It’s not unusual for highly coveted works of art to sell for tens of millions of dollars; the Francis Bacon triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, for example, recently topped $140 million. While most people lack the resources necessary to acquire even a lesser-known piece—or a couture gown or a 15th-century botanical illustration—books showcasing such works are more accessible.
These books, some of whose prices run into the high double or triple figures, can still be a bit of an indulgence—which is why they’re perfect for the gift-giving season. We highlight 12 worthy picks, followed by another 20 notable titles.
“Take your pleasure seriously,” Charles Eames once said, and the editors of Eames: Beautiful Details (Ammo, $200) took heed. Eames and his wife, Ray, were postwar designers of furniture, industrial objects, film, and fine arts, most famous for the molded plywood and leather lounge chair and ottoman first produced in 1956 and still popular today. This slipcase-covered monograph presents rarely seen work and artifacts, including toy masks of horses, modernist covers of Art & Architecture magazine, and photographs from family dinners. Interspersed with quotes from the Eameses and their colleagues, the collection celebrates the couple’s philosophy of bringing play to the pragmatics of design.
Opening with the grassy, lizard-populated Alice Springs Desert Park in Australia and closing on Chilean architect Juan Grimm’s cliffside sweep of orchids and cacti, The Gardener’s Garden (Phaidon, $79.95) surveys more than 250 gardens in some 1,200 photos. Formal, composed expanses such as those surrounding Sanssouci, the summer retreat of Frederick the Great, the 18th-century Prussian king, are juxtaposed with more idiosyncratic spreads, among them filmmaker Derek Jarman’s (1942–1994) English seaside ramble, each accompanied by a brief guide to the practical elements of its design.
The Separate Cinema Archives in Rhinebeck, N.Y., comprise more than 25,000 posters and promotional items from African-American film history. Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art (Reel Art Press, $75) presents highlights from that collection, promoting Jazz Age films like 1929’s St. Louis Blues and the blaxploitation flicks of the 1970s, up to 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Cinema scholars provide historical context, emphasizing, as Spike Lee writes in his afterword, that “these movies/posters tell the world about the duality that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about—we are Black and American,” adding that they show “where we have been, where we are now, and where we might be heading to.”
The 700 photographs of The World Atlas of Street Photography (Yale Univ. Press, $45) represent the work of more than 100 international artists—documentarians, conceptual artists, and sculptors—who are inspired by cityscapes and their inhabitants. Among the photographers included are Joel Meyerowitz, who counterfeited daily worker passes to record images of New York City’s Ground Zero following the September 11 terrorist attacks; Nontsikelelo Veleko, who documents the fringe fashion choices of passersby in Johannesburg; and Naoya Hatakeyama, who captures Tokyo’s rain-splattered windows.
Cy Twombly (1928–2011) came to fame in the late 1950s for his large paintings rendered in gray and white tones with occasional splashes of color, filled with scribble-like lines and scrawled phrases from literature and mythology. He went on to earn numerous prizes, most notably the Praemium Imperiale, yet remains less familiar to the general public than many of his abstract expressionist colleagues. The Essential Cy Twombly (D.A.P., $75), compiled by Nicole Del Roscio, Twombly’s longtime companion, presents paintings as well as rarely shown photographs and sculptures from an artist who spent hours drawing in the dark to develop his shaky, spontaneous lines.
Susan Middleton dedicated seven years to photographing spindly barnacles, diaphanous jellyfish, and bright pink snails. Their isolated images, accented by plain white or black backgrounds, are collected in Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life (Abrams, $50), and are, in Middleton’s words, “not about conveying information.... They are meant to be felt.” Middleton worked alongside research expeditions of marine biologists in Hawaii, the Central Pacific, and San Juan Island, Wash., to document the invertebrates, a classification that includes 98% of the known animal species on Earth.
David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Divine, and Grace Jones are among those depicted wearing their chic best in Seventies Glamour (Dey Street, $40), collected by photography historian David Wills. The images selected favor moments of gender transgression, a defining element of the decade’s glitzy and defiant version of elegance: the camera lingers over transgender Warhol superstar Candy Darling, as well as model Christie Brinkley, whose Vogue shoot shows her restraining a barking Doberman.
In 2007, former nanny Vivian Maier turned 81 and stopped paying for her Chicago storage unit. Soon after, the 150,000 photographs she had quietly taken over her life went up for auction. Preservationist John Maloof purchased 30,000 of those images, and when he began to post them online following Maier’s death in 2009, the photographer became a sensation, prompting documentaries and major gallery shows. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found (Harper Design, $80) draws on Maloof’s collection to share many of these photographs for the first time, from a 1950s New York man with pigeons on his arm to the artist’s modest self-reflection in a toaster.
Born out of Lorna Owen’s Mouse Interrupted blog, which since February 2012 has tracked the unpresuming mammal’s appearances in literature and art, Mouse Muse (Monacelli, $35) highlights work from the first century to the 21st. In conceptual artist John Baldessari’s Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice) (1989), for example, a pair of taxidermy mice in human clothes look out upon a mousetrap death, drawing attention to the role of the spectator in contemporary media. Five hundred years earlier, a mouse frees doves caught in a net in a Mughal Empire manuscript illustrating an Arab fable. Owen’s chronicles of high art mice sprang from humble beginnings—she was inspired after catching a rodent in her farmhouse.
From the age of 14, photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams (1902–1984) visited Yosemite Valley annually, the landscape serving as endless inspiration. Ansel Adams in Yosemite Valley: Celebrating the Park at 150 (Little, Brown, $100) presents more than 150 black and white images, selected and sequenced by Peter Galassi, the former chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, of gnarled redwood roots, the mists of Yosemite Falls, and the aftermath of avalanches. Adams used large-format cameras to capture vivid detail in his work, taking more images of Yosemite Valley than of any other place over the course of his career.
A cast iron pan brimming with an earthy blueberry slump (or New England cobbler) and globes of ice cream receives the same respect as a recipe for coquilles St. Jacques (scallops poached in white wine, placed atop mushroom purée, covered with a sauce, and gratinéed) in Saveur: The New Classics Cookbook (Weldon Owen, $40). This book compiles more than 1,000 international recipes including Uruguayan sandwiches, Nigerian caramels, and Latvian herring salad, accompanied by dozens of full-bleed photographs. Culinary history, such as the development of regional eggs Benedict variations and the origins of chicken fried steak, complements simple, illustrated guides to techniques like challah bread braiding and the most efficient way to place meat on a barbecue.
Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s career began in 1976, when he visited the American Museum of National History in his newly adopted hometown of New York City and began taking black and white photographs of the staged displays. A Canadian lynx in fake snow, Alaskan brown bears towering over painted backdrops, and Cro-Magnon families building homes out of bones all appear in Hiroshi Sugimoto: Dioramas (Damiani, $65), which features highlights from those museum visits. Sugimoto continues to take diorama photos today, fascinated, as he writes, by the way they “present us with something simultaneously dead and alive.”
More Books of Note
The Golden Lands: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam by Vikram Lall (Abbeville, $95). From the rock-carved gates of Angkor Thom in Cambodia to Indonesia’s Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world, this survey of Southeast Asian Buddhist architecture is complemented with illustrations rendering the structures in 3-D detail.
The Thing the Book by John Herschend and Will Rogan (Chronicle, $40). Contemporary writers and visual artists including Miranda July and Jonathan Lethem answer a simple question—what is a book?—by contributing endnotes, bookmarks, chapters, and other design elements that reinforce the importance of the book as object.
Room: Inside Contemporary Interiors by editors of Phaidon ($79.95). Renowned international curators and critics pick their favorite interior designs of the past five years, presenting 100 innovative rooms from New York City to Satirje, India, including those in cabins, a mental health institution, and a cathedral.
Maps: Their Untold Stories by Rose Mitchell and Andrew Janes (Bloomsbury, $50). Among the 100 maps culled from the National Archives in the U.K. are David Livingstone’s 1859 inked map of his expedition in East Africa and a 14th-century maritime chart of the Mediterranean Sea.
A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts (Simon & Schuster, $30). The urban affairs correspondent for the New York Times offers photos of Checker cabs, black-and-white cookies, and more than one gun, presented alongside explanatory anecdotes.
Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself by Robert Marbury (Workman, $18.95). Two-headed deer and birds accented by pig skulls are among the outré interpretations presented in this guide, which includes an introduction to home taxidermy.
Hair: Guido by Guido Palau (Rizzoli, $75). The stylist, a favorite of designers Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs, creates 70 punk-influenced, sculptural, androgynous coifs.
Infographic Designers’ Sketchbooks by Steven Heller (Princeton Architectural Press, $60). More than 50 graphic designers share their processes for presenting information visually—from our food’s route from farm-to-table to emergency baby delivery techniques and population statistics.
The Crossing of Antarctica by George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones (Thames & Hudson, $40). Previously unpublished photographs of the first successful crossing of the continent, in 1958, are showcased alongside explorers’ recollections.
Animalium (Welcome to the Museum) by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott (Candlewick/Big Picture, $35). Ink illustrations styled as traditional taxonomical prints chronicle the biodiversity of the animal kingdom in a collection aimed at children ages 8–12.
Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and Alex Day (Ten Speed, $40). Some 500 craft cocktail recipes—like the Sling of Aphrodite and the Widow’s Laurel—from the eponymous, influential New York City bar accompany photographs and instructions for everything from how to ribbon cucumber to how to select the right strainer.
Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute: Parties, Exhibitions, People by Hamish Bowles (Abrams, $50). The venerable fashion magazine’s international editor-at-large presents contemporary images from the annual celebrity-packed spring gala and the blockbuster exhibitions that inspire them.
Winter Sports in Vintage Poster Art by Jean-Daniel Clerc and Jean-Marc Giroud (Braun, $99.95). Dating from the 1890s to the middle of the 20th century, robust images of skaters, lugers, and skiers entice vacationers to snowy peaks in the U.S. and Europe.
Flora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden by Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers (Yale Univ., $50). Landscape historians and art scholars select highlights from eight centuries of botanical drawings, including excerpts from Renaissance encyclopedias and an 18th-century illustration that includes a mythological creature amid realistic flora and fauna.
Contemporary Chinese Art by Wu Hung (Thames & Hudson, $95). Supplying political and cultural context to post–Cultural Revolution artists like Yue Minjun and Ai Weiwei, the author, founder of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago, covers avant-garde installation and painting.
The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. V: The Twentieth Century, Part 2 by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Harvard Univ. Press, $95). The final volume in this series focuses on modern representations by black visual artists in the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe, with an emphasis on painting and photography.
The Book of Beetles: A Life-Sized Guide to Six Hundred of Nature’s Gems by Patrice Bouchard (Univ. of Chicago, $55). Photographs of more than 600 colorful, glossy species, resembling bejeweled broaches more than creepy crawlies, are presented at actual size.
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe by Lisa Small (Prestel, $55). In conjunction with an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, this catalogue ranges from the contemporary (Christian Louboutin’s googly-eye-covered Déjà vu slingbacks) to the vintage (circa 1600 Italian leather and wood chopines, with high platforms to keep dresses out of the mud).
Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray (Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.95). Diagrams, photographs, and elucidating text explore the molecular construction of everything from opium and molasses to bird feathers and soap.
Cosmigraphics: Our Changing Pictures of Space Through Time by Michael Benson (Abrams, $50). Illustrations, some more than a millennium old, chart humanity’s attempts to visually conceptualize the universe.
T Fleischmann is an essayist and the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande, 2012).