APART FROM BOOKS about art and photography, which are industries unto themselves, volumes devoted to what can loosely be called "Americana" more often than not make up the largest stack in the shelves where the Christmas gift books are stored. This year is no exception; 1987 has brought the usual profusion of coffee-table books celebrating American landscapes, artifacts and institutions. But before taking a look at the books of 1987 it may serve some purpose to issue the reminder that the best of all books in this category, a collection of historic photographs called American Album, is still in print in a paperback edition (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95). It is also worth noting that among the 1987 art books is American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School (Metropolitan Museum/Abrams, $39.95 cloth, $29.95 paper), a book of surpassing interest to students of American history and culture. As to the Americana category itself, here is a selection from the 1987 entries.
Daughters of Painted Ladies: America's Resplendent Victorians
, by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen, photographs by Douglas Keister (Dutton, $29.95, paperback, $15.95), and
Victorian Classics of San Francisco
(Windgate Press, $32). No doubt it reflects my own passion for the ornate eccentricities of Victorian architecture, but for my money the one real keeper in the 1987 Americana selection is the cheapest book (in its paperback edition) on the list: Daughters of Painted Ladies, which celebrates successful efforts around the country to restore Victorian houses to their authentic, multicolored glory. Many of these residences were in serious disrepair when restoration began, though regrettably no before-and-after pictures are provided; but as Douglas Keister's fine color photographs reveal, the final results have been uniformly spectacular. And as Victorian Classics of San Francisco indicates, the originals were something to behold. The book is a reproduction (in black and white) of an 1888 guide to Bay Area mansions, many of which have since been destroyed; what grand buildings they were, and what a loss it is that they are gone.
photographs by Larry Kanfer (Illinois, $29.95). It may take a patient and discerning eye to find beauty in the flat landscape of the American prairie, but beauty is just what Larry Kanfer has found. Focusing his lens on the prairie of Central Illinois, Kanfer has conjured up images that are uniquely and distinctively American: a reaper cutting its way methodically through the grain, a storm building over a leafless tree, a battered gasoline pump beside a weathered barn, two deserted roads intersecting at the middle of nowhere, an Amish buggy moving sedately through a plowed field. Almost all of the photographs are in color, which has been reproduced with admirable fidelity to the subtlety and sensitivity of Kanfer's work; he manages the not-inconsiderable feat of making one long for the Middle West.
The View from the Kingdom: A New England Album
, photographs by Richard Brown and essays by Reeve Lindbergh (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $24.95), and
A New England Album: Photographs by Gerd Kittel
(Thames & Hudson, $40). As anyone knows who's visited a tourist trap in New England lately, there's a surfeit of picture books about that endlessly photogenic region. These two merely add to it, though quite agreeably. Richard Brown's photographs were taken in the Northeast Kingdom, an area of Vermont less traveled by tourists than New England's seacoast and thus still quite pristine; Gerd Kittel concentrates on a single season, but covers all of the region. Both are skilled photographers and their pictures have been handsomely reproduced; my own choice would be Kittel, if only because in subject matter he wanders a bit farther from New England stereotypes.
, photographs by Bill Weems and text by John Egerton (Graphic Arts Center, $34.95);
Mississippi: A Photographic Journey
, photographs by Jerry Stebbins and text by Barbara Cameron (St. Martin's, $35). Speaking of stereotypes: What about Ol' Dixie? Here we have it served up for a lucrative market that has made the southern coffee-table book as much a cliche' as the New England one. Its text by the estimable John Egerton notwithstanding, South looks for all the world like a Chamber of Commerce production, with its Ol' South plantations juxtaposed against the bustling cities of the New South. Mississippi is just what you'd expect from a book of that title: a journey down the river from its origins in Minnesota to its delta in New Orleans, accompanied by overwrought prose and evocative photographs.
Shaker: Life, Work and Art
, by June Sprigg and David Larkin, with photographs by Michael Freeman (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40), and
Shaker Village Views
, by Robert P. Emlen (University Press of New England, $29.95). The Shakers are all the vogue these days -- how odd it is that in an age of excess we should celebrate these apostles of simplicity -- so these two books come as no surprise. But though they may appeal to an acquisitive readership, both are in fact works of serious scholarship. June Sprigg, the moving force behind Shaker: Life, Work and Art, is curator of collections at Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, and knows whereof she writes; her book is a thorough guide to every aspect of Shaker life from prayer to cookery -- a small selection of recipes is included -- and Michael Freeman's accompanying photographs are really quite stunning. Shaker Village Views, by contrast, is a collection of maps and landscape drawings done by 19th-century Shakers; the book, which features an extensive and authoritative text, will be primarily of interest to serious students of Shaker history specifically and American folk art generally.
America: A Rediscovery
, by Lance Morrow (Holt, $35). Like the Fourth of July, this one stirs the blood and moves the heart: not with its text, which earnestly seeks inspiration but falls short of it, but with its all-American photographs. Lance Morrow, an excellent and thoughtful journalist, took on the unenviable assignment of "rediscovering" America in words but was victimized by the temptation to stylistic melodrama that such undertakings offer. The pictures, the work of many photographers, do the job more effectively and with less huffing and puffing. They may be cliche's, but they take your breath away every time: the Canyon de Chelly, Mount Rushmore, Norman Rockwell's New England, the Lincoln Memorial, the Los Angeles freeways, baseball fans, the Thanksgiving Parade -- you name it and America: A Rediscovery has it. Some readers may complain that it also has a disproportionately large number of pictures of New York City, but then as any Manhattanite will gladly tell you, New York is the center of the universe.
Halcyon Days: An American Family Through Three Generations
, by Peggie Phipps Boegner and Richard Gachot (Old Westbury Gardens/Abrams, $39.95). Henry Phipps Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1839; his friend, contemporary and next-door neighbor was a boy named Andrew Carnegie. For years the two worked together and, it goes without saying, made money together; but though Carnegie eventually became an American legend, Phipps withdrew into his family. He emerges from it now in this charming reminiscence by his granddaughter and in the hundreds of family photographs reproduced in this elegant book. It is published in connection with Old Westbury Gardens, the Phipps estate on Long Island that is now open to the public, but it is much more than a souvenir; it is a vivid depiction of the good life as it was once lived by the privileged classes. The construction of Westbury House, the family mansion, is shown in detail, as are children at play and adults at parties and polo. It was a life of ease without, for the most part, ostentation: a difficult trick to pull off, but the Phippses seem to have done it.
To the Inland Empire: Coronado and Our Spanish Legacy
, by Stewart L. Udall with photographs by Jerry Jacka (Doubleday, $30). Washingtonians will remember Stewart Udall as a feisty and independent secretary of the interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who, unlike many temporary residents of this city, didn't hang around after his day was done; instead he returned to Arizona, began a new career as a lawyer specializing in environmental matters, and turned his hand to writing. One result of that is To the Inland Empire, which seeks both to inform Americans about the history of the Southwest, about which too many of us are embarrassingly ignorant, and to correct the image of the colonizing Spaniards as perpetrators of atrocities. On both counts he succeeds admirably; he tells the story of Coronado's expeditions vividly, and he pleads Spain's case with passion and persuasiveness. The accompanying photographs by Jerry Jacka show the great Southwest in all its majesty.
OF RELATED INTEREST are five books having to do with American houses. These are rather like hardcover versions of the expensive architecture and household magazines, and presumably will appeal to people who like those publications. American Houses
, by Philip Langdon (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95). A survey of contemporary American housing for the affluent, with a particular emphasis on lavish subdivisions.
American Vernacular: Regional Influences in Architecture and Interior Design
, by Jim Kemp (Viking, $40). How traditional American styles have been altered and reinterpreted over the years.
, text by Chippy Irvine and photographs by Dennis Krukowski (Bantam, $34.95). A celebration of farmhouses, as epitomized by 17 such structures from all regions of the country.
The Desert Southwest
, text by Nora Burba and Paula Panich with photographs by Terrence Moore (Bantam, $34.95). A tribute to the exterior and interior design of a region whose architecture, like its history, has been underrated and misunderstood.
Period Details: A Sourcebook for House Restoration
, by Martin and Judith Miller (Crown, $25.95). Just what its subtitle says, with information about ordering the restoration materials you need.