Monday, March 29, 2010

The present future of photobooks

While researching the world of "print on demand" (that's POD to those of you who like acronyms or the word "pod"), I stumbled upon the massive collaborative post ("crowd-sourcing") about "the future of photobooks" at RESOLVE in which various bloggers (many of them heavy hitters) prognosticate the demise/bright future of the photobook. I read every one of the 40 or 50 (I stopped counting) posts. I decided to take notes and share them with you in a way that will either save you time or whet your appetite for the ongoing discussion.

The "I saw the future, the geeks were right" stance.
Whether they see it as a good or a bad thing, most of the bloggers addressed the print vs. digital question. Some argue that mobile books, pdf books, and multimedia projects present a chance to rethink the entire system. But that means rethinking, not producing sub-par digital equivalents of the printed page. As one blogger writes:
“The struggle is to avoid the book being reduced to a means to distribute my photographs and to think of the online book as a stand alone project."
Point taken. Why buy a digital book if it doesn't offer something new. As Larissa Leclair says:
"Just look at a photographer’s website if you are going to look at photographs on a digital platform photobook – unless, that is, if the digital format has furthered the photobook in ways that the traditional book cannot."
Alec Soth argues that we're comparing apples to oranges when we talk about books and their multimedia digital counterparts:
"I’m currently experimenting with online audio slideshows and the like. But I see this as a new medium, not a book. For me, a book is a physical object."
The multi-user utopian vision
Several bloggers are hopeful that a multi-user experience will enhance our ability to read photographs and will lead to more collaborative publishing opportunities. One proposed idea unites chefs and food photographers to create the ultimate downloadable cookbook. Green Tea Gallery points to collaborative works such as PUBLICATION as models of the future:
"There will be more and more artistic collaborations that will flood the market with hundreds, if not thousands of new publications that will feature photography related projects, interviews and articles."
Ben Huff sees the move toward innovations (such as group publications) as part of the survival instinct—necessity as the mother of invention:
"As our economy continues to stumble, i'm seeing photographers become more creative and assertive in their efforts to become a part of the machine on their own terms."
The death of the editor
While some focus on cooperatives and multi-user content, others stress the rogue nature of the self-publisher. DIY=no editor, no designer, no teamwork. Critical terrain asks:
"What’s lost here? The combination of differently specialized people bringing their expertise to bear on a project in the making."
Sadkids agrees:
"My only concern in a POD world is the loss of editors. If the whole world is DIY, where are the quality checks? Look at the abundance of garbage on YouTube. No editors = lots of bad stuff."
This concern brings us back to the need for collaboration. As Amy Stein contends:
"If we want the photobook to evolve I believe we need to bring back collaboration and, more importantly, evolve the definition of a book. Instead of a mass mentality, where the book is reduced to a means to distribute your photographs, we must return to a place where photographers work with other artists and professionals to conceive and produce unique, standalone objects."
Without professional collaboration, chaos. The Online Photographer suggests an increased need for curating, for editing the useful from the mess of the internet:
"The internet is a junk heap. It's every frame that comes back from the drugstore. It's the contact sheet, the raw material, the unsorted mass."
Johanna Tumbler also emphasizes the importance of careful editing:
"I don’t know what the physical future of the photobook is, but I hope whatever it is, it still means that someone has committed themselves to an edit, a sequence, and thinks about the best layout for those images, rather than it just being a freeform collection where each individual image is more important than the whole…"
The tenacious printed book
The great majority of bloggers (photographers, editors, collectors) professed undying love for the book as object. (see, for example, Elysium, LOZ, Craig Ferguson, Daylight Magazine, and the Blurberati blog)

Elizabeth Avedon asserts that no matter what changes occur, collectors will keep buying books. DLK collection goes into more detail on the collector's point of view and give a counter arguments to deflate the hype about new technologies:
"For photography collectors, innovation in photobooks isn't a huge issue."

Other photo book enthusiasts (street level Japan, the space-in-between) look at their own buying habits to show that the industry is alive and well, and Lesley Martin of Aperture looks at the industry's current obsession with books on books:
"To my knowledge, there are at least four major Books about Books in development (Latin American Photobooks, German Photobooks, Dutch Photobooks, among other general interest) and several related exhibitions underway for release sometime in 2010-11."

Big publishers beware, innovate or die
Fractionmag compares the publishing industry to the recording industry. The big labels are all about profit:
"Sure, the giant companies are going to whittle things down to the bare minimum and it will become like the recording industry; if you cannot sell a certain and predetermined quantity of units, you do not get published (this is probably happening already). Gone are the days of believing in the work and the artist."
The publishers that take risks will be the publishers that generate sales. Christina Seeley (of Metro Nature) notes that if her own buying habits suggest anything, it is that innovative books will survive:
"The first thing I thought to do was to figure out which books in my own collection stand out and why. The consistency in the pile that formed was in the design of each of the selected titles. Each if only in slight ways, pushed outside the traditional design of the photography monograph."
Jerry Avenaim's comparison of the book industry to the movie industry is meant to be reassuring:
"When the DVD format was introduced in the 1990’s, movie theaters were terrified they would lose there business to people that had ‘home theaters.’ We all realized how nonsensical that was because at the end of the day, when the lights go down and the curtains part, we know nothing will ever replace the movie theater experience. And in my opinion a work of art is not digital, it is tangible.
Theater owners would disagree. Go to a movie anytime other than Friday night or Saturday, and you will understand why the megaplex theaters are pushing live events, corporate parties, and anything else they can come up with to compete with the home theaters. For Hamburger eyes, the self-published book (our "home theater" equivalent) will spur on creative thinking and give the consumer a better product:
"I think photo books will always be around and get better and better, and in 10 years they will look even better than we can imagine. It’s brewing now. The perfect storm. All these self published titles will make the bigger companies step it up and take risks to survive."
POD people, the self publishing revolution
Finally, we get back to what prompted my search in the first place: the "print on demand" market. Self-publishing no longer has the "vanity press" stigma it once did. A few self-published books have received widespread recognition. Blurb's Photography Book Now contest brings self-published titles to the attention of big-name jurors—although the winners are not necessarily published through Blurb.

The book Your golden opportunity is comeing [no, that's not a typo] very soon is kind of the "Blair Witch Project" (to keep the movie comparison going) of photo books: self-published, but with international buzz. This leads to the "quality content is more important than quality presentation argument" described by Shooting Wide Open as follows:
"Good photos printed in crappy quality or boring books still trump crappy photos printed at high quality or inserted into a fancy digital interface for me. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking every photobook needs to be of the highest quality to be viable."
This doesn't mean people love Blurb. In practice, many photographers see Blurb as an inexpensive way to pursue the traditional route. Elizabeth Fleming explains:
"I’ve had many conversations with fellow photographers who have also used Blurb, and the general consensus seems to be that we’ve all employed the service as a means for creating a template. In essence, when we show the book around it’s with a bit of a disclaimer: this is what my book would look like if an actual publishing house were to produce a more high-end version."
Shane Godfrey prefers the quality of a hand-made book and encourages photographers to revive that alternative:
"I do not think not using self publishing companies means make crap for a dollar and try to pass it as art. I think, personally, that handmade is the future. We are having a revival of alternative process, why not handmade books?"
La pura vida predicts great things to come thanks to self-publishing:
“Blurb is like Atari. Very cool for its time, but really only the tip of the iceberg in terms what’s to come."
My own conclusions
The movie industry and music industry comparisons are useful parallels to photo book publishing—at least to some degree. The proliferation of self-publishing and small presses creates an "indie" vibe that will influence the major publishers. For a lucky few, indie success will be a stepping stone to a major book deal. Books won't die, but our means of accessing them could change. There is not yet a photo book equivalent of Sundance, in my opinion, but various photo shows suggest that it's coming. Stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are the megaplex cinemas of book distribution—most of them offering predictable, boring fare. I doubt that will change. The "art house" distributors will not suddenly become mainstream. However good the content, the general public doesn't have a huge appetite for indie material that hasn't received its stamp of approval from the mainstream. I go to the Sundance Film Festival every year and cram in about 30 movies in a week. I was at the first screening of "Precious" (then called "Push"). The audience gave it a standing ovation. I predicted Oscar nominations. It succeeded, but it will never be "Avatar." And for every "Precious" there are hundreds of excellent films that never make it outside a festival setting. Each year at Sundance I marvel at the excellent movies that are passed by. Sometimes, 2 or 3 years later, they find their way to a DVD release...

But the world of the photo book is unlike both music and film in one major way: the audience. Many of the big name publishers are only big names to collectors. Ask someone off the street about Steidl, how many have even heard of it, let alone Twin Palms, Actes Sud, Nazraeli Press. In many ways, the big presses of the photo world are the struggling indies. And if that's the case, where does it leave the rest of us?

I think that is what we are still trying to figure out.

For more reading, see:
Miki Johnson's presentation at the San Francisco Apple Store and RESOLVE's follow-up on the discussion.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In praise of mindless retouching

Sometimes I get involved in reading or retouching and I let the TV drone in the background, thinking that any minute I'm going to stop working, find something good to watch, and get my brain turned off (nothing dulls the brain like TV, right?) so I can get sleepy. But before I know it, whatever show I was not watching has turned into an infomercial. By the time Jane Seymour has extolled the virtues of "Natural Advantage" a dozen times, it's definitely time to stop, which is what I'm going to do the second I finish this post.

Since this is an odd post anyway, I might as well say that I was insane to think that I would cover masking AND compositing in one month. In fact, I think one more masking tutorial is all I will do before changing themes for April.

Some tutorials I do simply to share techniques that work for me. Others, I write in order to force myself to expand my own knowledge. The latter is the case with an "Alpha Mask" tutorial that I hope to write. I'm more of a layer mask guy, so this whole "alpha" thing is not something I normally do. I decided to read up on alpha masks and then got distracted (as I am wont to do). Actually, distracted is not quite right. Burnt out from technical details is probably more like it.

So I thought of poor Lucas, my 10-year-old son who has been home sick. Then I thought about how much he hates having his picture taken. Then I pulled out this photo I took of him at the Tate in London:
The photo has that hazy, yellow, bad indoor lighting thing going on. Its meant to be stronger, bolder. Before I knew it, I was retouching as a sort of therapeutic mindless activity.
Before you can say Jane Seymour 1,000 times I stopped and thought, I love Photoshop. Mindlessly retouching, trying things out just for fun (rather than for a client) is great therapy. Its like Photoshop as a form of meditation.

But then a bad synth soundtrack and an saccharine voice talking about a money back guarantee reminds you that its after 1. Before you know it, Joan Rivers is pitching some kind of paint that women can brush onto their scalps to hide their thinning hair.
Must. Get. Remote. Now.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


No, this isn't a hair tutorial, which is too bad, really, because having rocked the whole feathered hair look back in the day, I could tell you a thing or two—as could my older sister, who was like the brunette Farrah Fawcett of Jefferson Junior High. Instead, I wanted to do a quick post about that often ignored "feather" setting that you see in the top menu bar when you use any marquee or lasso tool for selecting. It might say "0" it might say "1," but once you know what it does, you may even decide to put "100":

Here's a sample photo:
Let's pretend that I wanted to select the red door because I thought it would look better green to match the shirt of the biker (for the record, I don't). In this case, I decide to use the magnetic lasso to select the door:
To demonstrate the effect of the "feather" setting, I will select the "refine edge" button from that same menu bar:
A dialog box appears that allows you to adjust the feathering of your selection:
Right now, it is set to "0" which means that for better or for worse, the red door you see is exactly what I selected. Feathering softens the selection evenly on both sides. If I change it from "0" to "10" you see this:
You can see how feathering softens the selection. Rather than a hard edge, we now see a smooth transition. But before we pass any judgments, let's really push it. Here's "40" :
And here is "100":

If I stick with "0" feathering and then adjust the color of the door, I get this:

Clean, sharp edges. At least as clean and sharp as the original selection. But if I went wild and put "100" and then adjusted the color to green....
I would end up with a weird trippy red/green haze. Great, if that's what you're going for, but you can see why most people stick with a very low number or even no feathering at all. I should point out that the actual effect of a "10" or a "100" will change according to the size of your image, because the number indicates pixels not a percentage. To be precise, you can enter anything from "0" to "250." I know what you're thinking: No you di'int! 250? 250! What's wrong with you?

Which brings me to why I even wrote this post...

Like I said, most people either don't change the "feather" setting (out of ignorant bliss) or they keep it low. So when Amy Dresser (see my last post about the webinar) started evening out skin tone by lassoing patches of skin, clicking on the curves adjustment layer icon, and then adjusting that patch (she made about 26 such changes), all of us webinar participants watched happily from our various locations until OH THE HORROR!!!! Amy Dresser said that when she lassos patches of skin, she sets the feathering really high. High? How high? 5? 10? No! An insane 100!
Yes, you heard me—100 pixel feathering. The moment she said it, I swear that I heard a collective gasp echo from around the globe like all of the whos down in whoville screaming for dear life. I think I heard the moderator pop the lid off of his heart medication pill box.

But seriously, why the surprise? Well, people expect precision from a high end retoucher and they assume that any selection would be extremely precise (i.e. have hard edges). Au contraire, as Amy pointed out, when you're adjusting skin, you want gradual transitions—it's more natural. Just as the clean lines of the red door above demand a sharp selection, the smooth tones of a person's skin need gradual adjustments.

The moral of the story is that if you think about feathering, you can use it to your advantage. Some people more than others.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Retouch Pro + Amy Dresser = Tutorial Heaven

I've never been big on video tutorials. I prefer to follow along at my own pace. So when I see postings for online events like "webinars" (a really ugly word, my son Max tells me) I tend to ignore them. But when RetouchPRO sent me an email about a "RetouchPRO LIVE" event with Amy Dresser, I signed up. The event interested me because:
  1. Amy Dresser is basically the supreme goddess of beauty retouching and has become something of a patron saint to the RetouchPro community. Seriously, look at her work.
  2. The event was scheduled to last 2 hours and the registration fee was only $10. Ten bucks to watch a top-notch pro retouch in real time? Deal.
  3. She was going to retouch a photo of a man. You almost always see retouching done on photos of women, so I was curious to see if the gender of the subject would change the method of retouching.
The big event was yesterday. I loved it and I took notes. I'm not going to try to deliver all the information (and shouldn't anyway)—for that, you can go to the RetouchPro channel on the YouTube Rentals beta site where it will soon be added to their already large collection of rentals. The only downside is that it costs twice as much ($19.98). Read RetouchPro's explanation of the Youtube rentals for more info.

And now...some random notes:

On sharing information
If nothing else, Amy Dresser and I share the philosophy that sharing information is good. Some people are guarded about their techniques as if revealing their trade secrets will make them useless. Amy, on the other hand, knows that no one can replace her own artistic eye and vision. She doesn't need to hide anything because the real technique is in how the brain works. It's the decision making, the seeing that matters more than the Photoshop settings.

On skin
Amy doesn't think gender or age should change the way you retouch skin. "Skin is skin. I have the same approach to everything," she says. The look of the skin (gritty, smooth, dreamy, shiny) is determined by the style, not the subject.

On technical details
She doesn't pay attention to histograms. She never looks at the "info" palette. She doesn't mess with most of the settings in Photoshop or on her Wacom tablet. She describes herself as "not very technical." Nice to know that you don't have to know every little thing about Photoshop to be successful.

On workflow
She does some basic manipulation in RAW, starting with exposure and working her way down. After that, she has an action that sets up her organizational system of folders and layers. Her organization reminded me of a paper outline—it's just a structure that reminds you to attend to certain points, then you fill it in as you work.

On getting things done
Amy works from general to specific. In other words, fix the biggest problems first and work your way to the smaller ones. For example, she's not going to make one area perfect before moving on to the next. Move around the whole face, make everything better and then better and then...oops. Times up. The client wants the photo. Aren't you glad you have a pretty decent overall photo rather than half a face that's perfect and another half you haven't even touched yet?

On little steps
Amy made about 30 separate curves adjustment layers (and quickly) to fine tune the skin tone. When she does dodging and burning, she works at 3%. When she paints (to colorize something or to add a little white at the base of the eyelid, for example), I saw her use as low as 1% flow. This is typical of her tendency to build up many small steps rather than do one sudden change. That way, if you make little mistakes, then they stay little. It also helps cultivate a subtle eye.

On zooming in
More often than not, Amy keeps the photo zoomed out to how it will look in print. That way you don't waste time doing pore-level changes that don't matter. Look at what people are going to see, and if it looks good then why go down to the level of the pixel?

On photography
"I'm actually not a fan of photography." Biggest shock of the session to me. Remember, she is a retoucher, not a photographer. She says she never takes pictures. As for me, I'm a photographer who sees retouching as a means to an end. I retouch because I can't afford to send my work to someone like Amy Dresser, and I'm enough of a control freak to prefer doing things myself if I can't hire someone way better. So, I'll forgive you, Amy, for not loving photography. After looking at photos all day long, you need a break. My suggestion: music.

On using your weirdness to your best possible advantage
"If you have a weird talent and you can find a way to use it for your career, then, like, power to you." Amy always had an eye for detail and color. I would compare this to my mother-in-law, who (as I have mentioned once before) seems to have the equivalent of perfect pitch for color. Amy's visual abilities wouldn't help her much if she were filing papers all day, but luckily, she found a job that turns those abilities into gold.

For future events, look on RetouchPro. That Youtube rental thing (at twice the price) might not be quite the right price point, but if you try it, let me know.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Layer adjustment masks for the lazy artsy slob

When it comes to masking, those extra neat and precise detail-oriented types have the clear advantage. But if you're more the sloppy, intuitive, artsy type, and/or you're a beginner then rejoice! This tutorial is for you. Oh, the discipline that masking requires! This is probably one of the reasons that my personal projects involve fairly minor post-processing manipulation. Mastering all of the selection tools (I have a particular fear of the reputedly wondrous pen tool.), loading alpha channels, altering blending's just so much to learn that I won't even pretend to cover it all by the end of the month. We'll get to some of it (alpha channels is coming soon), but for today, I want to bask in the relative ease of basic adjustment masking. In particular, the kind of masking that doesn't require precise borders. Here it is in three steps:
  1. you open your image
  2. you add an adjustment layer such as curves, hue/saturation, etc.
  3. you use a very soft brush and paint effects in or out in your sloppy, intuitive way.
Maybe you already know the joys of this kind of masking, but then again, maybe you were just avoiding masks altogether and weren't aware that you had such an easy option.

So let me give a basic example.
Some people might call this the "painting with light" technique. I'm not a fan of the term, because it makes me think of Thomas Kinkade "painter of light." No offense if you're a fan of his (obviously a lot of people are or he wouldn't have stores in your local mall), but those cottages of his always have such intense light emanating from the windows that I can't help but think I am witnessing either an alien abduction or a terrible fire.

But back to "painting with light."
Let's take this pretty lame photo of the pont Alexandre III:

It's no prize to begin with, but if it was the only one you had and you wanted to make your friends green with envy over your trip to Paris then some retouching could help further your sadistic aims.

Now I'll add a curves layer:
Click on the curves icon at the bottom of your layers palette, or in CS4 you can click on the little "s-curve" icon.

Now let's lighten the whole image by taking that black dot and pulling it toward the upper left corner of the curves box:You will see the effect over the entire image because you haven't done any masking yet. With the curves adjustment layer, you automatically get a white mask, which means that any adjustments you make will be applied to the whole image. If you use a black paintbrush on the mask, you can selectively remove the effect. It's just a matter of preference, but I think it's way more fun to use a black mask and the selectively paint in the effect. The only advantage is psychological—brushing the effect in feels more magical whereas brushing the effect out just feels like cleaning up a mess (at least that's how I see it). So dump that white layer mask (click and drag on the mask part—NOT the curves side or you'll trash the whole layer) in the trash:

Yes. Delete. Now alt click on the mask icon to get a black layer mask.

You will just see the dark original...
but by taking a brush (b) and painting white in the mask you can add the light back in as you please. Use the right and left brackets to change the size of your brush and use them with shift to change the softness. For this kind of sloppy intuitive work, I set the brush hardness to zero to avoid strong edges to my changes. You can also adjust the opacity of your brush strokes up in the brush toolbar.

Here's some sloppy painting in action:

Hit the backslash key (\) to see your masking as a red overlay:

You can toggle back and forth or just paint in the overlay view, whatever works. Some more quick painting—and really, this is quick and sloppy but it works—and you've lightened up the bottom:

Remember that this isn't about making one uniform mask, you can change the opacity and make more subtle little blobs of change....

Keep following this process (adding adjustment layers and masking their effects) on as many layers as you want. For example, I think the sky could be less washed out, so I'll add another curves layer and pull the curve down toward the bottom right corner to make everything darker:

It looks like you just undid all of your previous work, but in a minute you'll be painting the effect in and out as above. Once again, I prefer to trash the white layer...

and change to a black layers mask as before.

Mask away....
Notice that I'm not trying to be super precise selections. Instead, I'll use a low opacity brush to feather the effect a little for smooth transitions. I will also take some of the effect off of the clouds to keep them fluffy white.

You can now see the two curves layers...
but since this is a picture of France, two just feels you say...conventional. Three is much more interesting.
A little more contrast selectively applied spices things up. And if you think you've gone too far with any one layer, you can always reduce the opacity.

By this point, I'm done, but you could add as many layers and adjustments as you want.
Finally, then, with no adjustments other than our three curves layers, you go from the "meh" photo...
to the "aahhhh" photo:

Closing words...
  • use this technique on anything from landscapes to people's faces
  • you don't need surgical precision to make artful changes
  • if you have never tried adjustment layers and masks, this "sloppy" intuitive way is the least intimidating way to start.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Quick tutorial about the Photoshop Quick Mask

Making perfect selections is difficult no matter what tool you use: the magnetic lasso, the magic wand, the quick selection tool, and many others, which is why the Quick Mask is your friend.

Just know up front that "Quick" is a cruel misuse of an adjective meant to taunt you as you painstakingly refine your selection. Best to overestimate how much work it will be to make a good selection, then you can be happy if it doesn't take too long.

Now that I've crushed your optimism, let's move on to a very basic look at the Quick Mask. The quick mask is a nifty red semi-opaque overlay (by default, change color or opacity by double clicking the quick mask icon) that lets you see what you have selected and allows you to make and refine selections. The quick mask tool icon is hiding down there at the bottom of the toolbar:

Or you can find it in the select menu:

Here is a typical way that you might use the quick mask. Let's say that you want to isolate some element of a photo from its background. In this case, let's say I want to take an ornamental ironwork detail, extract it from its background, and save it to use as part of my own brush set or for some compositing project.

For the sake of demonstrating how the quick mask can be used to refine a selection, I will make a really sloppy initial selection with the magnetic lasso tool:

Your selection would never be this bad, but I want to show you that even if it is, you can fix it in a very intuitive coloring-book sort of way. Without deselecting anything, hit "q" to enter quick mask mode (or select it from the toolbar or menu). The red mask lets you see which areas are selected and which are not.

Now that you're in quick mask mode, you can use the paint brush (or pencil or selection tools, but we'll stick with the paint brush here) to refine your selection. Hit "b" to get your brush. As you paint, you can increase and decrease the brush size as needed with the right (bigger) and left (smaller) bracket tools. You can adjust the hardness of the brush (for harder or softer edges) by holding shift while using the right (harder) and left (softer) bracket tools. You can hit "x" to toggle between black or white (i.e. masking or unmasking). Finally, you can toggle between quick mask mode and your selection (the "dancing ants") by hitting "q", but be careful not to click on the image (and accidentally deselect) when you're not in quick mask mode.

It's simple, but it takes time. Things that help: a steady hand, painting or drawing experience, a pen tablet, a zen-like mindset. Sadly, I have, at most, only two of those things.

A detail (above) shows the area that I am painting (with a black brush).

As I work, I hit "q" to check how the selection is progressing. Still work to be done...

I gradually work around the whole thing. Here's the improved version in quick mask mode:

And here is what it looks like when I hit "q" again to turn off the quick mask and go back to my selection.
It's still not perfect, but I have a movie to catch. Priorities. So with my selection still active, I copy it onto its own layer (Mac: Command–J; PC: Ctrl–J):

As you can see, there are still some parts with too much black around the edges. From here, I can use the erase tool to clean it up. If you do a better job up front than I did here, you might already be done.

If you have never used quick mask, just experiment with it (preferably on something with clean edges). Have fun. More work on selections/masking/compositing to come.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

15 of my favorite books

Consider this an addition to my previous post on collecting photography books. It's my my own personal list of favorites from books I have purchased in the past 6 months. The purpose of the post is to get you thinking about the variety of books out there—at least out there online, if not in most bookstores. My next post will be a masking tutorial, but today, let me share a few books.

Let me start with some of the more accessible books (i.e. crowd pleasing—and I don't mean that in a snobby way):

1. Abelardo Morell.
I absolutely love this monograph of Morell's work, and I can't believe you can get it for around $20 (I paid $50 with no regrets) on Amazon. In my opinion, Morell succeeds in finding beauty in the everyday better than anyone out there. Some works you appreciate on an intellectual level, others you appreciate on an emotional level. This one resonates equally well on both.

2. The Life of a Photograph, Sam Abell.
Another steal (only $26.40 on Amazon). A very accessible, honest, unpretentious book, this time from a National Geographic photographer. A variety of photographs from assignments all over the world, but this is nothing like a National Geographic magazine issue. Abell allows the reader into his thought process, which I always appreciate.

3. Retrospective, Michael Kenna
I saw the exhibit and was moved by the quality of Kenna's work. I told my students about it, they went and were equally moved. This is an absolutely beautiful catalog that now seems to have limited availability, so get your hands on one if you can. You won't regret it.

4. Doisneau. Paris.
After seeing "Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville" too many times at college art poster sales, I became an anti-Doisneau snob. This book reminded me that he had a great eye and a witty perspective. Another crowd pleaser.

5. Edouard Boubat.
Probably not even on most people's radar, Boubat was a contemporary of Doisneau with a tender, poetic outlook. The book itself is just beautiful. It's weighty, well printed, elegantly designed. As I type there is only 1 left in stock at Amazon (none at Photo-Eye). I'd grab it if I were you.

6. La terre des paysans, Raymond Depardon.
Equal parts text (often hand-written) and image, this book is like a diary of the rural culture that France values so much. In French.

7. Atget: Photographe de Paris.
If you don't already know about the "Books on Books" series, but it's genius. I want them all, but this is the only one I have right now. The idea is to make out of print and inaccessible books available to a wide public by reproducing the original page-by-page (not a facsimile, but it contains the book as well as useful critical information and a bibliography). Errata Editions also has a fantastic blog.

8. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans.
This is one of the must-have books of 2009. This hefty tome, put together as part of a major exhibition, examines one of the seminal works of photographic history. Read all about it in the links. I'm moving on...

9. Prenez soin de vous. Sophie Calle. (also available in English)
I did a post on this back in September. This probably marks the beginning of less-accessible territory in my book list, but accessible or not, most people will relate to the theme of breaking up. In this case, Calle offers up satisfying revenge by letting 107 women interpret (often brutally) the break-up letter. And with its shiny metallic pink binding, it will look perfect next to your Barbie's Dream House (pardon me, but bloody hell, $329 for a tacky plastic doll habitat? really? Forget what I said about collecting photobooks.)

10. American Power. Mitch Epstein.
Some people won't like the politics of this book. Others might not care to see photos of power plants and refineries. Nevertheless, this book makes it into a lot of "best of 2009" lists. The "BookTease" feature at Photo-Eye will help you see if it's right for you.

11. William Eggleston, 2 1/4.
This book falls into the not-so-accessible part of my list because I can imagine that the cover alone will leave some people indifferent. My copy is a 4th edition (2008)—an impressive number of printings for a photo book. I say, go ahead and judge a book by its cover. If you like it, the inside is even better. If you don't, I'm not sure you'll like my next suggestion either.

12. Lewis Baltz.
I'm a sucker for good packaging, so this was a favorite before I even opened the book. The clean black and white slipcase for this 3-volume set is so appealingly minimalist that I hate to hide it in my bookcase. On the inside, you will get classics from the "New Topographics" movement (incidentally, a new edition of the 1975 "New Topographics" exhibition catalog will probably make its way onto 2010 "best of" lists, but I prefer the Baltz set. I don't expect everyone to appreciate photo of tract houses and industrial parks, especially when done with a kind of aesthetically neutral objectivity, but for me, the photos make my neurons fire the way they do when I read a Borges story.

13. Pure Beauty. John Baldessari.
Not strictly photography, but rather contemporary art. A gorgeous book packed with images and critical essays, published to accompany an exhibition that I unfortunately missed by only two weeks at the Tate. I first encountered Baldessari's work on the Contacts dvd where he talks about (among other things) a project inspired by a map of California. He went to the spot pinpointed by each letter along the map (C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A), made the letter out of found objects on the spot, and photographed it. That's my kind of crazy project.

14. Dictionary of Water, Roni Horn.
And speaking of crazy about making a dictionary of water on the Thames? No essay. No explanation. Just page after 11x14 inch page of water. This is the kind of conceptual piece that makes people say "How in the world does one get to publish a lavish book of nothing but water?" Be Roni Horn, that's how.

15. Paris. New York. Shanghai. Hans Eijkelboom.
Three separate books stuck to each other with velcro. In the words of the official write-up, "a witty comparative study of three major contemporary metropolises, each selected for having been the cultural capital of its time--Paris during the nineteenth century; New York, the twentieth; and Shanghai, the twenty-first." The grids of people wearing the same striped shirt, the same camo pants, and so on, are hilarious and frightening. A biting satire of globalized culture.