Because the aim of most photographers is to renew a viewer's sense of wonder, they tend to render the world in ways that challenge the eye, unsettle the mind and stir the spirit. Just in time for the holidays, three large-scale, lavish photography books featuring both cutting-edge and classic images have arrived to test our sensibilities and make us re-view reality. If you're buying for an art lover this season, put these handsome volumes at the top of your shopping list.
Re-envisioning the everyday as the exotic, turning common moments into milestones, the camera revises customary existence, makes it seem mysterious. In Diane Arbus: Revelations, the transformative effects of this little device are amply represented. Providing a thorough overview of the career of Arbus, a ground-breaking photographer who got her start in the fashion industry in the 1940s, Revelations covers three decades and features 200 full-page reproductions of her work. Arbus brought a singularly honest way of seeing to the picture-taking process, offering fresh perspectives on the familiar world, depicting humanity in all its varied shades. From bench-sitters in Central Park to sideshow freaks, female impersonators and frosty debutantes, the black-and-white photos in Revelations expose the drama inherent in the mundane, the theatricality simmering beneath the surface of normal life. With selections from her famous Untitled series, shot at homes for the mentally retarded, Revelations is the most comprehensive treatment of Arbus' photography ever to appear. Published to coincide with an international retrospective of her work, these smoky photos, all classic Arbus, are a wonderful document of American culture.
Visual excavationsAfter police chased and gunned down a dangerous fugitive on her Virginia property, photographer Sally Mann took pictures of the tire tracks and torn trees, the residual marks of a pursuit that, regardless of its impermanence, altered her home forever. The imprint of the past upon the present is a recurring theme in her luminous new book, What Remains (Bulfinch, $50, 132 pages, ISBN 0821228439), and Mann seeks and captures this quality in places where history is etched upon the landscape, in locales as varied as Antietam, where some of the Civil War's fiercest fighting occurred, and a forensics study site, where bodies decompose in the woods.
Suspended between two states of being, Mann's oddly picturesque corpses and bones, which she imbued with a gray-green hue, are not quite matter, not yet spirit. Her ghostly vistas otherworldly and insubstantial seem to be forever dissolving. Using glass plates and the old-fashioned collodion method of photography, she achieved the gorgeous golden patina that makes the portraits of her children look aged and hazy, eternally antiquated. An artist of international acclaim, Mann was voted America's best photographer by Time magazine in 2001. The boldness of her vision has earned her a reputation as a controversial artist unafraid of provoking viewers. Her extraordinary new book does just that. A photographic feastThe ultimate picture book, Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Photographs (National Geographic, $30, 504 pages, ISBN 079226164X) is a classic compilation of the Society's greatest visuals. Spanning a century, the pictures collected in this splendid volume represent some of the biggest names in photography, including Sam Abell, William Albert Allard and Jodi Cobb.
From Asia and South America to outer space, each chapter in Through the Lens is dedicated to a different geographical area, covering culture, nature and wildlife in photos that are, by turns, marvelous in their simplicity and breathtaking in their complexity. In Sicily, a line of laundry strung between fire escapes billows in the breeze. An Islamic woman, enveloped in white, waits in a Tripoli airport. International in its vision, vast in its scope, Through the Lens is a generous and memorable tribute to the world.