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The Season’s Best Photo Books

Brazilian photographer Miguel Rio Branco's self-titled monograph (Aperture, $45) finds the world splashed with luscious color and light, bloody but unbowed. His speciality is beauty in extremis—visceral pictures of the slaughterhouse, the whorehouse, and the boxing ring that are theatrical, disturbing, exciting, and often bathed in hellish reds or lost in inky shadows. Bodies gleam with sweat and a funky eroticism; passion simmers and sours. Rio Branco, passing no judgments, takes us inside the end of the world and stuns us with its ugly brilliance.

Ferdinando Scianna, a Sicilian-born Magnum photographer with a long history in European photojournalism, offers up an entirely different view of life on the margins in To Sleep, Perchance To Dream (Phaidon, $29.95). In pictures taken over the course of 30 years, Scianna spys on people (and a few animals) sleeping, nearly always in public: on trains, subways, church steps, park benches, tables, the sidewalk—any place a weary body can rest. The resulting accumulation, at first gimmicky, is surprisingly moving. All these figures—crumpled, defenseless, sexy—caught in total surrender to sleep and to our gaze arouse first an uneasy voyeurism, then tender benevolence. We watch over them; we wish them peace.

Helmut Newton snaps us back to cool with a barrage of bracingly insolent fashion photos made between 1956 and 1998. Compiled in the 543 pages of Pages From the Glossies (Scalo, $75), they are a stylist's treasure trove, a fetishist's dream, and make up the most valuable and fascinating fashion book of the year. The concept is simple but unprecedented: reproduce the best spreads, sequences, and covers from Newton's years with French, Italian, and American Vogue, Elle, Nova, Queen, etc., and let the record speak for itself (with a few sly comments from Newton). Virtually from the beginning, Newton courted controversy, and by the mid '70s, that's what he was expected to deliver, even if much of it looks almost quaint in retrospect. But what stands out in the midst of all this flesh and fantasy is the aggressive strength of his women. "My girls are always victorious," he's said, and they stride through these pages like superwomen, Venuses in furs. No question, Newton is still their master puppeteer, but in his hothouse scenarios he gives them a power few women in Vogue get to wield.

Finally, there's the world of music captured within the pages of Lee Friedlander's American Musicians (D.A.P., $49.95), another generously compendious book whose 515 black-and-white and color images practically sing. Made primarily in the late '50s and '60s when Friedlander was working for Atlantic Records, these are publicity photos, album covers, and performance shots of rare substance and strength. If they give few hints of the stylistic disjunction Friedlander brought into play in his personal work from the same period (see the recently reissued Self Portrait, also from D.A.P., $35), they're marvels of sympathetic portraiture—moody, quirky, and effortlessly telling. Unlike so much dated memorabilia, they're neither nostalgic nor campy. Friedlander's musicians—including Aretha Franklin, Ornette Coleman, Sarah Vaughan, Tammy Wynette, John Coltrane, and countless others—are vital, fully fleshed. "You know, it's amazing," Ruth Brown says in a lively interview here, "how you can look at pictures, even of strangers, and see someone you know." Tell me about it.

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