Photography is there to be enjoyed. To be looked at, explored, examined, and understood. As photographers we can spend a lot of time thinking purely about the technical aspects. That is essential when you’re attempting to improve your craft, but it is equally important to take pleasure in the work of others, and to see the wider world of photography.
The classic medium for this is the Coffee Table Book – an area of publishing which has proven itself surprisingly resilient in an era where other areas of publishing have struggled against the onslaught of online content.
Perhaps because this is an area where the profit margin has always mattered less than the art, perhaps because the screen is no substitute for the quality, and perhaps because curation matters. Probably all three.
In fact the Coffee Table Book has not just ‘clung on,’ it has kept moving forward, with innovation in sizes and formats that make the books more accessible to more people (and smaller coffee tables).
The sector also includes exhibition catalogs, an area which has benefited from a growth in photography exhibitions, as well as traditional monographs. All this plus international distribution chains make appreciating great photography in a tactile form easier than ever.
A coffee table book is a perfect gift – not just for a photographer but any creative person – and that is the leading criteria for this list. Prices and formats are mixed (“democratized”) if you like – it’s not all full-quarto-for-the-price-of-your-car – and every book on this list has been formerly published so you can order it from your favorite bookstore.
So, without further ado, let's see some stunning work displaying fashion in all its glory...
The best coffee table books on photography in 2020
1: Bowie by O’Neill: The definitive collection with unseen images
Highlights from a 20-year creative partnership
Author: Terry O’Neill | Publisher: Cassell | Pages: 340 | ISBN-13: 978-1788401012
David Bowie’s legend status is unarguable, and you might not know it but many of the images you associate with that legend come from an iconic photographer, Terry O’Neill, who sadly died shortly after the publication of this book this year.
Though he once studied for the priesthood, O’Neill ended up chronicling the faces of the swinging sixties and beyond. Not just musicians – Churchill, Mandela, Hepburn & Bardot have also been his subjects. Principally, though, he is known for backstage reportage, with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, and, of course, David Bowie.
Fans will love the rare and previously unpublished insights into their hero – including the last Ziggy Stardust performance and recording sessions – while all photographers will find the wealth of light box images inspiring. With 500 pictures knitted together with O’Neill’s first-hand memories, this is hard to pass up.
Also read: Best books on portrait photography
2: Only Human
Martin Parr's art-world crosses swords with HoNY
Author: Martin Parr | Publisher: Phaidon | Pages: 240 | ISBN-10: 071487857X | ISBN-13: : 978-0714878577
In complicated political times for the UK, Martin Parr’s style seems to ask ever-more interesting questions of his homeland, and in this collection he takes a thoroughly portrait-orientated survey of the quirks of the British.
He is able, of course, with his fame, to command equally famous sitters, include Vivienne Westwood and England goalkeeper Gordon Banks, as well as the many eccentrics he seems able to track down.
There is something a little different about the images to previous Parr collections – the portrait aspect seems to occasionally drag him into the same orbit as projects like Humans of New York – but look a little harder at the 220 photos and the wit and brilliance of Parr is still intact (and it’s hard to imagine Grayson Perry providing the foreword to a lesser photographer).
3: Abandoned Places
See the world after humans leave (without watching “The Walking Dead”)
Author: Henk Van Rensbergen | Publisher: Lannoo | Pages: 160 | ISBN-10: 9401461511 | ISBN-13: : 978-9401461511Pub: 2016
This is a smaller, horizontal format book which brings together the highlights of Rensbergen’s many years shooting abandoned places.
Rensbergen began as an airline pilot who, rather than relax at the hotel, would always set out to explore locations he was laid over at. He has spent two decades building a collection of haunting photography and later an online community to discover new locations.
Inevitably other photographers' publishers have, ahem, borrowed the idea, but Rensbergen’s extensive travels and innovative approach to exploration have yielded the best results.
The images are an unsettling reminder of how a world might look after humanity, and individually filled with detail you will pour over. The compact package makes for a wonderful gift – perhaps more of a “side-table book”!
4: The Birth of the Idea of Photography
Weighty volume exploring the arrival of “art without artistry”
Author: Franßois Brunet | Publisher: MIT Press | Pages: 304 | ISBN-10: 026204326 | ISBN-13: 978-0262043267
OK, so this isn’t your classic “coffee table” book – it’s got real academic credentials and only fifty images – but it is definitely something which you'd enjoy and would impress your guests if left lying around.
Looking at the original emergence of photography, this book looks at the cultural impact of the arrival of photography. It’s all the more fascinating to look back on this process of ‘democratization’ now since very similar theories have been advanced about both digital photography and social platforms in recent decades.
5: Daily Bread
When the environment, nutrition and photography cross paths
Author: Gregg Segal | Publisher: Powerhouse Books | Pages: 120 | ISBN-10: 1576879119 | ISBN-13: 978-1576879115
This is something different from the photography collections, but which has found its way onto the same table in a few stores and really catches the eye.
Photographer Gregg Segal, with food journalist Bee Wilson, has captured a series of overhead views of kids from around the globe surrounded by the food they consume.
In a way, this is like an extended magazine article, but to flick through the colorful shots leaves a strong impression. A picture does seem to be worth 1,000 words.
Admittedly there was a book with a similar concept in the past by photographer Peter Menzel, called What the World Eats, yet that wasn’t specifically looking at children, and certainly wasn’t shot or presented with the same flare.
This might not be for everyone, and it’s not as thick as a traditional coffee table book, but it certainly starts important conversations.
6: Beyond Architecture
Author: Michael Kenna | Pages: 384 | ISBN-10: 3791385828 | ISBN-13: 978-3791385822
An old-school monograph charting Kenna’s contribution to the field of architectural photography, and presented in a gloriously tactile layered jacket in which the title is on a different leaf to Michael Kenna’s name.
The consistent texture of the work – which Michael Kenna is known for – is reflected in the quality of the book and the curation by Pretel’s Yvonne Meyer-Lohr.
For fans of black and white photography, Kenna’s landscapes are well-known, making this more of an urban environment project than traditional architectural, and all the more interesting for it.
Indeed it is at times haunting, which is perhaps why the former World Trade Centre was chosen for the main band of the cover.
For a student of photography, it is also a lesson on how an approach can cross unlikely subject boundaries.
Humanity revealed as it waits for transport
Author: Dieter Leistner | Publisher: Avedition | Pages: 156 | ISBN-10: : 3899863143 | ISBN-13: : 978-3899863147
Since 1978 the professor of photography from the University of Applied Sciences, Würzberg, Germany, has been following a personal project – capturing people waiting for public transport across the globe.
This horizontal-format book, with captions in English and German, represents the highlights of that collection, a collection which shows the architectural variety of rich, poor, hot, cold, capitalist and socialist environments, and the humanity of the crowd or the solitary individuals as they wait.
There is much which could be said, no doubt, of the lessons on human nature, or infrastructure architecture, but above all this is just an enjoyable collection of quirky images.
8: Eat the Sun
An object of list and inspiration for the modern art photographer
Author: Floria Sigismondi | Publisher: Gestalten | Pages: 240 | ISBN-10: 3899559754 | ISBN-13: : 978-3899559750
Italian-Candian Sigismondi’s 25 year career as a director and photographer is distilled into this gorgeous volume, a must for fans of her aesthetic, which you’ll most likely know from her music videos – which she has directed for artists from Katy Perry and Marilyn Manson to The White Stripes and David Bowie.
She has also directed episodes of major Hollywood shows, including The Handmaid’s Tale & American Gods.
Publisher Gestalten have a sharp eye for this kind of book, and the presentation is meticulous, right down to the printing onto matte hardback.
This is a striking collection of an important cross-media artist who’s time has very much come, so definitely one to keep on the coffee table to establish your cool credentials as well as enjoy!
Blackpool, Barry Island & Brighton clinging on to their reality
Author: Rob Ball | Publisher: Hoxton Mini Press | Pages: 112 | ISBN-10: : 1910566519 | ISBN-13: : 978-1910566510
Hoxton Mini Press have quickly established themselves as one of the most interesting photography book publishers out there. It’s not quite the from nowhere story the company’s about page implies (it neglects to mention that co-founder Martin Usbourne’s father, Peter Usbourne, founded the major global children’s publisher which takes his name).
In practice, though, it means that the firm was very much better connected than most indy ventures, and so has been able quickly push out many interesting mini coffee table books, often of East London, with trademark colourful fabric spines.
It’s well worth browsing them all – Laundarama and London Underground 1970-1980 are definitely interesting too, but we’ve picked Funland for this list since it travels a little beyond the hip (and less hips) parts of the East End.
10: Things Come Apart 2.0
Teardowns revealing every component of 50 pieces of tech
Author: : Todd McLellan | Publisher: Thames & Hudson | Pages: 128 | ISBN-10: 0500294879 | ISBN-13: 978-0500294871
One for the geeks, this is the ultimate in product porn, and the new softback edition is at a very friendly price with present season coming.
Commercial and product photographer McLellan has carefully deconstructed a series of iconic gadgets, right down to the individual screws.
The 50 ‘victims’ including an SLR, an iPad, expresso machine and grand piano, and once they are in their component parts McLellan has photographed them in gorgeous tidy arrangements as well as presenting carefully arranged compositions which give a new definition to the term ‘exploded diagram.’
Looking at the inside of the technology which surrounds us is fascinating, though the book might make you feel a lot like the decadent Eloi of H.G.Wells’s Time Machine (maybe it’ll encourage your latent engineer too).
This may not be an art photography book, but there are few photographers who wouldn’t love it.
11: Steve McCurry Untold
The Career Story of the Photographer’s Photographer
Author: Steve McCurry & William Purcell | Publisher: Phaidon | Pages: 304 | ISBN-10: : 0714877341 | ISBN-13: : 978-0714877341
Several photographers told me I had to put a Steve McCurry book in this list, and for me this is the obvious pick – this are bigger books out there, but at 11 inches (27cm) on the long side this is big enough to enjoy Magnum-photographer McCurry’s amazing assignments for National Geographic back in the day, while being small enough to make it readable.
That’s a good thing too – this book doesn’t just caption photos with location and year as other McCurry collections do, but tell the story, partly in his own words, of being on those assignments over 30 years. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to read too much with out self-assigning your self, grabbing your camera, and setting off right away.
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