If you're a beginner: I can recommend Peter Stepan's 50 Photographers You Should Know. (Here's the U.K. link.) It's part of a series of similarly-titled books put out by Prestel USA which includes titles like 50 Architects You Should Know and 50 Women Artists You Should Know. As such, it's in the nature of a primer, giving the reader basic background and a sample or two of each of the featured photographers' work. Please, don't send me emails three weeks from now complaining that the book is superficial and too basic for you because you've heard of all these photographers before. This is for people who haven't ever taken an introductory-level history of photography course or read one of the all-in-one texts such as Newhall (which I'm amazed and concerned to see is out of print—what, is civilization ending?) or Rosenblum. If you're in the proper target audience, however, the book provides the goods: it's nicely laid out, with good examples and capable write-ups, and, most importantly, these are 50 photographers you indeed should know. That I could readily name another hundred or more you should also know is neither here nor there. The book fulfills the promise of its title.
This would also make a useful gift for any young person you know who's just getting interested in photography.
If you're more advanced: If, on the other hand, you've been involved in photography for a while and already know a thing or three about it, and you feel you're pretty well up on a lot of the basics, then I recommend Lewis Blackwell's excellent new tome Photowisdom: Master Photographers and Their Art from Chronicle Books. (Here's the U.K. link.)
It's the same sort of thing as 50 Photographers You Should Know—a sampler—but it's on a whole 'nuther level.
The text bits have no real consistency (although many of them are interesting), because they were each written by the photographers themselves. The good side of that coin is that the photographs were chosen by the photographers too. There were a large number of pictures in this book that I've never seen before, which is pretty unusual for me these days, especially with this sort of book.
Two more things you should know about the book: first, the photographers chosen are a really good mix. (And if you think it's easy to come up with a good list like this, you should try it some time.) Too many books of this sort confine themselves to certain "ghettos" of photographic practice; Photowisdom makes a good effort to span some of the gaps, and it really does provide a wide variety of current practitioners (perhaps a little weak on landscapists, but that's understandable given that they're so well covered elsewhere). Books of gallery art photography especially tend to cluster around a group of "usual suspects" and snootily ignore working photographers, documentary photographers, and journalists. Any book of this type can't possibly include everybody, and it can't do justice to every kind of photography; but this book feels right, presenting a well-chosen matrix that feels free, wide-ranging, and inclusive. (The editor, Lewis Blackwell, is the former Group Creative Director of Getty Images.)
And the second thing: it's a beautifully made book, with a clean design and well-above-average reproduction quality that serves the content well. And that's important. Whereas you're likely to see many of the images in Peter Stepan's book elsewhere, the images in Photowisdom might be the only reproductions you'll see of the chosen pictures, so it's more important that they make a good account of themselves.
The combination of great picture editing and great reproduction quality make the book a visual feast. If the previous book is one you should give someone else, this one should be a gift for you—put it on your Christmas list. Or shoot the link to your S.O.!
If you look for this one in the bookstore, be a little careful, because there's another current photobook of roughly the same size and shape with the word wisdom featured prominently in the title. Ironically, the photographer-author of that book, Andrew Zuckerman, is one of the photographers featured in Lewis Blackwell's book (represented by his amazing portrait of Andrew Wyeth, whose face late in life looked like it was made of melting wax. Incidentally, if you do get the book, compare the book reproduction of this picture with the web JPEG here—nolo contendere, and a good object lesson in the superiority of good printed reproduction over the admittedly very convenient computer screen).
Especially if you don't feel like you're quite up with the hot photographers o' the moment, this one might be good for your continuing education. It was for mine.
Question from Miserere: "Mike, Any chance you could provide a list of the 50 photographers included in 50 Photographers You Should Know? If you have better things to do than type out 50 names for us (and who wouldn't!), I would at least like to know if there is a good mix of nationalities or if the list leans heavily towards U.S. photographers. While my knowledge of photographers is by no means large, it is sadly biased to those on this side of the pond (I'm writing from Boston)."
Mike replies: I believe Peter Stepan is German and the book was originally written in German; it was originally published by Prestel Verlag in Munich. So there wouldn't be any overt reason for it to be overly USA-centric. If you'll forgive a rough accounting—a few of these numbers might be one off either way—I counted 2 Hungarians, 10 French, 19 Americans, 8 Germans, 2 from the U.K., 1 Italian, 1 Russian, 1 Japanese, 2 Czechs, 1 Turk, and 2 photographers from Mali (formerly French Sudan). That doesn't quite add up, does it? Forgive me...I don't own the book and I counted a bit too hastily. So if anything it could be faulted for being light on Japanese and non-German European photographers—as well as being a bit preferential to Mali!—but otherwise I think the balance is okay. Tough to be fair to every country with just fifty picks overall.