The best books about documentary photography

The Books I Picked & Why

The Americans

By Robert Frank

Book cover of The Americans

Why this book?

I tried to do something different with this list than the usual photography books people often cite, however, there is just no avoiding how important Robert Frank’s The Americans has been on the medium. In 1955, Frank departed for a two-year road trip to document the people of the United States, which coincided with the evolution of new post-war classes – namely, the working poor and those who would eventually become the beatniks of the ‘60s. Focusing on the racial and socio-geographic divide, Frank was a pioneer, as his work defiantly contradicted the popular romanticized propaganda of Life Magazine, opening the doors to the gritty documentary and street photography genres we know today.

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Teenage Lust: An Autobiography

By Larry Clark

Book cover of Teenage Lust: An Autobiography

Why this book?

Larry Clark is most well known for his controversial 1995 motion picture Kids, but decades before refashioning himself into a filmmaker, Clark got his start as a shutterbug. His first and most critically acclaimed photo essay, Tulsa, was on the heroin habits of friends from the fringes of his Oklahoman hometown throughout the 1960s. His follow-up book, 1983’s Teenage Lust, is a much more accomplished and focused collection; Clark dials up to 11 his intrigue for rebellious children, paralleling the graphic imagery with anecdotes of his own wayward youth. Out of print for decades, good luck finding an affordable copy.

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History Is Made At Night

By David Godlis

Book cover of History Is Made At Night

Why this book?

Manhattanite David Godlis took up street photography in the 1970s, spending after dark at the now-notorious Bowery punk-rock bar, CBGB. However, few others could have predicted that the bands he was capturing in their infancy would go on to become some of the most iconic musicians of the era: Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Cramps... Godlis’ lens is grainy and gauzy, using only the scant natural light available to document these dark personalities on and off stage. History Is Made At Night is equal parts talent and perfect timing, as only a true historian would have had the foresight to hang out with who other photographers then considered just a bunch of unwashed miscreants.

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Social Graces

By Larry Fink

Book cover of Social Graces

Why this book?

Veteran photographer Larry Fink once called my own book of photography “boring”, which I wear as a badge of honor, as I would have to be on the street-beat for as long as he has – 50 years! – before I could ever measure up to his skill and accomplishments. Fink specializes in juxtapositions, and in this touching series from the early-‘80s, he spends time among the working class of rural Pennsylvania as well as nouveau-riche socialites of New York, then couples the imagery into a telling tale of two cities. He has an uncanny ability to get right up in his subject’s business at their most vulnerable moments, and in that regard, among Fink’s large body of work, Social Graces is his most poignant.

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It's All Good

By Boogie

Book cover of It's All Good

Why this book?

I’ll bookend this list with what I consider to be a sort of updated take on Larry Clark’s Tulsa. Serbian photog Boogie has published similarly solemn collections on Moscow and war-torn Belgrade. With It’s All Good, he arrived in New York’s most violent neighborhoods circa 2010 to document the hard and often tragic lives of urban youth. Gangsters pointing their guns into the lens or jabbing their veins with needles might not make the most appealing coffee table book, but the photos themselves are even more sublime than anything shot by Clark, making this book a worthy successor.

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