The Best Photo Books of 2008

Volumes that push the creative boundaries of art on paper


America Swings By Naomi Harris
Taschen, 256 pages, $500

In his famed dissent in a 1964 ruling on obscenity, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography: "I know it when I see it." It's not clear what Stewart would make of Naomi Harris's new photo book about the secret lives of American swingers. Harris considers it reportage. "I knew I had to start photographing this," she says in the book, "because no one would believe me when I told stories of what I'd seen."

A Toronto native who studied at the International Center of Photography, Harris first encountered-and joined-the nudist community at beaches in south Florida. "They were there for the love of being nude and not for anything sexual," she recalls. Later she discovered that "a good proportion of these nudists were also swingers" and began photographing them at parties nationwide, earning trust by always getting permission and keeping her distance from the action, yet wearing nothing but sneakers and a tool belt to hold her photo gear.

Harris's book is not about the world of commercial sex; these people would not be hired for their looks. "The media may not consider them sexy," she says, "but they consider themselves sexy, and because of that confidence they're having better sex than the rest of us." Many of Harris's subjects reside in those small towns that have been described by some political candidates as the "real America." That only adds to the significance of her undertaking. -Jack Crager


Transparent City By Michael Wolf
Aperture, 112 pages, $60

t first look Michael Wolf's new monograph seems like yet another high-density study of urban architecture. But Transparent City turns the usual squared-up, view-camera discipline on its head: You can actually see into many of the buildings because they are photo¬graphed in low light, with the lights on inside offices and apartments. Yet the scenes within those windows often seem choreographed, as if Wolf were directing Chicago's interior life (one TV shows Jimmy Stewart with his telephoto lens in Rear Window), and the big views are interspersed with blown-up details of the windows. Some of the latter are as sharp as the overall views. Others are heavily pixellated-exit signs, a computer mouse, a man practicing putting. Try as you might, you can't find any of these details in the full-spread images. Is Wolf fabricating them to trick us into scrutinizing every inch? Perhaps, but he's also challenging the idea behind his prior work, that photography is most compel¬ling as a record of surfaces. -Russell Hart


Misty Dawn: Portrait of a Muse By Jack Sturges
Aperture, 168 pages, $50

Anyone who thinks Jock Sturges's photographs are pornographic just isn't looking close enough, as strange as that may sound. The more you look, the clearer it is that his gorgeously rendered environmental portraits of mainly unclothed, mainly young, mainly female subjects are not meant to titillate but rather to address the issue of comfort in one's own skin. (Whether someone, somewhere might be titillated is not a good reason to condemn or suppress the work.) That purpose impels Misty Dawn: Portrait of a Muse, a 25-year study of the title subject's physical and psychological transition from small child to married adult. No classic beauty, Misty Dawn is often graceful yet sometimes awkward, and seems more at ease naked than dressed. What will you look at most when you browse through this book? Misty Dawn's face, which reveals a trust that only time could engender. -R.H.


Vanity Fair; The Portraits
Harry N. Adam, 383 pages, $65

In its original run in the 1920s, Vanity Fair maga¬zine captured what current editor Graydon Carter calls the "fizzy, raffish" modernity of the jazz age. The magazine folded in 1936, as the lights began to go out in Europe, but was then resurrected in the shoulder-padded Reagan era. There are those who dismiss Vanity Fair for its celebration of frivolity. But others understand, as VF contributor Christopher Hitchins writes in this book, that "even in the darkest time, there must be beauty and style and the cultivation of the individual."

Nowhere has the magazine celebrated the individual more powerfully than in its portraiture. In the early days there was Steichen, Bruehl, Beaton, and others; later came the work of Weber, Newton, Benson, and Leibovitz. If the magazine has one lasting claim to fame, it will be the photography collected in this fine volume. -David Schonauer


X-Ray By Nick Veasey
Viking Studio, 224 pages, $40

Photographs describe the surface of things very well. Everything underneath that surface remains hidden, however tempting it may be for viewers to imagine those unknown parts. "The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image," wrote Susan Sontag, "is to say, 'There is the surface. Now think-or rather feel, intuit-what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks that way.'"

Nick Veasey's work is an exception to this rule. Veasey uses large-scale X-ray machines-technology created in the battle against terrorism-to look inside everything from shoes and shells to city buses and commercial airliners. "I work in a lead-lined room, with a very heavy lead sliding door that has to be sealed before my X-ray machines will operate," he writes. "High-voltage electricity is sent to a radioactive source that emits X-rays. The rays pass through the subject I am working on and create a same-size image on a special film placed in a light-safe bag." The film is later scanned and enhanced on computers.

Veasey admits to obsessive behavior and says he has even dreamed in X-ray. Perhaps that is to be expected in a man who works with cobalt iridium and looks at the world inside out. -Jeffrey Elbies


Annie Leibovitz: At Work
Random House, 240 pages, $40

You don't need to be a Leibovitz lover or a Leibovitz hater (there doesn't seem to be a middle ground with Annie) to appreciate this book, which is filled with the true tales behind her most memorable pictures. More than a memoir, the book details the creative process of a photographer who has documented the big stories and people of our time. You learn how Leibovitz conceives and stages her images, what equipment she uses, and how she convinces her subjects to do what she wants them to do. In one of the book's most intriguing chapters, Leibovitz recounts episodes from early in her career, working alongside writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe-while creating her own, unique brand of visual literature. (See our exclusive excerpt on the following pages.) This is a book by a photographer, for photographers. -D.S.


Erwin Olaf By Erwin Olaf
Aperture, 111 pages, $65 Shortly after 9/11, Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf envisioned an homage to Norman Rockwell, but as he re-created the scenes of happy, bygone America, he realized the Rockwellian vistas of the Eisenhower era didn't honestly apply to modern America. The people in his images seem to be caught while standing on an emotional precipice-stuck in the moment before they must react to a crisis. This series became Rain, which inspired the follow-ups Hope and Grief, all of which are housed in Olaf's new, self-titled book. While Hope and Rain are filled with emotionally detached characters who have yet to respond to crises, Grief is what Olaf calls "the study of the first tear"-capturing the moment after they respond. The images are seductive and mysterious, inviting us to fill in the awkward spaces and moments of silence with our own narrative. Olaf's goal was to depict the kind of emotion that is kept restrained for the sake of proper social conduct, which is illustrated by Grief's combination of exquisite interiors and wardrobe that almost overpower the fragile subjects. Olaf says his work is "inspired by lying …or telling a fan¬tasy." So perhaps he has paid homage to Rockwell after all. -Lindsay Sakraida


Photographing America: Henri Cartier-Bresson & Walker Evans
Introduction by Agnes Sire, essay by J.F. Chevrier; Thames & Hudson, 160 pages, $43

Henri Cartier-Bresson once wrote: "If it had not been for the challenge of the work of Walker Evans, I don't think I would have remained a photographer." The proof of that statement could be seen in a masterpiece of an exhibition held last September at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris. Set up like a dialogue between the two great photographers, the show demon¬strated how both men approached the vast subject matter of America, matching the cold detachment of Evans with the quasi-paparazzi spontaneity of Cartier-Bresson. This new book captures the spirit of the exhibition perfectly, making it an important addition to the literature of photography. Inside, critic Jean Francois Chevrier writes: "Evans and Cartier-Bresson have one essential thing in common, something almost immediately recognized in New York (but ignored in Paris): They became artists by reinventing photography."

Though published in France to coincide with the Parisian exhibition, Photographing America will be released in the United States this April. -Jean-Jacques Naudet


Meadowlands By Joshua Lutz
powerHouse Books, 108 pages, $50

The Meadowlands of northern New Jersey is a quiet but disquieting place. A patchwork of wetlands just across the turnpike from Manhattan, it hosts a grisly sort of ecosystem-polluted by years of dumping and favored by mobsters for the disposal of corpses, yet inhabited by wading birds, migratory fish, and tunneling muskrats. Toxic chunks of it have been reclaimed for everything from a football stadium to the city of Newark. Vivisected by the densest human population in America, it clings to a marshy but debased life.

Joshua Lutz's handsome, oversized first book captures the redolent mix of depressed, surreal, bourgeois, and gritty that is the Meadowlands. Its images show a foul canal floating a barge of crushed cars; a stiff-collared priest standing inexplicably in overgrowth; a plaid-shirted mannequin lying face-down in a watery ditch; a bowhunter shooting at something way beyond the plane of focus. Even unoccupied images are about human needs and intervention: the Delayed Cares Motel, the Happily Ever (no After) Bingo Club. Yet few of these photos are free-standing in their impact. Their sum creates a powerful feeling of place, not a dry record of fact. While the Meadowlands may be for most people "a place to pass through and forget on the way to someplace else," as Lutz puts it, for him it is rich ground for bittersweet art. -R.H.


The Places We Live By Jonas Bendiksen
Aperture, 200 pages, $40

This is an illuminating yet heartbreaking look at life in the fastest-growing habitats on earth-urban slums. Over a period of three years, Bendiksen lived among slum denizens in four cities: Nairobi, Kenya; Mumbai, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Caracas, Venezuela. He interviewed residents and shot atmospheric portraits, creating digitally stitched panoramas showing the four walls of one-room homes, made of makeshift materials and filled with rag-tag possessions. Yet these photos share an uncanny sense of beauty and empathy. "Has there ever been such an expansive visual representation of claustrophobia?" writes Philip Gourevitch in the intro. Bendiksen's work reveals not only his subjects' poverty but also their ingenuity; as Gourevitch points out: "People are adaptable." -J.C.