Starting in 2010, British Black and White Magazine ran a series for a couple of years on the 100 photo books that everyone should own. In a rare fit of cleaning and organizing, I unfortunately threw out most of the magazines. So, I decided to come up with my own list of Photo Books You Should Own.
To put together this list, I surveyed the internet for similar lists and talked with other photographers. Early on, I decided to make the list mainly about “fine art photography” books. I mostly stayed away from “how-to” books, but did include a couple of historical survey types of books for their contributions to the understanding and appreciation of fine art photography.
Below are my Top 9 “Photo Books That You Should Own”. I chose these nine partly based on how many other lists they showed up on, the impact/renown of the photographer/artist, and my personal opinions. I tried to put together a “top 10” list. But 9 books really stood out from the rest. There were a handful of other candidates for a number 10, but none of them stood out from the others the way my top 9 did. So, here are my Top 9, and “Other Books of Interest”.
Sierra Nevada/The John Muir Trail, by Ansel Adams. Seminal, influential work by probably the most famous landscape photographer of all time. Includes text by John Muir. Used to lobby for the creation of Kings Canyon National Park a couple years after its publication. At the time of publication, it was considered the highest quality photo book possible.
The Decisive Moment, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Essentially a monograph of the best works of the father of street photography. Cartier-Bresson’s forward includes his explanation of what he meant by “the decisive moment.” Recommended by PHLearn website for: Anyone hoping to improve their ability to capture a scene that tells a story.
The Americans, by Robert Frank. Frank was raised in Switzerland, bringing an outsider’s view to his study of mid-20th century America and Americans. Book includes a forward by Frank’s friend Jack Kerouac. Frank’s work pioneered a raw, candid, and honest style that remains popular to this day.
Tiny, Streetwise Revisited, by Mary Ellen Mark. Tells the story Tiny (Erin Balckwell), first seen in Mark’s Streetwise, published in 1988. Tiny was then a 13-year-old prostitute living in a Seattle community of homeless and troubled youth. Mark’s followed Tiny who, in 1988, was a 43 year-old mother of 10 children of her own.
The History of Photography, by Beaumont Newhall. First published in 1937 as catalog for an exhibition put on by Newhall for MOMA. New sections were added in the fifth edition included photographs made in color. Amazon says “No other book and no other author have managed to relate the aesthetic evolution of the art of photography to its technical innovations with such an absorbing combination of clarity, scholarship and enthusiasm.”
Reflections in Black – A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, by Deborah Willis. Willis is a contemporary African-American artist, photographer, curator of photography, photographic historian, author, and educator. Reflections in Black, the first comprehensive history of black photographers,is based on a show that she curated Smithsonian. Nearly 600 images offer ich, moving glimpses of everyday black life, from slavery to the Great Migration to contemporary suburban life.
Looking at Photographs, by John Szarkowski. Szarkowski was a photographer, curator, historian, and critic who was instrumental in getting photography accepted as a fine art. Szarkowski presents 100 images from the MOMA photography collection. Each image is accompanied by text, where Szarkowski discusses what makes the work outstanding and significant.
Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, by Galen Rowell. Rowell was originally known as a climber, having begun mountain climbing at the age of 10. His first break as photojournalist was a solo ascent of Yosemite’s Half Dome, when the then much better known photographer Dewitt Jones was called away at the last minute. Mountain Light explores the differing qualities of mountain light in eight exhibits. Rowell also explains how he made each image – what he “pre-visualized”, how he prepared for the shoot, and the physical challenges of getting the right shot at the right time.
Magnum Contact Sheets, by Kristen Lubben. Magnum is a international co-operative of photojournalist, founded in Paris in 1947 by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Contact Sheets contains 139 contact sheets and resulting prints from 69 Magnum Photographers. Time Magazine states that the book “offers unique insight into the working progress of the celebrated agency’s photographers over the past seven decades—their approach to taking and editing their pictures as well as their idiosyncratic relationships with the contact sheet.”
Some other books of Interest
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans. James Agee’s text supplements Walker Evans’ images of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. Routinely studied in the U.S. as a source of both journalistic and literary innovation.
The Negative, by Ansel Adams. One of a 5-part series on photographic technique is not just for the film photographer. Discusses Adams’ seminal Zone System of exposure and his concept of “pre-visualization”.
A Harlem Family 1967, by Gordon Parks. Parks live for a month with the 10 member Fontelle family in a Harlem tenement for Life Magazine photo essay. Life wanted to tell its overwhelming white audience why African Americans were rising up in big cities across America in the summer of 1967.
Why People Photograph, by Robert Adam. Book of essays by a well known photographer exploring the myriad of reasons that people take pictures, and how that affects the images and our perception of them. Tackles such diverse topics as collectors, humor, teaching, money, and dogs. Photographers “may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it.
Examples, the Making of 40 Photographs, by Ansel Adams. Adams discusses the technical and aesthetic problems presented in the making of 40 of his celebrated photos. See how, probably the most famous landscape photographer, went about conceiving and making some of his most iconic images.
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Cameron’s book is not specifically a “photography book”. It’s a book on creativity. Cameron presents a program to help the artist, and non-artist, capture or nurture their creativity. The book started as a collection of hints and tips from artists and writers. Her “morning pages” can be time spent writing or taking pictures, or any creative endeavor.