11 Must Have Photography Books for the Photographer’s Coffee Table
Once you’re hooked on taking pictures, that rush of gaining more and more control over your camera is addictive!!! I remember ever so clearly how I just couldn’t get enough… I shot a roll of film EVERY DAY (dozens of which are still undeveloped haha), messing with my exposure and composition as I walked around town.
These days there is a lot of free photography training online, but nothing beats the inspiration and insight from seeing quality photographers’ work in print… especially paired with the artist’s commentary. In my list of MUST HAVE photography books, I focus on inspirational artist’s work – whether they are dead and alive, male or female. Sure, there are some photography instruction books included in the list, but mainly I present a ton of high quality eye candy for you. These individual artists and organizations like National Geographic have printed very cohesive, expressive, and stirring bodies of work.
These are some of my favorite artists, and photography books that I own myself or have included in my own collection at one point. I hope you, too, will be inspired by these amazing photographers!!!
1. The 100 Photographs that Changed the World
This photography book makes the list because of the point that the collection makes about how impactful individual photographs have been on our human history. That a single heartrending photograph of a vulture hovering over a dying child in Sudan could change the tide of aid to that country, tugging on heartstrings and raising awareness globally about poverty there. Pictures are IMPORTANT.
Because the pictures in this book are pulled from different styles, technologies, and purposes, though, they feel a bit like history hodge podge. It just doesn’t feel as cohesive photographically. If you’re a new photographer, this may be a benefit as it will expose you to a variety of different styles and directions within the photography community. Do not, though, expect the pictures to take you in a new direction with your own work.
This book really is a history lesson and photography eye candy all rolled up into one.
2. Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment
So I’m a little biased in this book selection, not just because I’m a woman myself… but because I was lucky enough to be part of a group of people here in Pittsburgh who were able to meet and speak with a handful of the artists featured in this book while their work was exhibited at the Carnegie Museum. My copy of this book is signed and much treasured. To me their stories transcend the pages of the book and are wrapped up in my memories of that evening.
That said, I think this book is pretty freakin amazing. It features 11 female National Geographic photographers, with a bio and samples of images in their collection. I think in glancing through its pages you will see that the perspective from the images is decidedly female… In an industry that has been historically male dominated, this book reminds me to embrace my own unique perspective.
These women are not just amazing photographers, they are also incredibly brave humans doing important work.
3. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer
Discovered posthumously from a storage locker filled with decades worth of photographs, Maier was an unmarried nanny who spent her life photographing the streets of New York City and Chicago.
She photographed for herself, not for publication, and as such her images feel like an honest observation of life done with a critical careful eye. I find it fascinating that she is able to get as close as she does to her subjects, while still blending into the background leaving the scene unaffected by her presence. Perhaps that is partly because of the type of camera she used (TLR), but it also would not surprise me if she were as unassuming photographing the streets as she was in her personal life.
Maier is a bit of a mystery, and you’ll notice that the book is filled to the brim with photographs but paired with minimal words.
The photography world has fallen in love with Vivian Maier’s story, and it’s fascinating to guess why. Maier’s beautiful photographers are a journal of her life and they are all we have left, so are we driven to figure her out? Or do we just all harbor our own secret desire for discovery?
Paging through dozens of prints of her work I can’t help but wonder WHY… what drove her to photograph?
4. National Geographic Photo Basics: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Great Photography
This is my favorite beginner’s photography book. It assumes no prior knowledge of the technical side of photography and gives straightforward, succinct explanations. It even includes lessons and the author provides the thought process behind his own provided photos. A great book for the student looking for an introduction to photography, or the teen/mom/friend in your life who wants to step it up from their cell phone pictures!
5. The Photographer’s Vision Remastered
Once you’ve already worked out the basic mechanics of your camera, this book will help you develop your personal vision and understand photography as an art form… This is no how-to book for photography, but you will learn loads about what makes a great picture!
Michael Freeman is a well published full-time photographer and author. He writes with a conversational tone, is easy to understand, and includes pictures from well known photographers like Nan Goldin, Elliott Erwitt, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman, among others.
You should also check out his earlier two books in this series (Photographer’s Eye and Photographer’s Mind)… In particular Photographer’s Eye is well touted in the photography community as a next-level personal workshop on improving photographic composition.
Have you ever seen a truly striking picture, and wondered about the photographer’s thought process in making it?
Reading through Magnum Contact Sheets is the closest you can get to this kind of hands on education… The book is chock full of classic images from the Magnum photo agency, along with the actual contact sheets that the famous images appeared on. Which means you get to see every picture that the artist took before and after that decisive moment! And often read notes directly from the photographer about how they worked the scene or why they selected that particular award-winning frame.
This book is not for the beginning photographer, nor is it a how-to book for creating pictures. It IS a treasure for both amateur and professional photographers who are looking to further develop their own personal vision, and are seeking insight from the masters of their craft.
7. Masters of Street Photography
I especially love this street photography book not just because it exposes the reader to a variety of contemporary street photographers’ work… but also because it includes probing interviews with those photographers along with technical information about their pictures. The book is beautiful and a nice exposure to the street photography genre.
8. The Suffering of Light: Thirty Years of Photographs by Alex Webb
Many photographers are naturally drawn to black and white photos, perhaps because of their timeless feel or the drama that beautiful light provides. So it isn’t often that a classically trained photographer is so blown away by color photographs that they must have a book in their collection. This exceptional photo book by Alex Webb is that anomaly.
COLOR! These are pictures you could get lost in… with such nuance and intricate compositions, Webb is a master of the decisive moment. More importantly he seems to have something to say, as he brings thoughtful editing into the collection, weaving the images together to leave a precise impression.
Bonus is the excellent print quality this volume offers. A+ all around and a photo book you could be proud to display on your coffee table.
I wouldn’t call this one an impressive coffee table volume… until you look inside. Erwitt injects such wit into his pictures, but it isn’t until you see them printed all together that you can truly appreciate his vision. Legitimately it’s more of a reference book than a picture book, but I’m okay with that because THE PICTURES.
Perhaps as a fan I’m biased, but this book is worth every penny. Bonus points that the intro is his own words…
10. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
One of my favorite photography reads, it’s like the Sliding Doors of my own life. I mean I cherish my spouse, kids, and safe suburban home… but what if?
Then again, I’m not sure I have the sheer grit and decisiveness that Addario does, to make it as a professional photographer in a war zone.
This book is not about pretty pictures, or even shocking ones (though many are included). It’s not a technical photography book. It reads like a memoir, Addario’s story, and shows what it takes to make it as a professional war photojournalist: the sacrifices, the physical danger, and the mental hurdles. It’s insight into the extra challenges a female faces in this role, as well as how the career path affects one’s ability to build a family.
Addario is an inspiration. You won’t finish this book without feeling a renewed need to make a difference with your own pictures.
11. The Americans, by Robert Frank
There is very little finesse in Robert Frank’s work, and he picked the perfect subject matter for it. A Swiss born photographer who adopted America as a 23 year old man, Frank took to the streets with his camera and a critical eye. His photos in this classic photo book are ironic social commentary with a raw edge, and though the book was criticized upon release, it is currently hailed as one of the greats.
Street photography was my first love, and I really appreciate that Frank used his skills beyond personal observation, to create a body of work that made a statement about our country’s social issues. His book made a difference. I can also appreciate his impact on driving societal acceptance of photography as an art, not just factual reproduction. Robert Frank is stylistically not my favorite artist, but he is an important one to study… and he really is damn good.
Please note the dimensions of this book… this reprint is not as large as the original book was (nor as large as you’d expect).
For the record, I have WAY more favorites than this… but I think these are a great starting point for the average photographer looking to pick up some reading material. And I’m happy to chat about the pictures in these photo books at ANY time- just reach out!
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