THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, by Beaumont Newhall (Museum of Modern Art/New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown, paperback, $18.95). Anyone in the vaguest way interested in photography as an art form will want to read, study, and argue with this book. Originally published as the guide to a 1937 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Newhall's history has gone on to become the classic introduction, its selection of images a canon and its text the standard brief account of photography since the heroic age of Niepce, Fox Talbot and Daguerre. This the fifth and latest edition includes Old Master work of Stieglitz, Lange, Evans, and Atget, of course, but also a sampling of recent color photographs and work by such contemporaries as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Eliot Porter.

THE IMAGINARY PHOTO MUSEUM, by Renate and L. Fritz Gruber (Harmony Books $25). Andre Malraux speculated that, once photographed, works of art could be brought together into a "musee imaginaire," where the creations of any time or place might then be juxtaposed, studied, compared. The Brugers -- German photograph collectors and historians -- have applied this notion to photography itself, assembling first an exhibition and now an album of what they deem the greates examples of the art. Regrettably, their book possesses a lifeless sameness of tonality, too many images per page, and reproductions that are often reduced in size or without much nuance. Merely as a compendium this collection does offer a lot of pictures, but they seldom give the thrill of well-printed photographs. Useful biographical appendix to artists.

COUNTERPARTS: Form and Emotion in Photographs, by Weston J. Naef (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Dutton, $35.95). The study of art is built on comparison -- a master influences a disciple, one style reacts against another, pink Renoir nudes recall the female flesh in paintings by Ingres, Rubens, Titian. In this album (and a recent exhibition at the Corcoran), Naef -- curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan -- juxtaposes images that seem, in some way, to become richer through comparison. For instance, Weegee's joyous "Coney Beach," Arthur Siegel's pointillist "Right of Assembly" and Margaret Bourke-White's darkly threatening "Nazi Rally, Czechoslovakia" together reveal the distinctiveness and common denominators of crowd scenes. Other images, which are discussed in Naef's illuminating if somewhat pretentious notes, serve to contrast tactile and optical effects, approaches to nature, sexual attitudes, photographic techniques.

ALFRED STIEGLITZ AND THE PHOTO-SECESSION, by William Innes Homer (New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown, $35). Arguably the most influential photographer in American history, Stieglitz not only affected the new field as a practicing artist but also as a polemicist, patron, magazine editor, and critic. This study of the Photo-Secession by a leading Stieglitz scholar discusses the celebrated journal Camera Work, such contributors as Alvin Langdon Coburne, Steichen, Clarence White, and Gertrude Kasebier, and the theories espoused by the movement. Though it contains such classic photographers as "The Steerage" and "The Terminal," Homer uses these primarily as illustrations to his critical history, one which complements two of this year's previous Steiglitz studies: Sue Davidson Lowe's Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography and Sarah Greenough and Juan hamilton's Alfred Stielgitz:; Photographs and Writings.

FROM TALBOT TO STIEGLITZ: Masterpieces of Early Photography from the New York Public Library, by Julia Van Haaften (New York Public Library/Thames and Hudson, $27.50). Like many other libraries and museums, the NYPL never appreciated its photographic riches until recently. This album, clearly a creme de la creme selection, offers wonderful examples of western landscape (Watkins Weed), portraiture (Carjat's haunted and haunting "Baudelaire"), and men at work (Hine). Also outstanding are the romantic views of 19th-century Egupt captured by Maxime du Camp and Francis Fith.

PHOTOGRAPHY: History of an Art, by Jean-Luc Daval (Skira/Rizzoli, $60). Breezily organized into divisions titled "Producing," "Reproducing," and "Expressing," this hefty album proffers competent yet rather humdrum commentary (partly due to the translation), recurrent talk about photography and other arts, and a lot of handsome pictures. Not a bad book perhaps, but not really a good one either.

THE ORIGINS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, by Helmut Gernsheim (Thames and Hudson, $50). Drawn from collector-scholar Gernsheim's The History of Photography, this study of the early days of the medium has been revised and expanded for its new incarnation. Gernsheim organizes his text according to technique -- heliography, calotype, direct positives on paper; the popularity of daguerreotype nonetheless requires ruther subdivision into separate chapters on its development in France, America, Britain and other countries. The actual approach to these competing processes is primarily biographical and historical rather than technical, thus making for a pleasantly readable survey of the achievements of Fox Talbot, Hill and Adamson and other less famous names. The 191 illustrations have been printed to simulate the tonality of the original photographs, whether the silvery quality of the daguerreotype or the sepia coloring of the calotype.

CARLETON E. WATKINS: Photographer of the American West, by Peter E. Palmquist (Amon Carter Museum/University of New Mexico Press, $70). Most photography, even when in the service of art, still possesses an indisputable documentary quality. Watkins' albumen silver prints reveal careful artfulness in their composition, but what charges them with emotion is an uncanny stillness, the evocation of a natural world unspoiled by humanity. Even the views of San Francisco, bridge-building or lumber mills suggest that they are extensions of nature, more geometrical perhaps than a canyon or forest, but still one with the landscape. Above all, these pages remind us as only photography can of what the American West was like before concrete highways and neon lights.