Books: Photography: In the dream-space of desire

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The Independent Culture
So many contemporary photographers are lost in a garishly explicit post-Nan Goldin world of nightclubs in Tokyo, that the re-presentation of the work of past masters - and mistresses - in impeccable formats is anything but regressive. Especially when it is done in such a way as to enable us to see anew how radical work from the pantheon once was.

In this respect, Paul Strand Circa 1916 (Abrams, pounds 40) is exemplary, both in its uncompromising standards of selection and reproduction, and in the quality of the text. The increasingly abstract photographs Strand made at this point in his career were stunningly unprecedented.

Maria Morris Hambourg's commentary traces the evolution of - and reasons for - this defining moment of photographic Modernism with a passion and precision that perfectly complements the images.

Ten years earlier, in France, Jacques Henri Lartigue had begun producing the work of his early maturity. He was 12 at the time. Boyishly fascinated by speed and flight, by cars and planes, his gaze then began to linger on the fashionable women of Paris boulevards. With carefree facility he went on to record scenes of an opulent, happy world apparently undisturbed by the convulsions of history. Jacques Henri Lartigue: Photographer (Thames & Hudson, pounds 45) is easily the best produced and most comprehensive edition of his work.

Man Ray's manipulation of the photographic image now seems rather more quaint than Lartigue's straightforward rendering of a vanished world. Even so, Man Ray: photography and its double (Laurence King, pounds 45) is a seminal source of archive prints and recent scholarly research. It illuminates Ray's darkroom processes and situating his experiments in the broader context of surrealism.

One of surrealism's most acute analysts, Walter Benjamin, suggested that the expressive quality of 19th-century photographic portraits was due to the way that lengthy exposure times obliged sitters to concentrate their lives "in the moment rather than hurrying past it". Julia Margaret Cameron's Women (Yale, pounds 35) is an extended display of evidence in support of this claim. "Haunting" is the word most often used to describe these time-drenched portraits, and this, in contrived fashion, is also the feeling provoked by Francesca Woodman's strangely disturbing tableaux.

Woodman was only 22 when she killed herself in 1981, but she had already mapped out an unmistakable visual and psychological terrain. In common with much feminist art practice, her own naked body was the site of uneasy meditations on the dream-space of memory and tainted desire. Francesca Woodman (Scalo, pounds 27) serves as a preview of a retrospective of her work to be shown at the Photographer's Gallery next year. Meanwhile, Margaret Bourke-White: Photographer (Pavilion, pounds 40) includes many classic images of photojournalism from Life magazine but suffers from a cloying text.

This year's single best book of a contemporary photographer's work is surely A River of Colour: the India of Raghubir Singh (Phaidon, pounds 35). The title emphasises one ravishingly important quality of Singh's photographs of his native land. His compositional skill is scarcely less evident but it is his discretion, the ability to find a private moment in the most crowded street - or intimacy in panoramic scenes - that make these pictures so moving. In common with the two greatest western photographers of India - Cartier- Bresson and William Gedney - Singh is a deeply literate artist who brings a vast knowledge and culture unobtrusively to bear on everything he photographs. A segment of Marco Pesaresi's "travels on the global metro", Underground (Aperture, pounds 22) takes place in Calcutta; other colourful glimpses of being- in-transit are snatched in Berlin, Paris, New York and London.

The crowds and empty spaces - it actually seems more accurate to say the crowded empty spaces - of Andreas Gursky's photographs render familiar sites like malls, offices or hotels as abstract colour patterns. The colours and clarity of the works in Andreas Gursky (Art Data, pounds 39.95) are strongly reminiscent of Jeff Wall's similarly digitally enhanced images; his landscapes also have frequent affinities with German Romanticism, but Gursky's vision is quite unique. Adopting the vantage point of an "extra-terrestrial being", Gursky regards the world with a distance and detachment - in his native German there is probably a multi-syllable word, a category of the sublime, that elides the two - that brings us, through a series of visual inversions, close to a world at large that is microscopically fascinating.

Finally, from a seductive crop of high-art porno, Obsessions (Stemmle/Art Books International, pounds 50) gradually immerses us in photographer Tony Ward's command of the tangled geometry of sex. His ultra-explicit, stubble-grained pictures are very beautiful and profoundly pervy in equal measure... well, not quite equal, actually.