The Ten Best Photography Books of 2021
In year two of the pandemic, our favorite titles invite us into worlds outside our own
As we start to reemerge into this new world, for the photo team of Smithsonian magazine, it’s been interesting to take stock of the books some of our favorite photographers have released in 2021. From LA’s lowrider culture to birds to scenes of silence, the subjects have been all-over-the-world diverse. And the work, well—it is rich and compelling, beautiful and intense. There is something for everyone.
Birds by Tim Flach
Page through Tim Flach’s most recent book, Birds, and it feels like his feathered subjects, with their vivid colors and gorgeous textures, could take to the air at any moment. Inspired by bird illustrators of the Victorian era like John J. Audubon, the project was a true labor of love, taking over three years to complete. The London-based animal portraitist made sure to photograph each species at the optimal time of the year, plumage-wise. And while most birds were photographed in the studio, Flach also set up custom-built aviaries that allowed him to stay hidden during photo shoots, in order to keep certain subjects relaxed. Most portraits were shot against a black or white background. “By choosing plain backgrounds, I’m not trying to focus on the context, or the landscape,” Flach explained to Amateur Photographer. “I’m trying to bring it back to characters and personality, that draw us into thinking about them and their situation.” With over 10,000 species of birds living today, he narrowed things down to an impressive and charismatic selection, including birds of all ages and types, from waterfowl, to raptors, to pigeons, to birds of paradise. Even poultry. —Jeff Campagna
Cruise Night by Kristin Bedford
The electric colors of the tricked-out cars in Kristin Bedford’s Cruise Night are a feast for the eyes—and that’s before the hydraulics start bouncing. Her five-year photo project covering the Los Angeles Mexican-American lowrider community documents all aspects of the lifestyle: the people, the meticulously customized cars, and naturally, the proud owners showing off of their rides. Bedford emphasizes the tradition, self-expression and artistic aspects of lowriding, bringing a female point of view to car culture. The book is dotted with quotes from lowriders sharing what the lifestyle means to them, how they got started and they’re little gems. Timothy Guerrero, a lowrider since 1969, likened his discovery of the lowrider culture to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens her front door in Oz, and everything changes from black and white to color. There are tens of thousands of lowriders in Los Angeles—and Bedford doesn’t forget to feature the women. Mary Saucedo, lowrider since 1969 recalls her first ride in the book: “I saved and saved, and when I was 16 years old, I bought my first lowrider for $175, a 1962 Impala Super Sport… I did everything myself.” — J.C.
I can’t stand to see you cry by Rahim Fortune
I can’t stand to see you cry represents documentary and fine art photographer Rahim Fortune’s reaction to a perfect storm of events. The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests and Fortune’s father’s illness and eventual passing led to some of his most intensely personal work set against a backdrop of the Midwest region where he came of age. Focused more on capturing interpersonal narratives during the pandemic and on showing his own Texas looks, there’s a distinct familial tone to the work. Many of those featured in the book are family—his sister, his father, his grandmother—as well as friends. “It’s friends, family and the frequent people, you know?,” Fortune told Port magazine. Fittingly, the final portrait is of Fortune’s father, who ended up passing away during the project. Fortune and his sister were called home to Texas in Spring of 2020 to help care for their increasingly ailing father. “Many nights we'd leave his room both knowing his condition was getting much worse, but we chose to say nothing of it," wrote Fortune in his photographer's statement. The resulting book, a series of hand-processed, starkly beautiful black and white portraiture, details and scenic landscapes, was named after an old soul track that Fortune would play for his father while caring for him. — J.C.
Revival by Nydia Blas
“Young women, to women. To woman. We are bound to this space of like-minded believers. I know you. Honor you. Believe in you. Each time you let someone else win, I breathe life into you and bring you back,” are the healing words written by Nydia Blas in her first monograph, Revival. It’s a beautiful collection of portraits of young women casting purposeful gazes in enchanted spaces. Originally hailing from Ithaca, New York, Blas is currently a currently an assistant professor of art and visual culture at Spellman College in Atlanta. The book’s title, Revival, was inspired by the interaction of two subjects in one of the portraits from the series (one had her hands on the other’s forehead). Though Blas wasn’t raised to be religious, she has always been interested in ideas like baptism, but more for aesthetic reasons. Her self-described style, of creating “physical and allegorical spaces presented through a Black feminine lens,” results in that touch of magic here that compels the viewer to linger and look more deeply at this world she’s created. It’s a world where, as Blas says in her photographer statement, “props function as extensions of the body, costumes as markers of identity and gestures/actions reveal the performance, celebration, discovery and confrontation involved in reclaiming one's body for their own exploration, discovery and understanding.” — J.C.
Seeing Silence by Pete McBride
Dawn mist floats over the Okavango Delta in Botswana. / The northern lights dance across the sky over Norway’s fjords. / On the western side of the Tetons in Idaho, deep silence resides in the cold winter. These are just a few of the evocative captions in Pete McBride’s sweeping new book of photography, Seeing Silence. And if you know McBride’s work—he has traveled to 75 countries over his two-decades-plus career—you already know that these images are stunning. But what is more impressive, especially in our nonstop, clamorous, crazy world is the sense of silence these photos seem to capture. Your heart rate and breathing almost slow down as you take in photo of magnificent place after photo of magnificent place. No man-made noise, only the sounds of nature and all too rare sound of silence.
This book, besides being a reminder of what we are all too often missing in our everyday life, is a call to stillness, as this seven-continent visual tour of global quietude will both inspire and calm. McBride has given us a gift with this work, by showing us how much the natural world has to offer, if only we will slow down and listen. — Quentin Nardi
The Day May Break by Nick Brandt
The photo editors at Smithsonian magazine felt it was impossible not to include a visual story about climate change in this year’s list. And no other book this year does what Nick Brandt’s The Day May Break does so beautifully and poignantly—portraying people and animals impacted by environmental degradation and destruction.
Photographed in Zimbabwe and Kenya in late 2020, The Day May Break is the first part of a global series by Brandt. The people Brandt photographs have all been badly affected by climate change—some displaced by cyclones that destroyed their homes, others such as farmers impoverished by years-long droughts. The animals, all from five sanctuaries and conservancies, are almost all long-term rescues, victims of everything from the poaching of their parents to habitat destruction and poisoning. These animals can never be released back into the wild. As a result, they are habituated, and so it was safe for human strangers to be close to them, photographed in the same frame at the same time.
Looking at these photos, one becomes acutely aware of how a warming planet and a changing climate has impacted these lives, both human and animal—and how much has been lost to them and all of us, already. However, these people and animals are the survivors, and there lies possibility and hope. — Q.N.
Wonderland by Annie Leibovitz
Even if you don’t know photography, you undoubtedly know the iconic work of Annie Leibovitz. From her groundbreaking work at Rolling Stone in the 1970s to her work at Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1980s, and through present day, Leibovitz has left an indelible, visual mark on our culture. With her distinctive style and sharp eye, she transforms her subjects—ranging from actors and activists to musicians and athletes—into cultural icons.
Wonderland features more than 340 photographs, the majority of which were previously uncollected—including over 30 images never before published and more than 90 images that have not been seen since their original magazine publication. This gorgeous anthology showcases Leibovitz’s particular draw towards fashion, which has served as a vehicle for many of her most ambitious magazine covers and portrait photo shoots. In addition, she has written descriptive backstories, so one gets an even deeper look into how these magical images came together. Leibovitz’s new book is a passport to a true wonderland, where fashion is revealed in unexpected subjects and places, and photography is celebrated in its highest form. — Q.N.
Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900–1940 by Sarah Hermanson Meister
With 245 images selected from the Thomas Walther Collection at the Museum of Modern Art, Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900–1940 captures what was happening in the medium of photography between the two World Wars. With the average person today constantly consuming photography, it is hard for us to imagine the impact photography had on people around the world in these decades. We take for granted seeing an abundance of images on a daily basis. But Thomas Walther understood their significance. For 20 years, the German-born art enthusiast dutifully amassed one of the most impressive private collections of photography in the world. Numerous styles are reflected in the book including pictorialism, abstraction and candid street photography from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and Alfred Stieglitz, among others. — Donny Bajohr
Remnants of an Exodus by Al J Thompson
In Remnants of an Exodus, you'll feel the emotions of Al J Thompson’s photographs, which read as visual poetry played out in beautiful sequence. In muted black and white, Thompson captures the spirit of Spring Valley, New York, a New York City suburb that he first called home when he and his family arrived from Jamaica in 1996. Once home to a large Caribbean community, like many communities of color Spring Valley has dealt with economic decline and gentrification. Spring Valley Park takes center stage in Thompson’s photography, as a place where he meets young couples in love, birds flying in circles above and a man joyfully shouting out to friends outside the frame of the picture. Thompson also appreciates the cracks in the pavement, the garbage on the ground and the symbols written on the fences as a reminder that this is what remains, not what is being built, a community in transition and changing identity. — D.B.
Women Street Photographers edited by Gulnara Samoilova
What started as an Instagram account, Women Street Photographers showcases the work of 100 women photographers from around the world, all practicing street photography, a candid style that relies on chance encounters in public spaces. The mix of bold colorful photographs and striking black and white imagery is curated by Gulnara Samoilova, founder of the Women Street Photographers project, which provides opportunities for women artists including an annual exhibition and artist residency. The book begins with a brief foreword by photojournalist Ami Vitale, who writes: “My camera empowered me from a young age and later, I came to realize, also gave me the ability to share and amplify other people’s stories. What was at first my passport to engage with the world eventually became my tool for changing it.” That spirit in Vitale’s words carries beautifully throughout the book, with each photographer—from Ioana Marinca to Michelle Groskopf to Dominique Misrahi—sharing an image with some personal words about their lens on the world. — D.B.