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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of American Photography (Oxford History of Art)

Why did I love 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. 

By Miles Orvell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Photography (Oxford History of Art) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This lively new survey offers fresh insights into 150 years of American photography, placing it in its cultural context for the first time. Orvell examinines this fascinating subject through portraiture and landscape photography, eamily albums and memory, and analyses the particularly 'American' way in which American photographers have viewed the world around them. Combining a clear overview of the changing nature of photographic thinking and practice in this period, with an exploration of key concepts, the result is the first coherent history of American photography, which examines issues such as the nature of photographic exploitation, experimental techniques, the power of…

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Martha A. Sandweiss,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Print the Legend as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling story of how the new medium of photography and the new American frontier came of age together-illustrated with scores of stunning images

This prize-winning book tells the intertwined stories of photography and the American West-a new medium and a new place that came of age together in the nineteenth century.

"Excellent . . . rewarding . . . a provocative look at the limits of photography as recorder of history-and its role in perpetuating myth."-Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News

"A sophisticated and engaging exploration of photography and the West . . . A really handsome work."-James McWilliams, Austin…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Alan Trachtenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reading American Photographs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Charles C. Eldredge Prize

In this book, Alan Trachtenberg reinterprets some of America's most significant photographs, presenting them not as static images but rather as rich cultural texts suffused with meaning and historical content. Reading American Photographs is lavishly illustrated with the work of such luminaries as Mathew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan, and Walker Evans--pictures that document the American experience from 1839 to 1938. In an outstanding analysis, Trachtenberg eloquently articulates how the art of photography has both followed and shaped the course of American history, and how images captured decades ago provocatively illuminate the present.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Eric J. Sandeen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Picturing an Exhibition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The Family of Man", a photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. More people saw that exhibit than any other show of photographs, and the book of the same title remains in print to this day. Despite the enormous success of this assemblage of photographs, surprisingly little critical attention has been paid to The Family of Man as a phenomenon.

Eric Sandeen presents here the first in-depth study of the exhibit and its influence worldwide. He examines how the exhibit came to be assembled, the beliefs and background Edward Steichen brought to…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Helen Levitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Way of Seeing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Taken over a number of years beginning in the early 1940s, the 51 photographs in this book -- many of them of children and of the poor, many taken in Harlem -- reveal the face of the city as it was and are an enduring image of existence as this artist sees it. The accompanying essay by James Agee is both a commentary on the pictures and an eloquent statement of the nature of the creative act and what it means or the art of photography.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about photography, fine art photography, and documentary photography.

Photography Explore 37 books about photography
Fine Art Photography Explore 18 books about fine art photography
Documentary Photography Explore 12 books about documentary photography

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like How Photography Became Contemporary Art, The Edge of Time, and Camera Lucida if you like this list.