Picture This

The Best Photo Books of 2003

A collage of letters, notebooks, contact sheets, and photos from 1969 in Diane Arbus's Revelations
photo: Robin Holland
A collage of letters, notebooks, contact sheets, and photos from 1969 in Diane Arbus's Revelations

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2003 TOP TWENTY

1 Revelations by Diane Arbus (Random House)
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2 A Storybook Life by Philip-Lorca diCorcia (Twin Palms)
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3 Los Alamos by William Eggleston (Scalo)
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4 What Remains by Sally Mann (Bulfinch)
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5 American Night by Paul Graham (Steidl)
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6 Devil's Playground by Nan Goldin (Phaidon)
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7 The Complete Untitled Film Stills by Cindy Sherman (Museum of Modern Art)
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8 London/Wales by Robert Frank (Scalo)
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9 Aaron Siskind 100 (Blind Spot/powerHouse)
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10 Punk Picasso by Larry Clark (AKA Editions/ Roth Horowitz)

11 Family Business by Mitch Epstein (Steidl)
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12 If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters by Wolfgang Tillmans (Tate)
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13 Chapalingas by Rosalind Solomon (Steidl)
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14 Album of a Century by Jacques-Henri Lartigue (Abrams)
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15 Nudes by Thomas Ruff (Abrams)
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16 A Life's Work by Phil Stern (powerHouse)
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17 Crossings by Alex Webb (Monacelli Press)
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18 One Big Self by Deborah Luster and C.D. Wright (Twin Palms)
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19 Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl by Robert Polidori (Steidl)
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20 Guy Bourdin edited by Charlotte Cotton and Shelly Verthime (Abrams/V&A)
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Rita Moreno during a rehearsal for West Side Story, 1961, from Phil Stern's A Life's Work
(photo: Robin Holland)
Phil Stern, one of Hollywood's most reliable celebrity photographers, inhabits an equally rarefied if entirely different world. Although his pictures of its denizens—notably Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and various members of the Rat Pack—have been reproduced endlessly, Stern had never seemed particularly interesting or original until powerHouse released a big, slipcased retrospective of his career. Intelligently edited (by Meg Handler) and fabulously designed (by Francesca Richer), A Life's Work is a knockout and a rarity: a coffee-table book with as much soul as pizzazz. The smartest move was including Stern's World War II photographs from the Sicilian and North African fronts as well as his portraits of jazz musicians, but the real heft of the book is in the Hollywood work. Stern's touch here is light and sure; his subjects look unusually comfortable in front of his lens, and the photos have clearly been chosen with an eye for the genuinely candid moment. In one famous instance, that involves Monroe looking nearly as pained, puzzled, and lost as she does in her Avedon portrait. But several pages later, there she is, strolling alone through the Goldwyn Studios lot looking effortlessly radiant and relaxed, possibly because she was unaware of Stern's vigilant eye. (The picture is part of a terrific series, taken from a window above the street, that also includes a jaunty Gregory Peck.) Even Stern's staged publicity shots (some in ravishing color) have a you-are-there freshness, but he's a master at movie-star spontaneity: Dean clowning in a coffee shop with friends, Audrey Hepburn glowing on the sidewalk between Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, a strikingly dandified John Wayne at ease in Acapulco, and a whole bevy of celebs buzzing around John F. Kennedy's inaugural gala. Stern understands star power but never seems cowed or awed by it. He leaves that to us.
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