Animal, by James Balog (Graphis, $60). Relentlessly altering our environment, searching for something to fulfill or transform us, we humans often seem uncomfortable in our own skins. Forget yoga classes: We could learn a thing or two about centeredness from the other inhabitants of the planet. "Animals are whole unto themselves," writes wildlife photographer James Balog, "completely poised in an existence bequeathed by five billion years of evolutionary rhythm, their minds and spirits focused. To look into the eyes of many animals, particularly the big ones like bear and elephant, is to sense a degree of calm and certainty rarely felt in people. . . . I propose that on the spectrum of what might be called existential contentment, animals surpass humans." Never romanticizing or sentimentalizing their subjects, Balog's portraits -- there's no other word for them -- present individuals fully being themselves: an orange-nosed mandrill gazing at the viewer with stoicism an ancient philosopher might envy; a Bengal tiger yawning, or roaring, as its paw reaches for the sky; a Rockhopper penguin, balanced like a dancer on rubbery feet, looking at the camera as if waiting for an explanation. -- J.H.

Manhattan Skyscrapers, by Eric P. Nash, photographs by Norman McGrath (Princeton Architectural Press, $45), and Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, by Bonnie Yochelson (New Press, $30, paperback). Here are two quite wonderful depictions of the ever-changing cityscape of New York. The first concentrates on skyscrapers, the second on the city during the Depression. Though Eric Nash's text is mainly celebratory in tone, he is not loath to take potshots where they are deserved, as in his dismissal of the Pan Am (now Met Life) Building, which "represents . . . the postwar disdain for history and emphasis on sheer burgeoning floor space." The oldest of the skyscrapers included is the handsome American Tract Society Building on Nassau Street and the newest is the hideous Conde Nast Building on Times Square; Norman McGrath's color photos of these and all others are first-rate. As to the second book, it is a market-priced paperback edition of a hardcover originally published a couple of years ago, and collects the New York photos of Berenice Abbott, taken for the Works Progress Administration in the mid-1930s; it was put together under the auspices of the superb Museum of the City of New York. The portrait it gives of the city's life, both human and architectural, is vivid, various and utterly engaging; the photos are in black and white, and conjure up an urban variation upon the rural and small-town pictures taken by Abbott's far more famous contemporaries, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. -- J.Y.

Earth From Above, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand; translated from the French by David Baker (Abrams, $65). Some people have a wider perspective on life than others. The French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand soars above us with his wide-angle lens, capturing sweeping images of mountains, oceans, jungles and cities that should push poets and environmentalists, philosophers and just plain earth-dwellers to loftier thoughts. The large-format book contains more than 400 images. Among these: a vast graveyard of rusting Iraqi tanks in a desert in Kuwait, flocks of pink flamingos on Lake Nakuru in Kenya, the multicolored geothermic pool in Yellowstone Park, islets in the Sea of Timor that seem to float on blue-green water, a huge ancient design like a candelabra on a cliff in Peru that served as a landmark for sailors. Half the photographs are generous spreads that serve as vivid evidence that our environment still includes vast areas that are pristine and primeval; but images of polluted waters, huge slums, overcrowded cities and overgrazed lands are disturbing signs that all is not well with Mother Earth as we enter a new millennium. The photographic exhibition "Earth from Above: An Aerial Portrait on the Eve of the Year 2000" is now showing at the New York Public Library through Jan. 29, 2000. -- K.F.T.

Brandt: The Photography of Bill Brandt. Abrams. $75). Some readers are old enough to remember the seminal exhibition of photography, "The Family of Man" or the book. One Brandt photograph I remember vividly is an image of children in London's East End in 1943 (which is reproduced on the title page of this book): a row of girls on a street in front of their dreary row houses, all giggly as they watch a rather poised friend tuck up her skirt and parade in heels to imitate an adult fashion model, perhaps, or a mother. It is at once heart-warming and sad -- because they are trapped in a bleak, Dickensian environment yet having such fun. Brandt's black-and-white photographs resemble such film noir images as those in "The Third Man." He was not as prolific as Brassai (whose work is currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington), but he covers similar territory with a sharp eye for exposing the beauty and ugliness of a rigid class structure in the first half of the 20th century. Brandt, born in Hamburg, later settled in England, and worked as an assistant to French surrealist Man Ray, whose influence shows, especially in photographs of nudes. -- K.F.T.

London, Sight Unseen, by Snowdon (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, $27.95). The title suggests a follow-up to Snowden's very first book of photographs, titled simply London. But while that focused its attention on the people of the capital, here we discover photographs of some of London's more unusual and eccentric architectural gems. Accompanying text is provided by Gwyn Headley, president of the Folly Fellowship, which makes it all the less surprising that this collection encompasses a large number of lodges, gatehouses and quirky buildings, be it the Broad Walk Refreshment Lodge in Regent's Park (in service since 1850) or the Air Vent in King Edward's memorial park, a rotunda built of brick and inset with Art Nouveau ironwork grilles. Definitely not your typical tourist picture book. -- C.S.