Unseen: The Best Photo Books from Amsterdam’s Spectacular Photography Fair

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Unseen Amsterdam Photography Fair
Untitled, 2012, from Ren Hang, for my mother (Hopper & Fuchs, 2019)© Ren Hang Estate and Hopper & Fuchs. Courtesy of Stieglitz19

From Ren Hang’s loving ode to his mother to Ed van der Elsken’s grain-laden photographs of Amsterdam nightclubs in the 1950s; here are the best photo books to pick up from Unseen Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s avant-garde photography fair Unseen has returned to the industrial grounds of Westergas for its tenth edition this week. As its name suggests, Unseen is a look forward because it invites galleries to showcase up-and-coming image-makers, tipped to become household names of the future. But it’s also, for the same reason, a throwback, because it encourages viewers to trust their eyes and take a punt. While there is subsequently much to get excited about within the circular Gashouder building, which sees a web of exhibitors making moves at the medium’s cutting edges, the small but beloved Book Market offers a natural extension of the fair’s romantic sensibilities. Publishers, book shops, dealers and universities have congregated in an outdoor pavilion teeming with printed matter, offering a lively snapshot of the state of independent publishing today. Here’s a roundup of our favourite new (and re-) discoveries.

Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory by Nhu Xuan Hua, 2022

The talk of the town is French-Vietnamese photographer Nhu Xuan Hua, whose solo show Hug of a swan has opened at Amsterdam’s premier photography gallery Huis Marseille. Her series Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory runs through the exhibition like a white thread, and Area Books have done a fabulous job bringing it to life on paper. It’s a searching story about diaspora, evoked through Hua’s semi-dissolved family archive, forever on the brink of total erasure. The sleek interventions by design studio Bureau Kayser – from the cover’s inside envelope containing an epigraph written by Hua herself to the deep but supple pages – once again remind us why they’re one of the best in the game.

A Pictorial History of the Empty Chair by Erik Kessels and Karel de Mulder, 2022

For gems in the vernacular genre, there’s no place better than the table of Erik Kessels, which is jam-packed with titles that encompass the artist’s vivid editorial activities. His latest is a simple but utterly affecting rumination on absence (or memento mori?), expressed through a huge body of found photographs that feature an empty chair. Herein lies the democratic virtue essential to amateur photography: that we can picture ourselves in the image.

Violin by Evgeniy Pavlov, 2018

The debut outing of Ukrainian publisher Rodovid is one of the great surprises of this year’s market. Their standout book has to be Violin by Evgeniy Pavlov, one of the founders of the Kharkiv School, a radical group who, in the 1970s, developed a striking visual language to break free from dominant Soviet dogmas. Violin is not only Pavlov’s greatest work, but, along with Boris Mikhailov’s Case History (1997–98), the most explosive in Ukrainian photographic history. It chronicles the clandestine gatherings of male hippie youths who escaped into nature in the nude and wielded their violins: the most audacious rejection of Soviet civilisation and the hero of the totalitarian regime dressed in armour.

Build and Destroy by David de Beyter, 2022

David de Beyter’s Build and Destroy, published by RVB Books, is a spectacular, high-octane account of Belgian car-demolishing events. There’s both brutality and beauty to be found in the book’s burning visions, which are experienced as a kind of hypnotic trance. A word too on the cover’s title: it’s foil-stamped and red hot!

Absentee by Sayuri Ichida, 2022

IBASHO and the(M) éditions, whose portfolio continues to expand and enchant, have released the second edition of Sayuri Ichida’s glorious Absentee, which was self-published last year in an edition of 50 copies. Paying meticulous attention to the original’s production values – its fine gatefolds, beautiful binding and sumptuous silver inks – the book braids together depictions of the female form with everyday objects to summon a space in which Ichida contemplates the transience of life in the wake of her mother’s death. It’s a flawless achievement by an understated and poetic artist.

Foto-Jazz by Ed van der Elsken, 1959

This beauty by Ed van der Elsken is not only the greatest jazz photo book of all time, but one of the most successful to combine form and subject. The grain-laden photographs, made in Amsterdam nightclubs in the 1950s, are orchestrated in much the same way a jazz musician would construct an improvised solo. Where the vertical clusters suggest piano keys, the horizontal, stretched shots recall the held notes of a sax riff. The result is something far from documentary – something that echoes music itself. The German edition is up-for-grabs amongst a neatly curated selection by 5uhr30.com, an antiquarian bookseller specialising in uber-collectible photography titles.

TEIKAI Trilogy by Daisuke Yokota, 2014–15

Over the past decade, no one has taken the photo book world by storm more than the Aphex Twin-invoking photographer Daisuke Yokota has. Rejoice: his virtually impossible-to-find (collector’s edition) TEIKAI Trilogy is making an appearance at Tipi Bookshop. Balanced precariously between what is recognisable and what it is, between memories and their forms, each book seems to raise the stakes of (in)visibility when dark-room wizardry reaches its upper limits. This is prime Yokota, so be quick.

Lovesody by Motoyuki Daifu, 2022

Very much worth a shoutout is the firstborn of Simple Editions, which is available at Galerie Écho 119. This lovely little fanzine revisits the rhapsodic, whirlwind story of Lovesody (initially published as a zine, and later as a photo book – both long out-of-print). Motoyuki Daifu, undeniably smitten with his crush – a young single mother of one, and then two – makes it his business to show us the messy business of living and loving. Their romance was short-lived (six months, to be exact), but Daifu’s ode to young love never fails to floor you like its first spell.

Taking Off. Henry My Neighbour by Mariken Wessels, 2015

Mariken Wessels’s Taking Off. Henry My Neighbour, published by Art Paper Editions, is not only a Dutch contemporary classic, but a work of amateur nude art without parallel. Through an extraordinary, creepily-categorised corpus of found photographs, collage and sculpture, the artist allows us to enter the lives of Henry and Martha, who embarked on a collaborative and complex photographer-muse project together. It’s by way of Wessels’s scrupulous treatment of the material at hand that she shows us how the private fantasies of Henry – which ultimately led to his self-imposed exile in the woods, where he lived out his final days – become our own too.

sous un ciel partagé entre nuages et éclaircies by Dirk Reimes, 2022

Out with Vexer, Dirk Reimes’s collection of flea market finds showing people looking directly at the viewer, interwoven with autobiography and fiction, is a real curio and totally worth seeking out. The reappearing thumb of Reimes in the closing chapter results in a moving dialogue between them and him (us), then and now, the things we hold onto and the things we leave in our wake.

for my mother by Ren Hang, 2019

Although it doesn’t reach the haptic heights of, say, The brightest light runs too fast (2014) – which you can enquire about here via Editions Bessard, even if it really ought to be in a museum – for my mother is one of the few reasonably priced Ren Hang books still in stock. It consists of the photographs the artist selected, along with his gallerist Dries Roelens, as a tribute to his mother. Published by Hopper & Fuchs and available at Stockmans Art Books, it’s a slight, elegant and wordless title that offers a precious glimpse into Hang’s universe, which never ceases to amaze.

Fur by Koji Kitagawa, 2022

Koji Kitagawa’s knockout book Photography (2021) was one of last year’s highlights (see it for yourself at the table of Area Books), and the Japanese artist is now back with a pair of very different titles via Libro Arte. Fur is the more curious, churning out the same image of puppies 116 times with different photocopier colour settings. By maxing out the technicoloured possibilities of this digital cliché, Kitagawa permits himself to ultimate (even if accidental) freedom.

Felix by Felix the Saiz, 2022

And if you’re more of a feline fan, look no further than this very weird and trippy collection of missing cat posters that you can acquire through Tipi. It comes with three dust jacket options: “(Hirohiko) Araki style”, “LSD style” and “Saiz style”. Whichever you decide on, prepare to be bewitched by an imaginary phantom cat called Felix – lost but never dead.

Some Things Bleak by Charlott Markus, 2022 

Don’t leave without lapping up the latest treat by Fw:Books’s Hans Gremmen and Charlott Markus (there’s a book signing with bubbles). Some Things Bleak is one of those books that proffers a new meaning upon each perusal, touching gently on the themes of climate, nature and (the nature of) seeing. It invites a slow reading, with its play of papers, graceful half-folds and deep, alchemical hues which wonderfully invoke the blues of Anna Atkins, who of course kicked off the photo book way back when. How exciting it is to see her legacy live on in such spellbinding ways.

Unseen Book Market runs in Amsterdam until 18 September 2022.