Sure shots: 5 classic photography books everyone should read

We could try to be impartial whilst writing this but it’s probably better to come clean from the off:  we love photography books. We probably love photography books more than photography exhibitions. We love owning them and flicking through them at my leisure. We love the fact they can have a secretive element; risqué publications tucked away alongside innocent dust jackets, ready and willing to catch out an unsuspecting browser. Monographs, anthologies, biographies, catalogues, artist editions… We unashamedly love them all. But, if we had to pick five, these are the ones we think you should read. Here’s why.

“Es una cosa muy seria!”

For anyone well versed in the history of photography, the name Robert Capa has always stood tall. However, if you want to make it stand a little taller, indulge yourself in his legendary memoirs,

Capa’s oft repeated photographic motto was ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough’. And this infinitely readable recounting of his life through World War II helps illuminate and expand upon that sentiment; from getting caught short in a mine field to his up and down relationships with his employers to the sticky fact of his nationality and ‘enemy alien’ status throughout the Allied countries.

There are many stories which touch on combat correspondents eternal dilemmas; getting pictures back to print, the dreaded ‘pool’ system, the moral obligations and the perennial questioning by the actual soldiers ‘You mean, you don’t have to be here..?’ But it’s Capa’s gambling instinct and wit that ultimately makes him so likeable. His decision to be a part of the first wave of D-Day landings and his first ever parachute jump into occupied Sicily give you an idea of the risks he voluntarily took.

1976: The Year it all Changed

Prior to the mid-1970s if you were a serious photographer you worked in black and white. And then, ironically enough, out of the blue, came William Eggleston.

On the 25th May 1976, courtesy of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the accompanying book, ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’, all that changed. Colour photography had arrived in the art world and there was no looking back.

The catalogue, with its essay from infamous photography critic John Szarkowski, was reprinted in exact facsimile in 2002. One for every photographer’s bookshelf.

 Les Américains

First published in France in 1958 and then in the U.S. in 1959, The Americans was the result of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant issued in 1955. Robert Frank shot a reported 28 000 photos over a two year period and selected 83 for the final book.

Although in America it was initially derided as featuring ‘meaningless’, ‘muddy exposures’ with ‘drunken horizons’, The Americans slowly gained an iconic status and is now commonly listed as one of the most influential photography books of all time.

A first edition of the French original will set you back the price of a small car…

LIFE, eh?

Whilst dedicated monographs are nice for truly getting to grips with a photographers work, you sometimes just want something to dip into for some quick inspiration. There are literally thousands of these ‘overview’ anthologies but I’ve plumped for the one that never fails to excite me:

Six hundred pages of photojournalism at its finest; celebrities, wildlife, war zones, politicians, sports and science. The sheer scope, quality and ingenuity means every page is an absolute delight.

The Back Story on the Photos You Know…

I am in no doubt that when the publishers commissioned this book, they immediately took the rest of the week off. It simply has success written all over it. The premise is so simple that one can only assume it was getting the photographers to agree that prevented this book being published earlier.

A contact sheet is the print made directly from the negative strip, (so the negative is literally in contact with the paper). It is the first print made in the darkroom and gives the photographer an idea of which shots have worked and will be printed properly. It also gives an accurate time sequence to the photographs, showing what came directly before and after.

Sometimes a shot will be one of a carefully structured sequence and at other times it’ll come out of nowhere as a moment of pure serendipity. Whichever way it goes, this is a book that fleshes out the shots we know so well. It’s like looking at an artist’s diary….

These are the five books we’d recommend, but there are literally dozens more that could have been included. If there’s others that you think warrant a mention, please let us know.

Image credit: Keith Williamson

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