10 of the Best Coffee Table Books to Buy Photographers for Christmas

10 of the Best Coffee Table Books to Buy Photographers for Christmas

A great coffee table book not only makes for a thoughtful and memorable gift, it acts as a sort of cultured ornament for visitors to flick through while you fetch them drinks. Here are 10 (technically 13) of my favorites.

There was a time when getting a book as a present was unappreciated. But the older I get, the more I enjoy a good book. What constitutes a good book isn't just the text however — oh, no — if you add the words "coffee" and "table" in front, you unlock new criteria of aesthetics. The right photography book can not only be a rich vein of inspiration and art, but the experience of even handling the item has a level of tactile satisfaction worthy of repeating.

After my tongue-in-cheek article last month about items photographers don't want for Christmas, I began working on a more useful resource for gifts photographers might well want. One staple member of that list from before I'd even articulated the idea was a good coffee table photography book. If you've never seen or held a good one, it's well worth it. Forget those flaccid gloss print text books, and instead, paw through a carefully bound photography book with high-quality printing and careful image curation and presentation. Here are some of my suggestions.

1. Sebastião Salgado: GENESIS

I went to see the exhibition of this in London and was jolted awake with awe. Salgado's images are often a festival of monochrome with perfect contrast, composition, and clarity. 

2. Peter Lindbergh: A Different Vision on Fashion Photography 

This lofty tome ought to be a staple for any fashion photographer, but honestly, a landmark artist worth studying from the point of view of any creative discipline. Lindbergh is one of the godfathers of fashion portraiture, and the images in this book are powerful and iconic.

3. Don McCullin: The New Definitive Edition

The McCullin documentary was one of the most harrowing insights I'd ever seen into photojournalism of war. I noted after watching it several years back that it was if you could see the effects of war and tragedy on McCullin immediately, even without knowing him. There's a quiet, accepting, somber manner, and as heartbreaking as it is, the resulting images over his long career are important and captivating.

4. Miyoko Ihara: Misao, The Big Mama And Fukumaru The Cat Goodbye Hello

Our writer Anete Lūsiņa put me on to this, and as a cat lover (though I refuse to enter into the false dichotomy of cats versus dogs; I'll take both), I fell in love with this bizarre little creation. It is pure happiness strong enough that it can make you briefly forget about Brexit or whatever troubles you.

5. Robert Frank: The Americans

One of the more famous entries to this list, but no less worthy. Robert Frank's work perfectly captured an era in America that is enticing and fascinating whether you're an American or like me, not.

6. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

If you haven't heard of Vivian Maier, I'm not going to ruin the story for you: go look her up or watch the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier." One of the most mysterious photographers of all time, intensely private, and with an almost unparalleled eye for street photography.

7. Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer

A portrait photographer I have tremendous respect for and whose images you'll likely recognize whether you've heard of him or not. This is the closest entry to "instructional" on this list, and his stories are worthy accompaniment to a stellar body of work.

8. Nicole England: Resident Dog: Incredible Homes and the Dogs That Live There

From what I can tell, this book isn't overly well known and certainly one of the least famous on this list. I'm not even certain how I stumbled upon it, but it was in my bookmarks, and I'm glad it was. The concept is this: incredible architecture, but with a dog in the shot. The execution is great, and I also like that this balances out my cat/dog karma for the article.

9. Kristen Lubben: Magnum Contact Sheets

It's difficult to use the word "raw" in the context of art without sounding like an insufferable tool, but I might have to take the risk. The reason this book is so compelling is that it's truly stripped back to basics. There are 139 contact sheets, featuring 69 photographers, spanning 70 years, scribbled with notes and other scars of the editorial process.

10. Graydon Carter: Vanity Fair: The Portraits: A Century of Iconic Images

I'm a huge fan of Vanity Fair as a publication, and its portraiture throughout the years has undoubtedly played a role in that. For me, no images have the lasting draw that a portrait does, which means you'll revisit this book time and time again. It features everyone from Pablo Picasso to Chris Rock, with no two images alike. Also, the foreword is by fellow Brit, ex-Vanity Fair Editor, and one of my personal heroes, Christopher Hitchens.

Honorable Mentions

My shortlist for this article was already longer than10, and then, I asked my fellow writers for suggestions, and it got out of hand. I will, however, add three honorable mentions that are a bit different from my selections:

1. Mike Oblinski: Storm Chaser

A terrifying look into storms in North America and a reminder that London's public transport ceasing to function with the first snowflake of the year is ridiculous. (Suggested by Alex Cooke)

2. Q.T. Luong: Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America's National Parks

A serene tour of America's national parks with diverse imagery. It's worth reading this article on the book. (Suggested by Ryan Mense)

3. Alex Webb: The Suffering of Light

There's a "look" in early color photography that grabs and holds me, particularly if the inherent color cast of the film is tempered. This book is a festival of bold colors, striking contrast, and disparate locations. (Suggested by Jason Vinson)

What Coffee Table Photography Book Would You Suggest?

Now, I want some community suggestions. What books did I miss out that you would recommend? What's on your proverbial coffee table? Share them in the comments section below.

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30 Comments

Beth Chang's picture

Great ideas. Will have to give some of these a try. Thanks!

Randy Nicholson's picture

Chase Jarvis' Seattle 100 is one of my favourites. I'm going to be checking out the Peter Lindbergh suggestion ASAP... thanks.

Michael Holst's picture

These might not fit in with the crowd here as much but I've loved looking at these https://subjectivelyobjective.com/

They also have a great Instagram account to follow.

Guillaume Marcotte's picture

So much B&W so few colors...

ian kasnoff's picture

Any Dan Winters book.
All Nick Brandt’s books.
Stephen Wilke’s Day to Night book is amazing but absolutely giant.

Geoff Miller's picture

It's a niche book, but I'll add "McLaren: The Art of Racing" photos by Darren Heath and text by Maurice Hamilton. It's out of print, but there are copies on the used market on eBay and Amazon.

ETHAN RUSSELL PHOTOGRAPHS. All those amazing 60/70’s rock and roll pictures we’ve all seen. Like Keith Richards at the water fountain, “Patience please, a drug free America comes first.“ Or the cover of WHO’s NEXT. Yeah, that guy!

https://shop.ethanrussell.com/collections/books/products/new-signed-etha...

Too many "safe" decor choices.

1) Araki -Tokyo Lucky Hole
2) Elmo Tide
3) Magnum Magnum
4) Bruce Davidson - Subway
5) Boogie -Its All Good
6) Daido Moriyama - Farewell Photography

Mike Yamin's picture

Frank Ockenfels has a new book and I also want to get my hands on Dan Winters' "Road to Seeing," although neither are strictly coffee table books.

Dieter B's picture

Nice list Robert ! I like Photoviz - Information through photography https://gestalten.com/products/photoviz

Mike Sandman's picture

Recommendation: Photography: The Definitive Visual History, by Tom Ang. I use it as a textbook in a course on critiquing photographs. A few years old now, but still a fine look back to the beginnings and a look forward as well.

Russell Hunter's picture

Planet Okavango by Hannes Lochner.

Danny Colombo's picture

Thank you. The article is 10 OF THE best, rather than THE 10 best books. Its a safe bet that my 10 best would probably be different from another.

Tim Ericsson's picture

What a fantastic collection; this will certainly help cleanse my bank account of those pesky funds! I'd also recommend "Irving Penn: Centennial," a book based on his show at The Met a few years back. Also "Avedon at Work" by Laura Wilson for a behind-the-scenes look at Richard Avedon's process. Anything about Mary Ellen Mark or Sally Mann could be on the list as well.

Pedro Calado's picture

I have been recently trying to find the best book about the history of photography (including famous photographers and cameras/equipment). Any suggestions?

Danny Colombo's picture

A lifetime ago, I had an instructor require The History of Photography by Beaumont Newhall.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Take a look at A World History of Photography - Naomi Rosenblum A very high level review.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Newton's Sumo. Always Newton's Sumo. ;)

Damn, I got four of these (Contact Sheets, Vivian Maier, Robert Frank, Salgado)! Very good books, the Contact Sheet is quite an interesting concept, and a fascinating book for anyone.

Joel Manes's picture

Art Wolfe books are wonderful CTBs and if you like dogs, specifically Newfoundlands, Gentle Giants by Bruce Weber is beautiful.

Adriano Brigante's picture

I would add "The City Is a Novel" by Alexey Titarenko.

And a totally different kind of photography, but fascinating nonetheless, "Moonshots: 50 Years of Nasa Space Exploration Seen Through Hasselblad Cameras" by Piers Bizony.

George Iliakis's picture

Liam Wong
to:KY:OO

Gotta be the most conservative boring list you could come up with - predominantly black and white stuff you could show your grandma. Some amazing photography in the list but there’s no depth or range to your visual tastes. Nothing avant-garde or controversial or innovative.

Tim Ericsson's picture

We’re all very impressed how edgy you are...

Nails in a camera? It’s like, a camera’s just a tool, you know? Wow, that’s deep man. LOL

I really regret wasting my energy replying to your moronic comment.

wish I could delete it.

Tim Ericsson's picture

You could delete your account, then nobody would have to read any of your pathetic comments.

Everybody wins!

Do you think your nasty little comments are a positive contribution to the site? It seems you’re just here to moan.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Yes I do! Any other dumb questions?

Ralph Gibson, Nude

Bruce Walker's picture

Helmut Newton's Sumo was mentioned. I second that. You're going to need a bigger table though.

Albert Watson's "UFO" is terrific.
Marc Lagrange's "Senza Parole" is breathtakingly beautiful.
"Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott" is rather more contemporary fashion than the other books listed, and amazing.
Vincent Peters "Personal" is one of my go-tos.