies, and brings together a selection of color images taken by Kasey King, an autoworker and photographer for the labor union UAW Local 1112, inside the plant (where Frazier was not allowed to photograph). A careful, research-driven project, The Last Cruze includes a timeline of union history in America and a series of incisive essays by writer Coco Fusco, art historian Benjamin J. Young, curators Karsten Lund and Solveig Øvstebø, and sociologist Werner Lange, alongside interviews with Marxist geographer David Harvey, US Senator Sherrod Brown, and the playwright Lynn Nottage. Frazier’s project amplifies a deep lineage of socially engaged photobooks by Gordon Parks, and is linked to the conceptual practices of Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula.
–Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator, Department of Photography

Seiichi Furuya is widely known for the portraits he made of his partner, Christine Gössler, across their seven years together, from the time they met in 1978 up until her suicide in 1985. He photographed her constantly. “By facing her, by photographing her, and then by seeing her in the photographs, it is like seeing myself at the same time, discovering myself,” Furuya wrote in 1980. For decades after Gössler’s death, Furuya continued to revisit the portraits in his archive, sharing them with audiences through a series of five books he called Mémoires. As a viewer, after many years of encountering these pictures—including some examples in MoMA’s collection—I felt that I, too, had grown familiar with Gössler’s deep, dark, eyes and straight, brown hair, and when looking at a photograph I would feel the heartache of her story, knowing that sometime after the picture had been made, she would go on to take her own life. But another layer emerged when, in 2018, Furuya finally arranged in chronological order all the photographs Gössler herself had made in those years, and realized that frequently, when he was photographing her, she was also making portraits of him: they were facing each other. This volume brings together 150 photographs, arranged in pairs. In addition to the first story, we now find a complex narrative of a relationship that traveled to multiple cities and grew to include the birth of a child (in 1981); a relationship that had more than one protagonist.
–Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator, Department of Photography

Cover of Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler’s Face to Face

Cover of Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler’s Face to Face

Cover of Tarrah Krajnak’s El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan

Cover of Tarrah Krajnak’s El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan

Housed within a thin, unassuming brown slipcase, Tarrah Krajnak’s book brings together a wide range of approaches and processes, gathered over many years. There is performance documentation, appropriated images from magazines, found passport photos, Xeroxes, reproductions of posed portraits, and, woven throughout all this material, the artist’s own extraordinarily poignant writing. At its core, the book is a form via which Krajnak has worked through her own relationship to the circumstances and place of her birth—Lima, Peru—from her complex perspective as a transnational adoptee. “When I went back to Lima for the first time since I was an infant, I was almost 30 years old. I felt outside my body, but as if my body belonged there,” she has described. “I did feel this intense sense of parallel existence and of loss or mourning at this bodily exile.” In utilizing re-photography, repetition of image and text, and a range of experimental processes, she lays bare the essential qualities of working-through: time, messiness, emotion. As an artist who is deeply interested in the materiality of photography—she explores different photographic media and often develops her own prints in the darkroom—Krajnak has found in this project that the “photographic process itself” can become an entryway into personal discovery.
–Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator, Department of Photography

A nuanced project, Santa Barbara is the debut monograph of American photographer Diana Markosian, who is of Armenian descent. Interspersing film stills and staged, fictionalized dramatization, the narrative reconstructs the artist’s 1990s exodus, at the age of seven, with her mother and older brother from post-Soviet Russia to the United States. Inspired by the ’80s American soap opera Santa Barbara, which Markosian watched as a child, the story is told from her mother’s perspective. In making the book, Markosian collaborated with Lynda Myles, one of the scriptwriters of the original television series, and cast a set of actors to play her family. The story touches on the hopes and disillusionment of the American dream in seven segments: from the artist’s Moscow apartment to the Los Angeles airport, to her mother’s wedding to an older American in Santa Barbara, to new beginnings in California, and years later to the family’s move to San Francisco in the wake of her mother’s divorce. The book blends real and cinematic elements to recount an immigrant story. The front cover features a TV screenshot of a man and woman in profile looking at each across the book’s title. The endpapers illustrate palm trees printed in gloss on matte paper in black—a signature California design motif.
–Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator, Department of Photography

Cover of Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara

Cover of Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara

Cover of Pacifico Silano’s I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine

Cover of Pacifico Silano’s I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine

Folds and fragments, the erotica of the dog-eared printed image and frayed binding of a sensuous archive of 1970s gay porn magazines are Pacifico Silano’s raw materials. His copy stand close-ups are devoted to the material specificity of the bound sources—the ways in which the pages may fall or fold produce montages without any need for the glue or cut-up or digital toolbox of conventional collage practices. In the accordion folds of I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine, photographic elements readily succeed one another. Image edges largely coincide with the folds, but Silano’s photographs also home in on gutters, minor ruptures, and mis-registrations, where things don’t quite align, where uninked paper or cracked creases show.

The thrill of this book lies in the invitation to manipulate the uncoated paper into new photo-sculptural configurations that the concertina fold encourages—and in the process to rehearse the experiments of the artist and of the innumerable anonymous consumers who perused these images decades before. You’ll want to finger the seams and feel the raw edges of the trimmed boards. Silano’s montage at once amplifies the physicality of the archive and deconstructs its pictorial grammar. Sexuality is more evoked than explicit: fragments of exposed male bodies tease between abstract graphic elements and bands of color. Culled from the locations and set decor, landscapes and still lifes supply the scaffolding of fantasy and desire to articulate an erotics embedded in a historical gaze. These genre components, and Silano’s measuring of chromatic pattern, lend the project a significant amount of its affective range, fomenting what the artist describes as akin to a “fever dream.” There’s a wistful pleasure, freighted with the implicit intimation that these dream images emerge from a time before the AIDS pandemic. Is a closeup of a closed eye at the outset of the book a coy wink or a refusal to look back?
–Phil Taylor, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography

Part photobook, part exhibition catalogue, part administrative archive, Taryn Simon’s The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection was a project nine years in the making. Taking the storied Picture Collection at the New York Public Library as her subject and medium, Simon literally dug into the files to find her sources, and in an inherently meta project, she made pictures of pictures.

Founded in 1915, the Picture Collection has long been a haven for those in search of visual references of every conceivable kind, from artists and designers to journalists, historians, and the simply visually inquisitive; Simon was intrigued with the Picture Collection since her childhood. This image bank was created before the Internet era, with its ocean of images. Librarians manually clipped images and filed photographs into a particular subjective taxonomy that included such topical folders as Abandoned Buildings & Towns, Accidents, Broken Objects, Handshaking, Night Scenes, Paper – Endpapers, Rear Views, Smell, UFOs, and Wealth. Simon arranged and documented the physical contents of such files in large-format photographs, overlapping loosely associated images into tableaux that can suggest networks, evoke complex patterns or abstract chromatic fields, or read like analog results of an online search-engine query. In a nice touch to the materiality of the book, Simon’s images are 57 individually hand-tipped-in plates, and a variety of unique papers are employed. The volume also includes a large (200-plus pages) section dedicated to reproductions of archival materials about the Picture Collection. In sum, The Color of a Flea’s Eye encapsulates Simon’s longstanding interest in the visual exploration of institutions, systems of organization, networks, and kinship.
–Michelle Elligott, Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections

Cover of Taryn Simon’s The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection

Cover of Taryn Simon’s The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection