The Best Photo Books of 2008

A look inside the volumes that push the creative boundaries of art on paper

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Best Photo Books 2008: Vanity Fair: The Portraits
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Jonathan Becker's 1988 photo of Robert Mapplethorpe
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Actress Helen Mirren by Snowdon, 1995
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Best Photo Books 2008: X-Ray by Nick Veasey
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A "suit packing heat"
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An electric chairNick Veasey
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A packed city busNick Veasey
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A Boeing 777 jet at Logan AirportNick Veasey
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Best Photo Books 2008: Annie Leibovitz: At Work
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Richard Nixon leaving the White House, 1974
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The Apollo 17 liftoff, 1972Annie Leibovitz
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Tom Wolfe, 1972Annie Leibovitz
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Hunter S. Thompson and George McGovern, 1972Annie Leibovitz
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Thompson and Jann Wennerof Rolling Stone, 1976Annie Leibovitz
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Best Photo Books 2008: America Swings by Naomi Harris
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Naomi Harris's picture of Minnesota nudists having a Thanksgiving dinner
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Best Photo Books 2008: Transparent City by Michael Wolf
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Two of Michael Wolf's See-through views of Chicago
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Micahel Wolf
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Best Photo Books 2008: Misty Dawn: Portrait of a Muse by Jock Sturges
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Misty Dawn in Montalivet, France, 1995
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Misty Dawn in California, 1993Jock Sturges
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Best Photo Books 2008: Erwin Olaf
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"the Classroom," from the Hope series, 2005
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Best Photo Books 2008:Photographing America: Henri Cartier-Bresson & Walker Evans, 1929-1947
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New York City, 1929, by Walker Evans
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Memphis, Tennessee, 1947, by Henri Carter-Bresson
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Best Photo Books 2008: Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz
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Two views of New Jersey from Lutz's MeadowlandsJoshua Lutz
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Joshua Lutz
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Best Photo Books 2008: The Places We Live by Jonas Bendiksen
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A home under a bridge in Jakarta, Indonesia
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Children playing on water mains in Jakarta, IndonesiaJonas Bendiksen
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The Nairobi-Kisumu Railway, KenyaJonas Bendiksen
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Caracas, VenezuelaJonas Bendiksen
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*Saguaros * by Mark Klett (Radius Books, $75) Originally called Desert Citizens, Klett's stunningly produced monograph explores the long-held belief that the saguaro cactus houses the soul of a deceased person. Klett's "portraits" show the plants radiating personality and mimicking human gestures; in one image, a cactus wraps its arm around a neighbor. Even Mother Nature has a sense of humor. -- l.s.
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*Planet Shanghai * by Justin Guariglia (Chronicle Books, $25) It's rare for documentary photography to do its work with wit and whimsy. National Geographic contributor Justin Guariglia accomplishes that in this study of Shanghai's street life, food, and couture. Mostly color portraits sequenced with found still lifes, Guariglia's photographs are not the usual images of faceless urban explosion. Instead, he probes cultural quirks, such as the recent taste for wearing pajamas in public. In such pictures, we see individuals challenging, carefully, the status quo of China's controlled society. -- r.h.
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*The Oxford Project * by Peter Feldstein and Stephen G. Bloom (Welcome Books, $50) In 1984, Feldstein photographed the citizens of small-town Oxford, Iowa, where he kept a photo studio, and 21 years later he did it all over again. His intriguing and revelatory side-by-side portraits are complemented by Bloom's candid interviews. Though many of the subjects have greatly changed, the real oddity is that some have remained virtually the same, right down to their mug for the camera. -- l.s.
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*The Vale of Kashmir * by John Isaac (Norton, $65) You might expect a book about Kashmir to dwell on the religious and cultural strife that has roiled the disputed Indian state, but Isaac had seen enough of that in his 25 years as a United Nations photographer. Instead, he shows us what's at stake, in human and natural terms, should the violence worsen. Isaac's Kashmir is a place of deep peace and quiet, where Hindu, Moslem, and Mother Nature seem to live in harmony. The centerpiece is Dal Lake, which Isaac documentend from a Victorian-era houseboat: Fruit and flower merchants ply their trade on canoe-like vessels brimming with brightly colored vegetable matter, while masses of seaweed are harvested to create Srinagar's famous floating gardens. -- r.h.
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*Seen Behind the Scene: Forty Years of Photographing on Set * by Mary Ellen Mark (Phaidon, $60) Though best known for her distinctive documentary and portrait work, Mark is also a movie buff who has enjoyed rare access to the sets of many famous film projects, camera in tow, during the past four decades. This collection ranges from candid shots of renowned directors on set to side shows staged by film stars clowning around -- all captured with Mark's unerring eye and natural empathy. -- j.c.
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*Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World * by Alexandra Avakian (National Geographic/Focal Point, $40) A veteran photojournalist, Avakian defines the Muslim World as any place on earth where she has worked on a Muslim-related story, from Kyrgyzstan to California. The imagery in this volume is sophisticated but accessible and often beautiful, providing insights and narrative. -- d.s.
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*Kilgore Rangerettes * by O. Rufus Lovett (University of Texas Press, $50) A storied women's drill team dating back to 1939, the Rangerettes of Kilgore College in Texas are a blend of precision and anachronism; as a teacher at the college, fine-art photographer Lovett has documented the group since 1989. He brings a humanistic eye to the team members and the subculture surrounding them, with images of disciplined artistry, home-grown beauty, unexpected humor, and high-stepping nostalgia. -- j.c.
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*Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League* by Jona Frank (Chronicle Books, $35) Frank's nuanced portraits of students at conservative Christian Patrick Henry College are not a bit judgmental. Though the students are inordinately well-scrubbed and dress daily in coat and tie, they are as committed to a liberal arts eduction -- albeit one that manages to reconcile Aristotle and Creationism -- as they are to placing God at the center of American culture and government. And they are more complex than you probably think, a view supported with interviews and documents. Some of the latter betray a naive ideological agenda, but others are surprising. One student's list of heroes includes Teddy Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony along with Reagan and Bush; another's statement of principles includes "How much I have is not important" and "We are all growing, so be a good steward of what God gives you." If you remove the God from those beliefs, they are no less admirable. -- r.h.
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*Guts and Glory, The Golden Age of American Football 1958 - 1978 * by Neil Leifer (Taschen, $500) Sports Illustrated photographer Leifer has a vast and storied portfolio of work, but he maintains that football was the sport he excelled at shooting. The proof is in this 350-page, limited-edition, slip-cased photographic tome featuring Namath, Lombardi, and other icons. A special "art edition" with a 12x15-inch print (you get either Johnny Unitas or Alan Ameche) sells for $1,300. -- d.s.
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*The Blue Room * by Eugene Richards (Phaidon, $100) Richards's first color monograph comes from several years of exploring abandoned houses in the rural outlands of America -- far removed from the gritty urban world of his black-and-white work. Richards clearly felt that his change of medium and subject required a different approach, and at times The Blue Room seems to fight the taught structures and shrill detail that give his previous work its energy. The new photos substitute a more fragmented, arbitrary composition and an unsentimental gauziness, attained as much by shooting through weather-torn curtains and broken windows as by defocus. Though the houses' deteriorating contents are sometimes expected (children's dolls, broken dishes), sometimes they are surprising (a prosthetic leg, the carcass of a large owl). Either way, inside or out, these dwellings look as if their erstwhile occupants had walked out of them in the middle of everyday lives, never to return. -- r.h.
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*Domestic Vacations * by Julie Blackmon (Radius Books, $50) Blackmon's mise-en-scenes are all about family life -- kids and parents playing out colorful dramas in suburban venues -- with an otherworldly edge lurking beneath. With source material including her own three children and those of her extended family and friends, Blackmon delves into the joys and the tensions of domestic chaos, where vacations are a state of mind. -- j.c.
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*Canyon Wilderness of the Southwest * by Jon Ortner (Welcome Books, $195) This "Deluxe Edition" is limited to 5,000 copies, and it is a grand piece of publishing, with gatefold panoramas and 200 images by veteran photographer Jon Ortner. The canyon country has become one of the most photographed landscapes in the world, but here Ortner has found an original, epic viewpoint. -- d.s.
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*RFK: A Photographer's Journal * by Harry Benson (powerHouse Books, $45) Benson befriended Robert Kennedy a few years before the young senator launched his presidential campaign, and he joined the candidate on the trail in the spring of 1968. This is the photographer's front-row and backstage memoir, in words and pictures, of RFK's dramatic run for the White House, from its stirring inception through its tragic ending. -- j.e.
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*The Music Book* by Mark Seliger (teNeues, $75) Having made his name as chief photographer for Rolling Stone, Seliger has gone on to thrive as a "celebrity's photographer," often on assignment for Vanity Fair and GQ. He's also a rocker who fronts the band Rusty Truck. This carefully arranged book surveys Seliger's up-close and imaginative portraits of rock and roll's most iconic stars -- from Bob Dylan to Snoop Dogg, Robert Plant to Dolly Parton, Nirvana to the Strokes -- made during the past two decades. -- j.c.
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*Eltonography: Sir Elton John, A Lifetime in Pictures* by Terry O'Neill (Evans Mitchell Books, $40) A British celebrity photographer who came from the rarified world of jazz, O'Neill has a nose for musical talent that's linked him with stars ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to new faces like Amy Winehouse. He discovered a young Elton John on the cusp of fame in the early 1970s and photographed him through the decade. Eltonography is a career-spanning travelogue with one of pop's most flamboyant performers. -- j.c.
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*Stars and Cars of the '50s* by Edward Quinn (teNeues, $95) This is a celebration of 1950s glamour, when luxury cars were grand and curvaceous and movie stars were built to last. Quinn photographed the cultural elite -- including the likes of Pablo Picasso and Prince Philip, as well as the requisite screen idols -- making the scene in their Aston-Martins, Mercedes-Benz's, and Ferraris. "Nothing says 'You've made it's like getting glammed up and going for a spin," reads the intro, and nobody does it better than these legends. -- j.c.
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John Isaac's serene view of Dal Lake.
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Mary Ellen Mark’s 1999 portrait of Christopher Reeve and his wife, Dana.
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*Russell James* (teNeues, 304 pages, $125)
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*Russell James* (teNeues, 304 pages, $125)