Best photography books 2020
February 19, 2020
We’ve studied our shelves to pick our favourite photography books, and we’ve asked some carefully selected individuals – including Martin Parr himself – to do the same. Read on and enjoy.
Martin Parr is one of Britain’s best-known photographers. He is also one of the country’s leading exponents and collectors of the humble photo book. In 2017, he gifted his extensive collection of books to the Tate, but he remains a leading authority on the subject. We asked Martin to choose some of his favourite books of the past few decades. Here is his selection as well as a few of our own favourite photography books.
Martin Parr’s selection of the best photography books
Nobody Books, 2019
The latest book from the irrepressible Stephen Gill may be his best book ever. He erects a pillar near his home in rural Sweden and sets a camera so every bird that lands on it triggers a new photo. The crazy and wonderful shapes these birds create are almost beyond words.
éditions du Seuil, 1956
This was probably the most influential book of the last century as Klein almost single-handedly reinvented photography language with this radical book. The grainy stream of consciousness that he established could be seen to have ripple effects all over the world as his pupils made his imagery into their own.
Bye Bye Photography
Shashin Hyoron-sha, 1972
This crazy book by the doyen of Japanese photography was meant to tear up the rulebook and re-boot photography once and for all. He trod on his photos, double exposed, added dust and yet the whole thing works a treat. So now this rebellious book is part of the mainstream.
Turner, Madrid, 2007
Vernacular books have become increasingly important these days as people realise their innocence and integrity and the results are very compelling. This is a good example, where Miguel was given a box of photos of his grandfather who was out with a different woman every night in hedonistic Acapulco in the 1960s.
Pass it On,
Peng Yangjun and Chen Jiaojiao
Shang Xia, 2011
This wonderful box of goodies has many photographs as memories, but also has a collection of small toys and other souvenirs which can be seen as evocative. This collection demonstrates very well how books can now become objects to cherish as well as a traditional book.
Secker and Warburg, 1988
This book is a powerful documentation of life in the deprived North East of England shot in the late ’70s for the next decade. His carefully constructed images, often on large format, evoke both empathy with the subjects and amazement at the intimacy they depict. It is difficult to think of a more striking postwar documentary photo book.
Our pick of the best photography books
Picking just one photography book as my favourite is an almost impossible task, but I can easily name the book that has had the greatest influence on my life. When Salgado published Workers it was accompanied by a major exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, which I went to see. I was still in my twenties and up to that point had never really given much thought to how so many of the things I took for granted – the tea and sugar on my breakfast table, the tuna in my sandwich, the sulphur in dozens of the things I use every day – were dependent upon the suffering and exploitation of some of the world’s poorest people, labouring in harsh, miserable and often toxic conditions for a pittance. Like taking the red pill in The Matrix, Workers revealed to me for the first time the true nature of the relationship between the developed and developing nations, and Salgado did so through the most powerful, moving documentary photography I had ever seen. Epic, beautiful, empathetic and often biblical in scale. I consider Salgado to be the world’s greatest living photographer, not just for his work but for the way he lives his life and what he does with his money, and his work influences my own documentary photography to this day.
Nigel Atherton, Editor
The Great LIFE Photographers
Thames and Hudson
‘Crikey, chez Harris is on fire’. Sorry, Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson, my priority is saving this collection of photography from LIFE magazine, covering 1936 to 2000 (when LIFE closed). There are so many unforgettable images in here that capture those turbulent 64 years, or are just beautifully taken. The US photographer Steve Schapiro said a great image excels at three things – information, emotion and execution – and this photography book is full of perfect examples. Take Eisenstaedt’s 1933 grab shot of a scowling Joseph Goebbels, which captures the Third Reich’s mendacity and malevolence at a time when it still got the benefit of the doubt, or Eugene Smith’s poetic image of a Japanese woman bathing her daughter, disfigured by mercury poisoning. Then there is Larry Burrows in Vietnam. While there are a lot of hard-hitting news images, the glamour and optimism of the postwar years shine through too. Lisa Larsen’s portrait of Marlon Brando from 1948 is irresistible and poignant, along with Grace Kelly shopping in New York. Turning the page you find her image of Ho Chi Minh on a train (Uncle Ho took quite a shine to her, apparently). This book’s rich variety and wealth of anecdotes are utterly captivating.
Geoff Harris, Deputy Editor
Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography
Merrell in association with the V&A, ISBN 978-1-858945927
One photography book that has a great deal of personal appeal and connection to me is Shadow Catchers by Martin Barnes. Shadow Catchers showcases the work of five contemporary artists (Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller, Pierre Cordier, Adam Fuss and Floris Neusüss) all using unique alternative camera-less photographic processes. The book was created in coordination with an exhibition that was shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010 to 2011, and includes a brief history of camera-less photography as well as information about the artists and the processes they do.
An appealing factor about Shadow Catchers is that in an age where photography is mass-produced, images shared at the click of a button, and generally thrown around left, right and centre, these artists are creating unique, original photographic artworks that are of great value and significance. When I was a student at university undertaking my photography degree I spent many hours in the darkroom making images without a camera. I feel proud that during the whole of my final year I never once picked up a camera (and yes I did pass!), yet I was left with unique photographic artworks that could never be reproduced. One of the aspects I love about photography is the number of different processes, gadgets, technologies, and techniques you can use to make a photographic image. Whenever I read this book and look at the inspiring images, it reminds me of that. It also prompts me to continue pushing the boundaries within my practice, as photography is an ever-moving technology full of undiscovered possibilities.
Claire Gillo, Acting Technique Editor
The Best of Eric Treacy
Atlantic Transport Publishers
One of my favourite photography books I own is one I picked up from a charity shop for a pound. It sits high on a pile of photography books beneath my coffee table at home and is picked up every so often when I seek photographic inspiration for my love of railways, in particular black & white photography. Ask any passionate railway enthusiast for the name of the most highly regarded railway photographers of all time and there’s one name that always seems to crop up time and time again. Former Anglican Bishop and lover of steam, Eric Treacy went about capturing the era of British Railways in his own unique way, seeking permission to shoot from trackside locations others could only dream of gaining access to. His striking images around London King’s Cross and Liverpool Lime Street capture the power and beauty of thundering locomotives in an evocative way that no other railway photographer managed.
While some might argue he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, Eric clearly put in a lot of research prior to each and every shot he took. The relationship and reputation he built with many of those in the railway industry shines through. This book is a reflection of some of Eric’s finest work. Whether you have an interest in railways or not, you can’t fail to be impressed by the tonality of his images and the way Britain’s railway network used to be. It’s a must-have for all black & white photographers out there.
Michael Topham, Reviews Editor
For most of it I have no words
While I was at university in the late 1990s I spent a week’s food budget on Simon Norfolk’s book For Most of it I Have No Words – and it was so worth it. The book was published in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations convention on genocide, and it features images taken in Rwanda, Cambodia, Vietnam, Auschwitz, Dresden, Ukraine, Armenia and Namibia. Every time I open this book it makes me cry. Some of the photographs are beautiful: black & white landscapes reduced to simple shapes and forms. Others are more graphic: bodies poisoned by Agent Orange, rows of skulls, and a classroom full of small skeletons, for example.
For Most of it I Have No Words is about the traces and symbols left behind by genocide. It’s about memory and its gradual erosion. More than once I’ve thought about shutting it in a cupboard or giving it away, as though that would somehow change the fact that human beings are capable of doing some pretty horrific things to one another. But the reality is this book needs to be seen, it needs to be read and discussed, and it needs to be remembered.
Tracy Calder, Acting Technique Editor
Bill Jay’s Album: Friends and Other Photographers
Out of print, but available second-hand on Amazon
This is a book for photographers and about photographers. Bill Jay was the influential editor of Creative Camera, as well as director of photography at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. For the 25 years until he retired, he taught photography at Arizona State University. Not surprisingly, he met a lot of photographers in his time, many of them becoming close friends. Bill Jay’s Album comprises portraits of 100 photographers, many of them household names, taken during exhibition openings, lectures, on walks, in their houses and at Bill Jay’s home. The images are relaxed – as you would expect portraits of friends to be – sometimes straight, and sometimes quirky. Each is captioned in Jay’s own handwriting, with simple descriptions such as ‘Ruth Bernhard feeding ducks and swans during an early walk, March 1982’, ‘Ralph Gibson during a softball game in May 1978’, or ‘Josef Koudelka during a stay in my cabin in the Tonto National Forest, January 1985’. The images are sandwiched between write-ups on each photographer by Jay. Some of these are simply biographical, while others contain anecdotes and pearls of his opinion on them. His writing is as unaffected as his portraits. You won’t learn anything about f-stops or Photoshop from this book. But you will learn a little about some of the most influential photographers who’ve ever lived, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
Ailsa McWhinnie, Features Editor
Here, Far Away
Dewi Lewis Publishing
First published in 2012, this is a retrospective collection that brings together nearly 40 years of Finnish fine-art photographer Pentti Sammallahti’s captivating and haunting work. Now if the term ‘fine art’ fills you with terror, don’t worry, because I’m not talking about the kind that leaves you staring baffled at a gallery wall. Sammallahti creates extraordinarily beautiful b&w images that radiate a truly timeless quality. They are quiet, enigmatic, and superbly composed, and in Here Far Away they are also brilliantly sequenced and stunningly reproduced.
I first discovered this book through Mike Johnston’s excellent blog The Online Photographer (theonlinephotographer.com), which is one of the best places on the web to read about photography, as opposed to just cameras. From the start it was in short supply, and I had to wait nine months for my copy to finally ship. But when it arrived, I couldn’t tear myself away. There’s no single theme, with animals, humans and the landscape all featuring prominently, but there’s still a coherent vision running throughout the work. This is a book that draws you into the world of an exceptional artist, and I’ve returned to it, awestruck, time after time.
Andy Westlake, Technical Editor
National Geographic Rarely Seen: Photographs of the Extraordinary
National Geographic Society
A title such as Rarely Seen will set readers’ expectations very high – and this book does not disappoint. With a layout of one picture per page (or some across two) accompanied by a short caption, the pictures make you not only marvel at the photographers’ skill, but also showcase the beauty of our planet.
Even though this book features well-known names like Steve McCurry, Brent Stirton, Susan Middleton and Marc Adamus, it’s not about the photographers: it’s about the pictures. From the outset, the book sets out to wow you, revealing hidden wonders such as the extremely rare blue lobster; the two-headed, yellow-bellied slider turtle; or pancake ice in Poland. And the human element is also present as seen in the photo of Andre Agassi and Roger Federer playing tennis perched 211m above the ground on the helipad of Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Hotel (above) or the secret message written inside Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch.
This book is about the rare and extraordinary. I enjoy going through it with my two-year-old son. The awe with which he views the photos mirrors mine… even though I have seen so much more in my life compared to his two years. This is the power of extraordinary!
Jolene Menezes, Chief Sub Editor
Dogs in Vogue: A Century of Canine Chic
One of the great perks of working at a photography magazine is access to the vast swathes of photo books that are published every year. Trying to pick a favourite is a tricky task, but this one, published at the beginning of my magazine career 10 years ago has always stuck in my mind. A book which does pretty much what it says on the tin, Dogs in Vogue chronicles the countless times canine companions have been featured on the revered pages of Vogue magazine. There’s almost every breed imaginable here, and they’ve been photographed by a veritable who’s who of 20th-century photography – Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Mario Testino, Lee Miller, Helmut Newton, Lord Snowdon, Bruce Weber and many more fill the pages of this charming book. It’s a visual treat for dog, fashion and photography lovers alike.
‘The next best thing to having the world at your feet is to have a dog at your heels,’ said Vogue in 1930. I’m not certain I’ve ever come across any truer words. On a dark and gloomy day, there’s no finer bliss than curling up with my own beautiful hound, cup of tea in hand, flicking through the pages of Dogs in Vogue – heaven.
Amy Davies, Features Editor