The other day, in the post about The Americans, a reader named Paul asked:
"Mike, any chance perhaps of giving us your opinion on the 10 or 25 most important and influential photography books in the last fifty or more years? Those books any kid new to photography could use to educate his eye and not with the idea of making a monetary investment."
I did answer his question in the comments to the post. However, as I've mulled it over since then (I love books, I love lists, and I have an essentially school-teacherish cast of mind, so you can understand how Paul's request would appeal to me), I've come around to realizing just how impossible compiling such a list would be.
I certainly see the appeal of a "teaching set" of books that could serve as a sort of basic encylopædia of the medium's accomplishments. But as I proceed to imagine it in its particulars, the obstacles seem more and more multi-dimensional and profound. The two limitations I mentioned in my answer in the comments were 1) limitations of availability and 2) the limitations of my (or any list-compiler's) taste and critical judgment. In truth the problems extend much further than that.
The Americans happens to be a very neat-and-clean package for the photo book library builder, for many reasons. For one thing, it's one coherent body of work, and book form was its original and entire form. Secondly, it's clearly a major work of the 20th century. Third, it's essentially its author's only major work, or at least his only work that had anywhere near so much impact (that is to say, if your library contains just The Americans and no other Robert Frank, you wouldn't be impoverished by missing large and necessary parts of his contributions). And finally, it's available right now in essentially a "perfected" form (the current Steidl reprint).
Unfortunately, very few photographers or movements can be summed up anywhere near so neatly. Let's take a couple of counterexamples one by one...