In a year when the pandemic continued to make the world feel unstable and social media a bit fleeting, this selection of books offers a way to transport yourself through visual art in the palm of your hand.
Curated by time’s photography department, this list is semi-personal, compiled after asking each editor to think of the titles that felt most poignant in a year indelibly shaped by the covid-19 lockdown. many of the books address the movement for racial justice, examine economic inequality, or lift up underrepresented voices. in contrast, other titles stand out as a respite from these turbulent times.
You are reading: Best photo books 2021
2021 also marks the 10th year we’ve shared our favorite photo albums, and it’s exciting to say that the genre continues to flourish more than ever as brave photographers and editors challenge the format in innovative ways.
In their entirety, the books below summarize extensive bodies of work by photographers, curators, or historians driven by the resonant power of the still image. while some rely on traditional formats, others push to offer the most unique and intimate art experiences imaginable.
the last cross by latoya ruby frazier,the renaissance society, university of chicago
the last cruze by latoya ruby frazier is an extensive body of collaborative work focusing on autoworkers at general motors in lordstown, ohio who are members of the united autoworkers union . after the plant abruptly ceased production in 2019, thousands of workers had to decide whether to move to another plant or risk losing their jobs and benefits. Frazier sensitively documents the stories of autoworkers and their families during this difficult time. Through black-and-white portraits of union members in their homes along with personal testimonials, Frazier explores themes of resilience, solidarity, and shared purpose, as well as the importance of standing up for workers.
buy now: the last crossing
pickpocket by daniel arnold, elara press
pickpocket is daniel arnold’s first monograph and an experimental meditation on his obsessive documentation of the streets of new york city between 2009 and 2020. beginning with photos he initially posted on instagram, the The book was made during a series of quarantine Zoom meetings with film directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, as well as producer Sebastian Bear-McClard. “I kind of functioned as a screenwriter and then got out of the way and let them direct,” Arnold told Time.
buy now: pickpocket
the banda journal by muhammad fadli and fatris mf, jordan, jordan edition
the banda journal is a moving journey through the legacy of colonialism and violence in the banda islands of indonesia, which were exploited for centuries by powerful western countries in search of endemic species, but since then they have faded into darkness. . photographer muhammad fadli and writer fatris mf, who collaborated on the three-year project, cleverly weave together photographs, texts and research from multiple trips to the archipelago to tell an indelible and compelling story about “a place whose fate was determined by a plant”. the book captures the desire to remember the importance of the islands and what they have endured from the perspective of those who live with and appreciate the band.
buy now: the gang diary
what he saidby deanna templeton, mack
Rereading a teen journal can be exhilarating, and the idea of sharing it can be mortifying. In What She Said, Deanna Templeton reopens the most painful parts of her journals and presents them alongside recent teen photos of her. the portraits, mostly taken during chance encounters on the street, are of young women who she templeton says “reminded me of myself when she was her age. or how I wish I had been.” the combination of her words from her past, along with these young faces, creates a conversation between generations.
“I’m in a better place now, so I can look back and laugh at how dramatic it was,” Templeton told Time, “but those feelings were super intense and real to me back then.” the book shows how time is of the essence to grow, heal, and open a space where strength can be passed on to the next generation.
buy now: what he said
As We Rise: Black Atlantic Photography, Opening
books like the new black avant-garde (opening 2019) reflected on the creativity of a new generation of black photographers. as we rise (opening 2021) presents an incisive selection of works from the wedge collection, which has been preserving a prolific body of work by black artists since 1997. in the introduction, curator and cultural historian mark sealy writes that as a “time trapping process, photography offers us the opportunity to reflect on what we were like and make real, in the present, what we have become”. as we rise beautifully connects and contrasts black art movements to reflect how black photographers create space for themselves, establish community and celebrate power.
buy now: as we rise: photography of the black atlantic
in the air by irina rozovsky, mack
in plain air is an ode to the community experience of visiting brooklyn’s prospective park. irina rozovsky writes in the book about moving to new york and her initial attraction to the park, saying that it is “susceptible to the brutality of the seasons, it deteriorates, it has its moods and temperaments, but it never betrays democracy. it is a crucible that bubbles in all its splendor”. her photographs, however, break through the cracks to record a romance she feels for the place. they capture a shared joy that feels white, fully present, and even more poignant as the isolation of the pandemic persists.
shop now: outdoorsat amazon
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American Geography by matt black, thames & hudson
american geography is the culmination of photographer matt black’s six-year project that circumnavigated the lower 48 states to document communities where 20% or more of the population lives below the poverty line . By themselves, the images play a quiet drumbeat, but collectively they create a deafening blast that lays bare the harsh reality of inequality in America. Each chapter concludes with entries from Black’s notebooks, offering simple moments of reflection that resonate around the images. read our full review here.
shop now: american geography in bookstore | Amazons
santa bárbara by diana markosian, opening
santa barbara is an autobiographical reconstruction of photographer diana markosian’s surreal journey from post-soviet moscow to santa barbara, california, with her family. Boldly intertwining fact and fiction, Markosian actors portrayed her family in scenes recreated from her memory. She collaborated on a script with a writer for the 1980s American soap opera Santa Barbara, which inspired Markosian’s mother to move to the United States. santa barbara by markosian is a moving and immersive story with deep attention to detail, communicating an emotion that feels both specific and universal: the desire to understand and love others. the mother herself, as she is.
buy now: santa barbara
sorry for the war by peter van agtmael, massive books
sorry about the war conveys an absurd look at the remains of the post-9/11 world. The book serves as a mind-bending work of art on the most serious of topics, reminiscent of early Oliver Stone movies. picks up from where van agtmael’s previous book, night disco sept. 11,he left it, examining the most recent chapters of the “global war on terror”, including the fight against isis in iraq. Read our full review here.
buy now: sorry for the war on amazon
street portraits by dawoud bey, mack
street portraits seems like an understated title for this early series of portraits by artist dawoud bey in the late 1980s and early 1990s. while in each painting, the subject simply connects Through the camera lens, these intimate exchanges combined with Bey’s superb framing make the face feel singular, amplifying each person’s individuality. Writer Greg Tate cites how historically “the prevailing mainstream media stories about black people at the time were about gang murders or drug sales and addiction.” Bey’s photographs intentionally served as an alternative to the story white America was telling itself on the evening news. the powerful message contained in the images has only continued to resonate with time.
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What They Saw: Historical Photobooks of Women, 1843-1999, 10×10 Photobooks
This epic compilation of women’s photobooks feels like a necessary antidote to the male-dominated anthologies of the past. features so many obscure and out-of-print books and designs from the original publications contextualized in thematic eras, making it a constant source of visual inspiration for image makers, designers, and historians.
shop now: what you saw
hello future from farah al qasimi, capricious
hello future is a fascinating collection of observations from farah al qasimi’s photographic, performative, and cinematic practice. Through Technicolor still lifes and peculiar moments from public and private life, Al Qasimi examines the structures of power, gender, and aesthetics in the Persian Gulf. Just like its foil-adhesive cover and chrome hardcover, hello future is a playful, thoughtful and highly intelligent viewing experience.
buy now: hello future
can’t stand to see you cry by rahim fortune, loose joints
rahim fortune combines photos from his life with more social documentary images, sharing what feels like his diary. The combination of the private and the public amplifies the story of a young man’s life in the American South into something greater. Photographs of a street protest are followed by what appears to be the photographer walking out of the camera and holding his father’s hand in a hospital bed. Fortune uses the act of image-making to cling to time and people in a way that uplifts our spirits in the face of our mortality. here, photographs help us remember what matters most: family, friends, and our unique ties, however brief.
buy now: I can’t stand to see you cry
Spanish color 1985-2020 by Cristóbal Hara, press plague
A compilation spanning 35 years from the archive of photographer Cristóbal Hara, spanish coloris reminiscent of victor erice’s 1973 film the spirit of the hive, taking us On a road trip through the dusty countryside of Spain to discover a funhouse of traditions and rituals. In vivid colors, Hara always finds beauty tinged with her wacky sense of humor to shake any romantic notions one might have about religion, history, and male chauvinism.
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lesbian eye to eye portraits by jeb, anthology editions
Jeb (Joan E. Biren) has proudly called herself a “radical lesbian feminist” for years. As a founding member of The Furies, a collective of like-minded members, Jeb turned her passion for research and her “absolute inability to find lesbian images” into a quest for greater lesbian visibility. Her desire to see herself and other lesbians led her to produce her first groundbreaking book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, originally self-published in 1979 and reissued in anthology editions. read time’s full interview with jeb here.
shop now: lesbian eye-to-eye portraits in bookstore | Amazons
family affairs by gillian laub, opening
artist gillian laub has always blurred the lines between her personal life and her professional work, often assigning her family and friends commercial and editorial assignments. each meaningful relationship becomes the inspiration for an exhibition.
In this deeply personal and brutally honest monograph, he writes alongside his family photographs to reveal the stories behind the images, his deepest insecurities and his politically charged life of the past 20 years. her constant questioning of the complexity of family ties culminates in a memoir about reconciliation with one’s life and a journey toward love and self-acceptance.
buy now: family matters
camp, wyoming: selections from the lora webb nichols archive 1899-1948, fw: books
The most popular representations of the American West in the early 20th century feel dominated by the mythology of the cowboys. Absent are the stories of women like Laura Webb Nichols, who, among many things, worked as a photographer, mother, and businesswoman, running a photo-finishing studio and business in southern Wyoming. In this collection of photographs from the little-known photographer, we see Webb’s images alongside those she collected from clients, primarily amateur photographers, the inclusion of which shows her curatorial eye for recognizing subtle, bizarre, and austere image-making. camp, wyoming feels like a small-town movie directed through webb’s singular vision.
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wish i had never seen the sun from pacifico silane, loose joints
in i wish i never saw sunlight by pacifico silano, snippets of vintage gay porn and found footage, as well as the slightest hint of a backward looking eye, a shard of skin breaks out with eroticism through collage. . This unique artist’s book is made in an accordion-folded format that can be displayed as a continuous collage or as a sequence of individual images. retro color images feel like a trip back in time to contemplate gay masculinity and the allure of life before the trauma of AIDS.
buy now: wish i had never seen the sunlight
american mirror by philip montgomery, opening
This collection of photographs taken across the United States over nearly a decade evokes a fever dream about our collective past and present. Captured in Philip Montgomery’s nouveau noir style, the scenes feel like they’re narrated in a crackling radio broadcast declaring hard truths about the state of the country. In the introduction, writer Jelani Cobb describes the sequence of images as “seasons” in an ongoing “American melting pot,” where each photo is accompanied by historical testimony that leaves the viewer to come to grips with themselves.
buy now: American mirror
photo not-us: musings on what not to photograph edited by jason fulford, opening
photo no-nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph is a collection of sometimes poetic, sometimes hilarious, and downright inspiring musings from over 200 image-makers on things photographers should avoid. is a meandering book of discovery, perfectly designed for this non-linear year. best consumed by flipping through any random page and cracking open its wisdom like a fortune cookie. At 320 pages, only a few photos can be found, yet this brilliant collection offers endless delightful new ways of seeing.
buy now: photo not-us: meditations on what not to photograph
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