Photography is an ever-changing medium. Although styles may vary wildly, the essence of photography remains the same — to capture a specific moment in time. There are hundreds, if not thousands of photographers who have impacted the medium over the years, having created works that just about all photo-lovers are prone to geek out over. That said, it’s only law that any photographer and/or art lover would kill for one of the best photography books on their coffee table.
The majority of what we consider the best photography books were shot throughout the 1900s by folks that pioneered the medium. These include powerhouses such as Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and Robert Maplethorpe’s iconic work shot with some of the best film cameras of all time. Elegant, gritty, true and inspiring tales grace the pages through a world, a time, a situation, that actually existed. Books like these are main staples for any photo lover, period.
Though, some photographers shooting in the early 2000s are also important to know about as well. The film-centric Petra Collins is one current photographer that chooses to ditch the best digital cameras that you’d expect folks to be shooting with in 2022 for film cameras instead. Photographers such as Collins are essentially starting a new wave of art and photography and shouldn’t be left out when considering the best photography books.
Whether old or new, any aspiring photographer or prosumer can appreciate and learn from these inspiring books in order to hone their craft. Read on and check them out for yourself.
1. The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson was an early pioneer of street photography, and if you’ve ever heard of “The Decisive Moment,” then you know a little bit about the French-born photographer’s spontaneous shooting style. The Mind’s Eye not only contains the original text of The Decisive Moment, but also several other essays by Cartier-Bresson that have been compiled into one book.
The Mind's Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers
2. The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making
David DuChemin’s latest book explores the idea that it is entirely up to the photographer’s creative vision when it comes to taking better photographs, as opposed to the equipment involved. DuChemin is a best-selling author and humanitarian assignment photographer.
The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer's Place in Picture-Making
3. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams
Quintessential landscape photographer Ansel Adams dissects 40 of his own images and gives readers an entirely new way to see each and every one of them in this engaging read.
Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs
4. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a controversial work of art that folks have battled with for years. It captures Goldin’s life as she saw it around her through New York City in the 80s and 90s, depicting queer culture, the AIDS epidemic, addiction and abuse. It’s very much a documentation of Goldin’s life, and for that fact, there are some artists that don’t believe her artwork is art. It really goes to show that even if you aren’t necessarily meaning to create a body of artistic brilliance, you still might.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin
5. Magnum Manifesto
Magnum Manifesto goes into the archives to examine the 70-year history of Magnum Photos, the photographic cooperative that was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert, Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner.
6. An Aperture Monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary Edition by Diane Arbus
What Diane Arbus didn’t know upon her death in 1971 at the age of 48? That she’d go on to be one of the most influential, well-known photographers of all time. Sure, she might have been an influence to a number of very serious photographers prior to her death, but afterward in 1972, her work blew up with the publication of Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph as well as a retrospective in the MoMA. Now, her gorgeous black and white stills her as a household name, never to be forgotten.
An Aperture Monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary Edition by Diane Arbus
7. Three Decades of Photography and Video by Carrie Mae Weems
One issue with the history of photography? It’s overwhelmingly white. Not many Black photographers were able to practice with the medium in the earlier days when Arbus, Frank and Adams were shooting, so there aren’t many Black-made photo works to fall back on in terms of black and white film photography. But, thankfully, we have Carrie Mae Weems, a Black photographer from Oregon that began shooting her life around her in the early 70s, having created some of the most exceptional works you’ll ever lay your eyes on. Three Decades of Photography and Video is just that — three decades of photography and video from Weems herself. And, trust us, it’s a must-have.
Three Decades of Photography and Video by Carrie Mae Weems
8. Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography
It turns out that we’ve been obsessed with food as subjects in photography and other visual mediums long before the advent of Instagram. Susan Bright covers this appetizing genre from its earliest days to the present.
Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography
9. The Photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe
Mapplethorpe is, without question, one of the most iconic photographers of all time. The Photographs includes some of his most jarring, eclectic and significant works he’s created in his lifetime and range through a slew of different subjects. From flowers to nudes to still lifes to erotic images that are completely NSFW, this book has it all — and it’s gorgeous.
The Photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe
10. Exiles by Josef Koudelka
Originally printed in 1988 and on its third edition, Exiles is a compilation of street photographer Josef Koudelka’s wanderings through Europe after leaving Czechoslovakia in 1968. This latest edition includes ten new images and explores the “spiritual and physical state of exile,” a topic the photographer often sought to explore through his work.
11. A Photographer Found by Vivian Maier
American photographer Vivian Maier’s photographs weren’t published or even printed until 2007, when two collectors discovered some of her negatives by chance. Maier passed away in April of 2009 in relative obscurity, like most artists. In fact, little is know about her other than the fact that she worked as a nanny in Chicago for some forty odd years. During those years, she photographed life in Chicago, New York, LA and abroad in her spare time. This is the largest and most comprehensive collection of the mysterious street photographer’s work to date.
Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found
12. Fairy Tales by Petra Collins
Petra Collins is, by far, one of the most famous modern photographers in 2022. Her work has been featured just about everywhere you can imagine from Vogue to RollingStone. She’s even shot infamous music videos for the likes of Cardi B, Selena Gomez, Lil Yachty and Olivia Rodrigo. In her newest book release, Fairy Tales, she works with HBO’s Euphoria star Alexa Demie to create some of the most whimsical, cotton candy-esque, yet somewhat lonesome-feeling portraits you’ll ever lay your eyes on. Trust us, this is one any modern photographer has to have.
Fairy Tales by Petra Collins
13. Portraits 2005-2016 by Annie Leibovitz
Prolific photographer Annie Leibovitz needs very little introduction, if at all, and her latest compilation of work includes rare portraits, as well as unpublished work taken throughout the last decade. The books features a plethora of celebrity portraits, including the likes of David Beckham, Anjelica Huston, and even a pregnant Melania Trump.
Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016
14. Election Eve by William Eggleston
William Eggleston had previously released this book in two leather-bound volumes in 1977. That particular edition, however, was limited to just five copies, but the content is available in one volume for the first time. Election Eve was originally shot by Eggleston in October of 1976 as he traveled from Memphis to Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s hometown, leading up to the presidential election the following month.
15. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans
Like many other works in this list, Frank’s original book, The Americans, was first published in 1958 in France and a year later in the U.S. It served as a visual examination of the stark differences social classes in America. This particular volume is a reprint of the 50th-anniversary edition that was released in 2009. Frank’s body of work is an excellent example of social documentary photography.