At this time of year, there’s no time to waste, so can we just get right down to it? What follows is a wildly idiosyncratic selection of photography books that should satisfy the most discriminating, most difficult, and most decadent people on your list.
Like Other Pictures (Twin Palms, $50), Thomas Walther’s endlessly engaging album of vintage snapshots and other found images, Peek: Photographs From the Kinsey Institute (Arena, $60) is a book of vernacular photos, nearly all of them taken by enthusiastic amateurs or minimally talented “professionals.” But Peek has just one thing on its mind: sex. Though the Kinsey Institute—which began to amass these pictures in the late 1930s before issuing its groundbreaking studies on human sexual behavior—wasn’t particularly interested in the sort of witty connoisseurship that shaped the Walther collection, its archive of 75,000 photos is nothing if not focused. The depth and range of that focus is what makes the book so fascinating. With pungent examples from anonymous 19th-century porn to ’60s Polaroids (and stops along the way for George Platt Lynes, Wilhelm von Gloeden, and Judy Dater), Peek is not just an unhurried history of the hard-on and the spread beaver; it’s also an unexpectedly tender, occasionally hilarious survey of sexual variety.
Platt Lynes’s erotic work gets more extensive attention in a hefty new book from Taschen ($39.95, with an essay by David Leddick). A recent addition to the publisher’s ongoing series of smartly designed, surprisingly inexpensive monographs, George Platt Lynes features one of the photographer’s most suggestive queer images on its cover and doesn’t stint on the almost exclusively male nudity inside. But it also includes solid sections of his fashion, portraiture, and ballet work, as well as his fanciful interpretations of mythology. If Platt Lynes’s brand of glam stylization—sometimes cool, sometimes overheated—is decidedly mid-century modern, his frank, horny take on the male body hasn’t dated a bit. For a really generous gift, pair the Platt Lynes with Taschen’s other new book of Eugene Atget’s sublime Paris views or one of its earlier entries in this series, which includes Karl Blossfeldt, Paul Outerbridge, Edward S. Curtis, and August Sander (all $39.95).
Continuing in the wide world of stylized homoeroticism, there’s the luxe limited edition of John Dugdale’s The Clandestine Mind (volume III of 21st, the Journal of Contemporary Photography, $150), the latest and largest collection of the artist’s neoclassic cyanotypes—a must for the serious romantic on your list. Just as romantic, but in the raffishly laid-back style that has become his trademark, is Bruce Weber’s Shufly (Little Bear, $75), the catalog to his current show at Robert Miller, and another meditation on masculinity from a photographer whose quest for the ideal boy is—happily for his considerable cult—never ending.
A similar, if rather less self-consciously aestheticized, quest led Mel Roberts to Los Angeles in the ’60s. Like Bruce Bellas and Bob Mizer, L.A. physique photographers of an earlier generation, Roberts found a town swarming with aspiring model-actor-hustlers, and hundreds of the youngest ended up in front of his camera wearing nothing but big grins and silly mesh posing straps. This strikingly ordinary cross section of frisky jailbait and jaded twentysomethings, photographed outdoors in oversaturated (and distinctly vintage) color, makes Roberts’s California Boys (FotoFactory, $50) the season’s guiltiest pleasure. Because Roberts made pictures of the boys in street clothes—or some twisted ’70s version thereof—the book is also a stylist’s wet dream; there are enough appliquéd bell-bottom jeans, distressed-denim jackets, and psychedelic hip-huggers here to inspire several seasons of retro-trash runway shows.
Even iller inspiration is to be found in Karlheinz Weinberger’s Photos 1954-1995 (Scalo, $49.95), a remarkable trove of obsessive documentation by a Swiss amateur photographer whose prime subject was Zurich’s rebel teens. Modeling themselves on American bikers but reduced to revving up scrawny mopeds, these would-be outlaws turned their thwarted energy to fashion outrage. For several years in the early ’60s, Weinberger’s apartment became part clubhouse, part photo studio for these style hoodlums, and many of the book’s most irresistible images were made against improvised seamless backdrops in his petit bourgeois rooms. Here, boys with long, slicked-back hair and girls with lacquered beehives posed in their ripped, painted, and studded denim and leather, often accessorized with homemade metal Elvis Presley belt buckles and heavy chains. Boys tied scarves around their legs and closed the unzipped crotches of their jeans with twine or, for an especially brutal touch, nuts and bolts. Weinberger traveled with this band of outsiders to holiday parks and fairgrounds, photographing them with an insider’s eye for vulnerability, charm, and anxiety. Though his later color work with more traditional Swiss motorcycle cliques rarely yields this sort of vivaciousness or poignancy, it has terrific moments, too. Weinberger has male bonding down cold—and hot.
For fashion of a more mainstream sort, there’s a neat old school/new school pairing: The first monograph devoted to Louise Dahl-Wolfe (Abrams, $45) is a seductively designed tribute to one of the first important women photographers working in fashion—and working is the operative word. Beginning late in the ’30s and continuing for more than two decades, Dahl-Wolfe turned out an astonishing number of drop-dead covers and editorial pages for Harper’s Bazaar, many of them in color so rich you can almost taste it. Even the best of those photographs have a relic-like quality these days, but Dahl-Wolfe’s feel for the sensuous in flesh and fabric will never get musty. Pushing into fashion’s computer-driven frontierland, the photographers included in The Impossible Image: Fashion Photography in the Digital Age (Phaidon, $39.95) are creating the genre’s most arresting dreamscapes. Morphmasters like Nick Knight, Sølve Sundsbø, Norbert Schoerner, Inez van Lamsweerde, and Stephane Sednaoui are showcased with extended spreads rather than individual images, so their hallucinatory manipulations have time to sink in—to excite and disturb.
Finally, there are two fat compendiums to pore over at your (postholiday) leisure. You don’t have to be a jock to fall for Sportscape (Phaidon, $49.95), a massive slab of sports images from two British photo archives. Though the sources skew this mix toward English and European events and athletes, the range is far less myopic than the average American sports book, and the images have been chosen with an eye trained on art as well as action. The art quotient is highest in the book’s early sections, where sports history takes a backseat to great photography, here again with a rich vernacular bent. Sportscape‘s designers get a bit carried away with the graphics at times, but they establish a headlong and marvelously varied pace, and many of their spreads are truly killer. Raymond Merritt and Miles Barth’s A Thousand Hounds (Taschen, $29.99) is also something of a design triumph. The biggest and best of all the dog photo books out there, it rounds up work from photography’s earliest days to the present, including anonymous, kitsch, and fine-art images of mutts in every possible attitude. The proliferation of historic and stylistic divisions, each repeated in three languages, can get distracting, but the pictures are so thoughtfully chosen it’s easy to sail through the text. There are photos here by Larry Clark, E.J. Bellocq, Bill Brandt, Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Sally Mann that I’ve never seen before, and at least one sobering shot: Charles Moore’s picture of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. Of the many quotes compiled here, I’ll leave you with one from Maria Bashkirtseff: “Let us love dogs; let us love only dogs! Men and cats are unworthy creatures.” Now get back to work.