Best photography books of 2021
December 23, 2021
Amy Davies presents our pick of the best photography books from 2021
It’s always a difficult – but enjoyable – job to go through the past year’s worth of books to pick out a few to highlight at the end of the year.
Arguably, we’re living in a golden age of book publishing, with hundreds of different volumes published in recent times, perhaps spurred on by people being at home more than ever before, and a craving to spend some time away from a screen and looking at proper, printed material.
As the Features Editor, it is my task to pick out selections for inclusion in our reviews section each week. We also use books as starting points for larger features across the entire magazine. This year, we have been spoiled for choice and it’s been no easy task to pick out just a handful to present here.
I also asked a few colleagues to choose their best picks, so you’ll see below what they have chosen. Naturally, it wouldn’t be possible to read every book that is published this year, so if you don’t see your favourite, feel free to let us know what you would have picked via the usual communication methods.
If you’re lucky enough to receive book tokens in your Christmas stocking this year, putting them towards some of the following publications will reward you handsomely.
Best photography books 2021, selected by Amy Davies
Women Photographers, edited by Clara Bouveresse
£35, Thames and Hudson, 3x softback, 432 pages (total), ISBN: 9780500411186
If you wanted a quick, simple but thorough introduction to the history of fantastic women photographers since the invention’s medium, this set is it.
Divided into three volumes – Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Contemporaries – these are all great books to pick up and dip in and out of when you want to find new inspiration and the back catalogue of somebody new (to you) to dive into.
There are names here that are instantly recognisable to anyone with even a brief smattering of photographic historical knowledge, while others are perhaps less well known but equally as talented or interesting.
Each potted bio is accompanied by a single picture from the archive of said photographer. It can’t have been an easy job to select just one, but each acts as a fantastic launching pad to find out more.
If you’ve got a particular interest in any of the given time periods, the books are also available as individual items, but the slipcase makes for a handsome presentation – and perhaps a nice last-minute gift for those interested in the subject.
Birds by Tim Flach
£45, Abrams, hardback, 336 pages, ISBN: 9781419747618
In a year when dozens of books have landed on my desk (a tough job, but somebody has to do it), this is one where I felt genuine excitement to see it arrive. Happily I wasn’t disappointed when it did.
Having interviewed Tim for our large feature on his new project, I couldn’t wait to see the weighty tome in the flesh for myself. I’d seen a PDF of it, but there’s nothing quite like sitting down to flick through something in real life – especially so when it’s as beautiful and exquisitely printed as this.
Whether or not you’ve got a deep interest in the natural world, you should find something in here to appeal. From the beautiful colours of the exotic birds to the more familiar portraits of common types, you can really see how much of a labour of love this was for Tim and his team.
It was fascinating to learn more from Tim about how he uses portraiture techniques to anthropomorphise his subjects, a technique which he says encourages sympathy towards conservation efforts from as wide an audience as possible – especially the sceptics or unsympathetic.
This book is just simply stunning and I can’t recommend it enough. Considering the size and quality of it too, at £45 it’s a veritable bargain.
Single Dad by Harry Borden
£17.95, Hoxton Mini Press, hardback, 112 pages, ISBN: 9781910566893
Quite possibly one of the most heart-wrenching photography books to come out of the past 12 months – if not beyond – regular AP contributor Harry Borden’s beautiful project Single Dad is poignant, heartfelt and incredibly touching.
Himself a single father, this is obviously a deeply personal project for the photographer, but one which he has approached with his usual flair for portraiture and storytelling.
Taking the distorted and outdated notions of fatherhood and masculinity and turning them on their head, these are the stories of those who have suffered a loss – either of a partner, or of a relationship – and are coming to terms with that means for everyone involved.
A delicate and graceful look at love, loss, vulnerability, tenderness and also at times the injustices of the system in which parents find themselves trapped, it’s probably the book that has spoken to me most profoundly this year.
Published by Hoxton Mini Press, who have – as usual – produced some wonderful books this year, it’s also printed handsomely and is a nice product to hold. Again, this would make a fantastic gift for anybody with any kind of connection to the subject matter.
Hidden: Animals in the Anthropocene by Jo-Anne MacArthur & Keith Wilson
£75, Lantern Publishing, hardback, 305 pages, ISBN: 9781590566381
When we see our inbox overflowing with letters – not all of them positive – about a feature, then we know we’re doing something right.
A feature in the early part of 2021 looking at the book Hidden drew as many comments from readers as I can remember a single piece doing in recent history. Engagement like that is what we always strive for in AP, and this is one that really touched a lot of people.
In case you missed it, this is the important – but unflinching – story of the animals we are aware of, but that generally remain hidden from view. The animals we eat, the animals we wear, the animals used for research and work, the animals used for entertainment, and the animals used for tradition and religion.
Drawing together some of the world’s most noted photojournalists, it’s an important reminder of why we all need to work together to improve conditions for every living thing – human or otherwise.
Keith Wilson is also a regular contributor to Amateur Photographer, having formerly been its editor.
New Yorkers by Sally Davies
£20, Ammonite Press, hardback, 160 pages, ISBN: 9781781454046
As a lover of both quirky-portraiture and New York, Sally Davies’ book was a dead cert for getting my attention.The set of portraits feels intimate in a way that probably wouldn’t be possible in the current Covid climate, and each character is as off-the-wall and outlandish
as the last.
With 70 portraits to explore, there’s everything here from drag artists, store owners, doctors, dog walkers, cab drivers, gallery owners and everything in between.
Diversity, eccentricity and humanity are all found in abundance, and I loved the stories so much that it was an obvious choice for inclusion in my selection.
Regardless of whether or not you’ve been to New York yourself, there’s something to enjoy here. It’s a city which seems to have embedded itself in our global cultural consciousness, so there’s every chance you may feel you recognise some of the characters here anyway. New Yorkers also seem to have a distinctly different identity to other Americans, so it makes for quite a fascinating study.
It’d be interesting to see how a similar study would compare in one of the UK’s cities – perhaps one of our readers might take on the challenge in 2022.
Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography
£32, Bluecoat Press, hardback, 228 pages, ISBN: 9781908457707
I make it my personal mission to back at least one photography book on Kickstarter each year. It seems to be the case that a lot of those that I’ve recently backed have come from Bluecoat Press, which continues to make impressive volumes at an affordable price and via this very modern method of crowdfunding.
One of the books I chose to back this year was Marilyn Stafford’s. A name which is probably familiar to many AP readers, she won our Exceptional Achievement Award a couple of years back, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing her a couple of times too.
At 96 years young, she’s still a veritable powerhouse, maintaining the annual Marilyn Stafford Awards, and it’s at this tender age that she has published her first photo book – what an achievement.
The book looks back on some of her finest work from the 50s, 60s and 70s, where some notable career and life highlights include photographing Einstein, shooting the latest fashion on the streets of Paris, photographing refugees in Algeria, and being good friends with that little-known French photographer, Henri-Cartier Bresson.
The AP Team select their best photography books of 2021
Amazonia by Sebastião Salgado
£100, Taschen, hardback, 528 pages, ISBN: 9783836585101
Eight years in the making, Amazônia sees one of the world’s greatest photographers return to his home country to document probably Earth’s most important natural habitat and the lives of some of the indigenous tribes that call it home.
The logistical challenges involved in creating this epic record were considerable, from working with the Brazilian airforce to capture his awe-inspiring aerial views, to his collaboration with FUNAI without whom access to these rarely seen people would not be possible. Salgado spent months at a time living off-grid in deep, humid jungle, with people whose lives are as different from ours as it is possible to get.
As usual, his powerful b&w images justify the effort involved. The Amazon is still being destroyed at an alarming rate. How its loss will affect the sustainability of life on Earth for the rest of us is still unclear but the impact of its loss on the people and wildlife that live there is, sadly, all too obvious.
Chosen by Nigel Atherton, Editor
Mother: A Tribute to Mother Earth by Marsel van Oosten
£50, Te Neues, hardback, 320 pages, ISBN: 9783961713349
Multi-award-winning nature photographer Marsel van Oosten has brought together 170 of his favourite images from his 15-year career, spanning five continents, into this sumptuous large-format book, and it’s one of the best tributes to Earth’s natural riches that I have ever seen. Stunning images of iconic wildlife subjects sit alongside landscapes of breathtaking beauty.
Often his photographs straddle both wildlife and landscape genres, as he shoots wide to show the animal in its environment. If this book were a song it would be Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World.
Unusually, van Oosten provides plenty of technical details and anecdotes about how he took his pictures, as well as explanations about the subjects and the challenges they face. Mother is uplifting to look at but often depressing to read, as we’re reminded that so many of these amazing creatures and habitats may be consigned to history by the time my kids are my age.
Chosen by Nigel Atherton, Editor
Cherry Blossom by Bruce Gilden
£40, Thames and Hudson, hardback, 144 pages, ISBN: 9780500545553
When gaijin shoot Japan you tend to get a predictable menu: moody neon-noir night in the city shots; postcard-style images; gritty street photography in the style of Daido Moriyama but rarely done as well. Street photographer Bruce Gilden is very much one of a kind, however.
As well as familiar images of dapper yakuza looking hard, Cherry Blossom also takes an unflinching look at the homeless and urban underclass in Tokyo and Osaka. Many images reveal a Goya-esque level of misery, but Japan being Japan, Gilden also captures how even the cardboard cities in Tokyo are relatively tidy. He shows compassion throughout.
My only quibble is the fuss he makes about the titular image, ‘Cherry Blossom’; a Japanese lady in a kimono eating fried chicken under sakura trees might once have been an unusual capture but hardly so since the 90s. Otherwise this is a wonderful retrospective.
Chosen by Geoff Harris, Deputy Editor
Humans By Brandon Stanton Macmillan
£25, 448 pages, hardback, ISBN 978-1509851744
If you asked around for the name of the most influential photographer working today, I suspect few would mention Brandon Stanton. But as the author of the massively popular Humans of New York page on Facebook, he has a reach that dwarfs many more illustrious names, with nearly 18 million followers.
The Humans book brings together all the elements that made HONY a hit, but with an array of portraits from around the globe. It’s not really a conventional photo book, in that there’s no great style or artifice. Pictures are simply shot outdoors, in ambient light, and apparently unposed.
There’s not even an over-arching story; instead randomness is a key element. This is just a snapshot of humanity, regardless of age, colour or creed. Crucially, each portrait is accompanied by a snippet of the subject’s life story, often something deeply personal.
The real genius of Humans lies in how Stanton pairs his portraits with these statements in a fashion that’s always sympathetic and never judgemental, and then sequences the stories to reveal a richer insight into the human condition. The result is a deeply touching book. It might not teach you how to become a better photographer, but it could help you be a better human.
Chosen by Andy Westlake, Technical Editor