Critics' choices for that special gift. Photography.

PHOTOGRAPHIC history is still discovering its domain. A relatively young field, it was nurtured by art history, from which photo historians borrowed ideas about masterworks, individual genius, and periodicity. But photography's extraordinary post-World War II popularity, which installed it in the universities, museums, and galleries, also raised questions about whether photography can be understood as an art, like painting. The lively question of what constitutes value in photography has been a boon to publishers, who have proved willing to produce books that expose the social uses of photographs never intended to rival painting. This year the work of little-known photographers like Solomon Butcher and J.E. Stimson has stood favorably against the production of art photographers like Edward Weston.

In Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, unnumbered pages, $28.95), John E. Carter chronicles the life of a failed homesteader who set out to rescue both his self-esteem and his family's fortune by making a photographic history of the yeoman farmers of Custer County, Neb. As Carter writes, ``aesthetics was not a central concern for him.'' Instead, Butcher worked in symbiotic relationship with his subjects, whom he allowed to stage their photographs. For Butcher's camera, emblems of pioneer aspirations - birdcages, fine furniture, family portraits, prized livestock - were arrayed in front of rough sod houses.

Similarly, Mark Junge has collected the work of J.E. Stimson: Photographer of the West (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 279 pp., $29.95). Based in Wyoming, Stimson was employed for a decade by the Union Pacific Railway, making views of the railroad workers and its rolling stock as well as the communities, farms, ranches, and mines developing along its route. In Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers (Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 224 pp., $19.95, cloth; $12.95, paper), Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe compiled a record of American ``black women who ventured into photography both pro-fessionally and artistically.'' Like Junge and Carter, Moutoussamy-Ashe examines the history and sociology of photography, setting aside the question of art.

Throughout his introductory test in August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century (the MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 431 pp., $55), Ulrich Keller balances Sander's critical documentary photographs between art theory and social psychology. Beginning in 1924, Sander attempted to create an archive of representative 20th-century Germans, ranging across all social classes and environments. Likely enough, Sander's images conflicted with Nazi doctrines of racial homogeny and purity. His first book was confiscated, and he lived under constant suspicion. More than 400 relentlessly clear-eyed depictions of grocers, farmers, servants, lawyers, students, artists, and itinerants, together with National Socialists and persecuted Jews, have been carefully reproduced from the project Sander never completed.

The Photographic Art of Hoyningen-Huene, by William A. Ewing (Rizzoli, New York, 248 pp., $50), is as indulgently lush as Sander's work is temperate. Like Sander, Hoyningen-Huene, an aristocratic Russian 'emigr'e, positioned his photography between art and society, between the exhilarating, heterodox art world of Paris in the 1930s and the vernacular surrealism we call advertising photography.

Margaret Bourke-White studied photography with Clarence White, the soft-focus art photographer, yet she developed her clean, quickly intelligible photojournalism, not from art, but from the dynamic rhythms and sleek contours of the machine age. ``The beauty of the past belongs to the past,'' she insisted.

Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography (Harper & Row, New York, 426 pp., $25.95), by Vicki Goldberg, is the result of the first extensive use of the Bourke-White papers, the rich collection of diaries and correspondence willed to Syracuse University along with negatives and unpublished personal photographs.

Did any write about pure art photography this year? Indeed they did, and about anti-art photography as well. Beaumont Newhall opens Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 191 pp., $50) with the persuasive assertion that ``Edward Weston was a great American artist who early in his life chose photography as his medium....'' Weston denied that the camera was yoked to a realistic depiction of the world. ``The willful distortion of fact,'' the unreality of photography, engrossed him - and it set Robert Frank's teeth on edge.

Frank's The Americans (Pantheon Books, New York, 177 pp., $35), originally published in 1959, has been the most influential photography book in the last 25 years. Its grainy, irreverent images dislocated photography's petulant attachment to the beauty of nature. They continue to influence every kid with a camera searching the streets for grab shots.

With Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia (Little, Brown & Co., 111 pp., $35), based on the retrospective exhibition of Frank's photographs, paintings, and films which is traveling the United States through 1987, the reissue of ``The Americans'' lets us reevaluate the work of a man who was more than the glib beat-hipster he has been made out to be.

We learn about photography more through books than through exhibitions. The happy repletion of diverse photography books masks what has been called the battle between the connoisseurs and contextualists, those who see photography as an art and those who embrace the highly problematic notion that the photograph is encoded with the imprint of the cultural conditions in which it was produced. The confrontation continues, although this year in publishing both sides are winners.

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