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Once again, I found it impossible to keep my list of the best photography books of the past year to a neat Top 10, and even this sprawling Top 20 is straining at its limits: Both Irving Penn and Daido Moriyama are represented by two titles each. With the growing recognition of photography’s importance, not just historically but in the moment, publishers are attempting to supply a demand that only a few of them fully understand or appreciate. The result is more but not necessarily better books; for all the worthy titles gathered here, there are very few that succeed in matching intelligent design—one that gives careful consideration to reproduction, format, binding, typeface, and sequencing—with important content. Still, the sheer volume of new photo books is exciting and encouraging to any photo aficionado, especially when it includes such genuinely substantial projects as the definitive seven-volume edition of August Sander’s People of the 20th Century and the two-volume Key Set, which reproduces the vast Alfred Stieglitz archive that Georgia O’Keeffe donated to the National Gallery of Art (both sets from Abrams).

Though they certainly deserve to be there, I didn’t put either of these titles on my list—their historic heft places them so far above the competition it seemed pointless to rank them. Since the list is devoted primarily to books of photography rather than books about photography—monographs rather than critical overviews—I also left off two other titles that are among the year’s most thoughtful and original: Max Kozloff’s New York: Capital of Photography (Yale) and Lyle Rexer’s Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde (Abrams). Kozloff surveys the representation of New York in pictures taken at the turns of two centuries and all the years in between, arguing that the most engaged and engaging ones were taken by Jewish photographers whose history made them particularly sensitive to the experience of the city’s minorities and outsiders. Although Kozloff is careful to note the exceptions, from Lewis Hine to Roy DeCarava, his examples—including Ben Shahn, Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind, Diane Arbus, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, and Nan Goldin—are overwhelmingly persuasive, and they looked terrific on the wall at the Jewish Museum last spring.

Rexer, whose book is subtitled “The New Wave in Old Processes,” investigates the renewed interest in printing techniques that date back to the dawn of photography. As the medium achieves greater and greater degrees of glossy, computer-aided perfection, photographers like Sally Mann, John Dugdale, Dan Estabrook, Jerry Spagnoli, and Jayne Hinds Bidaut are making hands-on 19th-century processes a key element in their work. Rexer’s book provides a smart showcase for these and other contemporary time travelers, and suggests that their revival of antique techniquesisn’t reactionary—it’s a way of restoring the soul of the medium. (Top 20 case in point: Chuck Close’s big volume of marvelously detailed daguerreotype portraits and nudes made over the past two years with Spagnoli’s assistance.)

As usual, nearly every book on my list is shadowed by another that deserves mention. Here Is New York, which, against all odds, preserves the spirit and urgency of the exhibition that galvanized the city in the wake of 9-11, is the one great photo book to come out of that horror and (not so incidentally) one of the best-designed titles on the list. But the experience of poring over these 860-some pages is deepened considerably if you then turn to Pilgrimage: Looking at Ground Zero (powerHouse), Kevin Burbriski’s extraordinary portraits of people drawn to the site in the months immediately following the destruction of the World Trade Center. Perhaps because he so clearly shares their feelings, Burbriski captures his subjects’ grief, pain, and stunned astonishment without ever edging into crass voyeurism. His pictures are as subtle as they are sympathetic, and all the more touching for their grave reserve.

Similarly, Freedom, a massive, hectic compilation of photographs putting civil rights photojournalism in a broad historic perspective that includes slave portraits, lynching shots, and frames from the Rodney King video (and is aided immeasurably by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings’s text), should be seen alongside Bruce Davidson’s more artful and measured Time of Change (St. Ann’s Press). Beginning in 1961, Davidson shared buses with the Freedom Riders and documented civil rights marches and protests, but he also recorded the ordinary lives of black people in New York and the South with the sharp eye for nuance that has always characterized his work. The results are at once understated and fraught—the richest sort of concerned photography.

But this doesn’t even begin to account for all the other great photography in print this past year. Even if you don’t consider it absolutely crucial to maintain a complete set of Bruce Weber’s A&F Quarterlies, Steven Meisel’s issues of Vogue Italia, and every appearance of Steven Klein and Matthias Vriens in Dutch and The Face, you’ll probably understand the necessity of collecting not just the year’s key monographs (in addition to the ones in the Top 20, they’d include excellent books devoted to Danny Lyon, Michael Spano, Graciela Iturbide, Aaron Rose, Lewis Carroll, Wolfgang Tillmans, Flor Garduño, Abelardo Morell, Colin Jones, George Tice, Wright Morris, David Armstrong, and Adam Fuss) but its quirks, flukes, and ephemera. Quirkiest: Scotlandfuturebog (Aperture), the first hardcover book to preserve one of the elaborately conceived, painstakingly staged sagas the collaborative team of Kahn & Selesnick have been weaving over the past decade. This one conflates prehistory and a post-apocalyptic future in a series of otherworldly panoramas that, typically, seesaw between hilarity and dread. Flukiest: Ryan McGinley (Index Books), the slim paperback volume that helped launch one of 2002’s spunkiest believe-the-hype talents. Best ephemera: gallery catalogs, many of which aren’t ephemeral at all. Roth Horowitz continues to put out the most intelligently designed of these, and its dense, dark, compellingly cinematic Daido Moriyama title, ‘71-NY, which made the Top 20, is a knockout. But there are plenty of essential others, including Richard Prince’s It’s a Free Concert From Now On (Barbara Gladstone), Photographs 1978/79 (Skarstedt Fine Art) by Laurie Simmons, Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s dizzyingly encyclopedic Visible World (Matthew Marks), and the spiral-bound, inexpensively printed collection of Photography by Ron Galella (Paul Kasmin), which pins down the cheesy kick of this pit bull paparazzo’s work a lot more effortlessly than Greybull Press’s high-priced spread. Also keeping it real: Jack Pierson, with the black-and-white xeroxed catalog that accompanied “Regrets,” his show at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and perfectly captured his fizzy, funky, fleetingly melancholy sensibility.

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