In a year when the pandemic continued to make the world feel unsteady and social media a touch ephemeral, this selection of books offers a way to be transported by visual art in the palm of your hand.
Curated by the TIME photo department, this list is semi-personal, compiled after asking each editor to think about the titles that felt the most poignant in a year indelibly shaped by isolation from COVID-19. Many of the books address the movement for racial justice, examine economic inequality or lift underrepresented voices. In contrast, other titles stand out as reprieve from these turbulent times.
2021 also marks the 10th year we’ve shared our favorite photobooks, and it’s exciting to say the genre continues to flourish more than ever as photographers and brave publishers challenge the format in innovative ways.
In totality, the books below sum up extensive bodies of work by photographers, curators or historians driven by the resonant power of the still image. While some build on traditional formats, others push to deliver the most unique and intimate art experiences imaginable.
The Last Cruze by LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago
The Last Cruze by LaToya Ruby Frazier is an extensive, collaborative body of work that focuses on General Motors autoworkers in Lordstown, Ohio, who are members of the United Auto Workers labor union. After the plant abruptly ceased production in 2019, thousands of workers had to decide whether to transfer to another plant or risk losing their jobs and benefits. Frazier sensitively documents the autoworkers and their families’ stories during this difficult time. Through black-and-white portraits of the union members in their homes alongside personal testimonies, Frazier explores themes of resilience, solidarity and shared purpose, as well as the importance of advocating for workers.
Buy Now: The Last Cruze
PICKPOCKET by Daniel Arnold, Elara Press
PICKPOCKET is Daniel Arnold’s first monograph and an experimental meditation on his obsessive documentation of New York City streets from 2009-2020. Starting with photos he initially published on Instagram, the book was made during a series of Zoom meetings throughout quarantine with the film directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, as well as producer Sebastian Bear-McClard. “I functioned as sort of a screenwriter and then got out of the way and let them direct,” Arnold told TIME.
Buy Now: PICKPOCKET
The Banda Journal by Muhammad Fadli and Fatris MF, Jordan, jordan Édition
The Banda Journal is a poignant retracing of the legacy of colonialism and violence in Indonesia’s Banda Islands—which were exploited for centuries by powerful Western countries in pursuit of endemic species, but have since faded into obscurity. Photographer Muhammad Fadli and writer Fatris MF, who collaborated on the three-year project, smartly weave photographs, text and research from several trips to the archipelago to tell an indelible and engaging story about “a place whose destiny was determined by a plant.” The book captures a desire to remember the islands’ importance and what they have endured from the perspective of those who live in and hold Banda dear.
Buy Now: The Banda Journal
Revisiting a teenage diary can feel triggering, and the thought of sharing it mortifying. In What She Said, Deanna Templeton reopens the most aching parts of her journals and presents them alongside her recent photographs of teenage girls. The portraits, mostly made during chance encounters on the street, are of young women who Templeton says “either reminded me of myself when I was their age. Or how I wish I could have been like.” The pairing of her words from the past, alongside these young faces, creates a conversation across generations.
“I’m at a better place now so I can look back and laugh at how dramatic I was,” Templeton told TIME, “But, those feelings were super-intense and real to me then.” The book shows how time is essential to grow, heal and open a space where strength can be passed on to the next generation.
Buy Now: What She Said
Books like The New Black Vanguard (Aperture 2019) reflected on the creativity of a new generation of Black photographers. As We Rise (Aperture 2021) presents an incisive selection of works from the Wedge Collection, which has been preserving a prolific body of work by Black artists since 1997. In the introduction, curator and cultural historian Mark Sealy writes that as a “time trapping process, photography offers us the opportunity to reflect on the way we were and make real, in the present, what we have become.” As We Rise beautifully connects and contrasts movements in Black art to reflect how Black photographers make a space for themselves, establish community and celebrate power.
In Plain Air is an ode to the communal experience of visiting Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Irina Rozovsky writes in the book about moving to New York and her initial attraction to the park, saying it is “susceptible to the brutality of the seasons, falls into disrepair, has its moods and temperaments, but never betrays democracy. It’s a melting pot bubbling over in all its glory.” Her photographs, however, see past the cracks to record a romance she feels for the place. They capture a shared joy that feels Whitmanesque, fully present, and even more poignant as the isolation from the pandemic lingers.
Buy Now: In Plain Air on Amazon
American Geography by Matt Black, Thames & Hudson
American Geography is the culmination of photographer Matt Black’s six-year project circumnavigating the Lower 48 to document communities where 20% or more of the population live below the poverty line. By themselves, the images play a quiet drumbeat, but collectively they create a deafening boom that lays bare the harsh reality of inequality in America. Each chapter concludes with entries from Black’s notebooks, offering simple moments of reflection that reverberate around the pictures. Read our full review here.
Santa Barbara by Diana Markosian, Aperture
Santa Barbara is an autobiographical reconstruction of photographer Diana Markosian’s surreal journey from post-Soviet Moscow to Santa Barbara, Calif., with her family. Boldly intertwining reality and fiction, Markosian cast actors to play her family in reenacted scenes from her memory. She collaborated on a script with a screenwriter of the 1980s American soap opera Santa Barbara, which inspired Markosian’s mother to move to America. Markosian’s Santa Barbara is a moving, immersive story with deep attention to detail, which communicates an emotion that feels both specific and universal: the desire to understand and love one’s mother, as she is.
Buy Now: Santa Barbara
Sorry for the War by Peter van Agtmael, Mass Books
Sorry for the War conveys an absurdist’s gaze upon the wreckage of the post 9/11-world. The book serves as a hallucinatory work of art on the most serious of subject matters, reminiscent of early Oliver Stone films. It picks up from where van Agtmael’s previous book, Disco Night Sept. 11, left off, examining the newest chapters of the “Global War on Terror,” including the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Read our full review here.
Buy Now: Sorry for the War on Amazon
Street Portraits feels like an understated title for this early series of portraits made by artist Dawoud Bey in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While in each frame, the subject simply connects with the camera’s lens, these intimate exchanges combined with Bey’s magnificent framing make the face feel singular, amplifying each person’s individuality. Writer Greg Tate cites how historically “mainstream media’s predominate stories about Blackfolk in that time were either about gang murders or drug selling and addiction.” Bey’s photographs intentionally served as an alternative to the story white America was telling itself on the evening news. The powerful message contained within the images has only continued to resonate over time.
Buy Now: Street Portraits
What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999, 10×10 Photobooks
This epic compilation of photobooks by women feels like a necessary antidote to the male-dominated anthologies of the past. It features so many obscure, out-of-print books and layouts from the original publications contextualized them into thematic eras, making it a constant source of visual inspiration for image-makers, designers and historians.
Buy Now: What They Saw
Hello Future by Farah Al Qasimi, Capricious
Hello Future is an entrancing collection of observations from Farah Al Qasimi’s photographic, performance and film practice. Through technicolor still life and peculiar moments of public and private life, Al Qasimi examines the structures of power, gender and aesthetic in the Persian Gulf. Like its sticker sheet jacket and chrome hardback, Hello Future is a playful, reflective and sharply intelligent visual experience.
Buy Now: Hello Future
I can’t stand to see you cry by Rahim Fortune, Loose Joints
Rahim Fortune blends photos of his life with more social documentary image-making sharing what feels like his diary. The combination of private and public amplifies the story of a young man’s life in the American South to something bigger. Photographs from a protest on the streets are followed by what appears to be the photographer reaching out from the camera and holding his father’s hand in a hospital bed. Fortune uses the act of making pictures to hold on to time and people in a way that lifts the spirit in the face of our mortality. Here, photographs help us remember what matters the most: family, friends, and our singular bonds, no matter how brief.
Buy Now: I Can’t Stand to See You Cry
Spanish Colour 1985-2020 by Cristóbal Hara, Plague Press
A compilation spanning 35 years of photographer Cristóbal Hara’s archive, Spanish Colour is reminiscent of Víctor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, taking us on a road trip through Spain’s dusty countryside to discover a funhouse of traditions and rituals. In vivid color, Hara always finds beauty tinged with his absurd sense of humor to rattle any romantic notions one might have of religion, history and machismo.
Buy Now: Spanish Colour 1985-2020
Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians by JEB, Anthology Editions
JEB (Joan E. Biren) has proudly called herself a “radical lesbian feminist” for years. As a founding member of The Furies, a collective of like-minded members, JEB turned her passion for research and “absolute inability to find lesbian images” into a quest for greater lesbian visibility. The desire to see herself and other lesbians led her to produce her first groundbreaking book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, originally self-published in 1979 and re-released by Anthology Editions. Read TIME’s full interview with JEB here.
Family Matters by Gillian Laub, Aperture
Artist Gillian Laub has always blurred the lines between her personal life and professional work, often casting her family and friends in commercial and editorial assignments. Every meaningful relationship becomes the inspiration for an exhibition.
In this deeply personal and brutally honest monograph, she writes alongside her family photographs to reveal the stories behind the images, her deepest insecurities, and her life fraught with the politics of the past 20 years. The constant self-questioning over the complexity of familial bonds culminates in a memoir about reconciliation with one’s life and a journey towards love and self-acceptance.
Buy Now: Family Matters
Most popular depictions of the American West in the early 20th century feel dominated by the mythology of cowboys. Absent are the stories of women like Laura Webb Nichols, who, among many things, worked as a photographer, mother and entrepreneur, running a photo finishing studio and business in southern Wyoming. In this collection of photographs by the little-known photographer, we see Webb’s images alongside ones she collected from customers, mainly amateur photographers, whose inclusion shows her curatorial eye for recognizing subtle, strange and austere image-making. Encampment, Wyoming feels like a film about a small town directed through Webb’s singular vision.
Buy Now: Encampment, Wyoming
I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine by Pacifico Silano, Loose Joints
In Pacifico Silano’s I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine, slivers of vintage gay porn and found imagery, as well as the slightest hints of an eye gazing back a shard of skin erupt with eroticism through collage. This unique artist book is made in an accordion-folded format that can be shown as one continuous collage or as a sequence of individual images. The retro color images feel like a trip back in time to contemplate gay masculinity and the allure of life before the trauma of AIDS.
Buy Now: I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine
American Mirror by Philip Montgomery, Aperture
This collection of photographs taken across America over nearly a decade conjures a fever dream about our collective past and present. The scenes, captured in Philip Montgomery’s nouveau noir style, feel as if they’re narrated over a crackling radio broadcast declaring hard truths about the state of the country. In the introduction, writer Jelani Cobb describes the sequence of images as “stations” in an ongoing “American crucible” where each photo is accompanied by a historical testimony leaving the viewer to reckon with themselves.
Buy Now: American Mirror
Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph is a collection of sometimes poetic, sometimes hilarious, and thoroughly inspirational musings by over 200 image-makers on things photographers should avoid. It is a meandering book of discovery, perfectly designed for this nonlinear year. It is best consumed by flipping to any random page and cracking open its wisdom like a fortune cookie. In 320 pages, there are only a few photos to be found, yet this brilliant collection offers endless delightful new ways of seeing.
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