In the name of visual intelligence we asked our critics to pick the books they wouldn't and you shouldn't, live without.
By Vicki Goldberg
Art Director Patricia Marroquin


If you wanted me to choose the ten best photography books, I'd say, politely, that I couldn't. Though I still believe that quality counts, an attitude that automatically invites the epithet "elitist," I can't quite bring myself to slight all the old‑friend books I'd have to leave out. So I imagined myself on a desert island instead ‑I could use a vacation‑ and tried to come up with a list of necessities. Naturally, my island would be equipped with bookshelf, computer, and books ‑some essential, some valuable, some just beautiful.

If I could have only one history, it would be A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum (Abbeville Press, 1984). This book has some limitations, but it's more inclusive than most, taking note of numerous photographers, women, and nationalities that histories have tended to neglect ‑and it's copiously illustrated. A handy reference tool.

Braving boos and catcalls, I'd also take Susan Sontag's On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). Yes, she's wrong a lot of times, but she is always provocative; she writes clean, sharp prose; and she revs up the brain on matters photographic.

Two books that I refer to all the time never fail me, no doubt because they just happen to have my name on the title page. Photography in Print (University of New Mexico Press, 1981), an anthology, includes much good stuff by the likes of Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Walter Benjamin, and M.F. Agha, who defined modern photography as the belief that "the hippopotamus's tonsils are more beautiful than Whistler's mother." The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives (Abbeville Press, 1991) addresses the influence of specific photographs on the course of history ‑swaying elections, creating celebrities, effecting social reform.

For early American photography, I'm attached to Richard Rudisill's Mirror Image: The Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society (University of New Mexico Press, 1971). It is smart, thoughtful, and enlightening on the social context of photography, with a text that far outclasses the pictures.

For beauty, there's Photodiscovery: Masterworks of Photography 1840‑1940 by Bruce Bernard (Harry N. Abrams, 1980). This volume carries few words but a feast of pictures, all wonderfully reproduced and as delicious as raspberries and cream but a lot longer lasting.

For ravishing, I would really like (if only I could afford it) Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company by Pierre Apraxine, with plates by Richard Benson (White Oak Press, 1985). Its price? $2,500. But I am told that photography dealers would probably give you a discount. On two different types of paper that went through up to eight passes on press, the reproductions probably come as close to the originals as offset printing ever gets. And after all, the book does cost a lot less than amassing a photography collection.

I'd also want to have Henri Cartier‑Bresson's The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952). Long out of print, it's a stunning example of book design, including a cover by Henri Matisse, plus a parade of one brilliant picture after another.

And if I wasn't feeling too depressed, I'd take Robert Frank's The Americans (the first American edition, published in 1959 by Grove Press, which has the best printing) to peruse under the palm trees. With an astonishing percentage of photographs that keep on tapping into the emotions no matter how many times you see them, The Americans also has a kind of hesitant, poetic, non‑narrative progression that's a potent lesson in forging a book from single images.

Then I'd end up with something yummy: Diary of a Century by Jacques‑Henri Lartigue. I wish I had the 1970 original (Viking), but a friend of mine spotted it at a library sale one minute before I did (and I've never forgiven her), so I make do with the Penguin paperback. It's poorly printed, but the images shine through. Adulthood wasn't the proper climate for Lartigue's talent, so only the first half of the book, when he was young, is really worthwhile. Then, his pictures were insouciant, poised on the edge of discovery, and full of rollicking life ‑a fine dessert for a desert isle.