There are several kinds of photographic books, including the ones I write. This list of 10, however, is of books primarily OF photographs. More than that, the idea in each is original, and was conceived for the first time. Nowadays there are lots of compilations, many of them fine and worthy, but they come along way after the event. Each book here was doing something different for the first time. And all of them were influential. I have some of them on my bookshelf, often bought at the time they were published. Unfortunately, not all, and with the first 1969 edition of Kamaitachi selling for over £5,000—when you can find a copy—that’s not likely ever to be on the shelf. Ah well. In date order:-
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Walker Evans and James Agee, 1941
Evans and Age spent several weeks in Alabama in 1936 with the sharecropping families that are the subject of this book about the Great Depression. A heartfelt combination of images and words, in an attempt to forge a new kind of visual-literary experience.
The Americans, by Robert Frank, 1959
Of course, everyone knows this book, so it wasn’t a struggle to put it on the list. It changed American photojournalism, very few people liked it at first, and it also changed the way (some) Americans saw their country. There’s a new edition, edited by Frank, published by Steidl.
David Bailey’s Box of Pin-ups, by David Bailey, 1964
You could argue that it is not really a book because it really is a clamshell box containing 36 loose sheets of half-tone images. All right, an unbound book, then. More to the point, Bailey and his portrait and fashion imagery personified London’s Swinging Sixties, from the Rolling Stones to the criminal Kray Brothers. Now more expensive even than first editions of Kamaitachi, though it originally sold for 3 guineas.
Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe and Tatsumi Hijikata, 1969
Horribly expensive now, but a work of art in its own right. A limited edition of 1,000 copies published in 1969. A strange theme, set in a farming village in the north of Japan, where dancer Hijikata enacts performances in the landscape related to the legend of a weasel-like demon. Yes, not your ordinary Beautiful Yosemite book.
Mirrors Messages Manifestations, by Minor White, 1969
The first monograph by the original spiritual photographer, friend of edward weston and Ansel Adams, who saw emotion and mystery in photographic abstraction. We’re in the land of Equivalence here, as defined by Alfred Stieglitz in 1925. As White wrote, “I had a feeling about something and here is my metaphor for that feeling.” Transcendental stuff.
The Creation, by Ernst Haas, 1971
As Haas tells it, on his return from one long assignment, his assistant had assembled a selection of slides in the projector, and ran them to a soundtrack by Haydn, saying, “Do you realize what you have photographed? You have photographed the creation of the world.” Haas, never shy, went with the idea. Looking for a theme to take you beyond fire hydrants? Here you go.
Worlds in a Small Room, by Irving Penn, 1974
Penn, better known for his still-life and fashion work, usually for Vogue, built for himself what he called an “ambulant studio” that he took around the world for portraiture, so committed was he to the “sweetness and constancy to light that falls into a studio from the north sky.” What, you’ve seen this done already? Avedon’s In the American West and countless others? Penn did it first, starting in 1948 in Peru.
William Eggleston’s Guide, by William Eggleston, 1976
Either the man who made colour photography and casual choice of subject artistically acceptable, or master of the banal, Eggleston focused on a kind of Americana with a Southern edge. In any case, his work was highly influential, and a key weapon in MoMA’s John Sarkowski’s campaign to take over the world of photography in the 1970s. This is his seminal book.
Cape Light, by Joel Meyerowitz, 1978
Meyerowitz began as a New York street photographer, then in the early 1970s switched to colour (the New Color, as it became known) and to an 8×10-inch view camera. Cape Light, in which he explored the nuances of Magic Hour around Cape Cod, became one of the best-selling photography books of all time (which explains why alone of the books on this list it remains inexpensive).
Requiem, by Horst Faas and Tim Page, 1987
The premise is obvious once you think about it—images of the Vietnam war by the photographers who died in it, on both sides—but it continues to haunt. Very powerful, so well put together, so beautifully produced. The only multi-photographer compilation in my list.