On The Importance of Street Photography Books

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My favorite photography book, Magnum Contact Sheets.

I think one of the best ways to become better in street photography is to look at a lot of great street photography books. Books by the masters. Books by Magnum Photographers.

From the point of this writing, I have been shooting street photography for 7 years. However it wasn’t until around 3 years ago that I started to seriously read photography books.

I had several problems:

1. I didn’t own any photography books

Photography books always seemed to be too expensive. However ironically enough, I would have no problem saving up to make a $500 purchase on a new lens (whereas even great photo books are around $50).

2. I didn’t value the importance of photography books

I would just look at photography books as a bunch of photos (but in a book). I thought to myself: why waste money on books when I could see them online? I didn’t understand what made them so special and unique.

3. I didn’t analyze the photo books

I didn’t pay special attention to the sequencing and editing of the images– and how a book was laid out, how certain images were paired together, why the book was vertical or horizontal or square, etc.

The change

Robert Frank's "The Americans" - One of the most important books for a street photographer
Robert Frank’s “The Americans” – One of the most important books for a street photographer. Accompanied by “Looking In” (an analysis of “The Americans”)

I’m not exactly sure when I started to purchase photography books. I think it was because I was first inspired by my friend Charlie Kirk who owns hundreds of photo books and told me the importance of purchasing photography books (rather than just seeing them online).

I took his advice, and bought all the photo books that interested me (and what I could afford). When they came in the mail, I was blown away.

I had been looking at photos online for so long that I forgot how beautiful they looked in print (compared from my monitor). The photos had depth, texture, and a layer of complexity that screens couldn’t render. I could hold the book like a physical object, flip through them slowly, and savor them. I loved the weight of the books, the dimensions, as well as the smell of each page. It was a total sensory experience (not just seeing the photos with my eyes) but experiencing the images in my hands.

I then went on a buying spree. I researched all the photo books that one needed to get– and purchased all of them (new or used) until my bank account started to run dry. I would then earn more money, and invest more money into them.

At the time of this writing, I own over a hundred photo books with books ranging from around $5 (I got good deals at used bookstores) to up to $300 (Steidl-published books, William Eggleston’s “Chromes” is one of my favorites). I don’t have a large library of photo books compared to other photographers (apparently Bruce Gilden owns thousands of photo books) but I wanted to share some my experiences. This is what I learned:

1. I never regretted spending money on books

William Eggleston's "Chromes" - expensive when I bought it (~$300) but now selling over $500 (books are a great financial investment too).
William Eggleston’s “Chromes” – expensive when I bought it (~$300) but now selling over $500 (books are a great financial investment too).

I have often regretted spending money on many things in my life. For clothes I rarely ended up wearing, for cameras that or lenses I would purchase, or that overpriced chicken sandwich I had for lunch.

Last year, I spent around $4000 in photo books. But I found it to be the best investment I have ever made.

The beauty of photo books is that they taught me to better appreciate the work of photographers– how they edited, sequenced, and paired their images together. Many of the best photos that photographers make are often hard to find on the internet– and only published in books.

Spending more time looking at great photos also helped me better understand what made a great photo– and inspired me to take far better photos as well.

Nowadays I spend far less time on Flickr looking at street photographs, and most of my time looking at the photo books in my collection– where I get the greatest sense of inspiration from.

2. Pairing and sequencing matter

Some of my favorite black and white books. Bruce Davidson's
Some of my favorite black and white books. Bruce Davidson’s “Black and White“, Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies,” and Anders Petersen’s “Soho

As mostly an online street photographer, most of my work goes on my website or social media.

One of the unique properties of a book is how important editing, sequencing, and pairing matter.

For example, whenever I am looking through a photography book, here are some of the questions that go through my mind:

  • Why did this photographer choose this image as his starting image? What significance does it have to the photographer? Is he/she trying to start off the book with a strong or a quiet image? What tone does it set for the rest of the book?
  • Why did the photographer choose to put these two photos next to each other? Do they complement each other– or are opposites that directly contradict each other? Is a weaker image paired with a stronger image to make the stronger image look even stronger? Or are they two really strong images on one page to give me a certain feeling or impact?
  • Why did the photographer choose to have certain pages of the book have two photos side-by-side, while certain pages have one blank page and a photo only one one side? This is probably a clue of the photographer to tell me: hey stupid, this photo is really important– focus on it!
  • Why did the photographer choose to make certain photos smaller and other photos larger? Is it because they think the larger photos should be paid more attention to? Or is it that the large photos are stronger photos? Or perhaps it is the other way? The weaker photos are printed large because they are weaker images?
  • Why did the photographer choose to show titles or captions (or not show them?) If a book has no captions (until the very end) is it because they wanted me to just enjoy the flow of images and not worry about the locations? If a photographer decided to show captions– how much information do they show? Do the photos have titles, or do they just show location? Or do they show dates?

By asking yourself some of these questions you can start to think more analytically about the photo books rather than simply passively reading them. Also by reading into the books, you can better understand how to perhaps create and edit/sequence a photo book of your own.

3. Spend more time with fewer books

The most in-depth books on Lee Friedlander.
The most in-depth books on Lee Friedlander.

I don’t believe one can ever own too many photography books. After all, the photo books you haven’t read are intrinsically more valuable than the books you have already read.

However don’t simply collect photo books for the sake of it. To see whoever owns more photography books is not a contest. Only purchase photo books which interest you and you feel will help you somehow as a photographer. Books that inspire you, books that have creative sequencing/pairing, or books that you would like to create.

I also think it is important to spend a lot of time with each photography book and at the end of the day, less is certainly more. For example, it is better to own 10 photography books and know them inside and out (and read them a hundred times) rather than own 100 photography books and read each only once or twice (I am guilty of this).

If I look at my photo book collection, there are probably around 10 books which have strongly influenced me in a profound way which I always go back to. If you don’t own many photo books and need a starting point– some of my personal favorite photo books are the following:

  1. Magnum Contact Sheets (it is incredible to look into the mind of these master photographers).
  2. Jason Eskanazi: “Wonderland” (I love his storytelling and sequencing abilities, as well as the strength of the overall images).
  3. Martin Parr: “The Last Resort” (One of Parr’s finest works, with great energy, emotion, and colors).
  4. Josef Koudelka: “Gypsies” (Incredible project by Koudelka, over 10 years of living and traveling with the Roma people. His compositions are some of the finest I have seen as well.)
  5. William Eggleston: “Chromes” (3-Box set of William Eggleston’s finest Kodachrome and other color slide film photos. Some of the most beautiful prints I have seen in a book, and the colors warm me up whenever I need inspiration.
  6. Robert Frank: “The Americans” (A photo-book that every street photographer needs to own. The somber mood and societal critique resonates with me and is one of the classics).
  7. Bruce Davidson: “Subway” (Some of the finest color photo books I own. Incredible printing by Steidl, and the intensity of the portraits of the people he captures in the Subway are remarkable. I wish to create a book even half as good as this one day).
  8. Lars Tunbjork: “Office” (It inspired a lot of my current “Suits” project- and love his surrealism and the chaos and silence he captures in these barren empty office spaces).
  9. Bystander: A history of Street Photography (Not a photography book per-se, but I always go back to it for reference regarding the history of street photography).
  10. Alex Webb: “The Suffering of Light” (One of the finest contemporary street photography books in color. Some of Webb’s best work in his entire working career- and the colors are phenomenal).

Conclusion

steidl
One of the best films on the behind-the-scenes of bookmaking: “How to Make a Book with Steidl.”

Photo books are a subject that I am still learning and trying to better understand. However what I can certainly say is that studying photography books has been one of my best teaching tools – and I feel they are the best way to experience a photographer’s work (even when compared to galleries, exhibitions, or online). I hope to write some more articles revolving around photography books in the near future.

As a concluding point, I recommend you to invest more time and resources in photography books. You don’t even have to buy them– visit the local library or photography bookstore and spend hours there- consuming these great images from the past and present.

How to Make a Book with Steidl

If you want a great in-depth behind-the-scenes look into bookmaking, check out the documentary “How to Make a Book with Steidl.” Above is a trailer for the film, and you can see it on Netflix here.

15 thoughts on “On The Importance of Street Photography Books”

  1. Diarmuid McDonald

    I ordered my first Photography book last week, Magnum Revolution: 65 years of fighting for freedom. Am still waiting for it to arrive but I can’t wait. I get easily distracted on the internet so it will be good to get stuck into this distraction free! :)

  2. Living in Saudi Arabia, good photography books will always be a challenge to get due to shipping costs (weight), and censorship (gets confiscated or pages torn). Buying ebooks is usually the remaining option, but I’ll never enjoy the beauty of the printed one.

    I found some photography books when I visited Dubai, but they were a bit expensive for me. Example: around $300 for Steve McCurry’s book.. I respect the man’s talent & experience, but still I cannot justify it.

  3. I always get photo books for Xmas and my birthday. I also leave strong hints about particular books I want! My latest purchase was Taxi Driver printed by Taschen. The photographer is Steve Schapiro. I recommend it.
    Nick

  4. I only have one book from your list of ten. Yet I have about a hundred if not more photo books. Lists can be dangerous. Especially short ones.

  5. Pingback: The great genre debate: The influence others have on Street Photography - fixedfocallife | fixedfocallife

  6. Thank you for another great post. I am off to amazon to buy a couple of small books to start with.

    Part of the appeal about books for me is that I am trying to ween myself off the computer as much as possible.

  7. Pingback: 6 Lessons I’ve Learned from The Photobook: A History Volume III (3) by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger | JanNews Blog

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