NOW THAT your gargantuan Thanksgiving meal is only a dim memory of excess, it's time to start shopping for the holidays! (Hey, I'm sorry, but somebody had to break the news -- and you didn't think you'd get away with lounging on the couch for a second day, did you?)
Buying gifts for photography-minded friends and relatives is easy if you believe in the notion (which I do) that photographers love photography books. In fact, when I lecture, right after I expound Frank's first law (In order to be a photographer, you must take photographs, and plenty of them, all the time) comes Frank's second law: The best way to learn what makes a good photograph is to look at good photographs as often as possible.
Of the many books that crossed my desk over the past year, I've selected three that I think are worth your time and attention for the way each photographer has documented a theme that riveted him or her and brought a fresh and creative eye to their otherwise well-trod fields. [And each of these books is beautifully designed and printed.]
The companion volume to Fred Maroon's monumental show at the National Museum of American History is titled "The Nixon Years 1969-1974: White House to Watergate" (Abbeville Press, $29.95). It is one of the most compelling pieces of photojournalism cum history I've seen in a long while. I reviewed Fred's show in this space last August and described then how a combination of good fortune, persistence and raw talent produced a remarkable chronicle of the inner workings of the Nixon White House and reelection committee. He followed this work with blanket coverage of the Senate and House hearings that led to Richard Nixon's resignation, producing unique work even when he was working from the mosh pit of the photo pool. This book is much more than an exhibition catalog. It contains two wonderful, complementary texts: Maroon's own long captions describing the circumstances under which he worked; as well as gracefully written, thoroughly researched introductions to each major section of the book, by ex-New York Times reporter and columnist Tom Wicker. This is a serious book beautifully presented.
If text plays a major part in highlighting Maroon's beautiful work, photographer Henry Horenstein takes the opposite tack for his black-and-white effort, eschewing text entirely for his stunning book, "Creatures" (Pond Press, $39.95).
Horenstein, who teaches photography and illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and who has written books on everything from color theory to horse racing, offers us a wordless 80-page portfolio that takes your breath away. These are black-and-white "portraits" of all manner of living things, made in zoos, aquaria and in wild, shot on Agfa's wonderfully lush Scala black-and-white slide film, then translated into equally lush Ilfochrome or platinum prints. These, in turn, were printed in tritone to maintain the wide range of tone in the originals. You have never seen creatures portrayed like this, or in such wonderful juxtaposition: the graceful feathers of a flamingo in close-up on the left; a seemingly identical image on the right -- only it is an overhead view of a school of carp.
If Horenstein had relied only on close-ups of hides or feathers, or on tortured abstracts, this book would not be on this list. But he manages to capture the "animalness" of each creature while bringing a fresh perspective to it. Only the wildlife photographs of Frans Lanting have affected me as much.
Dency Kane's garden photography has been featured in such magazines as Garden Design and Country Home. What garden enthusiasts may not know is that this talented New York shooter's fine art prints are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
So it shouldn't surprise that Kane's first book of garden images, "Sanctuary: Gardening for the Soul" (Friedman/Fairfax, $35) is glorious and pushes conventional color garden photography to another level.
I confess a disinclination to love garden photography books. I have been spoiled by Irving Penn's voluptuous color portraits of parrot tulips, made under controlled studio conditions, not to mention Edward Steichen's glorious black-and-white image "Heavy Roses," made decades earlier. Rarely have I seen their equal. If Penn's work in the studio is one standard of excellence, Kane's work in the field now may be another. Additionally, this book celebrates the inherent serenity of the garden, both in Kane's pictures and in sensitive text by Lauri Brunton and Erin Fournier.