The Ten Best Photography Books of 2021

In year two of the pandemic, our favorite titles invite us into worlds outside our own

Illustration by Valerie Ruland-Schwartz

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 

Red Splash Jacobin Pigeon. These pugnacious birds were named after the Jacobins, a French order of Dominican friars, who, like the pigeons, were known for their yawning hoods. This same order later lent its name to the Jacobin Club, the most influential political group of the 1789 French Revolution, but for a different reason—instead of wearing hoods, the group held its first seditious meetings in the basement of a Jacobin monastery in Paris.
  From Birds by Tim Flach, copyright © Tim Flach.
Inca Tern. For these comical-looking birds, an exquisite handlebar mustache is more than a fashion statement—it’s an advertisement of good health. Like all other birds, these terns can only grow out their plumes while molting, an extremely energy-intensive process during which they sequentially replace all of the feathers on their bodies. This allows them to use the unique facial feathers to assess the fitness of prospective mates: since growing a pair of long ornamental feathers requires a surplus of food, birds with longer mustaches are better at feeding themselves and are therefore likely to be better at raising young. From Birds by Tim Flach, copyright © Tim Flach.
Knobbed Hornbill. The breathtakingly beautiful bill of the knobbed hornbill is the result of colored pigments in the keratin coating. A bill is not a solid structure, but rather a hollow bony outgrowth of the skull sheathed in a thin layer of keratin—the same protein found in our fingernails. Like fingernails, this keratinous casing constantly regrows to heal nicks and scratches. Unlike us, birds can deposit colored pigments into the protein matrix as it grows. From Birds by Tim Flach, copyright © Tim Flach.
Gentoo Penguins. While penguins may be flightless, they are well adapted for flying through the
water. Using its vestigial wings as paddles, its rear-set feet as propellers, and its stiffened tail feathers as rudders, the gentoo penguin can drive its torpedo-shaped body through the water at more than 22 miles (35 km) per hour—the fastest speed recorded by any swimming bird. From Birds by Tim Flach, copyright © Tim Flach.
Red Bird of Paradise. Over the past twenty-three million years, the forty-two species of birds of paradise all diverged from a single, crow-like ancestor into the breathtaking variety of forms now found on New Guinea and the surrounding islands. This makes this family a textbook example of allopatric speciation: as different populations became geographically isolated from each other by tall mountain ranges or oceanic straits, different selective pressures and random genetic drift caused the various independent groups to evolve into distinct forms that could no longer interbreed. From Birds by Tim Flach, copyright © Tim Flach.
Toco Toucan. In the early 1930s, the British artist and advertiser John Gilroy turned a caricature of the toco toucan into one of the most visible corporate mascots of the twentieth century—the Guinness toucan, which balanced a glass of the beer on its sizable beak. Toucans have gone
on to become a cherished symbol of the rainforest and are now among the most popular birds in the world, gracing the covers of cereal boxes and starring in children’s cartoons. From Birds by Tim Flach, copyright © 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 

Gypsy Rose, Imperials Car Club, Hawaiian Gardens, CA, July 12, 2015 Kristin Bedford
Raquel, Las Vegas, NV, October 11, 2015 Kristin Bedford
Tatuaje, Las Vegas, NV, October 11, 2015 Kristin Bedford
Purple Rain, Our Style Car Club, Los Angeles, CA, July 22, 2018 Kristin Bedford
Lupita, Highclass Car Club, Cypress Park, Los Angeles, CA, June 13, 2015 Kristin Bedford
Luscious Illusion, New Class Car Club, Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, CA, July 22, 2018 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 

© Rahim Fortune 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Rahim Fortune 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Rahim Fortune 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Rahim Fortune 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Rahim Fortune 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
© Rahim Fortune 2021 courtesy Loose Joints

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 

Revival © Nydia Blas
Revival © Nydia Blas
Revival © Nydia Blas
Revival © 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 

A starry stillness below a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado. Pete McBride
A climber descends the Valley of Silence at 21,000 feet below the Lhotse Face in Nepal. Pete McBride
Dawn mist floats over the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Pete McBride
Gentoo penguins frequently leap above the water to release air bubbles from their feathers, allowing them to dive faster to avoid predators like orcas. Pete McBride
The sounds of surf and hooves in the sunset light in Playa Guiones, Costa Rica. Pete McBride
Standing on the edge of reflecting pool, a Samburu warrior listens for wildlife across the Namunyak Conservancy in the Matthews Range of Kenya. 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

Helen and Sky, Zimbabwe, 2020 Nick Brandt from THE DAY MAY BREAK
Halima, Abdul and Frida, Kenya, 2020 Nick Brandt from THE DAY MAY BREAK
Fatuma, Ali and Bupa, Kenya, 2020 Nick Brandt from THE DAY MAY BREAK
James and Fatu, Kenya, 2020 Nick Brandt from THE DAY MAY BREAK

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

Lena Dunham, Bergdorf Goodman, New York City, 2013 © Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz Wonderland.
Keira Knightley and Jeff Koons, upstate New York, 2005 © Annie Leibovitz. From Annie Leibovitz Wonderland.

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

Backstroke Thomas Walther Collection, Gift of Thomas Walther
British 'Chute Jumpers' Thomas Walther Collection, Gift of Thomas Walther
Girl with a Leica Thomas Walther Collection, Gift of Thomas Walther
Untitled (Swimmers at the Olympic Games in Berlin, 1936) Thomas Walther Collection, Gift of Thomas Walther

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 

Lovers Kiss © Al J Thompson
Migration © Al J Thompson
The Cross © Al J Thompson
The Tree © 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

Alone, 2019 Danielle L. Goldstein
Sleeping Beauty, 2019 Elena Alexandra
Untitled, 2018 Graciela Magnoni
Cloud Eaters, 2018 Gulnara Samoilova
Women of the Sea, 2019 Orna Naor

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.

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