Shelf Lives

The best and brightest photography books for the holidays

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A spread from Shomei Tomatsu's Skin of the Nation
photo: Robin Holland

If there's one book on every photo maven's list this season, it's probably THE PHOTOBOOK: A HISTORY, VOLUME I[Phaidon, $75], co-edited and written by British photographer Martin Parr and critic Gerry Badger. "I find it an amazing idea," Parr writes in his preface, "that a volume of photographs, even one from the distant past, can explode into life at any time, when stumbled upon by a sympathetic reader." Parr, whose massive collection this volume can only begin to annotate, is the ultimate sympathetic reader, and his appreciation for the subject is boundless and infectious. He and Badger have done their best to organize a staggering amount of material into a useful reference, with illustrated descriptions of everything from 19th-century travel albums to Larry Clark's Tulsa. This volume, the first of two, pays close attention to the photo book as evidence and as propaganda (particularly in 1930s Russia), as well as its artful use in post-war Europe and Japan. As with Andrew Roth's precedent-setting The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century (to which I was a contributor), the emphasis is on books that are not merely compendiums of images but models of design and what Parr and Badger call "extended essays in photographs": "In the true photobook, each picture may be considered a sentence, or a paragraph, the whole sequence the complete text." Perhaps the book's most valuable and provocative contribution is the opening up of the traditional canon to make room for a large number of little-known titles, including many of the most fascinating entries here, like Owen Simmons's 1903 The Book of Bread, which reproduced exacting images of sliced loaves, one to a page, or KZ, a 32-page paperback distributed in Germany after World War II by the American War Information Unit and consisting of little more than horrific pictures taken of the dead and dying at five concentration camps. Along with entries on works by Germaine Krull, Hans Bellmer, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, William Klein, Daido Moriyama, and a host of others, these rediscovered rarities make The Photobook not just desirable but essential.

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Two pages from Robert Frank's 1958 "New York Bus" series in Storylines
photo: Robin Holland
Finally, an irresistible footnote to Revelations, the excellent Diane Arbus retrospective book and show, coming to the Metropolitan Museum this March: A book called DIANE ARBUS: THE LIBRARIES[Fraenkel Gallery, $35] reproduces photos of all the shelved books from Arbus's personal collection that were an especially tantalizing part of the exhibition's installation design. The book's clever accordion-fold design (similar to Richard Avedon Portraits, the book that accompanied his 2002 Met show) allows us to browse the spines much as we would in a friend's apartment, and includes a complete list of titles in a neat pocket at the end. Predictably, the library is heavy on Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and other European modernists every mid-century urban intellectual carried in her knapsack, but it's the photo books that will interest Arbus fans the most, and they're a varied group. Stieglitz, Lartigue, Avedon, Model, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Evans—artfully jumbled on these shelves along with family photos, open notebooks, and pictures from friends, these books may not supply all the clues we'd like to Arbus's life in and out of photography, but they allow us an unusually privileged, and heretofore private, view of it.
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