The best documentary photography books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about documentary photography and why they recommend each book.

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Teenage Lust

By Larry Clark,

Book cover of Teenage Lust: An Autobiography

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.


Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for a two-year backpacking sojourn across the country. I took a bunch of snapshots along the way with a little point-and-shoot camera. 800 of those images became my first book. Photography – be it travel, documentary, street or reportage – is my passion. The following are but five of five hundred books I’d love to recommend.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang; across the deserts of Xinjiang and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place one people, but 33 distinct geographical regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles. 

Social Graces

By Larry Fink,

Book cover of Social Graces

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.


Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for a two-year backpacking sojourn across the country. I took a bunch of snapshots along the way with a little point-and-shoot camera. 800 of those images became my first book. Photography – be it travel, documentary, street or reportage – is my passion. The following are but five of five hundred books I’d love to recommend.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang; across the deserts of Xinjiang and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place one people, but 33 distinct geographical regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles. 

History Is Made At Night

By David Godlis,

Book cover of History Is Made At Night

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.


Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for a two-year backpacking sojourn across the country. I took a bunch of snapshots along the way with a little point-and-shoot camera. 800 of those images became my first book. Photography – be it travel, documentary, street or reportage – is my passion. The following are but five of five hundred books I’d love to recommend.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang; across the deserts of Xinjiang and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place one people, but 33 distinct geographical regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles. 

Dorothea Lange

By Linda Gordon,

Book cover of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

In the 1930s, Dorothea Lang photographed poor and migrant families across the United States. She documented the devastating impact of the Great Depression, contributing to raising national awareness about the consequences of poverty. In this outstanding and engaging biography, Linda Gordon tells the story of her life and work and how her photographs were part of a larger political movement to transform and expand social protection to US citizens.

Who am I?

I’m a historian of Latin America and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. I write about Chile’s labor and social history in the twentieth century. As a historian, I am especially interested in understanding how working people relate with public institutions and authorities, what they expect from the state, and how they have organized and expanded social and economic rights. While my research centers in Chile and Latin America, I also look to place regional debates in a transnational framework and see how ideas and people have moved across borders. I like books that bring working people’s diverse voices and experiences. 


I wrote...

Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile

By Ángela Vergara,

Book cover of Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile

What is my book about?

In Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile, Ángela Vergara narrates the story of how industrial and mine workers, peasants and day laborers, as well as blue-collar and white-collar employees earned a living through periods of economic, political, and social instability in twentieth-century Chile. The Great Depression transformed how Chileans viewed work and welfare rights and how they related to public institutions. Influenced by global and regional debates, the state put modern agencies in place to count and assist the poor and expand their social and economic rights.

Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile contributes to understanding the profound inequality that permeates Chilean history through a detailed analysis of the relationship between welfare professionals and the unemployed, the interpretation of labor laws, and employers’ everyday attitudes.

Walker Evans First and Last

By Walker Evans,

Book cover of Walker Evans First and Last

Walker Evans was a documentary photographer. He was one of the first to discover that the photos he took of the mundane or overlooked could contain as much or more merit and compassion than the grandest scene. His work has a social consciousness which was not always appreciated at the time (1930s) in an age of great depression in the USA. He was dispatched by the Farm Agency Commission to document rural oppression in the plains and deep south of America, and his photographs hold nothing back. They tell it like it was.


Who am I?

As a 5-year-old boy, I was given a tin of watercolour paints by my Grandmother. I had no idea how to use them, and there was no one around to teach me. I had to find my own way. Around the same time I was taken on a day trip to London, where we visited the Tate Gallery. It was there that I was confronted for the first time by the magnificent paintings of J.M.W.Turner. My love for art was ignited. I became a serious student of art, and although I have had to make a living in the world like everyone else, art became my go-to therapy for relief and recreation.


I wrote...

Watercolour, Heart & Soul

By David Poxon,

Book cover of Watercolour, Heart & Soul

What is my book about?

Discarded remnants, overlooked corners, the quiet order of frail surface textures as nature slowly reclaims what man has cast aside. These are the inspirations for the Masterful paintings by English watercolour artist David Poxon RI, NWS. 

Dorothea's Eyes

By Barb Rosenstock, Gerard Dubois (illustrator),

Book cover of Dorothea's Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth

The cover shows a woman peering into her camera. She holds the camera carefully, gently and with purpose. Inside, the attractive illustrations show Dorothea Lange who, as a child, was sick leaving her feeling invisible. But the world wasn’t invisible to her. She surprised everyone when she announced one day that she was going to be a photographer. Was it unladylike? What did that even mean? It didn’t matter to Dorothea, who refused to look away from the suffering of people. She used her photos to show that each person is special. Without Dorothea, the images she captured would remain invisible, when they all deserved to be visible. Actual photographs and timeline at the end of this book make it even more fascinating.


Who am I?

I’m an award-winning children’s author who lives in Australia. I love reading and writing picture books, and although I mostly write fiction, I also love writing biographies. I am drawn to stories about women who have achieved something inspirational and unexpected and who may have not received wide recognition at the time or that any recognition has faded from public knowledge. I find it exciting to work with a team, that is the illustrator and the publisher, to create books that will find their way to children and allow them to imagine and feel another person’s life, and to see that everyday people do amazing things.


I wrote...

Railroad Engineer Olive Dennis

By Kaye Baillie, Tanja Stephani (illustrator),

Book cover of Railroad Engineer Olive Dennis

What is my book about?

When Olive Dennis was young, girls were expected to be sewing, cooking, and cleaning. But Olive was busy imagining, designing, and building everything from a wooden dollhouse to a model streetcar with working parts. When she grew up, Olive continued to defy expectations, earning a civil engineering degree, and becoming the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's first female engineer. Her genius for inventing improvements based on her keen observations of passengers' needs and problems led her to the assignment of a lifetime: designing a luxury train that would change rail travel forever.

The Americans

By Robert Frank,

Book cover of The Americans

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.


Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for a two-year backpacking sojourn across the country. I took a bunch of snapshots along the way with a little point-and-shoot camera. 800 of those images became my first book. Photography – be it travel, documentary, street or reportage – is my passion. The following are but five of five hundred books I’d love to recommend.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang; across the deserts of Xinjiang and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place one people, but 33 distinct geographical regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles. 

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