There are many great photography books out there but this is a list of five of my all-time favorites, the ones routinely jockeying for space on my nightstand even though I’ve read or pawed through them numerous times. Each is a continual source of inspiration and provides welcome insight into the thought-process behind successful imagemaking at the highest level.
Robert Frank “The Americans” 50th Anniversary Reissue
Arguably the most important photography book of the 20th Century, Robert Frank’s “The Americans” 50th anniversary reissue was published by Steidl to coincide with the National Gallery’s 2009 traveling exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans.” The gallery companion “Looking In” by curator Susan Greenough, also published by Steidl, includes essays on Frank’s influences, letters he wrote during the trip as well as contact sheets. Hitchhiking and bouncing around the existential post-war mid-1950s America, Frank and his Leica captured an outsider’s gaze at a country seeking to redefine itself in the post-World War II atomic age. His singular vision, etched lyrically in the tones of black and white emulsion, is still inspiring and laden with relevance.
Sam Abell’s “The Photographic Life”
The quiet Zen photographer of National Geographic, Sam Abell’s ability to layer dynamic scenes with microcomposition leads to a stunning career retrospective in “The Photographic Life.” Pairing his color assignment work alongside a black and white photo diary image from the same assignment leads to a visual journey through the career of an artist working at the highest level of photojournalism. There is great care in the selection, pairing and layout of imagery in Abell’s collection of photographic books, including his in-process “Sam Abell Library,” but “The Photographic Life” feels as perfect as a photography book can get.
A collection of some of the finest documentary photography of the latter half of the 20th Century appears in this Phaidon tome of Magnum photojournalism edited by Michael Ignatieff. The subject matter is multifaceted and spans the globe from conflict photography to cultural investigations to politics. This is that rare photographic book with such depth that it never gets old and feels new and undiscovered each time I pull it from the shelf.
In the days leading up to location portrait work, I often seek ideas from a variety of sources but inevitably my path returns to this 2006 Taschen edition of “Arnold Newman.” The master of environmental portraiture, Arnold Newman’s use of graphic line, space and location to shape his large format camera work is unparalleled. Beyond the technical takeaway from Newman’s portraiture is his use of concept and idea to create a narrative that inform the viewer’s sense of the subject in front of the camera. His Igor Stravinsky portrait at the piano is easily recognizable but Newman, like his compatriots Yusuf Karsh and Richard Avedon, photographed a tremendous array of the writers, artists, politicians and cultural icons of his day.
“Annie Leibovitz At Work” by Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz, the diva of celebrity photography, holds a lasting place in the world of entertainment photography in the latter half of the 20th Century. Culled from conversations with editor Sharon Delano, “Leibovitz At Work” is a collection of off-the-cuff stories about famous photo sessions for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. These are the back-stories, the unspoken tales behind labor-intensive high production shoots and the talent that posed in front of Leibovitz’s lens. “At Work” provides insider access to the thought process of a great photographer working on location with the great luminaries of politics, cinema and art.