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The best books on photography (irregularly updated)

None of these books will tell you anything about f-stops, but they will definitely make you a better photographer

One of the consequences of my interest in photography is that I acquire and read too many photography books.

I hope to develop this site as a resource for other photographers seeking out the best in photography books. Not technical books. At least not many. But books that explore the history and aesthetics of photography. Books by people who are also fascinated by the craft and also share the belief that it is important.

This post summarizes a handful of books that I have found truly outstanding and that I believe must be in every photographer’s collection.

There are lots of good photography books, but there are few that truly stand out…that I can read again and again and find something new in them each time I open them.

When I first wrote this post, I identified four that I thought were essential. I’ve expanded the list and will probably keep doing so.

None of these books will tell you anything about f-stops, lenses, Photoshop or lighting.

But, they definitely will help you become a better photographer. These are books I would immediately replace if I lost them and they are books that I come back to for insight and inspiration.

Each of the books on this list can be read in a day or so.  Each could also provide a lifetime of inspiration and insight. Read them once and then, come back and read again and again, whenever you want to consider what photography is all about.

Yes, Robert Adams gets multiple books on the list. He may be the best writer on photography that few have heard of. His books are collections of brief essays by a photographer who began as a writer. Adams spent eight years as a college English teacher and he is clearly one of the most poetic and eloquent writers on photography that I have ever come across.

Szarkowski, Shore and Adams are all photographers, although Szarkowski’s own photographs are not much known today – he is far better known for his job as Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art.

All of these books look at the heart and soul of photography. They treat photography as a unique art.

As I seek to discover photography, I am very fortunate to have these authors as guides.

The Photographer’s Eye, by John Szarkowski – Please, please don’t confuse this with the pretty, but trivial book of the same title that is widely available. This one was first published in connection with a 1964 Museum of Modern Art exhibition. In six pages Szarkowski lays out the case for photography as a unique art form and explores what it is about photographs that makes them different from any other visual medium. He concludes with a simple, but critically important statement: “Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a center, it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that is its history lies.”

The Nature of Photographs, by Stephen Shore – Shore’s book is a direct descendant of Szarkowski’s. Both explore the physical aspects of a photograph and explain why those physically defining characteristics are significant. Shore was one of nine photographers whose work was selected for “New Topographics” a 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House and he is known for his color images of the deceptively mundane and commonplace. At a time when most serious photographers worked in black and white, he was a pioneer in color.

Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams – Adams was also one of the “New Topographics” photographers, exploring the suburbanization of the region around Denver. But, what is most impressive about Adams is the sheer beauty of his writing. He may well be the most poetic and eloquent writer on photography. Adams has published a number of books of brief essays and any one of them is well worth the read.

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes – In the art world, this may be the most studied work on photography. Camera Lucida is a deeply personal inquiry into the nature of photographs and draws heavily on his relationship to his mother and his emotional bond to a single photograph of his mother (A photograph that he did not publish, but only described.) Barthes book has unquestionably spawned more graduate dissertations than any other work on photography.

On Photography by Susan Sontag – Sontag’s collection of six essays from the 1970s is also an exploration of the nature of photographs and their impact. Sontag’s observations are as relevant today – perhaps more so – as they were when first published.

Each of the books on this list can be read in a day or so. Each will also take a lifetime to understand. Read them once and then, come back and read again and again. They serve as a badly needed antidote to the trivialization of photography that plagues the world today.