People not only want to look at great art—they also want to possess some part of it. It’s the reason you might leave a museum with an exhibition poster, calendar, or postcard. It also explains, as Anne Midgette recently pointed out in the Washington Post, why you might load up your iPhone with photos of a museum’s Picassos or Monets. “Seeing art that moves you awakens the lover’s sense of Mine,” she writes. Illustrated books are an important extension of that need to own art and make it familiar and comfortable. That desire makes them particularly special holiday gifts, and the same is true for illustrated books on photography, history, and fashion.
This fall there are many, many standouts. Below, we take a close look at a dozen gems, and offer 20 more as Very Honorable Mentions.
American artist Walter De Maria, who died on July 25 at age 77, once said that an artwork’s impact should be “comparable to that of a major natural event, such as an earthquake or hurricane.” Great site-specific art can have that effect, particularly land works such as De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), a huge stainless steel grid of lightning rods located in New Mexico’s remote western desert. For a rare chance to view such monumental art in a single venue, there’s Art & Place: Site-Specific Art of the Americas (Phaidon, $79.95). Found throughout North and South America, the represented works range across all periods, styles, and forms—from ancient rock and cave art in Bolivia to minimalist installations and public sculpture in New York. Sure, a photograph will never fully convey what must be the total, visceral experience of Mark Rothko’s Chapel or Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork. Still, one can feel, if not the earthquake, surely a tremor.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) produced work at an astonishing rate. He completed roughly 800 paintings in the space of a decade. But Van Gogh Repetitions (Phillips Collection, dist. by Yale University Press, $50), which accompanies the current exhibition at the Phillips Washington, D.C., shows that the artist’s process could, in fact, be methodical. It’s the first to focus on what the Dutch painter called his “repetitions,” or variants of certain compositions, some first done plein air, then repeated indoors for a more controlled result. For example, The Large Plane Trees and The Road Meanders—a repetition of the former—were both completed in 1889, and each depicts the same bucolic tree-lined road in southern France, yet the differences are unmistakable. The book presents reproductions of these fetching works, as well as essays from art curators and conservators that wrestle with their difficult implications.
Unlike his friend van Gogh, the painter and printmaker Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) seldom showed any interest in nature. He preferred the irrepressible culture of brothels and nightclubs in Paris’s rollicking bohemian district, Montmartre. He is one of several artists featured in Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880–1910 (Skira Rizzoli, $75), a catalogue accompanying a traveling exhibition that celebrates the avant-garde’s defiance of the sniffing art establishment, and the explosion of visual culture in fin de siècle Paris. Artists such as Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Mary Cassatt, and Félix Vallotton are featured through an elaborate illustrated program that includes paintings, watercolors, and drawings, but also ephemera from circuses, theaters, and cabarets.
History is sometimes best told through the artifacts it leaves behind. As for the Civil War, the Smithsonian Institution’s artifacts can communicate more than any textbook ever could, from a violin carried by a Union soldier to the canvas hoods forced on Lincoln’s assassination conspirators. These and other haunted relics from the antebellum period through Reconstruction are found in Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection (Smithsonian, $40). Museum curators each selected and wrote about a specific object from the collections, generating a total of 150 entries. You might call a number of these objects works of art, particularly the pottery of David Drake, the Edgefield, S.C., slave who inscribed witty couplets and short poems onto his vessels, such as “Another trick is worst than this/Dearest Miss, spare me a kiss.”
Walker Evans has received plenty of attention since New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened “Walker Evans American Photographs” in July. Less talked about has been Evans’s colleague, the photographer Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), who also worked for the government’s Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. In anticipation of a documentary on Lange in PBS’s American Masters series, due out in 2014, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (Chronicle Books, $50) showcases the photographer’s recognizable work—Lange’s shots of migrant farmworkers are iconic, of course, particularly Migrant Mother (1936)—but also less familiar images from her world travels in the 1950s. It also includes a biographical essay by Lange’s goddaughter, Elizabeth Partridge, the author most recently of Marching for Freedom.
A photo-essayist for Life magazine and then at the Magnum photo agency, W. Eugene Smith (1918–1978) was also a profound documentary photographer from the last century. Beginning in 1959, he worked tirelessly to create a retrospective photo book for his dramatic work. Radical in structure and design, the result, in 1961, was dismissed by publishers as an impossible sell. Now, five decades later, the University of Texas’ two-volume facsimile of The Big Book ($185) is likely to be the surest proof of the photographer’s powerful skill and vision. A supplemental third volume includes essays by scholars at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, where Smith’s original manuscript is held, and by the art critic John Berger.
Smith took many photographs of New Yorkers from his Sixth Avenue loft. More recently, photographer Brandon Stanton has warmly documented New York’s people since 2010. Humans of New York (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99), based on his celebrated blog, with a million followers and counting, presents Stanton’s Whitmanian portrait of the city’s multitudes in pictures as well as words. (Stanton often asks his subjects questions such as, “What was the saddest moment of your life?” The answers can be deeply rewarding.) It should double as a street-fashion book—nobody dresses quite as well as New Yorkers. The book is already a bestseller.
Until recently Robert Indiana hated New York. The peripheral pop artist couldn’t control the success of his “LOVE” image, first introduced on a MoMA Christmas card in 1966, or the avalanche of unauthorized reproductions that followed. Consequently, New York’s art world lost all interest in the artist. But a current retrospective at the Whitney Museum, and its catalogue of the same title, Robert Indiana: Beyond Love (dist. Yale University Press, $60), strive to make up for that. Full of illustrations and the latest scholarship, including transcripts from a roundtable with experts such as Thomas Crow and Robert Storr, the book attempts to take “LOVE” out of the picture and present a full, nuanced view of Indiana’s career as an incisive explorer of language, personal history, and American culture.
The career of Lee Miller (1907–1977) continues to be elaborated upon as well. Miller was a well-known WWII photographer and a recognized Man Ray collaborator, but was also a correspondent for Vogue and worked a lot in fashion. Becky E. Conekin’s Lee Miller in Fashion (Monacelli Press, $45) considers this seldom-discussed work that Miller completed, first as a model, then as a fashion photographer. (She once told a reporter, “I would rather take a picture than be one.”) The artist’s previously unpublished fashion photography should be a boon to admirers of Miller and anybody interested in fashion history.
There are several poets who have had their visual art collected into books, including Elizabeth Bishop. Now add to that list Sylvia Plath. Frieda Hughes, the poet’s daughter, provides the introduction to Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Harper, $25.99). Plath, who studied art at Smith College, completed these pen-and-ink illustrations between 1955 and 1957, around the time that she married Ted Hughes. Plath’s intricate studies of churches, trees, and Parisian rooftops are sure to recall the ferocious precision of her late poems.
George Hurrell (1909–1992) wasn’t called the “Rembrandt of Hollywood” for nothing. A shrewd handler of light and shadow, the glamour portraitist transformed such film stars as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford into slick princes and glowing seductresses. Mark A. Vieira’s George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925–1992 (Running Press, $60), with a foreword by Sharon Stone, showcases over 400 of these luminous photographs (many previously unpublished) by the man who systematically changed how the movie industry represents and sells celebrity.
Vanity Fair published Hurrell’s portraits frequently. From the time of its inception in 1913 until its suspension in 1936, and since its rebirth in the 1980s, the magazine has published nearly everything striking and noteworthy. Vanity Fair 100 Years: From Jazz Age to Our Age (Abrams, $65), edited by Graydon Carter, who has managed the magazine since 1992, lavishly consolidates the work that has defined the magazine over the years—including the photography of Edward Steichen, Man Ray, and Annie Leibovitz, the illustrations of Miguel Covarrubias and Constantin Alajálov, and the writings of Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Hitchens.
Natural Histories: Extraordinary Birds. Paul Sweet. Sterling Signature, $50 (144p). An exploration of birds across the globe with in-depth essays and 40 frameable prints.
Miles Davis: The Collected Artwork. Scott Gutterman. Insight Editions, $50 (204p). A showcase of visual work by the versatile American jazz artist.
The Vatican: All the Paintings: The Complete Collection of Old Masters, Plus More than 300 Sculptures, Maps, Tapestries, and Other Artifacts. Anja Grebe. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $75 (512 p). An ambitious overview of the Vatican’s historic art collection, with over 1,206 artworks represented, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do. Colin McDowell. Phaidon, $100 (272p). A leading scholar takes an extensive look at how fashion evolved over time.
Inside the Red Border: A History of Our World Told Through the Pages of Time. Editors of Time magazine. Time, $34.95 (272p). Past cover images and articles from the magazine afford a window into history, with commentary by current editors.
Historic Heston. Heston Blumenthal. Bloomsbury, $200 (416p). Britain’s celebrity chef reimagines old recipes from the medieval to late-Victorian periods, with illustrations by Dave McKean.
The Book: A Global History. Michael F. Suarez, S.J., and H.R. Woudhuysen. Oxford University Press, $45 (672p). A global survey of the book’s history, illustrated with reproductions, diagrams, and typographical examples.
Heartland: The Plains and the Prairies. David Plowden. Norton, $75 (120p). Reverent photographs of the vast Midwestern landscape.
21st Century Design: New Design in the Post-Millennium Age. Marcus Fairs. Goodman Fiell, $39.95 (464p). An up-to-date survey of contemporary design, exploring the impact of culture and technology.
Primates of the World: An Illustrated Guide. Jean-Jacques Petter and François Desbordes, trans. by Robert Martin. Princeton University Press, $29.95 (192p). Fully illustrated guide to over 300 species of primates with the latest info on origins and evolution.
Labyrinths: The Art of the Maze. Giovanni Mariotti and Luisa Biondetti, edited by Franco Maria Ricci. Rizzoli, $85 (224p). Labyrinths of all shapes and sizes are surveyed in the Italian publisher Ricci’s first book in 10 years.
The Golden Age of Maritime Maps: When Europe Discovered the World. Catherine Hofmann, Helene Richard, and Emmanuelle Vagnon. Firefly Books, $49.95 (256 p). Experts outline the history and styles of the fascinating portolan chart.
India: In Word and Image. Eric Meola. Welcome Books, $60 (288p). A photographic voyage through colorful Mumbai, Rajasthan, Agra, and other locations, now revised and expanded.
Capone: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Most Notorious Gangster. Chicago Tribune. Agate Midway, $29.95 (144p). From the Tribune’s archives, these pictures (many previously unpublished) document Chicago’s organized-crime lord.
Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries. Peter Szego, Robert Shaw. Hal Leonard Books, $50 (360p). A look at how the pioneer American guitar maker transformed a European import.
Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic. John Fricke. Down East Books, $30 (168p). The history of Oz told through its iconic memorabilia.
The Big Picture: America in Panorama. Josh Sapan. Princeton Architectural Press, $29.95 (144 p). Explores the rise of group panoramic photography in America beginning in the late 19th century.
Tree Houses. Edited by Loft Publications. Skyhorse Publishing, $50 (512p). More than 50 examples of structures built on, or hanging from, trees, with 457 color photographs.
Great Escapes. Lonely Planet, $39.99 (320p). A celebration of travel with a look at the world’s best getaways.
The World Is Round. Gertrude Stein, illus. by Clement Hurd. Harper Design, $19.99 (128p). A reissue of the modernist writer and poet’s children’s book, with the original illustrations by Hurd (Good Night Moon) and additional commentary by Thacher Hurd.