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Affordable Portfolio Series for Photographers

My previous column focused on books designed to get your photographer thinking more deeply about the craft.

In this second column, I’ll focus on some affordable book series that highlight individual photographers. Having some knowledge of the work of great photographers is an excellent resource to tap into when looking for inspiration.

Before I begin exploring book series that focus on individual photographers,  I want to start by recommending a book that meets my original objectives of being both affordable and of high quality, while providing an extensive overview of great photographers.

Photo featuring Photography Visionaries, a book by Mary Warner MarienPhotography Visionaries

Photography Visionaries by Mary Warner Marien offers up brief biographies of some of the world’s greatest photographers from the 19th Century into the 21st, putting them in context and explaining their significance. In each case she provides a few representative samples of their work. It is a great book to introduce photographers and those who love photography to the work of photographers that one might want to explore in more depth.

Contemporary photography can be head-scratching. I admit I am often confounded and skeptical of some of the photography that has been championed by the art establishment in recent years. Mary Warner Marien’s commentaries help shed light on why some contemporary photographers are hailed as visionaries. Whether or not you agree with the assessment, it is worth understanding the rationale.

Portfolio Series

One of the challenges of a website that includes reviews and commentaries on photography books is that limited demand means a published portfolio of any given photographer can be out of print by the time I have a chance to write about it.

The other challenge for this column is that I promised “affordable” books and those are becoming increasingly hard to come by.

But fortunately, there are a handful of publishers who offer relatively low-cost series that focus on individual photographers. Buying books in these series as gifts though, does require that you have some idea of what the tastes of your photographer might be.

Photo showing books in the Aperture Masters of Photography series.Aperture Masters of Photography

Going back to the mid-1970s, the Aperture Foundation has been publishing small but well-printed books on individual photographers. Originally published as The History of Photography, they are now rebranded as Masters of Photography.

The books seem to go in and out of print – that is, in any given year the particular photographers who are available will change. In preparing this post, I found that Amazon had available new copies of Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Harry Callahan, along with used copies for maybe a dozen other photographers. Used versions, not surprisingly, vary greatly in cost and condition.

Starting a collection of these little books is a great way to be introduced to the work of great photographers of the 20th century.

Photo showing books in the Aperture Workshop series.Aperture Photography Workshop Series

A few years ago, Aperture began a new series, the Aperture Photography Workshop Series. Not strictly a portfolio series, these are marketed as workshops in book form. The stated intention is to give readers an experience similar to what they would receive if they were to attend a workshop with one of the photographers who is featured in each book.

I’m not sure these really succeed as substitutes for workshops. But what they do well is give the reader insight into how the photographer/author created his or her best known work. What they were trying to accomplish and what the particular circumstances were. Most valuable is that each serves as something of a mini-portfolio of the photographer’s work

Since they are all written by contemporary photographers, their names may not be as familiar as those in the Masters of Photography series (With the exception of the late Mary Ellen Mark). But, in reading each book, your photographer will gain an appreciation and understanding of some of today’s photographers.  

Photo showing books in the Fields of Vision series from the Library of Congress.Fields of Vision

A few years ago, the Library of Congress started publishing a series of books, Fields of Vision, drawing on the 172,000 negatives and transparencies in their collection from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), one of the most famous photographic projects of the 20th Century.

One of the things I like about this Fields of Vision series is that doesn’t focus simply on the best-known FSA photographers but draws on lesser-known photographers of the FSA, including women like Maron Post Wolcott and Esther Bubley and the great African-American photographer Gordon Parks.

Although the FSA project is primarily known for its work during the depression, it morphed into the Office of War Information and lasted into World War II. Bubley, for example, did not join the project until 1942 and her photographs represent the changed mission from documenting the depression to documenting home life in World War II. These small and very affordable books may represent the only available portfolios of some of these photographers.

Photo showing books in the Photofile SeriesPhotofile

The most extensive and available series of mini-portfolios might be the Photofile series published by Thames and Hudson.,

Don’t be fooled by the size of these books (which measure just 5 x 7 ½ inches). The reproductions are of good quality and in many cases the publishers had the good sense print horizontally-oriented pictures sideways so that they maximize the space available.

At last count, they had published more than 30 different titles, representing an eclectic selection of photographers. Each book begins with a brief introduction to the photographer, and ends with a short biography, bibliography and list of major exhibitions.

To their credit, the series avoids the U.S.-centric focus of other series like Aperture’s Masters of Photography, including Brazil’s Sebastiao Salgado, Czechoslovakia’s Josef Koudelka, Japan’s Daido Moriyama and Hungary’s Andre Kertesz among others.

The Photofile series allows your photographer to sample the work of photographers he or she may not know much about before investing in more costly and larger books.

I began these columns with the idea of providing a guide to affordable, good quality books that will broaden the horizons and challenge the intellect of any photographer who wants to take the craft seriously.

If you know a photographer who fits that category, I hope they will appreciate finding one or more of these books under the tree this year.

Part I: Books for Thinking Photographers 

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