Be careful what you wish for! We all opine how much better life would be if we had more free time, but under the current self-isolation conditions we – amazingly! – might have a bit too much free time. So how do you fill the hours?
Well, we've already given you a list of the 25 best movies about photographers, which will give you some new stuff to add to your watch list. But if you really want to deep dive into some photography-related escapism, we've collected the 20 best novels about photography.
Specifically, these are the best novels available today that feature photographers as main characters. Our selection covers both the past and present, and stretches across a range of genres from historical fiction to hard-boiled thrillers.
Some of these titles will sound familiar, others may be new to you, but all will provide a rollicking read, tinged with a distinctively photographic flavor…
1. The Woman in the Photograph by Dana Gynther
- Genre: Fictionalized history
- Summary: A dramatization of how American photographer Lee Miller was mentored by Man Ray.
Set amidst the romantic glow of 1920s Paris, this historical novel dramatises the real-life relationship between an iconic photographer and his apprentice.
In 1929, American model and socialite Lee Miller moves to Paris and seeks out the charming, charismatic artist Man Ray to become his assistant. But she soon becomes much more than that: his model, lover and creative muse.
While thrust into a vibrant and rebellious social scene, hobnobbing with the likes of Picasso and Charlie Chaplin, Miller also falls in love with the art of photography and starts to pursue her own vision rather than blindly following her mentor's.
This evocative novel about a fearless young woman pursuing her passion in the midst of a cultural revolution is colorful, entrancing and continuously fascinating. While the account is fictionalized, the relationship between Lee Miller and May Ray was a very real one, and the novel serves as a good jumping-off point for learning more about these two great photographers.
2. The Only True Genius in the Family by Jennie Nash
- Genre: Family drama
- Summary: Preparing a retrospective of her late father's photographs, a woman uncovers revelations about her family.
Carving out a career as a photographer is challenging enough, but doing it in the shadow of your family can make things all the harder. That’s the nub of this 2009 novel following Claire, a commercial photographer whose work pays the rent, but lies shrouded in the shadow of her legendary landscape photographer father.
When her father dies, Claire loses faith in the work she has devoted her life to, and also begins to feel jealous of her daughter's success. Then, as she helps prepare a retrospective of her famous father's photographs, she uncovers revelations about him that change everything she knows.
With a keen insight into how our creative obsessions interact with unresolved family issues, this story is a thoughtful and compelling meditation on how to deal with envy, doubt and fear of failure.
3. 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Summary: An immigrant to New York rediscovers himself through photography.
Modern Bulgarian fiction may not be high on your wishlist, but this unusual novel by award-winning author Zachary Karabashliev is worth making an exception for. A suspense-laden, darkly humorous love story, it’s packed with a passion for creativity and photography via the character of Zack, a Bulgarian immigrant to New York whose wife left him nine days ago.
Travelling to Mexico, Zack intervenes in a violent scene, nearly gets killed himself, and escapes in the attackers’ van... only to later find a bag of marijuana in it. Resolving to change his life, he sets off for New York with the drugs and a vintage Nikon. Through its lens, he starts rediscovering himself by photographing an America others rarely see.
This strikingly original novel is difficult to categorise, but easy to enjoy. It won both the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award and the Flower of the Readers Award when it was first published in 2008, and was also chosen as one of the 100 most loved books of all time by Bulgarians in the BBC "Big Read" campaign.
4. Moments Captured by Robert J. Seidman
- Genre: Fictionalised history
- Summary: Edward Muybridge determines to pioneer a new photographic technology. But it isn't until he falls in love with Holly Hughes that his desire finds its animating reason.
American novelist and screenwriter Robert J. Seidman is best known for his 1971 novel One Smart Indian, but this 2014 murder mystery is well worth a look too. It’s a work of fiction that features the pioneering real-life photographer Eadweard Muybridge as one of its characters.
In the story, set in the late 19th century, Muybridge determines to pioneer a technology that will allow cameras to catch reality down to its most fleeting moments. But it isn’t until he finds his muse in Holly Hughes, a daring young dancer and fiery advocate of women’s rights, that he truly finds his passion to make his invention work, in order to truly capture her beauty. But Leland Stanford, a corrupt robber baron obsessed with exploiting Muybridge’s technology, threatens to come between them.
While the author takes huge liberties with the facts of Muybridge’s life (Hughes, for example, never existed), he tells an inspiring and entertaining story that’s brought to life with witty writing and excellent period detail.
5. Star Island by Carl Hiaasen
- Genre: Crime fiction
- Summary: An obsessive Los Angeles paparrazo gets mixed up in a celebrity kidnap.
Carl Hiaasen is a long-time columnist for the Miami Herald and Tribune Content Agency, and the writer of more than 20 books that can loosely be described as ‘humorous crime fiction’. This best-selling novel from 2010 follows a paparazzo, Bang Abbott, who is obsessed with getting pictures of a young pop star called Cherry Pye.
When he is fooled into mistakenly photographing Ann DeLusia, a ‘stunt double’ for the real star, Abbott is infuriated and redoubles his efforts. But his pursuit leads to a tumultuous turn of events involving kidnap, fraud, drugs and violence.
This book is never going to win any literary prizes, and is frequently OTT. But its relentless pace will make you furiously turn page after page, and despite being a grotesque caricature, its portrayal of paparazzi photography does contain quite a few elements of truth, too.
6. The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Summary: The story of photography pioneer Edward Curtis’s life intersects with that of a modern-day screenwriter pitching a film about him.
Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) was a photographer known for his images of Native American peoples. This novel by Pennsylvanian author Marianne Wiggins uses his life to explore history, family, landscape and legacy in the American West.
The Shadow Catcher interweaves two stories from different eras. The first focused on the troubled by passionate relationship between Curtis (1868-1952) and his wife and muse, Clara, and how what she taught him about painting and Italian Renaissance art helped him develop as a photographer. The second is the journey of a writer, trying to sell a script about the life and work of Curtis to a modern-day Hollywood celebrity.
This beautifully written novel not only tells a spellbinding story, but does a great job of conveying the themes and substance of the real-life photographer’s Native American images, via the written word.
7. The Museum of Extraordinary things by Alice Hoffman
- Genre: Period romance
- Summary: The lives of a freak show artist and a crusading photographer intersect in 1911 New York.
Alice Hoffman is an American novelist best known for her 1995 novel Practical Magic, which was adapted for a 1998 film of the same name. And this historic romance, set in 1911 New York, contains many elements of the weird, wonderful and magical too.
It focuses on a woman born with webbed fingers, Coralie Sardie, whose father makes her work as a ‘mermaid’ in his Museum of Extraordinary Things. But her life changes when she meets dashing young photographer Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community.
As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. The lives of the two star-crossed lovers soon come crashing together in this imaginative and original novel.
8. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
- Genre: Romance
- Summary: A war bride in Iowa has an affair with a visiting National Geographic photographer.
Robert James Waller was a photographer and musician from Iowa who wrote a series of best-selling novels, and this 1992 novella was by far his most successful.
It tells the story of a National Geographic photographer from Washington, who comes to Madison County, Iowa, in the 1960s to work on a photo series about its covered bridges. He meets a married but lonely Italian-American war bride living on a farm. Her husband and children are away at the State Fair, and the two embark on an affair.
Presented as a novelization of a true story but in fact totally fictional, this novel has echoes of the film Brief Encounter and Noel Coward’s play Still Life, and became one of the bestselling books of the 20th century. It also spawned a 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and was adapted into a musical in 2013.
9. The Magician's Tale by David Hunt
- Genre: Mystery thriller
- Summary: A color-blind photographer investigates a strange murder in San Francisco.
This dark, intriguing thriller follows Kay Farrow, a professional photographer who suffers from extreme colorblindness, giving her a unique outlook on the world.
Farrow starts working on a photo book about the hustlers in a seedy area of San Francisco called Polk Gulch. Then, when the police find the decapitated head of a young male prostitute, but don’t seem to care about finding the culprit, Farrow decides to investigate the crime herself.
This is an engrossing, if often harrowing page turner, where the main character’s colorblindness is not just a gimmick, but serves as a vehicle to explore both the art of monochromatic photography and the ‘shades of grey’ that permeate the underbelly of society.
10. Trick of Light by David Hunt
- Genre: Mystery thiller
- Summary: A colour-blind photographer investigates the suspicious death of her mentor.
The follow up to The Magician’s Tale (above) sees photographer Kay Farrow haunted by the hit-and-run accident that killed her photojournalist mentor.
Why was the woman walking alone, after midnight, on the most dangerous streets of San Francisco? And what about the disturbing images found on her camera? Kay is determined to follow in her footsteps, see through her eyes, and learn the truth.
The second Kay Farrow tale is as good as the first, and although in this one she's not working on a particular project, photography and the character’s colourblindness continue to be powerful themes through this dark and suspenseful story.
11. Caught in the Light by Robert Goddard
- Genre: Suspense thriller
- Summary: A professional photographer gets drawn into a curious case of missing historical photographs
This thriller by best-selling English novelist Robert Goddard follows Ian Jarrett, a professional photographer. While on an assignment in Vienna, he meets and becomes smitten by a beautiful but mysterious woman.
This sends him on a path involving multiple twists and turns, involving infidelity, missing historical photographs, and a woman who lived in Regency times and may have invented photography 10 years before Fox Talbot.
This fun, intricately plotted thriller proceeds at relentless pace right up to the final, spectacular twist. A bit like a Dan Brown novel might be, if its central character was an expert in photography rather than religious symbology, you just want to keep turning pages right to the end.
12. Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Summary: A photographer falls on hard times and leaves New York for the countryside, where she finds a new kind of happiness.
A Pulitzer-winning New York journalist, Anna Marie Quindlen has also written nine novels, two of which have been turned into movies. This, her seventh, focuses on Rebecca Winter, a 60-year-old photographer known primarily for a shot that has become an iconic image of the women’s movement.
Winter’s career, however, is now on the slide. No longer able to stay in her Manhattan apartment, she flees the city for the boondocks. There she finds unexpected love, and learns that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
This moving and funny story about finding happiness later in life includes some insightful observations on the life and work of a professional photographer.
13. Killing Paparazzi by Robert Eversz
- Genre: Noir thriller
- Summary: A newly minted paparazzi investigates a serial killer targeting her profession.
This novel delivers exactly what it promises in the title: a rollicking thriller about a serial killer targeting Los Angeles' paparazzi.
As the corpses pile up around her, Nina Zero, a new entry to the profession with a troubled past, takes it upon herself to track down the killer. Along the way, she manages to squeeze in a green card wedding, a guest appearance on a docu-soap, and a walk-on part in a longstanding family feud.
Fresh, fast-paced, chaotic, funny and frequently (we’ll be honest) quite silly, Killing Paparazzi is a fun romp if you’re looking for an entertaining read that won’t overly trouble your intellect.
14. Click: One Novel, Ten Authors
- Genre: Young adult
- Summary: A girl has a series of globe-trotting adventures thanks to an inheritance from her photographer father.
The idea of one novel in which ten authors each submit a chapter might sound wacky, and the ‘young adult’ tag may also put you off. But with such stellar authors as Eoin Colfer, Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby involved, this unlikely project results in a quite riveting read.
It focuses on a girl called Maggie, who receives an unusual inheritance from her famous photojournalist grandfather. A wooden box containing a camera, some photographs and seven seashells, each from a different continent, this unusual gift sets off a story that winds around the world and across generations.
Essentially a series of short stories united by a central theme, this international adventure contains some brilliant writing and a series of entertaining and heartwarming surprises.
15. Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto
- Genre: Fictionalised history
- Summary: The intersecting stories of eight famous photographers from the 20th century
From Whitney Otto, the author of global best-seller How to Make an American Quilt, comes a novel inspired by the lives of eight famous female photographers, including Imogen Cunningham, Madame Yevonde, Tina Modotti, Lee Miller, Grete Stern, and Ruth Orkin.
Each chapter begins with an iconic photo by one of the artists, and the stories imagine how the photographers first got started and how the photo in question came to be taken. To clarify that this is fiction, not documentary, the real-life photographers all get fictional names, although the photos themselves are real.
Criss-crossing a century, the stories vary widely, but are united by common themes: the tension between domestic duty and photographic ambition; between one’s public and private image; between idealism and practicality. Above all, this is a finely textured, beautifully written tale of the intersecting lives of women, and of how our past and present are inextricably linked.
16. The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Summary: A Wall Street hotshot goes off the rails, and realises he has not followed the right path in life.
Douglas Kennedy is the author of 10 novels, including the international bestseller Leaving the World, and his work has been translated into 22 languages. His debut, released in 1997, follows the life of Ben Bradford, a man who has always wanted to be a photographer. And so, despite becoming a Wall Street hotshot and having a “perfect life” (wife, kids, six-figure income), there’s something missing.
Suddenly a moment of madness sets his life on a very different course, and a succession of twists and turns ensue.
While the story isn’t hugely original, it is wonderfully constructed, astonishingly readable and highly inspirational. It was adapted in 2010 into a film of the same name starring Romain Duris and Catherine Deneuve.
17. The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Summary: The stories of three Germans: a 1930s photographer, a 12-year-old wartime refugee, and a modern-day teacher.
Rachel Seiffert is a British novelist and short story writer born to German and Australian parents, and raised bilingually. Her books focus on the individual in history, highlighting how political and economic upheavals impact on ordinary lives.
Her first novel, The Dark Room tells the unrelated stories of three ordinary Germans. They are Helmut, a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour; Lore, a 12-year-old girl who in 1945 guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are captured by the Allies; and, 50 years later, Micha, a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war.
As a novel (or more accurately, three largely unrelated novellas) exploring German guilt over the Holocaust, The Dark Room avoids easy answers and instead deals honestly and realistically with issues of ethical complexity and moral relativism.
18. The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frederic Lemercier
- Genre: Graphic novel
- Summary: The story of a French photographer embedded on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan.
Does a graphic novel count as a novel? When it’s this good, we’d argue that it definitely does.
The Photographer tells the true story of Didier Lefèvre, a French photojournalist who accompanied a Médecins Sans Frontières mission during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1986.
The book essentially tells the story of his experiences, cleverly interweaving Lefèvre's black-and-white photographs with Emmanuel Guibert's illustrations to create a captivating, often shocking narrative.
In many ways the photography speaks for itself, but put in context by this superbly conceived graphic novel only heightens its emotional impact. First published in three volumes from 2003 through 2006, The Photographer sold quarter of a million copies in France and has been translated into 11 languages.
19. Weegee: Serial Photographer by Max de Radiguès (author), Wauter Mannaert (illustrator), Helge Dascher (translator)
- Genre: Graphic novel
- Summary: Tracing the life and contradictions of a great crime photographer.
Another graphic novel based on a real-life photographer, this one focuses on Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, a notorious crime photographer for New York's tabloid press in the 1940s.
There’s no shortage of stories to tell about Weegee, from his habit of adjusting the position of dead bodies to make his photographs more pleasing to the eye, to his love-hate relationship with the streets he loved to document but also wanted to escape.
Wauter Mannaert’s frenetic black-and-white illustrations are the perfect match for the iconic photography of Weegee, who was treated in his time as a hack, even though he is now seen as a true artist. This artistic take on his fascinating life is the perfect tribute.
20. Photographic: The Life Of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero (Author) and Zeke Pena (Author)
- Genre: Graphic novel
- Summary: The life story of the famed Mexican photographer.
Graciela Iturbide is a Mexican photographer famed for her ability to capture a sense of the magical in the everyday. Today, her work is exhibited around the world, and this graphic novel tells her fascinating life story.
She was born in Mexico City in 1942, the oldest of 13. When she became a young mother herself, tragedy struck, and she turned to photography for solace. From then on, she embarked on a photographic journey that took her throughout her native Mexico, then to the United States, India, and beyond.
This lovingly illustrated novel brings her story to graphic life in a smart and accessible way, and is an excellent introduction to a much underrated artist for anyone who’s unfamiliar with her.