The Best Photobooks About America

2 minute read

For Independence Day, TIME compiled a list of some of the best photobooks from, and about, America. While Robert Frank’s The Americans and Walker Evan’s American Photographs hold their places as classic and iconic books in the history of American publications, the titles featured here are contemporary additions to the canon of great American photobooks.

Martin Parr‘s selection of the State University of New York 71/72 Torch Book – the school’s yearbook – features photographs that show the charged political environment from that time. Lesley Martin’s choice of New American Haircuts offers an authentic view into the hair culture of New York in the 1980s. The groundbreaking A Shimmer of Possibility from Paul Graham stands as a new take of showing the American landscape. While Paul Moakley’s select of Peter Van Agtmeal’s Disco Night Sept. 11 is an emotional and dense recount of America’s history in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This selection confirms the multi-faceted role of photobooks and the many ways in which powerful stories can be told through images in print. From small zines and impromptu collaborations, to the tradition of collecting one’s travels, all of these titles hold something in common: the rich and immense contribution photography has brought to American culture.

Cassidy Paul is a contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Instagram.

Is This Place Great Or What, Brian Ulrich Published by Aperture
Selected by photographer Martin Parr: "This whole aspect of the gaudy consumerism, that hallmarks America so dominantly, had not really been photographed in a sustained and interesting way until Ulrich took up the subject and produced this excellent tome."
State University of New York Torch Book, 71/72
Selected by photographer Martin Parr: "One of the unsung achievements of American publishing are the college annuals, especially the ones produced in the 60/70's. Just recently I found the best one I have ever seen, from the State University of New York. At over 350 pages, it has hundreds of photos, from images by Philip Jones Griffiths on the Vietnam war through to sports and student protest."
American Pictures, Jacob Holdt Published by American Pictures FoundationTom Starkweather—LPV Show
Selected by editor, and publisher Lesley Martin: "This was my first photobook—purchased at one of Jacob Holdt’s campus slideshow lectures in 1988. I was simultaneously appalled and smitten: appalled by the scenes Holdt photographed and described—scenes of poverty and segregation found across the USA; smitten by this anarchic Danish man with a braided beard who spoke so candidly about his adventures and his discoveries and the book that pulled it all together. The design of the book is not terribly sophisticated in some ways, but the images and text are riveting, challenging, and charged."Tom Starkweather—LPV Show
The Nation’s Capitol in Photographs Published by Corcoran Gallery of Art
Selected by editor, and publisher Lesley Martin: "Lewis Baltz, Joe Cameron, Robert Cumming, Roy DeCarava, John Gossage, Jan Groover, Anthony Hernandez, and Lee Friedlander—a veritable dream team of American photographers were commissioned by curator Jane Livingston of The Corcoran Gallery of Art to photograph the U.S. Capitol to commemorate the bicentennial. The result: an exhibition and eight individual catalogues by each participant. Photography polymath, David Campany, introduced me to this otherwise unknown set of books, and it stands out as a remarkable time capsule—not so much of D.C., two hundred years after the founding of the U.S.A, but of American photography and all it would become in the four decades to follow."
New American Haircuts, Jerry Vezzuso Published by Ballantine BooksCourtesy Jerry Vezzuso
Selected by editor, and publisher Lesley Martin: "Venerable teacher, mentor, and printer for a wide range of blue-chip photographers, Jerry Vezzuso is also a committed zine maker. His book, New American Haircuts, published in by a trade publisher in 1985, is about the size of a pulp novel— a quirky and hugely enjoyable document of American youth culture as viewed through a series of headshots of the freshly shorn clientele of the iconic Astor Place Hair. It’s possible that the publishing logic at the time was that this was intended as a “look book" or reference for people seeking the freshest New Wave, High Fade cuts, but really, it is a series of incredible portraits, typologically shot, of the cross section of East Village punks, skaters, dweebs, and wanna-be’s who all converged on this barber shop, hoping to shape a new identity via the perfect haircut."Courtesy Jerry Vezzuso
The Notion of Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier Published by Aperture
Selected by Lightbox contributor Cassidy Paul: "As a longtime fan of Frazier’s work, The Notion of Family proves to be so much more than just a catalogue of her series. Detailing her hometown Braddock, Frazier employs the traditions of documentary work, while collaborating with her family to represent their experiences. Combining written word and photographs, Frazier’s emotional and powerful work resonates in an entirely new way in her book"
Broken Manual, Alec Soth Published by Steidl
Selected by Lightbox contributor Cassidy Paul: "Alec Soth’s Broken Manual is as playful as it is melancholic. With hand written scribbles and notes, as well as suggestions for how to erase yourself from society, this is easily my favorite book from Soth. A page early on which reads “Utah?” is followed later in the book with another spread, definitively assigning the photo “Utah.” Almost like a diary, Soth’s is a master at playing with memory, emotion, and the American dream."
A Shimmer of Possibility, Paul Graham Published by MACKCourtesy MACK
Selected by Lightbox contributor, Cassidy Paul: "The 12 volume set of A Shimmer of Possibility is a rare sight for anyone, if they can get their hands on it. The twelve thin books each tell their own stories from all over America, showing glimpses but never more. Graham’s use of design and sequence are superb, and make these books a definitive mark in photobook history."Courtesy MACK
America, 2006, Obvious & Ordinary Published by Rocket Gallery
Selected by Lightbox contributor Cassidy Paul: "The brain child of Martin Parr and John Gossage (under the aliases “Obvious” and “Ordinary”), America 2006 came out of a trip the two took to Memphis to visit William Eggleston. Both artist's idiosyncratic voices mesh together in an unexpectedly perfect pairing. The result is a wonderfully cheerful book that embodies the kind of fun and casual feeling of a road trip with your friend."
Our Kind of People: American Groups and Rituals, Bill Owens Published by Straight Arrow Books
Selected by Paul Moakley, deputy director of photography, TIME:"While working as a newspaper photographer in California, Bill Owens always shot his assignments while building a body of personal work examining American culture away the city. His first book, the now iconic Suburbia, opened the doors to the middle class American home after the 1960s to depict its residents struggling with a radically shifting cultural landscape and a distant war in Vietnam. The ironies between his photos and captions set up an environment that might have felt all too complacent in its search for comfortable convience. His follow up, Our Kind Of People, examines the rituals of groups coming together in the suburbs once again to have organized fun and camaraderie, but Owens always manages to see through the façades of religion, patriotism, costumes and cheap disposable cutlery to see a party that’s starting to feel tired."
Disco Night Sept. 11, Peter Van Agtmeal Published by Red Hook EditionsCourtesy Magnum Shop
Selected by Paul Moakley, deputy director of photography, TIME:"Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night September 11 feels like a diary on the state of post-9/11 America, caught in the maelstroms of fighting multiple wars and the disturbing unease of terror at home. His photographs accompanied by his deeply moving text make this book into an unforgettable personal meditation on what it’s like to be a witness to the extremes of war both for himself and for the people he meets along the way."Courtesy Magnum Shop

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