A well-curated photo book shelf can be an excellent source of inspiration when it comes to your own photo projects. Cracking open a nicely bound photography book focuses the eye in ways that just can’t be duplicated when scrolling through Instagram. These photography books are essentials for any kind of photographer.
The Americans by Robert Frank
Robert Frank’s The Americans has become one of the most influential photo books since its release in 1959. Amazon
Although critics panned after its 1959 release, The Americans, Robert Frank’s black and white photographs of the country have had an undeniable influence on the medium. The book contains 83 photographs captured during a road trip across America and reveals a less-than-rosy perspective of the so called “American dream.” The photographs that make up The Americans have an asymmetrical and impressionistic style that still influences shooters to this day.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency captures Nan Goldin’s colorful encounters living in New York City in the early ’80s. Amazon
Nan Goldin describes the photographs inside this book as a visual diary. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was first published in 1986, and captures the photographer’s colorful encounters in a time when New York City was still very rough around the edges. Her photographs are intimate, but also candid, and document a way of living that disappeared by the time the AIDS crisis hit in the 80s. The work has become a cultural touchstone for generations of photographers since.
The New Tide: Early Work 1940-1950 by Gordon Parks
This book features photographs from the earliest days of Gordon Park’s long career. Amazon
This self-taught photographer was the first full-time African American photographer on staff at LIFE and was known for documenting stories related to civil rights and poverty. This book collects photographs from the first decade of his career including work from his days in Minnesota, Chicago’s Black Renaissance, and images depicting segregation throughout the south. The New Tide gives an in-depth look at Parks’ groundbreaking artistic vision.
Tiny, Streetwise Revisited by Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark spent thirty years photographing Tiny. Amazon
In the early ’80s while working on a photo story about homeless youth in Seattle, Mary Ellen Mark met Tiny, a 13-year-old prostitute with big dreams. Mark ended up photographing Tiny for thirty years and documented her transformation from fierce 13-year old to the middle-aged mother of ten. Tiny, Streetwise Revisited captures the way that Tiny’s life has unfolded and speaks to issues of poverty, race, and addiction.
The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Decisive Moment is a classic photo book that deserves a place on every photographer’s book shelf. Amazon
Henri Cartier-Bresson is easily one of the most famous and influential photographers ever. This classic photo book was originally published in 1952 and collects work from the early days of his career. The Decisive Moment is a term that gets thrown around in photo circles constantly, it’s all about watching and waiting for that visual peak of a scene. This book gives photographers a chance to dig into the frames where Cartier-Bresson captured just that.
Of Love & War by Lynsey Addario
Of Love & War takes an in-depth look at what it means to be a conflict photographer in the modern era. Amazon
Of Love & War is the first photography book from prolific photojournalist Lynsey Addario, and includes images that span her twenty-three year career as a photographer documenting war-torn regions of the world like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. Her arresting images are interspersed with diary entries from her assignments, letters back home to her family in the states, and present-day reflections on her career as a photojournalist. It’s an in-depth look at what it takes to be a conflict photographer in the modern era.
50 Portraits by Gregory Heisler
Gregory Heisler shares what he’s learned during his career shooting high-profile portrait subjects. Amazon
Too many instructional portrait photography books get caught up in technical details like lighting and composition without delving into the intangible elements that make a good picture of a person. Heisler has spent decades shooting high-profile subjects for prestigious outlets and this book tells the story behind some of his most famous images. There’s not a lot of talk about shutter speeds of flash positioning, but you do get a look into his process for getting to know his subject and envisioning what the final shot will look like and—more importantly—what it will say.
Relentless by Neil Leifer
An in-depth look at the career of an iconic sports shooter. Amazon
Neil Leifer led an amazing life. He started his career by sneaking his camera into ball games as a volunteer. He went on to capture some of the most iconic sports—and general interest—photos of all time. The book is worth the read just to learn the backstory of the famous Muhammad Ali photos alone, but the real draw is the perfect mix of his eccentric personality and his impeccable photographic mind.
The Print by Ansel Adams
Photography has changed profoundly since this book was released, but the concept of pre-visualizing will be helpful for any photographer. Amazon
The photographic process has changed profoundly in the decades since Ansel Adams released his trio of iconic instructional books. While The Print has a lot of darkroom information that may not apply to digital shooters, it also perfectly sums up the concept of pre-visualizing a final image before you take the shot. Adams knew that “getting it right in camera” meant giving yourself the best possible raw materials for the print—or in modern times, the Instagram post. Even just the intro may change the way you think about photography if you’re trying to level up your skills.