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The Season’s Best Photo Books

Gift books, especially photographic ones, should be about pleasure—about that delicate balance of sensual and intellectual stimulation you'll find nowhere else but in the pages of a big picture book spread open in your lap. It's the sort of pleasure that takes you back to a time when books held the possibility of infinite discovering, of using the imagination as a window on the world. Though the notion seems naive now, photography has often been seen as that wide-open window, and the medium is still capable of delivering wonders, both earthy and sophisticated. Because the most arresting photography has always projected a personal, even private, vision, it also opens up a world beyond the physical that's often more inviting and adventurous than another Far Eastern field trip. What's thrilling about images grabbed on the run—as more and more pictures are these days—is rarely the exotic location, it's the shock of recognition we find there. This year's crop of photo books includes works by travelers, visionaries, and visionary travelers. Prepare for takeoff.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, perhaps the century's most gifted and appealing amateur, is also the ideal traveling companion. In Jacques Henri Lartigue, Photographer(Bulfinch, $95), best and biggest of the many collections published since his "discovery" in 1963, the French boy who began taking pictures when he was seven matures without losing his sense of play or his appetite for surprise. "What I would like to capture," he wrote in his reconstructed childhood journal, "aren't thoughts, but the scent of my happiness." Almost a century later (many of these photos were made in the 1910s, virtually all of them before 1930), that heady scent hasn't evaporated. If anything, the passing years have intensified our appreciation of Lartigue's spontaneity and inventiveness. Vicki Goldberg, in her graceful introduction, points out that he anticipated a whole school of 35mm snapshooters (think Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander) with his penchant for "the momentary, the unstable, and the unbalanced." This selection makes the most of that protomodern artlessness with plenty of previously unpublished images (many of them fold-out panoramas) of privilege and sport. Lartigue's subjects often appear suspended not only in time but in midair—leaping down a flight of steps, tumbling out of the surf at Nice, careening across a field in something that looks more like a Tinkertoy than an airplane. Melancholy and doubt had no place in Lartigue's world of leisure, endless leisure; the wars, the Depression, his failed marriages don't cast a shadow on these sunny days. "Steadfastly," Goldberg writes, "he kept his eye on the garden of earthly delights," and he's preserved it in full bloom for us.

Fast-forward to Mario Testino, another frequent and privileged traveler. If his diaristic Any Objections?(Phaidon, $39.95) has a frantic, anxious edge, that's probably because it's so definitively of the moment—or was a moment ago. The Peruvian-born Testino is one of the international set's favorite fashion and celebrity photographers; those were his pictures of Princess Diana, postmakeover, on the cover of Vanity Fair, and he took the first official photos of Madonna's baby. But there's nothing official about this book, packed as it is with backstage peeps, hotel-room snaps, and on-the-road shots. Though stars and models make guest appearances, they're just part of a vivacious mix that includes pigs and princesses, bums and beach bunnies, street scenes everywhere from Moscow to Lima, and the broadest array of bulging male crotches this side of Honcho. This last, plus an equally vivid flash of female flesh, gives Any Objections? a jolt of audacity that lands the usually high-gloss Testino in antifashion's fast company along with rude boys like Terry Richardson.

Wolfgang Tillmans, who has always worked on fashion's fringes, delivers a similar collage of the private and the public in Burg(Taschen, $29.99), his most accessible and engaging collection so far. But Testino's cheerful hedonism is replaced here by a considerably more muted and introspective restlessness—one that, David Deitcher's introduction points out, "takes on the significance of a search." As with Testino's book, the mix here includes color and black-and-white pictures taken around the world, but Tillmans gravitates to more intimate, ephemeral images—cast-off jeans, a plate of raspberries, a soldier on the train—and transforms them into emblems of love and loss. "I am interested not in singular readings but in constructing networks of images and meanings," Tillmans says, and his books, like the salon-style scattering he arranges in his gallery shows, are intricate webs of allusion that feel oddly comforting, somehow familiar, perhaps because they seem to include us. If Testino's world turns us all into gaping voyeurs, Tillmans's is welcoming—it's where we live now.

For an even more meditative take on the increasingly battered human condition—and yet another facet of contemporary gay male sensibility—there's Bill Jacobson's career survey, 1989–1997(Twin Palms, $60). Jacobson made his reputation with a series of soft-focus portraits of men who appear to be fading from view—flesh becoming apparition and receding into memory right before our eyes. Using a rich, subtle range of sooty blacks, powdery platinums, and whites that open up into an utter void, he seems to recall faces, to summon figures rather than photograph them. Though the work has a desperate immediacy in the age of AIDS, its resonance is hardly limited to the epidemic. Jacobson's pictures suggest the persistence of desire—perhaps these figures are hovering just out of reach—as well as its death, pleasure as much as pain. The book ends with a passage that includes studies of the surface of a lake: ripples that will be here long after all this has passed.

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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