Review – MER Holiday Gift Guide 2022 – Photobooks

This holiday season, we highlight some books from authors and small independent publishers that touch on personal and tightly held and defended passions. Elizabeth Waterman tackles the age old conundrum of exotic dancing, while Joni Sternbach’s dogged pursuit of the perfect wave ironically seen with a process that takes so long that a wave set might pass by before the exposure is set. In this book she concentrates on the tool of choice, the surfboard.

Sandy Sorlien’s treatise on a lifetime of activism on behalf of wetlands and forgotten water systems of the Schuylkill River region is a delight, and Peter Goin’s encyclopedic compendium on Lake Tahoe, one of the natural jewels of California, leaves us conflicted as to whether to celebrate its beauty, or wonder when our foolish actions will doom us all. Penny Wolin created a book seldom seen, a melancholy yet achingly sympathetic view of a small hotel back in the day, whose inhabitants unabashedly understood what it meant to have a roof over their heads, in the Los Angeles of the 1970s. Jessica Hines’ book is intensely personal and intimate. It cries out for a justice that can never be achieved or truly understood, as a result of her brother Gary’s suicide, an all too common after effect of the Vietnam War. I found that viewing Wolin’s book along with Hines’ reinforced a unity and commonality of purpose, of people who feel jettisoned from the lives they envisioned for themselves.

Maura Sullivan displays her work, somewhat shorn of her fashion sensibility, filled with darkness and mystery, this time with more delicacy than I thought possible. Renée Jacobs has been creating erotic images of women for years, which seems pretty benign until you realize it really isn’t. Her latest books, Polaroids and Paris, luxuriates in eroticism, with nuanced black-and-white images that veer between wanton desire, lust, classicism, and portraiture. Jacob’s work, like Waterman’s, isn’t voyeuristic; it was created with the understanding and the participation of the subjects, a feminist pas de deux of sorts.

Each of these books packs its own kind of punch, from the sheer gracious beauty of a child’s skin, to a canal overgrown with weeds, a vital history with stories to tell, buried by time and inattention. Many of the images in each of these books are in a way about inattention. Even the stripper peeling off societal trappings to earn a living who ponders just how far we’ve come as a species. The damage done by war is one of literature and art’s oldest themes, but the evidence of war crimes happening at this very moment, with companies profiting by such barbarism, makes Jessica Hines’ upward grasping toward an answer all the more urgent. The only how-to book in this list, is Colin Smith’s updated treatise on drone photography and videography. Drones are now a tool of the artist, professional, amateur, kids, and everyone in-between and this is an invaluable guide.

Elizabeth Waterman – MONEYGAME

Elizabeth Waterman chronicles the lives of exotic dancers, also known by a more proletariat moniker, strippers. There have been plenty of books on this line of work, with the gold standard being Marilyn Suriani Futterman’s “Dancing Naked in the Material World,” published in 1992. Waterman’s take on the subject is different, with a more passionate embrace of the energy of the dancers and clubs, but also she uses color to communicate the show business aspect of the clubs in a way that black and white doesn’t quite communicate. Her earlier project, “Strippers,” was entirely black and white, while her “Dark Angels” work began to incorporate color. MONEYGAME, coalesces the images into a single volume, but adds in a human element narrative.

While cash is king, life exists outside the club, and for me, it’s in the downtime images that Waterman really shows her chops, images that quietly, and sympathetically contrast the endorphin highs of a club with the quiet reality that dancing is just a job as much as it is a lifestyle. While I came away from the images with a sense of regret, of the exploitive nature of the work and its impact on the lives it touches, the images also portray women at ease with their choices, aware of the compromises, yet courageous in trying to earn the best living they can.

When I think of this as a modern conundrum, I’m reminded that stripping dates back centuries, and even longer if one considers Paleolithic cave paintings in the south of France. With the advent of popular televisions shows like “P-Valley” which dramatize and fictionalize the world of strip clubs. Waterman’s work helps to remind us of the reality that even when the show is over, life must go on. Beautifully designed and printed, MONEYGAME works on all levels.

For more information on MONEYGAME – by Elizabeth Waterman visit:


Joni Sternbach – Surfboard

Joni Sternbach’s work seems to have been everywhere for the past decades. Moving her expertise with alternative processes, most notably her wet plate collodion tintype portraits of surfers and surfboards, made on beaches around the world. One of the challenges of the use of alternative processes is that often it’s the process that is front and center, and while we might admire that approach to image making, photography still demands the perfect collision of subject, space, process, and intent.

Sternbach has notably erased those lines. While I admire and love a gorgeous object like a wet plate collodion tintype as much as the next guy, I don’t see that as first and foremost in Sternbach’s work. Instead her work encodes a knowing understanding that gender, stereotypes, youth, lust, sunlight, passion, sport, craft, tools, all forming the ground that makes her work so successful.

In Surfboard, I’m reminded of Karl Blossfeldt’s encyclopedic documentation of “Art Forms in Nature” which, while ostensibly a documentation of nature, created abstracted forms, elegant in their beauty and mystery. Similarly, Sternbach’s images of surfboards are both perfect and imperfect. Surfboards are unique objects, because they contain local culture, history, craft, and an expectation of perfection. Rarely does one witness objects so gorgeously created, tossed into an angry ocean, where they are expected to survive crushing forces, dings, wax, slams into the ocean floor, the occasional pier pilings, rocks, and more. To witness modern surfboard creation, still a handmade process, is to witness absolutely gorgeous attention to craft and detail, and Sternbach’s work both documents and praises that ethic. It’s fair to say that she is enthralled by the boards, and the stories they tell in all their scars, repairs, and rides.

I keep thinking about the beach, about my own childhood spent surfing, boarding, and hanging out in the Southern California beach scene. It wasn’t special, it was just what kids aspired to, and if we were lucky, got to do. The beach wasn’t the realm of billionaires, where a million bucks won’t even buy you a parking spot, let alone a garage for your boards, it was just a bus trip, or shared ride to the beach. To see that life set down for the ages with the antiquarian technique of wet collodion, under the knowing and sympathetic eye of Sternbach, might compel you to douse yourself with salt water, rub some sand in your eyes, to get the full emotional punch her images reveal.

For more information on SURFBOARDS – by Joni Sternbach visit:


Sandy Sorlien – Inland: The Abandoned Canals of the Schuylkill Navigation

Sandy Sorlien’s latest book, “Inland: The Abandoned Canals of the Schuylkill Navigation” explores the past mercantile aspect to the use of southeastern Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River. While we might consider a river to be the primary route for riparian commerce, it’s often the tertiary mechanisms that proved the most important. Compared to rivers, canals allow a more precise routing designed expressly for the needs of industry. They are also smaller, and less affected by weather extremes. Anyone who has spent time sailing or operation a watercraft on a large river, know firsthand how conditions can change from lovely to bad, then to worse in what seems like a heartbeat.

The engineering brilliance, man power, and construction efforts that went into building the country’s canal system, ranging from waterworks, dams, hydropower, barge transportation, locks, and so much more, are the subject of the lush and descriptive text and photographs by Sorlien. She documents the ruins of those systems, which like many images of ruin, are also resplendently beautiful. These are areas overtaken by nature and neglect, once vital, now only vestiges of their prior importance.

What’s fascinating is how these areas are hiding in plain sight. Yards from a freeway, a road, or river. Some are still in use, while others, only the intrepid explorer would understand their meaning. Sorlien is one such intrepid explorer herself, and this book adds to understanding of the role that water played in the rise of commerce. I’ve been in the Philadelphia region for more than 25 years, since moving there to accept a professorship at the University of the Arts. Accordingly, to be part of Philadelphia also means being connected to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and its nearby counterpart, the Fairmount Water Works. For as much time as I’ve spent in both locations, until Sorlien’s book, I never connected the dots of what I was truly looking at. Overlooking Boathouse Row from the Water Works, with Sorlien as a guide, one is transported to an earlier age, where the power of the Schuylkill River dictated the lives of millions.

For more information on Sandy Sorlien – Inland: The Abandoned Canals of the Schuylkill Navigation visit:


Peter Goin – The Nature of Lake Tahoe – A Photographic History, 1860-1960

One of the most impressive books of late is Peter Goin’s massive, encyclopedic, and sumptuously designed, researched, printed, and photographed compendium on Lake Tahoe, a natural jewel on the California-Nevada border. Tahoe, a seemingly impossibly beautiful lake nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is matched perhaps only by Crater Lake in Oregon, in its intrinsic and iconographic status. Both lakes have histories marked by poor stewardship, conflicts over money, privilege, astonishing lapses of environmental damage, and finally recovery from those abuses.

California is one of our most diverse states. It’s an enormous landmass, coupled with geographic and geological extremes, plus its radicalized politics of all stripes. Most Californians revel in its jewel, the extraordinary Lake Tahoe. A geologic wonder, the lake is also a prescient indicator of all that’s wrong with the state. The collision of money, corruption, remoteness, lawlessness, and the environment all collide in that beautiful blue cauldron. For some the mention of Tahoe conjures up skiing, for others, it’s gambling and cheap liquor on the Nevada side, still for others it’s a playground for water sports enthusiasts. Come the winter, it’s an entirely different landscape, a gorgeous as its unforgiving, and Peter Goin, an old colleague of mine from the Atomic Photographer’s Guild, is as thorough as ever. Exhaustively researched, photographed, and annotated, his history of Lake Tahoe is as deep as the lake it’s named after.

Unlike Crater Lake, whose remoteness, protected status, and lack of development, has protected its waters, Tahoe has been a playground for Californians for as long as it’s been accessible. The 72-mile drive around the lake is filled with development, ranging from the casinos of the Nevada side to the East, to the state parks and Tahoe City on the Western California side. Whereas the shoreline of Crater Lake is properly reached only by hiking, Tahoe has easily accessible marinas, ski resorts, and more. The common refrain is that Lake Tahoe is being loved to death. This rings true, and Goin’s images and text explore the forces that determine the lakes past and future. The almost complete decimation of old-growth forests and resulting silting contribute to current environmental forces, and the damns erected over the years, altered the outflows to rivers, most notably the Truckee River among other drainages.

As native Californians, Nancy and I have spent wonderful times at the lake, from cross country skiing in the backcountry, to hitting the slopes with the help of chairlifts, to enjoying a cocktail in Incline Village, so we aren’t immune to the magnetic draw of the lake, although painfully aware of what was once there. Goin’s own carefully constructed color images contrast with the multitude of historical images he presents, resulting in a history that is the sum of all its parts. This book is vital to understanding the history of this gorgeous mountain lake, and presents it with a smart and considered visual and historical chronology. Required reading for any fans of geology, environmental policy, water and winter sports, summer outdoor recreation, and the politics of the American West.

For information on Peter Goin – The Nature of Lake Tahoe – A Photographic History, 1860-1960 visit:


Penny Wolin – Guest Register

Penny Wolin’s wonderful new book, Guest Register, is a photographic treatise on a small hotel in Los Angeles where Wolin once lived. Photographers of inhabitants of hotels like this could fall very easily into the realm of condescension, but it avoids that fate, with carefully composed images, of her fellow long-term guests. This small book invokes a lot of conflicting emotions. Everyone knows what is wrong with today’s housing market, namely affordable housing that’s both safe, clean, and affordable.

In many ways, Guest Register seems an emotional link to Wolin’s well-known project, “The Jews in Wyoming – Fringe of the Diaspora,” an exploration of an unexpected community finding each other. Both are projects that are steeped in a mixture of reality and wistful hope. Possibly somewhat invisible to outsiders, inside the community all seems normal and as it should be. According to the description, “In 1975, twenty-one-year-old, Wyoming-raised photographer Penny Wolin checked into a pay-by-the-week residential hotel on a faded stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, and began to make portraits of her neighbors. Guest Register is not an inventory of transitory souls, but a benediction from them, ‘a permanent amulet,’ as Wolin says, to keep the unfeeling at bay, and dreams close at hand.”

That’s a surprisingly egoless description, and spot on. The book allows the subjects to tell their own story, the images aren’t pretentiously clever, but straightforward, believable, and sincere. Some are heartbreaking, while others hopeful and buoyant. The details grab you, the aerosol cans on the top of the drawers, the TVs and suits, and in one of my favorite images, wig heads with just one solo wig among them, the other on the gent in Room 323 modeling a huge smile, a lovely top, and teased up hair. Another wonderful thing about the book is its autobiographical nature. Following the portraits, in a section Wolin titled “AFTER THE HOTEL” Wolin outlines her career, and what she terms her battle with “the Barbarians” who defeated every attempt to publish the work. At long last it’s finally here, a fitting finale for a body of work that deserves the acclaim it’s receiving. One item of note, is the long, detailed list of acknowledgments of the people who made the book possible, a detail that is far too often overlooked in other books, but here speaks directly to the humanity that this book documents.

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Jessica Hines – My Brother’s War

Jessica Hines’ book, My Brother’s War, is one of the most intensely personal, intimate, and searching books I’ve ever experienced. It cries out for a justice that can never be achieved or truly understood, the result of her brother Gary’s suicide – an all-too-common after effect of the Vietnam War. Hines has worked with the pain and grief of her brother’s passing for years, sorting through the information, traveling to Vietnam and other locations that were important to her brother.

This book has a beautifully designed flow. It takes the reader on a journey not unlike Hines' own search for understanding. Her work has received plaudits here and abroad, yet you gain the understanding that she hasn’t been on an all-encompassing and obsessive journey for her own gain, or for personal attention. This a cry for help, for her and for her brother, to challenge and change a military that seems inept, criminally negligent, and ill-equipped for the true cost of war, the long-term struggle that so many veterans face.

It’s also a stinging rebuke of the bald-faced lies of some politicians who talk up the game with pronouncements of mental health support for veterans, pass bills that ostensibly will do that, then turn around and vote to deny funding. Just this week, a contestant on the CBS reality show Survivor pledged that if he won, he would donate his entire $1 million prize to support veterans in need of mental health guidance and treatment. To think that a country that can spend $706 billion on its military budget and then rely on the winner of a television show to fund medical care for its own soldiers is to embrace the unthinkable.

The beautifully constructed and printed book speaks to Hines’ dedication, skill, and aesthetic choices, but just as importantly it embraces Gary’s memory – unflinchingly, and without reserve. This is a book about love, pain, confusion, outrage, but finally in the ends it’s about courage, which is precisely what it took to create it.

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Maura Sullivan – After Beauty

Maura Sullivan, is one of those photographers who got away, which is to say that when I was a curator I had planned to exhibit her work for years, but for some reason, it never happened. Finally, a book I looked forward to for years is now a reality. When I first saw Sullivan’s work it was a somber, mysterious body, most with a darkly fashionable sensibility. Her photographs have always struck me as interrupted frames from a dream; a gentle book of images that speak to childhood, motherhood, the landscape, and beauty, always beauty.

Skin and romance, dusk and dawn, fabric and lace – all become intertwined in the pages of this wonderful designed and printed book. The paper has a soft buttery feel, and the printing is soft, matching the ephemeral quality of the images. This isn’t a book of hard-edged glossy, tack-sharp images. This is a book whose editing and sequence is based on an emotive flow, not a strict narrative in a literal sense. I love books like After Beauty, not too large, not too small, restrained, and carefully sorted out. While there are portraits, it doesn’t strike me as only a book of portraits. More often it seems about relationships. It felt gentle in my hands, like holding petals of a flower, flowing with innocence, that may or may not be deserved.

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Renée Jacobs – Polaroids, and Paris

Renée Jacobs has been creating erotic images of women for years, which seems pretty benign until you realize it really isn’t. If there is one thing that galleries and museums in the United States avoid like the plague, it’s erotic content. Even today, Jacobs faces the same barriers, possibly even more, with her current work, some of which was supposed to be the subject of an exhibition at FotoNostrum gallery in Barcelona, who removed half the exhibition with the astonishing explanation, “I would recommend you to re-think if you’re behaving as a photographer or as a partisan of the lesbian movement.” Museu de l’Eròtica came to her rescue, with an even larger selection of work. Her two latest books, Polaroids and Paris, luxuriate in eroticism, with nuanced black-and-white images that veer between wanton desire, lust, classicism, and portraiture.

When I was at Aperture in the 1980s I took my first trip to Arles for the great annual French photo festival. I was shocked to see nudes, almost everywhere. I’d just graduated from NYU, and the suspicions about the Male Gaze meant that despite the constant sexualization of just about everything in the U.S., and the proliferation of ever harder-core content on newsstands and on the ever expanding burgeoning cable stations, it was actually quite rare to see erotic content taken seriously. Critic A.D. Coleman explored and wrote about countless examples of censorship, while the near destruction of the National Endowment of the Arts thanks to Helms, Mapplethorpe and friends, was right about the corner. So it was a shock to me, after graduate school, at the acceptance of both nudity and eroticism that I saw that that first time in Arles. Clearly the French take on feminism was different.

Polaroids gathers years of Polaroid Type 55 Positive Negative film, a unique material that produced both a black and white print and a soft, diffuse, extraordinarily gentle and beautiful negative. The rollers that puncture and spread the processing chemicals on the film, provide a proud and one-of-a-kind tale-tell edge pattern that framed the images with mystery and unpredictability. The female nudes that make up Jacobs’ work, are varied, but always intent on their own viability of the moment, without any reservations allowing the images to reach out. Most but not all of the images are solo, a few more sexual in nature with couples, but the images seem as much a documentation of the period they were made in, as well as nudes, studies, or portraits.

Her recent collection, Paris, is less solo-inspired, and far more explicitly sexual. It is almost as lustful in its depiction of Paris, as it is her subjects. Interestingly, just as porn is theater, and real in only one sense of the word, the physical, the same things are true to Jacobs work, which is that the line between theatre and reality is blurred, with some images feeling like interrupted sex play, while others seem for the benefit of the camera. These are books that sizzle, and lack the restraint that so many other photographers count on, but they are rarely explicit, but suggestive. This isn’t to say that you won’t see a lot of full-frontal unabashed nudity. Instead they read as intimate in the emotional sense first, and intimate in the physical sense later on. That sensitivity is what gives these images legs and lasting power.

The images in these two books are also largely a celebration of youth. As Weston Naef wrote for a Getty exhibition, “The point at which a nude study becomes pornographic cannot be precisely defined. According to the British aesthetician Samuel Alexander, “If the nude is so treated that it raises in the spectator ideas or desires inappropriate to the material subject, it is false art, and bad morals.” The art historian Kenneth Clark rebutted this view, writing “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it only be the faintest shadow–and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.” I feel it safe to say that Clark would have been pleased by Jacobs’ work.

For more information on Renée Jacobs – Paris & Polaroids visit:


Colin Smith – The Photographer’s Guide to Drones – 2nd Edition

The only how-to book in this list is the ever-popular Colin Smith’s just-updated treatise on drone photography and videography. Smith, creator and founder of (one of the most visited digital imaging resource sites on the web), has created a lovely book on the use of drones in photography and video making. Aerial photography began in the mid-19th century with our hero Nadar, whose hot air balloon Le Géant allowed him to make some of the first aerial photographs of Paris.

Astonishingly a few years ago, drones were either classified weapons, toys, or expensive tools with limited abilities. How times have changed, now - a thousand dollars will purchase a high-performance unit, with high-quality image captures, stabilization technology, aimable cameras, accurate GPS navigation and easy take off, flight, and return. Still, even though with all those tools, it’s not the platform, it’s the operator, and Smith’s new 2nd edition delves into the nuts and bolts of drones themselves, purchase considerations, and image processing techniques and tools for more effective final images.

Video, most likely what the majority of drones are used for today, is also covered throughout the book. Smith is the perfect person to write this book, he’s been experimenting and playing with drones since they first became consumer tools. This isn’t a book a book aimed at professionals, although they, too, could learn from Smith’s eye, and strategizing how to approach an image in post-production. If you are thinking of giving a gift of a drone, consider bundling this book. If there is a drone lover in your life, Colin Smith – The Photographer’s Guide to Drones - 2nd Edition is a perfect addition to their library.

For more information on Colin Smith – The Photographer’s Guide to Drones - 2nd Edition visit:

We think that each of these books would be ideal gifts this holiday season, and provide insights into the reach of photographic expression.

Happy Holidays from Harris Fogel, Nancy Burlan, & Frank Schramm, Posted 12/5/2022