The Best Photography Books of the Year

These photographers see things differently and invite you into unfamiliar worlds

smithsonian.com

What makes photography wonderful is its ability to capture a piece of our reality in a fraction of time, while also creating an image that connects to a universal human experience. The key to success is the photographer’s point of view. The ten books below are ones not to miss this year because of these artists’ unique perspectives. From photographing a place that you’ll never have access to (The Long Shadow of Chernobyl) to creating a gallery of hope in a war torn country (Skate Girls of Kabul) these books celebrate the talent of these photographers and give you another way of experiencing the world.

Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood by Zun Lee

Carlos Richardson with Selah (Zun Lee / ceiba foto)
Jerel Willis with Fidel (Zun Lee / ceiba foto)
Billy Garcia and his daughter Esmeralda (Zun Lee / ceiba foto)

With a compassionate eye and a knack for lush black and white imagery, Zun Lee’s lens shatters the stereotypes of the absent father in black America. Image after image builds a narrative that conflicts with the commonly held story of the missing man, and offers a new view–where fathers of color are loving, involved and here to stay.

The Unraveling, Central African Republic by Marcus Bleasdale

Christian anti-balaka attack Muslim property in PK 13 on the outskirts of Bangui after the Muslim Seleka government fell and Muslims in the area fled. The country was ruled by the minority Muslim government following the coup in March 2013. After months of oppression, the local population takes out their anger and frustrations on the largely innocent Muslim population. (Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence)
A member of the Christian population around PK13 on the outskirts of Bangui runs through looted and burning homes of the Muslims who fled after the Seleka President Michel Djotodia resigned and left the country in disarray. (Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence)
People displaced by the fighting between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces find shelter in an old factory on the grounds of the Catholic church in Bossangoa. (Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence)
The mother of Eliam Fedongare, 24, greets him and celebrates as he arrives home with his father Jean de Dieux. They were abducted from their farm by ex-Seleka forces as they fled Bangui and were forced to march through the bush for nine days. Four of the others who were taken were shot and killed when they became too tired to continue. Eliam and his father escaped during an attack on a local village. (Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence)
Yousufa, 11 is severely malnourished. He has been trapped in the enclave of Yaloke as politicians and the UN debate the evacuation of the group of 467 Peuhl who are trapped here. In the meantime, the Peuhl are receiving poor aid and assistance. Ten percent of their number have died in the past months. (Marcus Bleasdale / Fotoevidence)

While the world looks the other way, an unending cycle of sectarian violence has plagued the Central African Republic for the past three years. In a state that photographer Marcus Bleasdale calls “psychotic,” the population, along with the partisan rebel groups have carried out revenge killings of increased magnitude and viciousness. CAR has become a failed state, ignored by most of the world, where life is bleak and full of horrific murders. Bleasdale documented that descent into terror in an unflinching and powerful way.

Dirt Meridian by Andrew Moore

Pronghorn Antelope, Niobrara County, Wyoming, 2013 (Andrew Moore / Damiani)
Grossenbacher Homestead, Sheridan County, Nebraska 2013 (Andrew Moore / Damiani)
Bassett Livestock Auction, Rock County, Nebraska, 2006 (Andrew Moore / Damiani)
Uncle Teed, Sioux County, Nebraska, 2013 (Andrew Moore / Damiani)
Storm Blow, Sheridan County Nebraska 2013 (Andrew Moore / Damiani)

A rarely focused-on seam of the United States, the 100th meridian that divides the country neatly into east and west, is the subject of a beautiful book of aerial landscapes by Andrew Moore. In the part of the nation often referred to as “flyover country”, Moore gives you reason to look longingly. Taken with a specially modified large format camera and etched in loving light, these images capture a unique and timeless perspective.

Southern Rites by Gillian Laub

Amber and Reggie, 2011. Amber: “Last year, when we had the first integrated prom, I couldn’t go. I was in the hospital after a flare up from my sickle cell anemia. I was devastated that I missed out on history being made. Prom is everything around here in this small town.” (Gillian Laub / Damiani)
Shelby on her grandmother’s car, 2008. Shelby: “All these people who run around screaming that the Confederate flag is racist, they’re not stupid. They’re ignorant. Because ignorance is the absence of really knowing what happened. I am not going to hide it from nobody. If I want to show the rebel flag, I’m going to, because that’s my heritage.” (Gillian Laub / Damiani)
Prom prince and princess dancing at the integrated prom, 2011 (Gillian Laub / Damiani)
Sunday church, 2014 (Gillian Laub / Damiani)
Sha’von Patterson holds a photo of himself and his brother, Justin. (Gillian Laub / Damianini)

Gillian Laub was surprised when she stumbled into a racially segregated prom in Georgia a little over a decade ago, but the legacy of racism in the Deep South goes far beyond that, she was soon to find. Laub’s portraits of the people she met and the stories they told is an eye-opener for our “post-racial’ society and the dimension this recounting brings to the conversation is nuanced and real.

JR: Can Art Change the World?

"Elmar," Flatiron Plaza, New York, 2015 (JR / Phaidon Press)
"Inside Out," Pantheon, Rome, Italy, 2014 (JR / Phaidon Press)
"Women Are Heroes," Favela de Jour, Brasil, 2008 (JR / Phaidon Press)
"Women Are Heroes," Action in Kibera Slum, Train Passage, Kenya, 2009 (JR / Phaidon Press)
"Face 2 Face," Separation Wall, Palestinian side, Bethlehem, 2007 (JR / Phaidon Press)

Street artist JR brings art into spaces where it’s not normally seen, often using photographs as social commentary on issues affecting the site. This book offers a behind-the-scenes look at his entire body of work and the process of creating these moving juxtapositions. The book is an inspiration for those trying to create socially engaged art and make a difference in marginalized communities.

The Skate Girls of Kabul by Jessica Fulford-Dobson

(Jessica Fulford-Dobson / Morland Tate Publishing)
(Jessica Fulford-Dobson / Morland Tate Publishing)
(Jessica Fulford-Dobson / Morland Tate Publishing)

As women in Afghanistan of all ages face stringent restrictions on their movement and life choices, the NGO called “Skatiesan” provides a means for unfettered freedom and joyful confidence building. An engaging way to bring girls back into the school system, Skatiesan was founded by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich in 2007 These images by photographer Jessica Fulford-Dobson, highlight what a little confidence and community spirit can do to help engage hard-to-reach students . Skate culture comes to Kabul and girls rule!

Where the Heaven Flowers Grow: The Life and Art of Leonard Knight by Aaron Huey

(Aaron Huey / Outsider Books)
(Aaron Huey / Outsider Books)
(Aaron Huey / Outsider Books)
(Aaron Huey / Outsider Books)
(Aaron Huey / Outsider Books)
(Aaron Huey / Outsider Books)

Using hay bales, tree trunks, old cars, the natural desert adobe and 300,000 gallons of paint, Leonard Knight built “Salvation Mountain,” a colorful pyramid of art in the California desert. A visionary artist, Knight was an “outsider artist” to some, perhaps a madman to others. Salvation Mountain was his statement about love and his spiritual commitment to the place. While county supervisors wanted to tear it down, photographer Aaron Huey documented Knight and his work, and in the process, recognized a kindred spirit of sorts. The “mountain” is now a recognized National Folk Art Shrine by the Folk Art Society of America.

Occupied Pleasures by Tanya Habjouqa

A woman in Gaza without a travel permit marches through the silent dark of an underground tunnel on her way to a party in Egypt, clutching a bouquet of flowers, 2013 (Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence)
Two furniture makers take a break in a pair of plush armchairs of their creation in the open-air in Hizma against Israel's 26-foot high Separation Wall, 2013 (Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence)
West Bank: After grueling traffic at the Qalandia check point, a young man enjoys a cigarette in his car as traffic finally clears on the last evening of Ramadan. He is bringing home a sheep for the upcoming Eid celebration, 2013 (Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence)
Hayat Abu R'maes, 25 (left) recently took a yoga lesson from a visiting American yoga instructor. She is now teaching the young residents of her village, Zataara, a small village on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The women are increasing in number each week. They call it, "inner resistance." 2013
 (Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence)
A Palestinian youth from Hebron enjoys a swim in Ein Farha, considered to be one of the most beautiful nature spots in the entire West Bank. It, like many other nature reserves and heritage sites in the West Bank, is managed by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. Palestinians are not allowed to operate touristic enterprise or have any say in the management of the parks, 2013 (Tanya Habjouqa / Fotoevidence)

This collection of quirky images of everyday life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem show the altered perspective that can come from living in the Palestinian territories. Humor is certainly a powerful antidote to fear for Palestinian photographer Tanya Habiouqa, who finds unexpected juxtapositions that make us smile at the absurdities of life under these circumstances. 

The Long Shadow of Chernobyl by Gerd Ludwig

When Soviet authorities finally ordered the evacuation, the residents’ hasty departure often meant leaving behind their most personal belongings. The Soviet Union did not admit to the world that an accident had occurred until two days after the explosion, when the nuclear fallout cloud reached Sweden and scientists there noticed contamination on their shoes before entering their own nuclear power plant. Opachichi, Ukraine, 1993. (Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber)
Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause briefly on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor #4. Their job is to keep the deteriorating enclosure standing until a planned replacement can be built. It is hazardous work: radiation inside is so high that they constantly need to monitor their Geiger counters – and are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2005. (Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber)
Severely physically and mentally handicapped, 5-year-old Igor was given up by his parents and now lives at a children’s mental asylum, which cares for abandoned and orphaned children with disabilities. It is one of several such facilities in rural southern Belarus receiving support from Chernobyl Children International, an aid organization established in 1991 in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Vesnova, Belarus, 2005. (Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber)
The evacuated city of Pripyat, once brimming with life, is now a chilling ghost town. For an exiled resident, the stillness of a city boulevard stirs memories of her former life. In her hand is an old photo of the same street years earlier. Pripyat, Ukraine 2005. (Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber)
Nineteen years after the accident, the empty schools and kindergarten rooms in Pripyat – once the largest town in the Exclusion Zone with 50,000 inhabitants – are still a silent testament to the sudden and tragic departure. Due to decay, this section of the school building has meanwhile collapsed. Pripyat, Ukraine, 2005. (Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber)
On April 26, 1986, operators in this control room of reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant committed a fatal series of errors during a safety-test, triggering a reactor meltdown that resulted in the world's largest nuclear accident to date. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2011. (Gerd Ludwig / Edition Lammerhuber)

It’s been nearly 30 years since the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, but the post-apocalyptic aftermath still resonates with audiences today. But thanks to fearless photographer Gerd Ludwig, you don’t need to venture anywhere near the site in the Ukraine. Ludwig has been capturing the experiences of those impacted and documenting the spaces left behind. He’s also photographed the people who decided to return to the contaminated town nearby. With redacted CIA documents, maps and interviews, it is an impressive record.

Amelia and the Animals by Robin Schwartz

(Robin Schwartz / Aperture)
(Robin Schwartz / Aperture)
(Robin Schwartz / Aperture)
(Robin Schwartz / Aperture)

Since her daughter, Amelia, was three years old, she and her mother, photographer Robin Schwartz have investigated the world of exotic animals and their reaction to human contact. Along the way Amelia has befriended chimpanzees, tiger cubs, elephants and owls. The resulting photographs are beautiful and strange, just as any adventure story should be.

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