Most photographers underestimate the power of a good book. While scouring Pinterest and Instagram can sometimes lead to inspiration, it’s a very different thing to hold in your hands a book of quality prints that are meant to be viewed as a whole. Here, we’ll list (in no particular order) some of the most inspirational photo books ever published that will help spark your creativity and reignite your passion for photography.
1. The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson
The photography book. The work of French photographer Cartier-Bresson has influenced almost every photographer, or at least inspired every photographer’s inspirations. The decisive moment is a study of timing in photography and ultimately the best place to start if you’re starting a collection of photography books.
2. Wilderness to Wasteland by David T. Hanson
Taken during the early portion of Hanson’s career in the 1980’s, these documentary landscapes depict the environmental ruin that has resulted from some of America’s worst business practices. It’s a great example of photography with a message. Read our full review here.
3. AIR by Vincent Laforet
Contemporary photographer Vincent Laforet does what no photographer has ever been able to do before: take high-res, nighttime, aerial photographs of cityscapes. The wild but accurate colors in this book reveal something deeper about humanity and civilization. Read our full review here.
4. The Negative by Ansel Adams
The father of landscape photography goes into extensive detail on his zone system of exposure. If you wanted to learn more about his methods, you could also look for parts one and three of this series, The Camera and The Print.
5. Why People Photograph by Robert Adams
The title says it all. This collection of essays doesn’t focus on actual photographs, but it has some of the most inspirational and influential opinions from the most famous photographers of the early to mid 20th century.
6. Robert Cumming: The Difficulties of Nonsense by Robert Cumming
In this one, the artist plays with the line between reality and misinterpretations of reality that are inherent in photography, which will have you rethinking the entire medium.
7. Capa in Color by Robert Capa
Famed wartime photographer Robert Capa turns his eye on the streets and shoots in color, giving a unique, raw interpretation of everyday life.
8. Magnum Contact sheets by Kristen Lubben
If you haven’t heard of the Magnum Photo Agency, you really should look them up. Frankly, I could have filled this whole list with books from this agency, but instead I suggest you check out this collection of the best work from Magnum for a healthy dose of elite, modern photography.
9. Infra by Richard Mosse
This book is like no other, because it uses a film that almost no other photographer has ever used: infrared film. Originally used by the US military to spot soldiers in heavy brush, Mosse uses it to document child soldiers in the Congo in this devastatingly beautiful series.
10. Andreas Gursky by Glenn Lowry, Peter Galas, etc.
This is actually a collection of German photographer Adreas Gursky’s work, curated by other artists. It’s full of Gursky’s signature style that shows patterns and details within society in a miniaturizing fashion.
11. The Best of Leifer by Neil Leifer
As you can see from this book’s cover, Leifer has taken some of the most iconic sports photographs in history. He has a knack for being in just the right place at just the right time to create beautiful, memorable images that tell a story.
12. Man Ray by Guido Comis, Marco Franciolli
One of the most influential figures in early photography is recognized and summarized in this book, with biographical notes accompanying the photographs that helped shape the modern photography aesthetic.
13. Double Life by Kelli Connell
These portraits may seem like documentary images of lovers, siblings, or twins, but they are in fact artfully manipulated images of the same person twice, depicting the subtle difference between external and internal relationships.
14. The Americans by Robert Frank
One of the most famous photography books of all time, The Americans captures the life and times of 1950’s America in simple but powerful images that still resonate today.
15. Looking at Photographs by John Szarkowski
This curations was made in 1973 by the Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski and is still considered an excellent source of photography greatness. This book focuses on the images themselves, but gives an excellent and insightful explanation of what the curator looks for in an image.
16. The Family of Man by Edward Steichen
This is perhaps the most successful and well-respected photography book of all time. It is a collection of images that the curator describes as “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world. Photographs made in all parts of the world, of the gamut of life from birth to death.”
17. On Photography by Susan Sontag
Ok, so this isn’t really a photo book, it’s a collection of essays by Susan Sontag about the nature of photography. While it may not give you visual inspiration, it will make you think harder about what the hell a photograph actually is than almost any other book out there.
18. William Eggleston, 2 1/4 by William Eggleston
Widely considered the father of color photography, Eggleston shaped the way color is used and interpreted in photos from the very beginning. This book is a collection of his photos, shot on 2 1/4 inch color film, of everyday people and is a study of American life in the 1960’s.
19. Bowie by Steve Schapiro
This recent release is a collection of photographs of David Bowie taken during the mid 70’s by famed portrait photographer Steve Schapiro. It’s an excellent example of collaboration between photographer and subject with each image revealing another side of the iconic pop musician. Read our full review here.
20. Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 by Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon is widely regarded as the leader of 20th century fashion photography. In this survey of his work, you can see his creative development unfold as he shapes popular culture for over five decades.
21. Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light by Bill Brandt
This is another aptly named book, as it explores the important interplay of shadow and light. Though the images within the book depict British life in the early to mid 1900’s, it is the tonality and interplay of densities that deserves careful observation.
22. Ill Form & Void Full by Laura Letinsky
In this highly conceptual book, contemporary artist Laura Letinsky builds on her past work photographing dining tables by collecting images from various sources including magazines, friends, and her own backlog. Many of these images break down the barriers between private and public life while also calling into question the very nature of perception.
23. The Visual Pallet: Defining your Photographic Style by Brian Matiash
For those looking for a bit more direct guidance in their own work, Matiash guides you through his systematic method of developing a unique, recognizable photography style that will keep you shooting for years.
24. Pomodori A Grappolo by John Gossage
This three book set explores the connection between photography and books themselves, and is more about the layout than any individual photo or subject matter. By using various materials, sizes, and color schemes, Gossage investigates the physical form of a photograph.
25. Photographers A-Z by Hans-Michael Koetzle
If you still aren’t ready to dive into any of the individual artist listed above, this book should have you covered. It lists, explains, and gives samples of hundreds of important and talented photographers, so you’re sure to find something to get your creative juices flowing.
There are certainly many more excellent photography books that didn’t make this list, so let us know what you think should have been included in the comments below.