“Your own photography is never enough”

                            -Robert Adams

I haven’t counted my photography books, but I just measured them. I have approximately 20 linear feet of photography books and journals. That’s probably several hundred, counting all the small exhibition catalogs, etc. Here are some of my favorites. I’ve included only monographs and collections; no history, essays, criticism, or technical books. Listed alphabetically by photographer, with collections at the end.

Yosemite and the Range of Light  (1981)

Ansel Adams
   This is Ansel’s masterpiece. It has most of the classics: Clearing Winter Storm, Monolith: The Face of Half Dome, Winter Sunrise Lone Pine (my favorite), etc. It does not have some of the equally classic images of the southwest (e.g. Moonrise, Hernandez, NM). Reproduction, by today’s standards, is only OK. The book was reprinted in paperback in 1992. Both editions are long out of print, but occasionally available used (expensive!). A cheaper and still available alternative is Yosemite and the High Sierra (1994).

Atget  (2000)

Eugene Atget
  Atget was a commercial photographer who sold his pictures to painters and stage designers to use as guides, and to libraries and museums. He published very little and was virtually unknown during his lifetime. After his death in 1927, his negatives and prints were rescued by Bernice Abbot who promoted and published his work. Today, he is revered for his extensive documentation of the architecture and street life of old Paris as it was changing in the early 1900s.

  Atget’s photographs could be considered technically primitive. He used a cheap view camera and a cheap lens that sometimes produced vignetting at the corners of the negative. The clips that held the glass plate are sometimes visible in his prints. None of this matters. The pictures of old Paris contain many narrow streets and walkways with dead ends and dark, mysterious openings. There are few people except ghostly figures in doors and windows. His few portraits included street vendors and musicians, rag pickers, junk dealers, and prostitutes, all with a sympathetic eye. Overall, the photographs seem to reveal a nostalgic longing for the “old days” that Atget knew were disappearing, and a deep sympathy with the lower classes.

  Of the many books of Atget photographs, this is my favorite. It includes 100 photographs beautifully reproduced in tritone, each with a short essay by John Szarkowski on the facing page. The essays explain the context and technical issues of the photograph, and sometimes speculate on Atget’s motivation for making the picture. This book only scratches the surface of Atget’s photography, but it is a good start.

Manufactured Landscapes  (2003)

Edward Burtynsky
  Burtynsky makes huge (measured in feet, not inches) color photographs of industrial landscapes: shipyards, mines, quarries, oil fields, railcuts, etc. This book is a retrospective, collecting photographs from several previous books. The photographs are beautifully ugly. Burtynsky claims that he does not intend to make political images, but it is hard not to see them that way. Yes, the compositions and colors are beautiful, but the pictures make clear the massive destruction of the planet that modern industrialization is causing. The cognitive dissonance between the images and their meaning is very disturbing.

Paul Caponigro: Masterworks from Forty Years ) (1993

Paul Caponigro
  “Paul Caponigro works with magic, collaborates with spirits and dances with demons, and would agree with Brandt about ‘messages from another world’.” (Bill Jay, Photographers Photographed, 1983). If that sounds silly, you haven’t seen Caponigro’s pictures. They have a deep mystery to them that compells you to look at them for a long time. And the longer you look, the more mysterious they become. The prints are technically beautiful, subtle tonally as well as emotionally. They cover a wide range of subjects, including the megaliths of Britain and Ireland, deserts of the American southwest, the forests and seacoasts of New England, and still lifes of objects found near his home or collected during his travels. All are wonderful.

  I count eleven Caponigro books on my shelves. It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I probably go to this one most frequently because it is the most nearly comprehensive, and the reproductions are big and beautiful. Other favorite are Megaliths (1986) and Meditations in Silver (2008) which showcases his recent still lifes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and the World ( 2003)

Henri Cartier-Bresson
  Of the many HCB books, this is the biggest and best reproduced. It has hundreds of photos, including the classics. It can be overwhelming, and needs to be sampled in small bites. Many of the pictures are printed small (about 2–3 inches wide), but the “important” ones are bigger. Also, a few images are printed across the gutter. But these are minor issues; this is the best introduction to HCB’s work.

Structure  (2000)

Tillman Crane
  Crane is a traditional large format photographer. He photographs mostly landscapes and architecture, including small details. This, his first book, is mostly architectural details and interiors. The pictures don’t shout or show off technique; they are quiet and subtle, introspective. They grow on me, and I keep coming back to this book again and again. The reproductions are excellent, printed on heavy off-white paper. He still has a few copies available on his website.

The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans  (2010)

Frederick Evans
  I first saw a few of Frederick Evans’ photographs many years ago in the George Eastman House in Rochester. I recall being astonished and moved at the beauty of his platinum prints. Evans is best known for his photographs of the British cathedrals, and these are, I think, some of the most beautiful images in the history of photography. The feeling of light and space is almost supernatural. This book shows Evans’ photographs in state of the art reproductions. It is a generous selection, with 120 gorgeous plates including some landscapes and portraits in addition to the cathedral pictures. The text is only mediocre; much better is the text in the 1973 Aperture monograph edited by Beaumont Newall. That book has images that are not in the newer book, but reproductions are 1970s quality. Both books are worth having.

  Evans died in 1943, a couple of days before his 90th birthday. Apparently he had become a cantankerous old man ranting against the mediocrity of modern art. Good for him!

American Photographs  (originally published 1938)

Walker Evans
  This is one of the classic books in the history of photography. It was first published in 1938, and has been in and out of print through several editions. The third edition (2012) is a facsimile of the first edition, restoring the original pictures and sequence, and with digital restorations of the original photographs. Evans photographed with a sympathetic, yet cynical eye. That sounds contradictory, but it seems to describe his photographs. The pictures portray the people, small towns and rural areas of depression-era America. Individually, they appear to be simple straightforward documents. Collectively, they present a moving portrait of America in the 1930s.

  This is straight photography at its straightest. Buy this book before it goes out of print again.

The Americans  (originally published 1958)

Robert Frank
  Another classic. First published in 1958 in France and 1959 in US, it has, like American Photographs, gone through several editions. Frank was awarded a Guggenheim grant in 1955, and spent the next two years traveling America and photographing. The Americans is the result. Above, I called Walker Evans’ photographs “synmpathetic yet cynical.” I see no sympathy in Frank’s pictures. They were called cynical and pessimistic when the book first appeared, and they appear that way to me today. The 1950s were strange years in America with the optimism of a growing middle class contradicted by racism and poverty. Frank was able to view these contradictions as an outsider (he was Swiss) and took photographs that made Americans uncomfortable. In one picture we see a black man looking plaintively out a bus window, and in another a black nurse lovingly holding a white baby. We also see many iconic (nostalgic?) photographs of America in the 1950s. These are not pretty pictures, but they are powerful pictures.

  My copy is the 2000 edition. Evidently there is a 50th anniversary edition, 2008, but I have not seen it.

William Garnett: Aerial Photographs  (1994)

William Garnett
  William Garnett was a photographer with an airplane, as opposed to a pilot with a camera. His aerial photographs show a beautiful feeling for light, shadow, and texture, as seen from a vantage point that most of us seldom see. He photographed the agricultural fields of the Central Valley of California, the sand dunes of Death Valley, and other subjects frequently photographed, but not from above. Beautiful pictures!

  Garnett died in 2006. I once had a change to buy a photograph from him, but didn’t. One of the regrets of my life.

William H. Jackson  (1974)

William Henry Jackson
  William Henry Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone in 1871 are said to have played a large part in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. These are perhaps his most well-known photographs, but he photographed throughout the western states during the last half of the nineteenth century. Surprisingly to me, there appears to be no modern monograph of Jackson’s photographs. Fortunately, this book is a good one, with about 100 images. Reproduction is adequate, considering the technology of the 1970s. The book is long out of print, and in a recent search I found no used copies online.

  The wet plate collodion process of the time required Jackson to transport large fragile glass plates to site by mule or wagon, and to coat the plate immediately before exposure and to develop it immediately. It is enough to make a modern digital photographer cry.   

  A few of Jackson’s original prints can be seen in the museum at the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone.

André Kertész: His Life and Work  (1994)

André Kertész
  Kertész was a photographer’s photographer. His pictures appear rather simple at first glance but are full of subtle details and repay careful study. His portraits are full of emotion and hidden stories. My favorites of his pictures are taken from a high vantage point looking nearly straight down; he was one of the first to do that. This book is a combined monograph of his best work and a biography by Pierre Borhan and others. There are about 250 photographs including a few in color, all nicely reproduced. The text does a good job of putting Kertész’s photographs in a historical and cultural context.

Two Hearted Oak  (2003)

Roman Loranc
  I first saw Loranc’s photographs in LensWork magazine, and fell in love with his pictures of the wetlands of California’s central valley. They are full of mist and mystery. This book contains some of those pictures, as well as a few of his more recent work in Poland and Lithuania. Unfortunately it is out of print. It is available used, but good copies are expensive. It is worth searching for a good copy. Alternatively, you can buy his retrospective Fractal Dreams for only $300 from Photography West gallery in Carmel! Don’t laugh; I bought it and I’m glad I did.

Cape Light  (1979)

Joel Meyerowitz
  My token color book? I own only a few books of color photography–a few by Elliot Porter, a couple by Edward Burtynsky, and half a dozen or so others. They are beautiful, but few of them move me. Cape Light is one that does; I don’t know why. The book consists of pictures of beaches, beach homes, etc. on Cape Cod. Picture postcard stuff? No. There’s something about the (usually) subtle colors that I keep coming back to. Maybe a clue is in the title: it’s the light.

Time in New England  (originally published 1950)

Paul Strand
  Strand was one of the founders of modern photography. After a brief flirtation, he rejected the soft focus, allegorical methods of the pictorialists and made sharply focused, long tonal range “straight” photographs. Many of his books are extended photo essays of a particular place, e.g. Luzzara (Italy) and Tir a Mhurain (Hebrides, Scotland). Time in New England was the first of these, and seems unique among photo books. It is a collaboration interspersing Strand’s photographs of New England with selections from the extensive literature of the region, selected by Nancy Newhall. The words do not explicitly illustrate the photographs, but the combination synergistically evokes the history and culture of the region. New England really is different, and this book suggests that it has always been so.

Looking at Photographs  (1973)

(edited by John Szarkowski)
  This was one of the first photography books that I bought, and it is still one of my favorites. It consists of 100 photographs from the collection of MOMA, each with a short essay by John Szarkowski (as in the Atget book, above). Many of the greatest photographers in the history of the medium, as well as a few who are unknown or anonymous, are represented by one photograph each. While one can never understand the work of a great photographer by looking at a single picture, this approach allows a huge diversity of photographs to be seen and discussed in a short book. Szarkowski’s writing is always clear and insightful, thankfully free of pretentious artspeak and jargon (and full of subtle humor). You will learn much by reading these essays and studying the accompanying photographs. I would recommend this book as the first one to study by someone interested in learning about the art of photography.   

  This book has been in print for 40 years, almost unheard of for a book of photographs.

Photography and Architecture: 1839-1939  (1982)

(edited by Richard Pare)
  From the very beginnings of photography, architecture has been one of its most important subjects. This book surveys the first hundred years of architectural photography, and what a feast it is! It ranges from the earliest pictures of the British cathedrals to the New York City photographs of Stieglitz and Steichen in the late 1930s. In between are wonderful photographs of ruins of the ancient world, made when both travel and photography required major commitments – a reminder to those of us who think driving to Bodie with our digital cameras is a lot of trouble.

  The book itself is beautifully done. Photographs are nicely reproduced in sepia, on uncoated cream colored paper, perfect for the subject matter. The last part of the book contains a brief biography of every photographer represented in the book. Very useful!

Stieglitz Steichen Strand  (2011)

(edited by Malcom Daniel)
  As the Introduction says, these are “The Big Three.” Here are the foundations of modern photography. In these pictures we can see, especially with Steichen, the evolution from pictorialism to modern “straight” photography, as initiated by these three, and continued by Weston, Adams, et al. The book was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which I was lucky to see. Reproductions are state of the art, and show the full tonal ranges of the various processes used by these masters.

  You can still buy new copies on Amazon. Get it while you can.