The best books on American photography

Who am I?

I am a hopeless photographer. But I have a passion for looking at photographs, for trying to understand how good ones work. They are not just momentary slices of life but structured artefacts, sometimes technically interesting, that in myriad ways reflect the society that produced them. I studied aspects of US cultural history at three universities. After devoting the first part of my academic career to American literature, in the second half – during which, supported by wonderful fellowships, I spent much time rooting in archives – I gave myself up to American photography. I have learnt much from each of the books I commend here. 

I wrote...

The Grass Shall Grow: Helen Post Photographs the Native American West

By Mick Gidley,

Book cover of The Grass Shall Grow: Helen Post Photographs the Native American West

What is my book about?

The Grass Shall Grow resurrects the work of Helen M. Post (1907-79), an important if half-forgotten photographer, whose commissions on Indian reservations throughout the American West during the Great Depression produced striking and informative images.

It recounts Post’s career, from her coming of age in turbulent Vienna to her work for the U.S. Indian Service, tracking the arc of her professional reputation. It treats her interactions with such prominent white figures as Indian Commissioner John Collier and a variety of Native Americans: leaders (Crow superintendent, Robert Yellowtail, for example), noted craftspeople (including Sioux quilter Nellie Star Boy Menard), and ordinary individuals, people she photographed wherever she found them – at school, in hospital, dancing in ceremonies, or out in the fields. Thoroughly researched and accessibly written, the book constitutes a serious reappraisal of an independent woman artist who captured a respectful and empathetic portrait of Native American life in troubled times.

The books I picked & why

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American Photography (Oxford History of Art)

By Miles Orvell,

Book cover of American Photography (Oxford History of Art)

Why this book?

This book is a lively, questioning, and comprehensive survey of American photography, from its beginnings to the present. It analyzes achievements in each of the genres, from portraiture, through landscape, to documentary, fashion, etc. It treats individual photographic artists, from Avedon to Weegee, from the views of New York taken by Berenice Abbott to J.T. Zealy’s likenesses of enslaved Africans. American Photography is always concerned to underscore what photographs have to tell us about major aspects of American culture: race and ethnicity, gender and identity, business and technology, religion, and region. It also has numerous well-reproduced images; illuminating sidebars and boxes on such topics as the daguerreotype or picture magazines; a helpful timeline; and notes on further reading and viewing. The book was expanded and retitled as Photography in America in 2015, but the first edition still holds up. 

Print the Legend: Photography and the American West

By Martha A. Sandweiss,

Book cover of Print the Legend: Photography and the American West

Why this book?

Print the Legend, the product of profound scholarly immersion in archival sources, manages to both offer a wealth of totally new information on the ways photographs have represented the West and give a superior account of themes and figures already extensively studied. Paradoxically, much of its excitement is due not so much to the way Sandweiss reads the photographs themselves – though we can all learn from her in this respect – but the way she reads the written texts (what she rightly terms “the legend”) that contextualized them. I am personally much indebted to Sandweiss’ treatment of the photographers who worked for the various government surveys and, most of all, to her nuanced readings of how Native Americans were seen over time.   

Reading American Photographs: Images as History-Mathew Brady to Walker Evans

By Alan Trachtenberg,

Book cover of Reading American Photographs: Images as History-Mathew Brady to Walker Evans

Why this book?

The late Alan Trachtenberg (he died in 2020) did more than any other scholar or critic to further our understanding of photographs as cultural documents. This book – probing, detailed yet precise, and endlessly interesting – is his masterpiece. The chapters devoted to Civil War photographs and to American Photographs (1938), the extraordinary photobook produced by artist Walker Evans, are especially powerful. There is a sense in which the books I commend by other authors here – including my own The Grass Shall Grow (2020) -- would not be possible without Trachtenberg’s example.

Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America

By Eric J. Sandeen,

Book cover of Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America

Why this book?

“The Family of Man” – the huge exhibition of documentary photographs curated in 1955 by photographer Edward Steichen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that then traveled the world – is probably the most influential photography show ever conceived. It included images of individuals and groups representing cultures from around the world. These were made by a gamut of major photographers, the majority of them American. The show was seen in person by hundreds of thousands of people and, literally, millions more have encountered the book version of the show. Sandeen’s engrossing study reveals both how the exhibition reflected Steichen’s own humanistic beliefs and how it spoke to larger cultural concerns. More recent scholarly work by, among others, Shamoon Zamir and Sandeen himself, have shown that “The Family of Man” was more controversial and less specifically “American” than was originally thought.

A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York

By Helen Levitt,

Book cover of A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York

Why this book?

Women photographers have all too often been overlooked or forgotten. (This happened to the subject of my own book choice, Helen Post.) But Helen Levitt – who really flourished from the 1940s through the 1960s and is now undergoing something of a renaissance – has always had devotees. Steichen invited her to contribute to The Family of Man and one of her most notable admirers, James Agee, the novelist, poet, film critic, and documentarian, was pleased to write the insightful essay to A Way of Seeing. Levitt’s quirky pictures of street life – especially those featuring children, often at play – document quite ordinary customs at a particular moment. Despite never seeming intrusive, they get up close, reveal the photographer’s rapport with her subjects, and present them, so to speak, on the level. Ultimately, these images are so expressive that they become universal, transcending the period in which they were made.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in photography, fine art photography, and travel photography?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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