A library of classic photography books in a single volume

This book is an unexpected delight. Its genesis was an exhibit of photography books this fall at Andrew Roth's rare book gallery in New York City. It served as a catalog for the exhibit, but far exceeds this initial utilitarian function and even eclipses the exhibit itself.

Each of the 101 chosen books is described and illustrated on two or more large pages, including the book cover and a small selection of pages and photos. There are six longer essays on the history, printing, and exhibit of photography books.

But it is the shorter essays - 200 to 400 words on each book - that steal the show. Each is a brief story of creation, seldom pedantic, always informed, and often lively. They tell us about the photographs, the photographer, the book design, and the historical and cultural context from which all of this sprang. Written by Vince Aletti, photography critic for The Village Voice, and veteran writer and critic David Levi Strauss, none of the 101 descriptions is overly technical or esoteric.

The books are presented chronologically; the first is the classic 1907 volume of Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian." The 101st is David LaChapelle's 1996 "gleefully over the top" "LaChapelle Land."

In between, you find such icons of 20th-century photo publishing as Cartier-Bresson's "The Decisive Moment" and Richard Avedon's "Observations." Others, such as "Suburbia," Bill Owens's portrait of middle America in the early 1970's, or Lewis Baltz's "The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California," you may be seeing for the first time.

You can read about these books and photographers in any order - I can't be the only reader who likes to graze around in a collection like this. But after digesting one here and one there, you will begin to make comparisons and connections. Three of the books feature photographs from the American Depression era - Walker Evans's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," Margaret Bourke-White's "You Have Seen their Faces," and Dorothea Lange's "An American Exodus." By seeing them close to each other, you can understand the photographers' different visions and originality.

Then there's Alexey Brodovitch, the Russian exile art director of Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958, who virtually created our concept of the fashion photography magazine. He is represented by "Ballet," a "still ... radical, still ... exciting" 1945 collection of 104 dance photographs. Next, you learn that he designed two of the other books on this list - Avedon's "Observations" and André Kertész's "Day of Paris." And on you go, wandering through the list, making connections.

The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century

Edited by Andrew Roth

PPP Editions 306 pp., $85

Tom Toth is the Monitor's photo editor.

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