Famous Photography Books Everyone Should Own

This post has been updated. It was originally published on July 23, 2019.

A well-organized photo library can be a great source of inspiration for your own photo projects. Opening a beautifully bound photography book focuses the eye in a way that simply cannot be replicated when scrolling through Instagram. These famous photography books are essential for any type of photographer.

Related: The streets of Paris in black and white, the classic “Cape Light” by Meyerowitz and other books worth reading

Nan Goldin describes the photographs inside this book as a visual diary. The Ballad of Sex Addiction was first published in 1986 and captures the photographer’s personal encounters at a time when New York was still very rough around the edges. His photographs are intimate but also candid and document a way of life that largely disappeared in the 1990s. The work has become a cultural touchstone for generations of photographers since.

The New Tide: Early Work 1940-1950 by Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks was the first African-American photographer to publish work in LIFE magazine – he would spend more than two decades working as a personal photographer. Throughout his career, Parks was known for documenting stories related to the arts, civil rights, and poverty. This book brings together photographs from the first decade of his career, including work from his time in Minnesota, Chicago’s Black Renaissance, and images illustrating segregation throughout the South. The new tide provides an in-depth look at Parks’ groundbreaking photojournalistic vision.

Tiny, streetwise revisited by Mary Ellen Mark

In the early 1980s, while working on a photo essay about homeless youth in Seattle, Mary Ellen Mark met Tiny, a 13-year-old human trafficking victim with big dreams. Mark ended up photographing Tiny for thirty years and documented her transformation from a fierce 13-year-old teenager to a middle-aged mother of ten. Tiny, streetwise revisited captures how Tiny’s life unfolded and addresses issues of poverty, race and addiction.

The decisive moment of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson is easily one of the most famous and influential photographers of all time, and this is one of his most famous photography books. Originally published in 1952, it lists work from the early days of his career. “Cutting moment” is a term that comes up constantly in photo circles, and it’s all about watching and waiting for that visual peak of a scene. This book gives photographers a chance to dig into the frames where Cartier-Bresson captured just that.

Robert Frank's Americans

Although critics criticized it after its release in 1959, Americans, Robert Frank’s B&W photographs of the United States had an undeniable influence on the medium. The book contains 83 photographs captured on a road trip across the United States that reveal a less than rosy perspective of the so-called “American Dream.” The photographs that make up Americans have an asymmetrical, impressionistic style that still influences shooters to this day.

Of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

Of love and war is the debut photography book by prolific photojournalist Lynsey Addario, and includes images that span her career as a photographer documenting war-torn parts of the world such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. His striking images are interspersed with journal entries from his assignments, letters to his family, and current thoughts on his career as a photojournalist. It’s an in-depth look at what it takes to be a conflict photographer in the modern age.

50 portraits of Gregory Heisler

Too many portrait photography instructional books get caught up in technical details like lighting and composition without delving into the intangibles that make a person look good. Heisler has spent decades photographing high profile subjects for prestigious outlets and this book tells the story behind some of his most famous images. There’s not much talk about shutter speeds or flash positioning, but you get insight into his process for getting to know his subjects and imagining what the final shot will look like.

Relentless by Neil Leifer

Neil Leifer led an incredible life. He started his career sneaking his camera into baseball games as a volunteer. He went on to capture some of the most iconic and mainstream sports photos of all time. The book is worth reading just to learn the history of Muhammad Ali’s famous photos on your own, but the real draw is the perfect blend of his eccentric personality and impeccable photographic wit.

Ansel Adams print

The photographic process has changed profoundly in the decades since Ansel Adams published his trio of iconic instructional books. Whereas The footprint has a lot of darkroom information that may not apply to digital shooters, it also perfectly encapsulates the concept of previewing a final image before taking the shot. Adams knew that “doing it right behind closed doors” meant giving himself the best possible raw materials for print or, in modern times, Instagram posting. Even just the introduction can change the way you think about photography if you’re trying to improve your skills.

Other Famous Photography Books

This list, of course, only scratches the surface of famous photography books. Looking for more inspiration? Check out some of our other photo book recommendations here.

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