2021 Holiday Gift Guide: Photo Books

2021 Holiday Gift Guide: Photo Books

When people think about gifts for photographers, gear is king. But the gear a photographer chooses to use or not use is about as personal as the work they make.

And let’s face it, even when you find out the photographer in your life is a Canon person and not a Nikon fan, your eyes still might bulge looking at the prices of some of their latest releases. (We’re looking at you Nikon Z9.)

So this holiday season, we want to celebrate a more pocket-friendly photo gift option: the versatile photo book. Covering everything from photo history, personal projects, career-defining jobs, tips for building your photo business and more, there’s something for everyone. 

Take a look at our 2021 list of book recommendations and feel free to leave your own in the comments below! 

Books that celebrate photography

Queer Love in Color by Jamal Jordan

Jamal Jordan, a Black digital editor at The New York Times, yearned to see gay people that looked like him. This book is the culmination of his quest to do just that. 

“As a child, I thought all gay people were white,” he writes. “Growing up, I had rarely seen queer characters of color in the gay young adult books I read, in episodes of ‘Queer as Folk’ I watched or issues of ‘XY’ or ‘Out’ magazines I stealthily bought at Barnes & Noble. 

I spent most of my teenage years believing that love between two black men wasn’t even possible. To my queer white peers, an entire world of change was unfolding: Public support for same-gender marriage eventually led to its legalization nationwide, and queer people were appearing as the leads in more TV shows than I could ever watch. People even won Oscars for directing movies about gay white cowboys. But none of these people looked like me.

How can you believe in something you’ve never seen?

In the decade since, the wave of change has continued. And yet: I can’t think of a single high-profile example of a loving relationship between two queer people of color.”

So what did he do? He made a tremendous photo book celebrating the diversity of queer love.

Sorry for the War by Peter van Agtmael

Sorry for the War chronicles the disconnect between the United States at war and the post 9/11 wars. It weaves together the war in Iraq during the time of ISIS, the refugee crisis, militarism, terrorism, nationalism, myth-making and propaganda. 
The book “interrogates and implicates politicians and regular Americans in the violence and warfare that have torn up the Middle East for the past 20 years,” writes Buzzfeed’s Pia Peterson

“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 confront how implicitly involved they were in the consequences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Street Portraits by Dawoud Bey

This book is what happens when you collaborate in making the portrait of your subject.

From 1988 to 1991 photographer Dawoud Bey created a series of portraits of Black people in various American cities. As part of every encounter, Bey gave each person a small black-and-white Polaroid print as a way of reciprocating and returning something to the people who had allowed him to make their portrait.

“Bey made the images featured in ‘Street Portraits’ with a large-format film camera mounted on a tripod. He has described his process as a collaboration between him and the people he photographs, one that gives the subjects the chance to decide how they are represented. The pictures were taken in different cities across the U.S., but the specificities of place are secondary to the architecture of the individual. Bey frames his subjects closely, allowing them to occupy much of the frame. As a result, each person seems both everyday—like someone you might see on your block, or at the market—and immense. His work captures a large range of moods and expressions, in surprising juxtapositions. Kids who are decked out in marching-band outfits look bored, while folks in everyday wear seem ecstatic to be noticed,” writes Hanif Abdurraqib in The New Yorker.

American Geography by Matt Black

A recent purchase by sports photographer and PhotoShelter member Steve Apps, Matt Black’s black and white work is something to marvel at. 

“After years of photographing in his native rural Central Valley of California, photographer Matt Black wondered, ‘Just how many other places like mine are there in America?’ While the Valley grows nearly half of the nation’s food, close to one-third of its population live in poverty. In 2014, Black began photographing the Valley’s poorest communities, and the following year, he expanded the project to encompass the entire United States. Traveling across 46 states and Puerto Rico, Black visited thousands of high-poverty areas that, while woven through the fabric of the country, are excluded from ‘the land of opportunity.’ American Geography is the visual record of his six-year, 100,000-mile journey chronicling the conditions and experience of those cut off from the American Dream,” the book’s description reads. 

TIME also did a fabulous write up about the book recently and highlights the book’s accompanying website. “It includes GPS maps tracking Black’s movements on foot through, for example, Comstock, Texas, and his Greyhound luggage tag to Calexico. There are maps made up of place names, of Google drop pins, of the lines between stops – the allurements of cartography, and the nominal romance of the road, deployed this time in the service not of escape but of capture,” Karl Vick writes. 

Photo business & how-to’s

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

“Photographers often have unwritten lists of subjects they tell themselves not to shoot—things that are cliché, exploitative, derivative, sometimes even arbitrary. Photo No-Nos features ideas, stories, and anecdotes from many of the world’s most talented photographers and photography professionals, along with an encyclopedic list of more than a thousand taboo subjects compiled from and with pictures by contributors.

Not a strict guide, but a series of meditations on ‘bad’ pictures, Photo No-Nos covers a wide range of topics, from sunsets and roses to issues of colonialism, stereotypes, and social responsibility,” says Aperture. 

The Freelance Photographer’s Guide to Success by Todd Bigelow

Todd Bigelow’s career hasn’t gone exactly as planned. That is to say that no plan from the past decade could have anticipated the sea of change in the photo industry, from the rapid shift of digital photography to the decimation of staff positions to the rise of the freelance economy. All this has led him to do what any savvy business owner would do: pivot with the shifting winds, make informed business decisions and diversify his income streams. In the process of doing so he’s become a well respected business educator who recently published this book.

From freelancing 101 to the difference between earning revenue and creating it and understanding copyright and copyright infringement, Todd’s book covers a lot in a very digestible way. “I wanted to do that in a guide book fashion and not a textbook fashion,” he told us. “I just did not want to present material in any way that was defined as the truth or ‘this is the way it must be done,’ it’s more of a ‘this is how it’s worked for me and I hope it works for you’ type of approach.” 

We also did a podcast episode with Todd about this book if you’re looking to learn more! 

Best Business Practices for Photographers by John Harrington

While all of the books here are from 2021, we would be foolish to not include this photo business classic. If you’re looking to get one book for a photographer just starting out, this one should probably be it. 

Covering how to start a photo business, setting fees, pricing work, insurance, how to negotiate and more, it’s truly one of the best photo business resources out there. 


Have suggestions of your own? Drop them in the comments below or tweet @photoshelter to share!

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