Introduction: This article concludes our series "Great Photo Books You Can Buy New," begun when a reader requested a list of "the 10 or 25 most important and influential photography books in the last fifty or more years." I've taken a chance and held off on this last part for quite some time, risking the chance that Geoff's choices would go out of print; I was concerned that our posts were inducing buyer's fatigue in people who were trying to keep up with our suggestions. The links are to Amazon U.S., with apologies to our readers in the rest of the world—a general link to Amazon U.K. is here (others can be found here), but you will have to look up the individual titles you're interested in once you get there. Buying through our links does benefit the site, and doesn't cost you any extra. For easy reference, the complete list of posts in this series is linked at the bottom of this one. Now, for the list of suggestions from T.O.P.'s de facto reviewer-in-chief. As always, my thanks to Geoff. —MJ
By Geoff Wittig
Mike Johnston's original post on the subject of putting together a working library or collection of photography books was a model of clear thinking, and an excellent guide to anyone starting out. For starters, let your own taste be your guide. This is your collection; you don't have to answer to anyone else. I would absolutely emphasize Mike's advice to "strike while the iron is hot"; while researching this I was astonished to learn just how many books I purchased a few years ago that are now going for $300 or more used, and unavailable new.
I will admit my biases from the start: my tastes lean strongly toward classical landscape photography, and I am pretty ignorant of work from Europe and Asia, so this colors my judgment. I generally organize my thinking around individual photographers rather than movements or "schools," but there's lots of overlap. Finally, I place great emphasis on a book as a work of art in its own right. Photo reproduction quality is always paramount, but such tangibles as paper quality, typography and design can add up to far more than the sum of their parts.
1. Alfred Stieglitz. The titan of modernist American photographic thought, I think he earns a place in any collection. The monumental two-volume Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set lists for $150, but is heavily discounted and still available new. The "key set" of the title was the huge collection of Stieglitz's prints in the possession of Georgia O'Keefe, donated to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It includes examples of different print interpretations from the same negative, extensive scholarly notes by Sarah Greenough—the pre-eminent Stieglitz critic and scholar—and extensive footnotes. Reproduction quality is very good.
Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings is worth seeking out if you can find it used; a gorgeously printed monograph with letterpress printed text, it's probably the best concise summary of Stieglitz's photographic work. There are numerous soft-cover and hard-cover volumes on Stieglitz with repro quality varying all over the map; the Phaidon 55 version (pictured) is not half bad.
2. Edward Weston. Another giant in the field. My favorite would be the Lodima Press's gorgeously reproduced Life Work. This employs state-of-the-art quadtone and tri-tone plus 2 color inks, on two different paper stocks, to closely match Weston's actual prints. Okay, so it goes for $195, but it's still available new. It's vastly superior to the other recent retrospective, Edward Weston: A Photographer's Love of Life, which suffers from both middling image reproduction and truly dreadful typography & design. Edward Weston: The Last Years in Carmel is worth seeking out for a different take on Weston's final productive period, but it's already getting hard to find. Photography books even on a titan like Weston fall out of print quickly, so it's worth grabbing one new when it strikes your fancy. Dune, Kurt Markus's exquisite 2003 monograph on Edward & Brett Weston's photographs (of, yes, sand dunes,) sold new for $50 list. I bought it for the excellent photo reproductions and its superb period typography; now it goes for $150 used, if you can find it. Taschen and Merrell both published large-format monographs rather recently; no longer in print, they are worth checking used bookstores for; both are quite good.
3. Ansel Adams. Well, of course. There are a wealth of choices, since Adams never goes out of style. If you only want one, then Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs is clearly the one to have. Reproduction quality is very good, and it has a wide selection of Adams' work shown in chronological order by decade. But Adams' images need a bit more room to spread out to be really appreciated. Ansel Adams at 100 is the best recent monograph, with John Szarkowski's incisive (if a bit contrarian) commentary and gorgeous reproduction. Definitely spring for the much larger slip-cased hardcover edition over the cramped paperback if you can; it's still available from the Ansel Adams gallery. I also love Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs for the insight it provides into Adams' technical and artistic thinking. You can't really go wrong with any of the Little, Brown editions of Adams' work, because the reproduction standard is so uniformly high. Finally, the instructional trio of The Camera, The Negative and The Print are well worth owning if you want to "go deep" into the process of large format black-and-white film photography. The Print remains especially relevant in the age of Photoshop for explaining why you'd want to alter tonal relationships, rather than merely showing how.
4. Walker Evans. Hugely influential, though I find his style a bit chilly and condescending. The MoMA exhibition retrospective is still widely available, with quite good design & typography, and decent reproductions. I tend to lump Evans, fairly or unfairly, with the FSA photographers whose work I like better. Dorothea Lange, Horace Bristol, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn...all of them have had decent monographs published, but they seem to go out of print almost as soon as they appear. Grab 'em when you can. Beverly Brannan's FSA: The American Vision is a good "photo anthology," as is Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943 by Michael Lesy.
5. Eugene Richards. I wanted to cite W. Eugene Smith's work, but despite his immense influence, very little is in print currently. The best single volume is probably W. Eugene Smith Photographs 1934-1975 by Gilles Mora, but it's out of print, quite expensive, and hard to find. As a consolation, you can still buy Eugene Richards' The Fat Baby, a summary of this brilliant and daring photographer's work. I see Richards as the natural descendent of W. Eugene Smith, with the same burning social intensity and pictorial genius. I've spent a lot of my adult life in emergency rooms, and Richards' The Knife and Gun Club "gets it" like nothing I've ever seen on the subject. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue and the recently reissued Dorchester Days are equally incisive.
6. David Plowden. His elegiac black-and-white images of America's heartland railroads, bridges, small towns and farms quietly document a world that is passing out of sight. Simple, elegant, beautiful compositions and immaculate printing mark his prodigious output. Vanishing Point is his monumental and final retrospective, as he recently stopped photographing. Beautiful reproductions, excellent design and typography; simply a wonderful book. It's also available in a signed and numbered limited edition.
7. Elliot Porter. His pioneering work laid the foundation for all subsequent color landscape/nature photography, and the Sierra Club exhibition-format books of his work in the 1960s were the pioneering "coffee table" tomes. The Color of Wildness is still available from Aperture. Some reviews have criticized its color reproduction, and blocked-up shadows are an issue, but most of the plates look pretty good. Porter's gem-like, modestly sized dye transfer prints are difficult to convey on the printed page. Regarding the Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Elliot Porter contains better reproductions, and places Porter's work in a broader context. So many of the original Sierra Club books were sold that they can readily be found at used bookstores. They are really very nice; the typography is superb, with immaculate page design and appropriate use of refinements like f-ligatures and small caps. On the other hand, some of them demonstrate the limitations of 1960s color offset printing. Elliot Porter's work really cries out for a comprehensive retrospective using state-of-the-art color reproduction.
8. George Tice. From a pioneering revival of platinum printing to his work printing Edward Steichen's archive to his own decades-long documentation of urban landscapes, George Tice has created an immense and influential body of work. His capacity to draw pictorial beauty from prosaic subject matter is astonishing. The retrospective George Tice: Urban Landscapes is still available new, and it's excellent; cleanly designed, with elegant typography and good reproductions. There are several other books currently available, including Paterson II.
9. Steve McCurry. His haunting photograph of an Afghan refugee girl is probably the most iconic portrait since Alex Korda's Che Guevara. His work is marked by rich color and subtle composition, together with a moving sense of the dignity of his subjects. I don't think anyone has ever put Kodachrome's distinctive color palette to better use. There are quite a few of his books currently in print. I still like South Southeast, the color reproduction in which is superb; but In the Shadow of Mountains, Looking East, or The Path to Buddha are also lovely.
10. Edward Burtynsky. It took me quite a while to "get" Burtynsky's work, but it finally clicked when I watched the video Manufactured Landscapes. The photographer describes an epiphany he experienced in Pennsylvania while looking for conventionally pretty landscape subjects; he looked around and realized everything in sight had been completely reshaped by coal mining. There was no "landscape" but what industry had created. Burtynsky's immaculately composed large format color images draw surprising pictorial beauty from immense Chinese factories, ship-breaking yards, marble quarries, colossal piles of coal and other industrial realities. Quarries is beautifully printed and a fine introduction to his work. China is also very nice. I have not personally seen the book Manufactured Landscapes, but several reviews comment negatively on the reproductions.
11. Galen Rowell. A number of reviewers including the New York Times and some guy named Johnston disparaged Rowell's work for his frequent use of graduated neutral density filters, implying that he used gimmicks to juice up the color of his photos. But through numerous books and magazine articles Rowell articulated a consistent philosophy. He started out as a mountaineer; his goal was simply to record the beautiful mountain light his eyes could see. Anyone who's witnessed gorgeous post-sunset alpenglow but ended up with burned-out sky and blocked up foreground shadows on film can understand the problem. To this end he studied perceptual theory, the physics of light, and the technical limitations of camera and film. The result was a large body of genuinely spectacular photographs of the natural world. Yes, Yosemite doesn't have a brilliant shaft of sunlight striking a granite face at last light every day. But when it happens, it's the kind of moment you remember for a lifetime. Rowell learned how to catch that moment on film, time after time. Galen Rowell: A Retrospective is a fine summary of his work, with many excellent color reproductions. But also consider Mountain Light, first published in 1985. It's been selling ever since, with good reason. The superb typesetting was by MacKenzie-Harris in SanFrancisco, one of the last hot-metal printers. The extensive text delves into Rowell's working methods with a dash of philosophy and history thrown in. Great stuff.
12. Sebastiao Salgado. Simply brilliant black-and-white documentary work from around the developing world; there's nothing quite like it. A number of his books are still available; just pick your favorite and you can't go wrong. An Uncertain Grace from 2000 is a good sampling of his work, though Workers and Sahel are more focused. Don't hesitate if you like his work, though; Amazon lists used copies of Migrations for anything from $241 to over $700.
As a final note, there are lots of very important names left off my modest list, only because their work is not readily available in book form these days. This includes luminaries such as Margaret Bourke-White (there's a good recent retrospective, yet it's already out of print ), August Sander (Taschen's retrospective has very good reproductions, but likewise no longer available new) and Minor White.
(Note: The above link is a recent new feature, designed to make it easy to shoot a link to your friends you think might be interested. In this case I urge you to use it; although it might not look like it, an awful lot of work went into our big series on photo books, and yet the clock is ticking on its usefulness...every day, more and more of the titles we've researched for you go bye-bye. Any list of book recommendations these days is built on shifting sands.
Would you do us a favor and please post a link on other mailing lists, forums, and sites you frequent? Many thanks. —MJ)
Our Entire Series of Photo Book Posts:
Great Photo Books You Can Buy New—Part I: Reissues by Mike Johnston
Mike's Great Empirical Milwaukee Bookstore Walkabout by Mike Johnston
We All Love Photography Now, It's Official! by Martin Parr (Great Photo Books You Can Buy New, Part II)
Great Photo Books You Can Buy New—Part III: New Books by Mike Johnston
Jeff Ladd's List (Great Photo Books You Can Buy New, Part IV) by Jeff Ladd
Featured Comment by Greg Smith: "Galen Rowell's book Mountain Light is remarkable in two ways: 1) his images are top-of-the-line first rate, regardless who might complain about his techniques and, more importantly I think, 2) the accompanying text detailing what he did, and why, goes beyond excellent and becomes a post-graduate text curriculum of outdoor photography. My copy of this book is dog-eared, highlighted, studied hard and long because it clearly and precisely tells how-to...it is no mystery why it keeps on selling: the images and text are timeless and valuable beyond mere dollars. If you only get one photo book, there are good reasons for this to be the one."