The best books for understanding photography as art

Who am I?

My interest in photography began as a student at Pratt Institute, a preeminent art school, and I have worked in the field my entire adult life, not as a photographer but as a picture editor and photography critic. I was the Page One Picture Editor of The New York Times and wrote regularly about photography for the paper. I have published two biographies: one on Richard Avedon, among the more significant artists of the 20th century, and another on Sam Wagstaff, one of the earliest collectors who established the art market for photography; a book of collected reviews and essays called Photography After Frank; and essays on individual photographers for museum catalogues and artist’s monographs. I produced the 2011 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.


I wrote...

What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon

By Philip Gefter,

Book cover of What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon

What is my book about?

In his acclaimed portraits, Richard Avedon captured the iconic figures of the twentieth century in his starkly bold, intimately minimal, and forensic visual style. Concurrently, his work for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue revolutionized the fashion photograph. Yet despite his driving ambition to gain respect in the art world, during his lifetime he was condescendingly dismissed as a "celebrity photographer."

Avedon mounted an existential lifelong battle to be recognized as an artist. Compounding his private battles, Avedon fought to be taken seriously in a medium that itself struggled to be respected within the art world. He counted as close friends a profoundly influential group of artists, writers, composers, and filmmakers—Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Mike Nichols, Harold Brodkey, Renata Adler, Sidney Lumet. What Becomes a Legend Most pays tribute to Avedon's role in the history of photography—and his legacy as one of the most consequential artists of his time.

The books I picked & why

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Ways of Seeing

By John Berger,

Book cover of Ways of Seeing

Why this book?

This is one of the most astute meditations on the way we understand the world through our eyes. “Seeing comes before words,” Berger writes. “The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” With unadorned clarity, Berger consistently states what is true. And, with that gift, he examines the way early man first represented human experience in visual terms, which leads him to a description of the way we look at paintings, followed by his insights about the way to read photographs. He abides by our native visual language and shows how seeing gets complicated by cultural meanings that change and evolve over time.

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

By John Szarkowski,

Book cover of Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

Why this book?

As the legendary curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski was instrumental in elevating photography’s stature to an equal among the fine arts. He is eloquent in his explanation about the meaning of photography and illuminating in his descriptions of each of the one hundred photographs published in this book from MoMA’s sterling collection of photographs. There is no better guide to an awakening of your own eye than Szarkowski.

How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age

By Andy Grundberg,

Book cover of How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age

Why this book?

As a photography critic for The New York Times, Grundberg was present when a generation of artists began to take apart the photographic image and transform its meaning in society. He wrote about post-modern practice in the present tense, as it was happening. This book is a collection of his reviews and essays from the 1980s when the medium was at a crossroads; the factual veracity of photography was enduring challenges at every turn and the valuation of the photograph as an art object was under critical scrutiny.

The Americans

By Robert Frank,

Book cover of The Americans

Why this book?

Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, was best known for his groundbreaking book, The Americans, a masterwork of black and white photographs drawn from his cross-country road trips in the mid-1950s and published in 1959. Frank had come to detest the American drive for conformity, and “The Americans” was thought to be an indictment of American society, stripping away the picture-perfect vision of the country and its veneer of breezy optimism put forward in magazines and movies and on television. Yet at the core of his social criticism was a romantic idea about finding and honoring what was true and good about the United States. Frank’s photographs of lone individuals, teenage couples, groups at funerals, and odd spoors of cultural life are cinematic, immediate, off-kilter, and grainy, like early television transmissions of the period. They would secure his place in photography’s pantheon.

Evidence

By Larry Sultan (photographer), Mike Mandel (photographer),

Book cover of Evidence

Why this book?

Evidence, published in 1977, is a book of black-and-white pictures culled by these two artists from the archives of government agencies, public utilities, university laboratories, and private corporations. The anonymous photographs were made to document actual fires, land sites, crime scenes, product testing, and scientific experimentation. In Evidence, the pictures are removed from their context of origin and printed, one to a page, without caption information. Individually, the pictures take on surrealist properties subject to endless narrative interpretation; collectively, the sequencing creates a running narrative with no coherent story. Since the pictures so closely resemble the black-and-white documentary images that came to define art photography in the 1970s, Evidence was among the early postmodern works to contest the growing acceptance of photography as art, photographer as artist-author, photographic documentation as fact, and the truth-telling capability of the medium as unwavering.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in photography, fine art photography, and art?

5,215 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 art.

Photography Explore 31 books about photography
Fine Art Photography Explore 11 books about fine art photography
Art Explore 83 books about art

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Edge of Time: Photographs of Mexico, On Photography, and South Southeast if you like this list.