Books That Capture Life in the Fast Lens

Some of the year's best `photo albums' range from classical to topical

NATURE, photographer anthologies, travel diaries, and retrospectives abound in this season's crop of photography books. Monitor director of photography Neal J. Menschel, design director John Van Pelt, and photographers Robert Harbison and Bill Grant collaborated in selecting and presenting the best of the bunch.

The book in this genre that comes closest to inspiring awe is not purely photography. Two Lives: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz - A Conversation in Paintings and Photographs, edited by Alexandra Arrowsmith and Thomas West, essays by Belinda Rathbone, Roger Shattuck, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner (HarperCollins, 143 pp., $40), uses juxtaposition to illuminate the relationship of modern art's most famous married couple. The book pairs paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. The accompanying essays explain that these pairs are not mere artifice, but reveal an artistic progression based on O'Keeffe's and Stieglitz's affection and their extraordinary creative collaboration.

Two books present photography from an even more personal standpoint: Pictures From Home, by Larry Sultan (Abrams, 127 pp., $39.95), and Flesh & Blood - Photographers' Images of Their Own Families, edited by Alice Rose George, Abigail Heyman, and Ethan Hoffman, with essays by Ann Beattie and Andy Grundberg (Picture Project, 192 pp., $50). Sultan's book is one photographer's devoted chronicle of his parents and their lives. The pictures are interwoven with text that amplifies, among other things, his paren ts' difficulties with being the subject of his project. He uses old home-movie stills, family snapshots, and portraits to compose a tale of American life at once densely personal and broadly familiar.

"Flesh & Blood" contains selections of Larry Sultan's work and of 65 other photographers. The styles of Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, and William Wegman are recognizable, even in their candid family snapshots. The frankness of these pictures reveals not only a startling spectrum of humanity, but also the special bittersweet quality pictures can have.

Three important books fall into the portfolio or retrospective category. In The New York School, Photographs 1936-1963 (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 403 pp., $75), editor Jane Livingston puts forth the idea of a defined "New York" style. Her selections in this lavish and monumental collection, with the accompanying text, support the premise.

The volume includes the work of 16 photographers, including Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank. Each is represented by about a dozen images, portraying the common vision of photographers facing life "straight on" with a honed and gritty honesty. This is classic "street level" New York at its best.

Heroes and Anti-Heroes - Magnum Images (Random House, 231 pp., $65), introduced by John Updike, is mostly a book of pictures of famous people taken by the famous photographers of the Magnum agency. Among them are: Charlie Chaplin, by Eugene Smith; Princess Grace of Monaco, by Elliott Erwitt; and Albert Einstein, by Ernst Haas. Many of these nearly iconic personalities are brought down to earth, and others somehow elevated, through the lenses of these remarkable photojournalists. John Updike's rambling co mmentary helps define "heroes" and "anti-heroes."

Seeing Straight, edited by Therese Thau Heyman, essays by Mary Street Alinder, Therese Thau Heyman, and Naomi Rosenblum (The Oakland Museum, 158 pp., $29.95), is a collection of photographs by 11 well-known Western photographers, including Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Willard Van Dyke, who led a revolt against the style of photography called pictorialism. With their "straight," unaltered photos and printing, they revolutionized the concept of photography-as-art in the early '30s. The 80 beautiful lase r-scanned duotones create a sense of what these photographers stood for, while the comprehensive text gives insights into their thoughts - they rejected the premise that photographs had to emulate painting.

Standing out from most odyssey publications is From Alice to Ocean, photographs by Rick Smolan, text by Robyn Davidson (Addison-Wesley, 223 pp., $49.95), which is about Davidson's 1979 trek across Australia's outback from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. She traveled 1,700 miles on foot, accompanied by four camels, a dog, and for periods, photographer Smolan. The 170 photographs are richly reproduced, artistic, and solidly journalistic. This is a real story: It has a beginning, middle, and end. The tho ughtful and insightful text, excerpted from Robyn Davidson's book "Tracks," takes readers on an inspiring adventure of internal and personal growth.

Adopting a form of photo project pioneered by Rick Smolan, A Day in the Life of Hollywood (Collins, 224 pp., $45) is a behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood film industry during one 24-hour period - May 20, 1992 - by 75 top professional photographers. Six short essays are based on interviews with Hollywood "insiders," and every photo has a substantial and detailed caption. Rather than focusing on celebrities, the book offers a glimpse into the Hollywood we never see. Missing is a sense of everyday Holl ywood street life, but this beautiful volume is one any film buff would love to study.

Exposure, by the editors of Outside magazine, with an introduction by Robert Redford (Simon & Schuster, 145 pp., $45), is an exquisite collection of color photos featured in the magazine. The book exhibits a range of viewpoints and techniques - from the blurred, frenzied swirl of mallard ducks by photographer Peter Driver to photos of athletes appearing to defy gravity. There is humor, too, such as a photo of a surrealistic orange bulldog guarding the presidents at Mt. Rushmore by photographer Chip Simmo ns.

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