Photography is an amazing thing. It takes a real-time moment and captures it in a two-dimensional image we can look at again and again. It is the chronicle of a split second that contains all the history that went before it and all the history that has come after it. And of course, certain photographic images have the ability to burn into our imaginations, transform our individual and collective psyches and become part of our makeup. Who can forget seeing the Earth photographed for the first time from space, or the image of President Kennedy riding confidently in the open motorcar? Here are four books packed with stunning photographs that will sit handsomely and disarmingly on a coffee table until someone opens them, beholds their pages and unleashes their latent power.

A provocative retrospective of the last half-century, Harry Benson: Fifty Years in Pictures by Harry Benson, gives insight into the renowned photographer's world. A gutsy, tenacious and award-winning photojournalist, Benson's career includes numerous covers for magazines such as Life, People and Vanity Fair. Here are portraits of the people who once captured the headlines the Beatles, the presidents, sports figures like Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and a young O.J. Simpson images sure to evoke a mixture of emotions, from joy and angst to nostalgia. One of the more poignant photographs is Benson's shot of President Nixon giving his farewell speech to his Cabinet and White House staff. The anguished faces of his wife and children as they stand loyally by his side speak as eloquently about that agonizing moment as any prose document could. Benson's first-hand captions and behind-the-scenes stories add an exciting element to the visual chronicles. If there's a historian, "culture-as-art" buff or budding photojournalist in your life, Benson's book would be a wonderful inspiration. Another career spanning 50 years is celebrated in Ansel Adams at 100 by John Szarkowski, which marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America's foremost landscape photographers. Szarkowski, director of the Centennial Exhibition of Adams' work, (which will be on tour through fall 2003) has chosen 114 of the artist's characteristically striking black and white landscape photographs, in which, as he puts it, "each element is articulated with perfect precision." Ansel Adams is best known for his photos of Yosemite National Park, the California coast and other wilderness areas of the American West and this hefty volume contains many of his signature prints. A master at conveying both the enormous grandeur and the fragile details of a landscape, Adams had a tremendous impact not only on the art world, but on the environmental movement as well. For black and white film aficionados or nature lovers, this book is a treasure, and it even includes a reproduction print, suitable for framing a gift within a gift! Allowing nature to be its own best advocate is also the idea behind Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton. Liittschwager and Middleton have been photographing endangered animals and plants since 1986, but this volume is the result of a four-year collaborative effort dedicated to the ecosystem of Hawaii. Many of the state's endangered flora and fauna species are so rare they do not exist anywhere else on earth. The authors have showcased 142 of these singular species in exquisite, individual photos to accentuate the magnificence of each and bring attention to the tragedy of declining biodiversity on the island and in the world at large. What at first seems just a lovely picture book of exotic plants and animals is also an urgent exhortation to save one of the richest natural environments on the planet. This book is a call to action; seeing these photos is sure to evoke a response in even the most unwilling environmentalist.

And for the environmentalist who doesn't need much prodding, consider a beautiful new version of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, with photographs by Michael Sewell. Leopold's Almanac is a classic of nature writing that should be on the main shelf of any environmentalist's library, right next to Thoreau's Walden and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

First published in 1949, a year after the author's death, the Almanac takes readers on a seasonal journey as Leopold works to restore the land at his small homestead in Sand County, Wisconsin. In this new edition, Sewell's photography illustrates the time-honored text with splendid color photographs taken on location at Leopold's property. This is a great book to read snuggled under a blanket (treat yourself!) or to give to anyone on your list who could use a closer communication with the natural world.

Linda Stankard is a writer in Cookeville, Tennessee.

 

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