ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias selects the year’s best 10 or 11 picture books

New Zealand illustrated coffee table books of photography and art and food and whatever else are very often our best publishing work. We do beautiful books, beautiful objects, and there were some very, very beautiful books in 2022. Full credit, at once, to the designers. Arch MacDonnell and Katrina Duncan (my niece – hi Trina!) are legends in New Zealand book production and their names feature in four of the books in this year’s selection of the top 10 or 11. The best of the best were the massive Toi Tū Toi Ora and the actually even more massive Rooms.

The one book I’ll look at over and over this summer and all throughout the year is the book I’ll get the most use out of: Kai. There were a lot of cookbooks this year and quite a few were dross, including the infantile Yum by Nadia Lim. But Kai is a class act and the food looks great. I hereby endorse the smoked fish bites 100%. Make it the one cookbook you buy this Xmas but all of the books in the top 10 or 11 would make super presents: they look just so damned good. Get thee to a bookstore.

Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art edited by Nigel Borrell (Penguin Random House, $65)

The best illustrated book of 2022. The book of the stunning show at the Auckland Art Gallery really is something, a big, luscious, gorgeous slab of quality publishing, with design by Tyrone Ohia and layout by Katrina Duncan, who present massive photographs of over 200 artworks by more than 100 individual Māori artists from the 1950s to the present. There are artworks by Selwyn Muru, Taika Waititi, Cliff Whiting, Merata Mita, Emily Karaka, Robyn Kahukiwa, Para Matchitt (his biographical note cleanses him of his 2001 conviction for sexual violation; only his artistic practise matters)…Knock-out images, knock-out production.

“Mob Dollars” (1999) by Taika Waititi, from Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art 

Rooms by Jane Ussher (Massey University Press, $85)

Very nearly the best illustrated book of 2022.  Let us now praise the homes of the bourgeoisie: the great Jane Ussher presents quite spectral photographs of rooms in Auckland, Banks Peninsula, Kawau island, Northland, Arrowtown, Raglan and elsewhere in this very beautiful book, with design by Arch MacDonnell and Alexandra Turner, and text by John Walsh. There is something creepy about the book – these are unpeopled rooms, with not a soul at home, only the photographer wandering around, looking, staring, recording. And although these displays of wealth and taste make me want to punch the owners in the face, Rooms is a work of art.

Modernist house Wellington, from Rooms

Robin White: Something Is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, $70)

The book of the Robin White touring retrospective exhibition makes lovely use of white space to hang White’s famous screenprints and later works, with design by Arch MacDonnell and Alexandra Turner, edited by Anna Hodge, and text by a range of contributors including, best of all, Justin Paton, who trains his amazing eye on White’s 1975 painting “Fish and Chips, Maketu” and finds a building reflected in a shop window is actually “a McCahon cross hovering in blackness”.

“Mangaweka” (1973) by Robin White, from Robin White: Something Is Happening Here

Hundertwasser in New Zealand: The Art of Creating Paradise by Andreas J. Hirsch with translation by Uta Hoffmann (Oratia Books, $70)

You can never have enough Hundertwasser, that singular genius who despised straight lines and luxuriated in loops and light. From a review by Greg O’Brien: “Hundertwasser was many things: colourful, brilliant, prolific, iconoclastic, environmentally in-the-know, multi-talented, contentious, saintly, gruff. Hundertwasser in New Zealand covers the months and years spent largely in Northland and features a good number of the paintings produced and projects gestated there.”

“The Four Antipodes” (1999) by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, from Hundertwasser in New Zealand

Glueglyphs 2011 – 2021 by Alan Knowles (Wai-te-ata Press, $30)

One of my all-time favourite books of photography is Knowles’s very, very pretty 2000 book Wildflower City, a record of ragwort, broom, sea radish, Mexican daisies, pig’s ears, gorse and other signs of unstoppable flora in Wellington. His latest book is a very, very sticky record of patterns made by the glue used to paste posters. Greg O’Brien writes in the Introduction, “Once the signage itself has fallen, blown or been torn-off, a common glue-pattern resembles a Union Jack. As evidenced here, there are also a good many squared off Xs and geometrical formations of dots, loosely rendered in glue.”

“Bluebridge Terminal Wellington” (2012) by Alan Knowles, from his book Gluegryphs

Kiwi Bikers: 85 New Zealanders and their motorbikes by Ken Downie (Massey University Press, $65)

A 1927 Brough Superior SS100. A 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA. A 1956 BSA B33 500. A 1966 Ducati 350 Mach 1. A 1972 Suzuki GT750 J. A 1992 Britten V1000.  A 2007 Triumph Bonneville … Hog heaven in these images of – as it says on the packet – 85 New Zealanders and their motorbikes, photographed in Invercargill, Palmerston North, Millers Flat, Waiheke Island and elsewhere, with design by Jenny Nicholls (my ex-wife – hi Jenny!), illustrations by Greg Downie, and editing advice from Otago Daily Times sub-editor Mike McLeod. Bike owners include Mike Pero (with a 1979 Yamaha TZ250) and the acclaimed photographer of the ReadingRoom short story series, Ivan Rogers (with a 1979 Yamaha XS650 SF). It adds up to a roaring book of folk art, full of noise and leather, antiquity and restoration.

Graeme Williams of Invercargill with his 1926 Henderson DeLuxe, from Kiwi Bikers

Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988 by Matthew Goody (Auckland University Press, $70)

From a review by Kiran Dass: “Clocking in at over 400 pages, this large format, richly illustrated, meticulously researched (a real labour of love with a lot of care and attention to detail; it took Goody 10 years!) and lavishly produced tome is a headspinning thing of beauty. And it took me ages to read because it’s so hefty I couldn’t tote it to work to read during lunchbreaks and it’s too heavy to read in bed at night, but it’s so ravishing that I would hope lots of people get it for Xmas this year. Auckland University Press has done a stunning job with their customarily high production values. Lovely to see a thorough index and select bibliography, too.”

Chris Knox and Doug Hood with TEAC 4-track, from Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988

Tāngata Ngāi Tahu: People of Ngāi Tahu, edited by Helen Brown and Michael J. Stevens (Bridget Williams Books, $49.99)

From a review by Sally Blundell: “Throughout the book, the use of official photography (uniformed soldiers, wedding portraits, sports clubs, the West Coast axeman’s team competing in Tasmania in 1960, the first general conference of the Maori Women Welfare League in 1951, the third reading of the Ngāi Tahi Claims Settlement Bill) is set alongside more intimate images of people at work (digging potatoes, harvesting tītī, tailing koura, crafting mōkihi, weaving and entertaining…These 50 biographies tell a vivid story of community and hard graft, of rangatira, community leaders, marae stalwarts, politicians, activists, sportspeople, scholars, fishermen, farmers, shearers, gold-diggers, mutton-birders, gardeners, tug o’ war champs, Housie heroes, teachers, broadcasters, pounamu carvers, weavers, musicians and whole families built around community, faith, sport, mahinga kai and political activism.”

Rhoda (Rora) Flora Orbell, Ōtākou, 1850. Watercolour on paper by RA Oliver. Hocken Library, University of Otago; from Tāngata Ngāi Tahu: People of Ngāi Tahu

Nature Boy: The photography of Olaf Petersen edited by Catherine Hammond and Shaun Higgins (Auckland University Press, $60)

The best book of photography of 2022. Olaf Peterson (1915-1994) grew up in Swanson, and didn’t move far – his lifelong project was to document Auckland’s west coast, and Nature Boy, with design by Megan van Staden and text by Sandra Coney, Shaun Higgins and others, reproduces his stunning black and white photographs of Piha, Muriwai, the Waitakere Ranges, and elsewhere in the bogan territories of Auckland, as well as the dunes of the Far North.

“Susan Wheeler, Sandbank Wainamu” (1975) by Olaf Peterson, from Nature Boy

Kai by Christall Lowe (David Bateman, $59.99)

The best cookbook of 2022. Most cookbooks look gormless; this one looks classy, with photography by Christall Lowe, design by Lowe and Stace Cottrill, and layout by Katrina Duncan. The star of the show – obviously – is the food, and Lowe’s recipes are an invitation to join her whanau table and scoff down mini pāua spring rolls, chilli coconut mussels, oven-cooked hāngī, smoked fish bites (so good!) and other dishes which are not exactly Māori food but as she writes, “This is a book about our way of cooking, eating and gathering.”

Island donuts (inspired by donuts from Rarotonga), from Kai

  For the Love of the Country: Celebrating farming in New Zealand by Alan Gibson (Exisle, $60)

A book about farming has to be as big as the sky to do the subject justice, and For the Love of the Country (160 pages , 254 x 254mm) totally does it justice. Tauranga photographer Gibson travels far and wide, on land and in water (mussel farming!), to bring us classic images of people who labour long and hard in the great big outdoors. Awesome book.

A rousey throws a fleece onto the table so wool handlers can get to work during shearing at Glen Lyon Station near Twizel.

ReadingRoom is devoting all week to the best books of 2022. Yesterday: the best nonfiction. Tomorrow: the best poetry collections.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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