Here Are 24 Photo Books That Brought Us Meaning And Joy In 2021

·16 min read

There are so many good photo books out there, it can sometimes be overwhelming. One of our favorite things throughout the year is to look at new books and talk with photographers about how they come together. Some projects break your heart, some change how you look at the world. Others are just fun. And all of them are beautiful in their own way.

Here is a roundup of some of the best photo books from this year.

Carlota Guerrero — Tengo un Dragón Dentro del Corazón

Carlota Guerrero is both a vision and a visionary — someone who dances herself into a trance to spur on good ideas. The photographer and filmmaker is based in Barcelona, where she rose to stardom after being tapped at age 24 to work with Solange on her album A Seat at the Table in 2016. Since then, she has produced many of her own ethereal images of groups of women.

She is warm, she is welcoming, and she has me feeling more acceptance and love for my body as a stranger on a Zoom call than I have in months. Her new book, Tengo un Dragón Dentro del Corazón, is a record of her work so far and the “closing of a chapter” as she looks to the future.

For more on this book, see our story here.

Amani Willett — A Parallel Road

Amani Willett has spent years considering the promise of the road, a simulacrum of the American dream that isn’t as straightforward as it seems. His book, A Parallel Road by Overlapse Books, looks at the vastly different experiences of Black Americans and white Americans behind the wheel in the US over the last century. With help from family members who contributed their experiences, and with the intent to educate and move people, this book serves to help illustrate the psychological weight of the Black experience on the road.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

JEB — Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians

In the 1970s, photographer and activist Joan E. Biren, who goes by JEB, set out to publish a book about lesbians. It is easy to take the idea of representation for granted, but not that long ago, finding your people took a lot more work. The book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, was the first of its kind, and it was bold, as being gay was still stigmatized — if not outright criminalized — in most of the country. Biren’s book is also remarkably inclusive, even by today’s standards, highlighting women from all different races and backgrounds in an international effort to broaden the popular view of what a lesbian looks like.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Nick Meyer —The Local

After the last year, we've all had a chance to reflect on what home means, and for many people, it's not always the most comfortable place to be. Nick Meyer, a New England–based photographer, has recently come out with a book, The Local, that is explicitly about his hometown — but it’s also a bit about yours. His work captures subjects that are familiar to many: issues with addiction, housing insecurity, and an overall sense of small-town decline. It also opens up questions about what it means to love a place and what we owe each other. Meyer, who is from a relatively privileged background, is admittedly biased — and his work will likely not be purchased by the local tourism board anytime soon. He offers a raw take on where we are as a society and the issues we need to examine more closely.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Catherine Opie — Catherine Opie

If you don't know the work of Catherine Opie, her new self-titled book by Phaidon is a great place to start. The professor and fine art photographer has long questioned the status quo in America, from the treatment and expectations of the LGBTQ community to how we create myths and interact with democracy. "This is my first stand-alone monograph of all the different bodies of work, and it represents almost 40 years’ worth of work," she told us in July.

Irina Rozovsky — In Plain Air

A new book by photographer Irina Rozovsky is a form of escape that epitomizes springtime, going outdoors, and that wonderful moment when the world seems to open up after a long winter. In Plain Air examines Prospect Park, one of Brooklyn’s largest parks, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame). Being able to watch and eavesdrop on other visitors, and to marvel at humanity, is one of the best features of a good park. Rozovsky has an uncanny eye for capturing this feeling, highlighting myriad uses for public outdoor spaces in her images of people napping, families lunching, and moments of quiet contemplation in scenes that feel both staged and stumbled upon.

Peter van Agtmael — Sorry for the War

Since 9/11, Peter van Agtmael has made photographs in both the US and the countries the US has been at war with. His new book, Sorry for the War, interrogates and implicates politicians and regular Americans in the violence and warfare that have torn up the Middle East for the past 20 years. “But everything I do moving forward until the day I die is going to have something to do with 9/11 and these wars and their impact and consequences in the world. They’ll always be a direct part of my life," van Agtmael says. The book encourages Americans to see the absurdity and the serious consequences of wars that we are implicitly involved in but often opt not to see or engage with.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Bart Heynen — Dads

Bart Heynen is a Belgian photographer who is raising two young sons with his partner, Rob. He knew they had an opportunity to be around more families like theirs when they moved to New York a few years ago. As a professional portrait photographer, he started reaching out to fathers in the same situation. “We are all pioneers, since we all come from straight families. It was great to find out how other gay dads bring up their kids,” he said. “My kids realized they were not the only family with two dads. They realized they were not the only ones without a mom.” The project was recently turned into a book, Dads, which looks at gay fatherhood across the United States.

Sage Sohier — Peaceable Kingdom

If there is one common theme in Sage Sohier’s work, it is being witness to the often private ways people experience love. Her newest book, Peaceable Kingdom, expands on the theme by diving into the world of animal rescue organizations. There are thousands of shelters in the US, and most work with companion animals, such as cats and dogs. Sohier also focuses on smaller organizations, often run by individuals or families, that aid different kinds of animals, like skunks and hawks. The images are funny and warm, and make you rethink what makes a good pet.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Emanuel Hahn — Koreatown Dreaming

When photographer Emanuel Hahn moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic, he was in a creative rut. He started visiting LA’s Koreatown, and the storefronts reminded him of his parents’ hometown of Daegu, South Korea, in the 1990s. He decided to turn his frequent walks and photos into a book, Koreatown Dreaming, which he planned on publishing in the fall. We spoke with him about the genesis of the project, the business owners he encountered, and how cultural shifts over generations can threaten once-thriving immigrant communities.

Elizabeth Ferrer — Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History

Elizabeth Ferrer is chief curator at BRIC, a nonprofit arts and media organization in Brooklyn. She’s also the author of Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History. Ferrer’s family is Mexican American, and she was born and raised in Los Angeles. She loved art as a kid, and growing up during the rise of the Chicano civil rights movement, she saw how life shaped art firsthand. “One of the things I remembered seeing when I was in elementary school was the murals going up in the neighborhood," she said. "I didn’t have a lot of access to museums when I was a kid, but I certainly saw that and I saw the way that art can be used for social change and for community.”

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Jason Fulford — Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph

Jason Fulford is a photographer and publisher who often works with others in the photography world to explore their minds and work. His new book, Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph, was assembled during the pandemic lockdown. He crowdsourced advice and insight from famous photographers, such as Alec Soth and William Wegman, asking them what they try not to take pictures of and why. The final book is less of a blueprint to an objectively “good” photograph and more of a roller coaster that takes you through highs and lows, personal obsessions, and pet peeves of some of the world’s greatest working photographers.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Robert Clark — Friday Night Lives

In 1988, photojournalist Robert Clark joined writer Buzz Bissinger in the West Texas town of Odessa with one mission in mind: to chronicle a season of high school football with the Permian Panthers. Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights later became a Hollywood movie and inspired the TV show of the same name. Clark shot over 80 rolls of film for the original book, but only a few images were included in it. He has revisited Texas a few times over the years to photograph a handful of the players and coaches, eventually building his photo book Friday Night Lives, which was released in 2020. In black-and-white photos, Clark presents an intimate body of work that captures the innocence of life before the 21st century, as well as what came after.

For more on this book, see the full story here.

Michael Sherwin — Vanishing Points

Almost a decade ago, Michael Sherwin, an associate professor of art at West Virginia University, discovered that a shopping center was being built on a Monongahela burial ground in his then-hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. The realization shook him deeply and prompted a yearslong exploration of what happened to other Native American sites of sacred and historical importance across the country. His work is being published in a new book, Vanishing Points, which challenges the idea that history is ever fully decided with large-format photographs that look critically at seemingly familiar American landscapes.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Sirkhane Darkroom — i saw the air fly

Serbest Salih’s traveling darkroom is unlike almost any other in the world — a few miles over the Syrian border in Turkey, it moves on a trailer hitch like a caravan from town to town. The darkroom works primarily with children, most of them refugees like Salih himself. With Mack Books, the darkroom took input from students in the program when curating a collection of their photographs for the book i saw the air fly. The kids selected what they wanted to photograph themselves as well, and Salih said the photography focuses on the more joyous and playful moments of their lives.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Mel D. Cole — American Protest: Photographs 2020–2021

You may know Mel D. Cole from his hip-hop photography, or from his stunning, unforgettable images as one of the photographers on the ground with the crowd at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Cole’s photographs of that day stood out to me on Instagram as I, along with many Americans, watched as a mob broke into the Capitol. His beautiful black-and-white images put the violence and chaos into stark reality. This book collects Cole’s images of protesters, counterprotesters, police, and regular Americans as people faced off over signs and streets to voice their opinions. As Cole told us, “I'm not the same photographer as I was before the pandemic,” and this book shows the change.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Joseph Rodriguez — LAPD 1994

In 1994, photographer Joseph Rodríguez was given unprecedented access to cover the Los Angeles police for two weeks for the New York Times. This was three years after the beating of Rodney King was recorded on video and two years after the riots broke out over the acquittal of the four officers involved, prompting a reckoning over use of force that is as familiar as it is unresolved today. Rodríguez has turned the work into a new book, LAPD 1994.

The photos by Rodríguez highlight the questions that we are still grappling with about justice, force, racism, and who gets to enact violence against whom. Although they were taken over two decades ago, the photos offer insight into how the police see themselves, a crucial thing to understand as we reckon with who we are as a society.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Dawoud Bey — Street Portraits

Dawoud Bey is truly a national treasure. His photographs, which primarily highlight the experience of Black Americans, also speak deeply to our shared American history, leaving the viewer with a meditation on the past that is both profound and beautiful.

Bey's decadeslong career was celebrated with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York City earlier this year in an exhibition that feels tailor-made for the current moment, as the US reckons with racism and issues of representation. It is a rarity for a living artist who is still producing work to be given such a big show, but it speaks to the importance and relevance of Bey's vision. A collection of his early portraits in Harlem was released as a book by the publisher Mack earlier this year.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Meryl Meisler — New York Paradise Lost: Bushwick Era Disco

Meryl Meisler is a photographer and artist who spent 31 years teaching in New York City’s public school system. Her work looks back at students at Intermediate School 291, as well as the streets of Bushwick in Brooklyn and the dance scene where she spent her free time. Her book, New York Paradise Lost, shows Bushwick’s streets before the massive development of the area, and the queer party scene of New York in the 1970s. “I hope it's uplifting to everyone else as well,” she said. “The 1970s was a bad period in New York. People were running away from the city, and look what happened — artists moved into all these empty spaces, new music arose. There's a lot to be said about transformation and gentrification, but 40 years later, people want to live there.”

Karen Marshell — Between Girls

What makes up “girl world”? And who gets to exist within it? These inquiries have fascinated artists for years. Photographer Karen Marshall asked herself those questions in the 1980s, toward the end of the women's liberation movement, and decided to explore the friendships of young women and their tendency to form emblematic, or symbolic, relationships — the kind where you don't have to say anything, and the other person just gets you.

Her photos have now been collected into a book over 30 years in the making, which is split up into different parts and throughout which you can see a group of friends grow up and adapt to the world around them.

“It's like a piece of cinema,” Marshall said. “You can read it from cover to cover and have a full experience.”

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Diana Markosian — Santa Barbara

Diana Markosian is no doubt a talented photographer — that we already knew. But her first monograph, Santa Barbara, brings a lot of new pieces of the photographer's background to light. Her partly staged, partly serendipitous photo series shows her family's journey from Russia to the US in the 1990s. Markosian's family settled in Santa Barbara, and only there did she grow up and learn more about her mother's past in Russia. If you like the cinematic photography of Anna Gaskell and Cindy Sherman, you'll love this book.

Matt Black — American Geography

American culture promotes the long-standing belief that this country is the land of opportunity — that if you try hard enough, you can build the life you want. But that belief has been severely tested, especially recently, with rising income inequality, skyrocketing housing, healthcare and education costs, and the long-term effects of redlining and other exclusionary practices being laid bare. Nonetheless, the myth persists, at least until you look at photographer Matt Black’s first book, American Geography.

Black is from the Central Valley in California, which has been one of the poorest regions in the country for the past century. He has spent almost three decades documenting the area, inspired by author John Steinbeck and photographer Dorothea Lange. His images, which are known for their high-contrast, almost cinematic aesthetic, deal with farming, poverty, and the social condition, topics that are easy to sideline as not being relevant to other, wealthier areas. Although his pictures of people and places on the margins are singular, they call to mind the work of earlier documentarians who looked critically at American society, such as Robert Frank.

For more on this book, see our full story here.

Farah Al Qasimi — Hello Future

Reading Farah Al Qasimi’s book Hello Future feels like you are overhearing just enough of someone’s conversation to be completely riveted. The photographs show snippets and details of a life that is at the same time very usual and enthralling. Al Qasimi is originally from the UAE, though she now lives in Brooklyn, and her cultural crossover is strong in the bright, poppy pages. The photos are almost designed to elicit “who is she?!?!”–esque intrigue, Virgin Suicides–style, but with wit and humor that will make you smile by the end of the book.

Rahim Fortune — I Can't Stand to See You Cry

Rahim Fortune’s I Can’t Stand to See You Cry won numerous awards this year, and with good reason. The Texas photographer, who is now based both there and Brooklyn, documented his family and his ailing father, as well as friends and strangers in his home state. The book reads not as a collection of gorgeous photos, but almost like a graphic novel tracing the arc of one young man’s year as he manages to poignantly capture the pandemic, the loss of a loved one, and his own developing photography career.

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