A Few of the Greats..astonishing books to keep on your coffee table (and never lend)

Over the years, probably because of my love of books, I have amassed a collection of exemplars. At various stages on our photographic journey we may look for inspiration beyond what we think we know. At times like this buying books of photographs made by the greats of our medium can prove an inspiration. By studying the photographs and reading about the photographers, we can learn new ways to make photographs and also to consider our own road ahead. All of the books in this section of The Bookshelf are ones I refuse to lend. Read them, learn from them, and just enjoy owning something particularly beautiful.

American Color 2Constantine Manos has been one of the leading lights of Magnum Photo for a number of decades. His documentary/Street photography shows an astonishing understanding of human nature and the human condition, and a deep awareness of the American cultural aesthetic. Prowling quietly, armed only with a Leica and a couple of lenses, his acute and sometimes acerbic perception has led to a whole body of work with a distinctly personal aesthetic, and a unique style. In this book, the second in a series, he shows his unique style, his deep understanding of colour and his mastery of the picture space. Anyone with a passion for colour documentary and street work will find inspiration in this book. I have both, and I refuse to lend them to anybody! Some books you never want to lose…

InfernoJames Nachtwey has been a war photographer and for nearly 3 decades, visiting and photographing most of the hell-holes of the world on assignment for a variety of magazines. In that time he has been gassed, shot and beaten up in search of his self-stated mission to use his photography to make a difference. While he works from time to time in colour, his most impressive work is his black and white work, much of which is gruelling to approach.

This book is big, expensive and difficult/challenging. It is not recommended for the fragile, delicate and super-sensitive. His searing photographs and direct gaze on the things we like to pretend never happened may well have you wondering about humanity, and our talent for being so cruel to each other. But it will make you think…

A Shadow FallsIf you have ever thought of making portraits of animals in their natural environment,then this book is a must-own. A Shadow Falls contains 57 of the most stunning animal portraits you can imagine. These are big, beautiful and in black and white, and each one has a formality and reference for the subject quite in contrast to the usual run-of-the-mill photographs you see on calendars and in Beautiful Africa books. The blurb explains it beautifully:

Nick Brandt’s portraits of some of the last surviving large mammals of East and Southern Africa reveal soulful beings who bear the individualized imprint of a life in nature. His new book reproduces 57 never-before published images in stunning tritone plates at large size. Photographer Nick Brandt has made it his mission to portray the last survivors of what were once vast populations of large mammals in East and Southern Africa. Brandt photographs lions, cheetahs, gorillas, zebras and elephants with a gripping style. To make these photographs, Brandt takes long, difficult trips into the field, negotiating with the human bureaucracies that control access to the wild subjects he seeks. He uses none of the apparatus of the wildlife photographer; rather, nature is his art studio, where majestic subjects sit for his lens. Mary Ellen Mark describes these photographs as both ‘epic and iconic’; Jane Goodall remarks that, ‘they inspire a sense of awe at the beauty of creation and the sacredness of life’.

EquusPhotographing horses has never really been my thing, and after seeing this book I’m not sure I want to begin! The photographs in this book are simply so beautiful that I learn from them every time I look, about lighting, composition and commitment. So what is this book about? I will let the blurb speak to you.

In his first book, award-winning photographer Tim Flach’s quest to document the horse has resulted in “Equus”, an intensely moving look at an animal – as solitary subject and en masse, from the air and from underwater – whose history is so powerfully linked to our own. From exquisite Arabians in the Royal Yards of the United Arab Emirates to purebred Icelandic horses in their glacial habitat; from the soulful gaze of a single horse’s lash-lined eye to the thundering majesty of thousands of Mustangs racing across the plains of Utah, “Equus” provides an amazing and unique insight into the physical dynamics and spirit of the horse.

Michael Kenna: Images of the Seventh Day 1974-2009I like to think of Michael Kenna as the modern Ansel Adams.even though his aesthetic is, at times, post-modern, his black-and-white photography demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to his art and a deep understanding of the aesthetic of the formal picture space (put simply, his composition is inspirational). He has quite clearly mastered that most difficult of formats, the square. His landscapes made in the Far East clearly show his understanding of the Paths the great artists of the area have taken before him. To my mind his work taps into the whole web of possibility. This is one of those books which will have you planning a photographic trip at the first available opportunity, to try out his ideas for yourself.

You can borrow this by prising it from my cold dead fingers (thank you, Charlton Heston)
Flora Photographica: Masterpieces of Flower Photography from 1835 to the PresentIf you have a passion for photographing the natural world, and flowers in particular, but you might want to move on from a purely representational record of time and place, or you are beginning to get over Impressionist flowers, then you really need to buy this book. It will offer you an astonishing range of exemplars and possible lines of approach. The artists represented in this book have taken a mind-boggling range of different approaches to photographing the beauty of the flower. Included is the blurb from the book, which will give you a deeper insight into what you will find inside.

Flora Photographica is a striking and extravagantly designed album that celebrates the glorious beauty and pathos of flowers in all their multifarious forms. In these pages flowers speak to us with a greater intensity and more subtle modulation than even in nature itself. For each bloom shown has been observed with that acuity of vision which only the most sensitive of artist-photographers can bring to bear. What we see is both reality and revelation. The artist’s eye decodes the flower’s message and sharpens its beauty. Here are Mapplethorpe’s tulips, half-metal, half-living creatures; Steichen’s delphiniums, preserved in an everlasting summery perfection of blues and pinks; Atget’s open-air profusion of poppies; Cunningham’s magnolia, richly fertile and lush; Man Ray’s surreal yet pure calla lily; Chris Enos’s dying poinsettia, its colours curdling in decay. These are masterpieces of photographic art, in an astonishing range of media, from photography’s beginnings up to the present day. Full details of the techniques and processes used are elucidated in the commentaries and introduction by the acclaimed photo-historian William A. Ewing. But, above all, here are flowers as we have never seen them before, an unparalleled display to marvel at, contemplate and enjoy.

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