Coffee table books fall into two camps generally: those whose pressing seems to have been authorized merely to appease the desperate shopper who has given as a gift the Random-Bath-Stuff-Basket far too many times… and those with real artistic merit. To help you find those gems among the junk, here are suggestions of my own as well as recommendations from friends and colleagues.
1. Visions of Wright by Farrell Grehan and Terrence Riley
This book explores in vivid photographs and interesting information the career of one of the twentieth century’s most innovative architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. My favorite photographs are of his masterpiece, Fallingwater, shot in each of the seasons. The transformation is simply unbelievable.
2. Virtue and Beauty Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women Edited by David Allen Brown
This celebration of the female (and a few select males) in portraiture is lush and lively with plenty of eye-opening historical asides that will teach you how to “read” Renaissance art … things like the symbolism of jewelry, clothing, and hairstyles all had special significance. Artists included in the collection are Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Verrocchio, and Leonardo da Vinci.
3. Days of Hope and Dreams: An Intimate Portrait of Bruce Springsteen by Frank Stefanko
Bruce Springsteen has been a staple of rock and roll for over thirty years. The photographer and author who penned this insightful and visually-engaging portrait of his long-time friend takes a look at “The Boss” at various stages in his career and offers some behind-the-scenes information about the man and his music. Introduced to one another by Patti Smith, Stefanko and Springsteen worked together for five years. Stefanko shot the covers of two of Springsteen’s most legendary albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.
4. The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau by Jacques-Yves Cousteau
The ocean is still a great mystery, with much that has never been explored or discovered. However, the grandfather of maritime exploration, Jacques Cousteau, takes readers on a journey of beauty and surprise that many have never seen. Several readers commented that this book, first printed in 1973, was a childhood favorite that would keep them reading and looking for hours. Why not let your own child, or your inner-child/adventurer, do the same?
5. A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 by Annie Leibovitz
Chances are, you are familiar with the work of Annie Leibovitz, even if you do not know her name. She has photographed more celebrities artistically than any other living photographer. Those who have posed for Leibovitz include Johnny Cash, Nicole Kidman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Keith Richards, Michael Jordan, Joan Didion, R2-D2, Patti Smith, Nelson Mandela, Jack Nicholson, and William Burroughs, just to name a few. Her work is always sharp and compelling.
6. Desert to Dream: A Dozen Years of Burning Man Photography by Barbara Traub
Since 1986, a counterculture festival has been held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and from its humble beginnings (the first event took place on a beach in San Francisco and only a few dozen people attended), Burning Man now attracts some 50,000+ revelers. Burning Man celebrates art in all of its various incarnations and for the last ten years, Barbara Traub has captured the spirit of each unique gathering in her photographs and memories, as well as interviews with participants and organizers.
7. Lincoln, Life-Size by Philip B. Kunhardt III (et al).
History and political buffs alike will be more than pleased with this beautiful book on one of our most beloved presidents. The book spans twenty years of Lincoln’s life, from 1846-1865. During those twenty years, the toll of the Civil War ages the man considerably. Renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer calls this collection “the foremost family of Lincoln pictorial scholarship.”
8. Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress by Harry Katz (et al).
You may be surprised to learn that it is not the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown that houses the largest collection of baseball memorabilia; it’s the Library of Congress. Any baseball fan will be delighted with this collection of cards, advertisements, and rarely seen photographs. There is a reason this game is still called “America’s pastime” despite other sports that garner more income and viewers. Explore both our past and remember why.
9. Herblock: The Life and Work of the Great Political Cartoonist Edited by Harry L. Katz
The remarkable career of Herbert L. Block, or “Herblock” as he was affectionately known, is remarkable for a number of reasons, first of which is the artists’ longevity. He published from 1929 through the first few years of the presidency of George W. Bush. Secondly, he is the most famous political cartoonist of all time, other than, perhaps, Thomas Nast. Finally, while many political cartoons lose their “punch” after a certain point in history has past and become largely irrelevant, much of Herblock’s work still finds ground. Journalist Haynes Johnson explains the reason in his introduction: “[Herblock] always stood for the underdog, and for the everyman and everywomen among us trapped in, or frustrated by, the ever more complicated nature of modern life.”
10. Coco Chanel: Her Style and Her Life by Janet Wallach
There is so much that is enchanting about Coco Chanel, whether it be her rags-to-riches story, her captivation of much of the fashion world of the twentieth century, her fierce independence, or her bewitching beauty. Wallach’s beautiful homage shows the couture icon in all her glories, both public and private.