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Sometime in 1826 or 1827, the first known photograph was taken, by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce on his estate in Burgundy. The image, of a rooftop seen from an adjacent window, was barley legible, yet it marked a turning point—between the world before photography and the one after—as profound as any in human history. Two centuries later, life as we know it would be inconceivable without photography (and its derivatives, film and television). The technology evolved rapidly with the development of faster film stocks and lighter cameras. In short order, photography went from a curiosity to a means of formal studio portraiture, and later, from a way of retaining family memories to a staple of social media. Somewhere along the line, photography also became a fine art medium. Our selection of best photography books offers a look at remarkable achievements along the way. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)
1. Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph
It’s been said that Diane Arbus was the closest thing America had to Franz Kafka, and indeed, the two shared the same sense of black humor and anxious view of the world as a place haunted by subterranean (and not so subterranean) horrors. For Arbus, this meant populating her photos with “freaks,” as she described them—which, just as often as not, meant rendering ordinary people as freakish. Still, she culled her more famous subjects from society’s margins: Giants, dwarfs, drag queens, sideshow attractions, people with Down syndrome. Susan Sontag condemned Arbus’s work as cruel voyeurism, but she became hugely influential, and without Arbus, there would’ve been no Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, or Larry Clark. This monograph introduced her work to the public when it was originally published, in 1972, and caused a sensation. Featuring 80 images, the book recalls an artist who changed the rules on what could be photographed.
Purchase: Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph from $33.99 (used) on Amazon
2. William Eggleston, Los Alamos
During the last quarter of the 20th century, fine-art photography entered a new era with the introduction of color. William Eggleston was one of the agents of that change. While color films like Kodachrome had been introduced in the 1930s, they were meant for everyday use, not high cultural expression, which was reserved strictly for black and white. But where people saw snapshots, Eggleston saw aesthetic potential, which found its apotheosis in his most famous portfolio, Los Alamos. Created between 1965 and 1974, it documents Eggleston’s road trips through the American South and West, capturing a democratic vision of the country through a product intended for ordinary consumers. Yet the book is hardly a celebration: Named for the birthplace of the atomic bomb and published during the run-up to the 1976 presidential election (the first after Watergate), Los Alamos crackles with the tensions of a nation grappling with the aftermath of Vietnam.
Purchase: Los Alamos $149.95 (used) on Amazon
3. John Maloof, Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found
The posthumous discovery of Vivian Maier’s photographic work is one of the most extraordinary finds in recent memory. Beginning in 1956, Maier spent 40 years as a nanny working in Chicago’s affluent North Shore, all the while taking more than 150,000 photographs in total. Her images of people and buildings were shot mostly in Chicago, but also in New York and Los Angeles, and were the equal of any done by the masters of mid-century street photography. Two years before her death in 2009, she fell behind on the rent of a storage locker where she kept her prints and negatives, and the contents—her entire oeuvre—were auctioned off. Several collectors bought her works, most notably John Maloof, the author or this book, which presents a comprehensive survey of her efforts through stunning reproductions. Maier’s rescue from obscurity, while a definite triumph, is also another instance of dumb luck rewriting art history.
Purchase: Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found $39.99 (new) on Amazon
4. Larry J. Schaaf, Sun Gardens: Cyanotypes by Anna Atkins
While it’s unclear whether Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was the first woman photographer, she did publish the first-ever book of photographic images. Its title—Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions—reflects Atkins’s vocation as a botanist, and her medium of choice, a method by which objects laid on photosensitized paper created blue negatives that resembled Xrays when exposed to light. Though she acknowledged the ghostly allure of the results, Atkins’s aims were empirical. She emerged from the same sort of upper-class Victorian milieu that produced Charles Darwin: Her father was a scientist, and she was friends with Henry Fox Talbot, the codeveloper of photography, and George Herschel, a polymath who invented the cyanotype process, which he taught to her. This volume expands upon Atkins’s original monograph, with images made in the years after its publication. Atkins’s work represents the first time science and photography combined to create art, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Purchase: Sun Gardens $399.95 (used) on Amazon
5. Peter Galassi, Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective
This catalog for MoMA’s 1996 retrospective of Roy DeCarava charts the career of an African American artist, born to a single mother in Harlem, who became one of the country’s greatest photographers at mid century. DeCarava came to his craft as a painter and printmaker who used a camera as an aid to his work before realizing that he preferred it as his principal tool. This graphic background stamped his images with a crisp elegance that spoke to his ambitions: Though Harlem and its inhabitants became his subjects, his interests weren’t primarily sociological. Instead, his wanted to capture the poetic resonances of African American life through portraits of musicians such as Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and more obliquely via streets scenes and interiors given powerful formal presence through a masterful exploitation of lights and darks. In DeCarava’s hands, the tension between sun and shadow becomes a metaphor for being black in white America.
Purchase: Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective $596.02 (new) on Amazon
6. Bernd and Hilla Becher, Typologies of Industrial Buildings
German photographers are often distinguished by a stringent realism that sublimates the flourishes of style to a rationalistic relationship between camera and subject. August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt represent exhibits A and B in this regard, but few artists have epitomized this aesthetic more than the husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Typologies of Industrial Buildings is a case in point: It features an encyclopedic compilation of tightly cropped black-and-white images of the eponymous structures in various iterations arranged in grids. The Bechers shot each of these buildings, located in Germany’s old factory region in the Ruhr Valley, in isolation during overcast mornings in spring and summer to avoid shadows, and backgrounds were largely elided. The buildings, mostly abandoned, are grouped by function—water towers, grain elevators, steel mills, blast furnaces, and more—leaving the viewer to contemplate these archaeological relics of the Industrial Revolution as pure form.
Purchase: Typologies of Industrial Buildings from $57.92 (new) on Abebooks.com
7. Brassaï, The Secret Paris of the 30’s
While we associate the word demimonde with any non-mainstream milieu, the term was originally French for “a class of women on the fringes of respectable society supported by wealthy lovers” (per Webster)—or more bluntly, the world of prostitution. This is the realm of The Secret Paris of the 30’s, which features photos Brassaï kept from view because he thought them too shocking for public consumption. Born Gyula Halász in Brassó, Hungary (hence his pseudonym), Brassaï came to Paris in 1924 and became known for night scenes illuminated by the penumbra of streetlamps or the dim lighting of bars, images often inhabited by young couples in various throes of love. In Secret Paris, passion is portrayed as transactional in exchanges between sex workers and their clients, and as deeply closeted in glimpses of Paris’s LGBTQ underground. Though not as explosive as it was in Brassaï’s time, Secret Paris retains its power to provoke.
Purchase: The Secret Paris of the 30’s from $125.00 (new) on Amazon