For the gift that keeps on giving, nothing delivers like a coffee-table book. Like a good piece of art that reveals something new every time you gaze at it, a well-crafted pictorial book can be enjoyed an infinite number of times. Here are six we think would make excellent gifts this holiday season.
“Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad.” This haunting photo essay is the culmination of a 10-year project, in which photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales traced a 1,400-mile path along the Underground Railroad from a cotton plantation in central Louisiana through Mississippi, Indiana and into Canada. What makes the project so powerful is that all the photos were taken at the dead of night, when enslaved Africans would have been running for their lives. The claustrophobia evoked from paging through inky images of dark forests and shadowy structures is sustained until the final, hopeful shot of daybreak in Canada. Andrew Young provides the foreword. ($40, Princeton Architectural Press)
“Frozen in Time: Photographs.” At first glance, this appears to simply chronicle a spartan, rural life. But “Frozen in Time” is more than that. It’s the story of a difficult relationship between an adult daughter, photographer Sarah C. Butler, and her mother, who lives in a dilapidated farmhouse in Maine. Long estranged, the two are reunited when Butler’s mother becomes ill. At first she is horrified at the rundown state of her mother’s living conditions. But over time, as the women put their differences aside and begin to reconnect, Butler starts to see the beauty all around her. In the final pages, images of peeling vintage wallpaper, shabby upholstered furnishings and cobweb-encased bric-a-brac take on an elegiac glow. ($75, Glitterati Inc.)
“Neal Preston: Exhilarated and Exhausted.” One of Neal Preston’s first big breaks as a music industry photographer was shooting the Allman Brothers tour in 1973 for Rolling Stone magazine. Written by Cameron Crowe, the article that accompanied Preston’s intimate photographs became the basis for the movie “Almost Famous.” All of the classic rock stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s are represented in the 331-page book — Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Madonna, Prince, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson, Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye, The Runaways, Bruce Springsteen, etc. The majority of photographs are performance shots or portraits, but there are some memorable candid snaps, including Jimmy Page guzzling Jack Daniels from the bottle backstage, Tommy Lee graphically mooning an audience from the stage, and Frank Sinatra giving Dean Martin a behind-the-scenes pat on the rump. ($75, Reel Art Press)
“LA NY: Aerial Photographs of Los Angeles and New York.” It’s not surprising that photographer Jeffrey Milstein is also an architect, a graphic designer and a pilot. All of his passions coalesce in this stunning collection of 84 aerial photographs of Los Angeles and New York. A mesmerizing survey of land use across the spectrum, the book starts out with repetitive grids of residential neighborhoods in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Mar Vista and segues into repetitive grids of midsize buildings in Greenwich Village and high-rises in Midtown Manhattan. But the images soon turn more fanciful when you get to the sprawling, Victorian conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, the illuminated confections of Coney Island at night and the orderly rows of pastel-colored boats docked at the Long Beach Shoreline Marina. ($29.95, Thames & Hudson)
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“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” This 256-page book is a companion to the blockbuster art exhibit of the same name that debuted at the Tate Modern in London last summer. Its focus is on paintings, sculpture, collage and photography by black artists produced between 1963 and 1983, “a period in American history when the highest dreams of the civil rights movement were articulated, and when many joined calls for Black Power,” writes Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, in the foreword. Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell, Faith Ringgold and David Hammons are among the more than 60 artists represented. ($50, Distributed Art Publishers Inc.)
“What Is Left Behind: Stories from Estate Sales.” We’ve all seen it: the dusty framed photo of a stranger for sale in a curio shop. How sad no one is left in the world to still treasure it, we think. Photographer Norm Diamond takes that concept a step further by capturing images of items left over from estate sales held in mostly working-class homes. A crudely made toy plane abandoned under a bed, a wedding gown carefully preserved in plastic, a widow’s love poem, collections of vinyl records, Stetson hats, Playboy magazines. They all speak to lives once so vivid, now clearly over and possibly forgotten. As a counterpoint to those poignant images are humorous shots of quirky sale signs, such as one scrawled in Sharpie on a bathroom wall proffering the still-attached toilet paper holder for $5. ($45, Daylight Books)