12 Photobooks You Should Read

As photographers, our journey is not just about capturing moments but also about continuous learning and exploration. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting, these twelve books are essential reads that offer insights into art, technique, and the culture of photography.

1. An Aperture Monograph, Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson, regarded as one of the most captivating photographers of her era, has spent the last decade articulating identities through intimate portraits and compelling narratives of ceremonies and rituals. Employing medium- and large-format cameras, Lawson collaborates with models she meets in the United States and during her travels in the Caribbean and Africa, constructing visually arresting, meticulously structured scenes infused with a rich palette of colors and a keen focus on unexpected details. These scenes unfold within domestic interiors, where bedding and furniture play significant roles, or in lush, Edenic gardens adorned with vibrant plants. The nude body often takes center stage, reflecting Lawson’s overarching objective to depict the personal and powerful aspects of black life. This photobook showcases forty impeccably reproduced photographs, accompanied by an essay from the esteemed writer Zadie Smith and an extensive conversation with filmmaker Arthur Jafa. This collection underscores Lawson’s commitment to portraying the depth and significance of black experiences.

2. Revelations, Diane Arbus

“Revelations” delves into the origins, breadth, and aspirations encapsulated within Diane Arbus’s distinctly original artistic voice. Arbus’ unflinching portrayal of her subjects and her unwavering belief in the inherent power of photography have given rise to a body of work that is frequently startling in its purity and resolute celebration of reality as it exists. By presenting numerous lesser-known or previously unpublished photographs alongside her iconic images, the book unveils a nuanced yet enduring perspective on the world. The publication also incorporates a new contribution by Sarah Meister, executive director of Aperture, essays by Sandra S. Phillips and insights into Arbus’s printing techniques by Neil Selkirk, the sole authorized printer of her posthumous work.

3. Ward 81, Mary Ellen Mark

In 1975, The Pennsylvania Gazette commissioned photographer Mary Ellen Mark to document the production of Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film was being shot on location at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution. During her time on set, Mark encountered the women of Ward 81, the sole locked security ward for women in the state, reserved for those considered a danger to themselves or others. In February 1976, just before the ward’s closure in November 1977, Mark and writer/social scientist Karen Folger Jacobs received permission to conduct a more extensive stay, residing on the ward to photograph and interview the women. Over 36 days, they documented life on Ward 81, revealing the gradual impact of institutionalization on both the inmates and themselves.

4. Harlem Book of the Dead, James Van Der Zee

Delving into funeral rites and capturing photographs from Harlem during the first half of the twentieth century, “The Harlem Book of the Dead” transcends mere representations of mourning ceremonies. Its pages unveil a historical narrative of a bygone era in Harlem, where society demonstrated a profound care for both the living and the dead. Reflecting a belief in preserving a standard of pride marked by spiritual and temporal values, the book showcases the pageantry of funerals as a purging of sorrow. It suggests that a nonchalant attitude toward death may mirror a lack of regard for life, presenting these ritual examples as universally significant as death itself – applicable to Harlems everywhere.

5. An Aperture Monograph, Ming Smith

Recognized as one of the preeminent artists of our time, the beginning of Smith’s professional and creative journey is marked by images pulsating with profound beauty and spiritual resonance. This eagerly anticipated monograph is the first to bring together Smith’s extensive body of work spanning four decades, showcasing her signature lyricism, uniquely blurred silhouettes, vibrant street scenes, and unwavering passion for theater, music, poetry, and dance. From capturing the essence of Black life to embracing visual motifs rooted in Afrofuturism, Smith’s lens reflects an extraordinary devotion to diverse artistic expressions. Featuring never-before-seen images alongside enlightening essays and interviews, this homage to Smith’s distinctive vision has become a lasting contribution to the tapestry of American photography history.

6. In This Brief Life, Eugene Richards

In this profoundly personal work, Eugene Richards delves into a collection spanning over 50 years, revealing previously unseen photographs. From his earliest images portraying sharecropper life in the Arkansas Delta to present day, Richards reflects on the meaning of creating socially conscious documentary photography amidst contemporary challenges. Faced with a complex political landscape, including the pandemic, increased gun violence, polarized politics, and the tragedy in Beirut, Richards took his son’s advice and began sharing his photos on social media. The collection, titled “In This Brief Life,” showcases these images, accompanied by the photographer’s personal reflections and detailed captions.

7. The Sweet Flypaper of Life, Roy DeCarava

“The Sweet Flypaper of Life” is a collaborative work by artist Roy DeCarava and poet Langston Hughes, offering a poetic portrayal of ordinary life in Harlem during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hughes’s heartwarming description, captures and celebrates scenes of daily life, from teenagers at a jukebox to children playing near fire hydrants while DeCarava’s photographs complement Hughes’s lyricism by exploring deeper meanings and portraying those thought to be of an inferior class as worthy subjects of art.

8. Yes, William Klein

William Klein’s final completed work before his passing stands as a monumental retrospective, encapsulating his prolific legacy across photography, filmmaking, painting, and graphic design. As a photographer, filmmaker, artist, and designer, Klein achieved mastery in each of these disciplines over a remarkable eight-decade career. Widely acknowledged as one of the foremost image makers of the 20th century, Klein’s creative influence endures, leaving an indelible mark on the work of contemporary artists, photographers, and filmmakers alike.

9. GIRLS, Luo Yang

Luo Yang is showcased in this book featuring pivotal works from her series, “GIRLS”. This work offers a deeply personal exploration into the photographer’s interactions with women from her generation. These young women, whether set against the backdrop of China’s urban landscape or intimate private settings, exude confidence and individuality while revealing vulnerability and fragility. Breaking away from traditional female stereotypes, they navigate towards self-determination in the swiftly transforming modern China. Through her lens, Luo Yang paints a sensitive portrayal of urban Chinese youth in their pursuit of autonomy and identity.

10. A Time Before Crack, Jamel Shabazz

In this work, Jamel Shabazz carefully chronicles an past era—a time when Black life was being reshaped amid the social and political dynamics of the 1980’s, preceding the social devastation wrought by the crack epidemic. Shabazz, took on the role of documenting the faces and locales that encapsulated this period in his life. Though many of his subjects subsequently became casualties of the dual AIDS and crack epidemics, they are immortalized through Shabazz’s colorful and warm portraits – a poignant representation of a now-distant yet tender period in Black urban life. Shabazz, in unknowingly commemorating his community, creates a visual time capsule that transcends the temporal boundaries of the 1980s. The book, through its visual storytelling, offers a testament to the enduring strength and creativity of Black urban life during a challenging but culturally rich period in history.

11. Black Lives Matter, Chris Cook

In this work, the artist engages in an introspective and contemplative exploration of the ongoing struggle for social and racial equity within the Black American community. Documenting the historic series of protests following the tragic killing of George Floyd in 2020, this work serves as a comprehensive visual record of the protests that reverberated across the nation and incited a global call for unity. Cook’s painstaking attention to detail transforms this work into a personal diary, providing a firsthand account of the demonstrations through his eyes, and notably, documents his internal wrestling with identity and societal perceptions—a poignant dilemma palpable in the images. This monograph prompts reflection on the possibility of a sustainable future for Black lives within the complexities of a hyper-racial society. A visually compelling and emotionally evocative piece, this work encourages us to reflect on the past while contemplating the path forward.

12. The Americans, Robert Frank

Robert Frank’s “The Americans” profoundly altered the trajectory of twentieth-century photography. Through 83 photographs, Frank delved beneath the surface of American life, unveiling a populace marked by racism, disillusioned by politicians, and desensitized by an accelerating culture of consumption. Yet, within the overlooked corners of everyday existence, he discovered pockets of unique beauty. It wasn’t solely Frank’s choice of subjects—cars, jukeboxes, and the open road—that reshaped America’s iconic imagery; it was also his intuitively immediate, off-kilter style and his masterful thematic, conceptual, formal, and linguistic connections between photographs that rendered “The Americans” so groundbreaking. More akin to an ode or a poem than a straightforward document, the book remains as potent and thought-provoking today as it was when it was initially published.

Remember, the journey of a photographer is not just about the gear and settings but also about the continuous pursuit of knowledge. These books offer a diverse range of perspectives and themes that continue to inspire, educate, and elevate the art of photography meaningfully. Happy reading and shooting!


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Isis Jannierre
Isis Jannierre
New York City-based fine arts photographer, Parsons School of Design alumna - capturing and highlighting environmental, social, and cultural issues through an objective lens.
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