From meditative portraits that nod at the Dutch old masters to an incendiary, epic exploration of the Troubles, these are the volumes that resonated this year

More on the best culture of 2021

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.

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.

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