The popularity of books as gift items has not lessened the fundamental burden of the bestower: The choice should reflect intelligence, sensitivity and cultural awareness as well as the ability to psychologically assess and flatter the recipient. Books become personal statements when they become gifts.
Books with lots of photographs inspire less paranoia in both the giver and the recipient than those containing mostly text. The books described below are full of pictures, and most could reside comfortably on any coffee table.
Images of the landscape--both natural and constructed--can inform, inspire and entertain. The great test of any collection of such images is whether they transcend the banal and become something more than post cards. The best collections sustain a difficult balance between art and document, wrenching the reader away from a simple sentimental response and thrusting him into uncharted aesthetic territory.
Such an experience may be found in The Amundsen Photographs, edited and introduced by Roland Huntford (Atlantic Monthly Press: $35; 199 pp.; 156 color photographs and 3 maps), a recently discovered record of the polar explorations of Roald Amundsen. Leading expeditions into unknown arctic regions beginning in 1903, this Norwegian was the first man to reach the South Pole. The written text is compelling enough, but nothing can prepare you for the impact of the hand-painted photographic plates shot by Amundsen and his crew. These documents of concrete historical events yield images that are at the same time abstract, painterly and mystical. The content may suggest the original context, but the composition and coloration evoke reference to contemporary art.
The exquisitely printed Landscape: The Library of World Photography, preface by David Plowden, introduction by Ian Jeffery (Hill & Co.: $16.95, paper; 224 pp.; 151 duotone and 29 full-color photographs), contains prints by Stieglitz, Weston, Cartier-Bresson and Adams among others, from 1840 to the present. There is biographical information on each photographer, as well as a glossary of photographic processes and terms. If there was ever any doubt that photography is a legitimate art form, this book should dispel the notion forever.
Less cosmic, but very moving, are India by Mitch Epstein, introduction by Anita Desai (Aperture: $30; 72 pp.; 52 color photographs), and Picture Windows by John Pfahl (Little, Brown: $40; 112 pp.; 49 color photographs). None of the photographs in "India" resemble the romantic landscapes popularized recently in films and BBC miniseries. Each picture holds enough information to inspire a novel. The concept behind "Picture Windows" seems gimmicky: American landscapes are seen through and framed by the windows of buildings and homes. The result, however, is not only a precious and beautiful series of photographs but also a vision-expanding conceptual work of art.
The Quiet Beauty of China by Pat Fok (Rizzoli: $35; 136 pp.; 64 black-and-white and 72 color photographs) succeeds completely in providing information in addition to poetry. A compilation of 10 years' work, the book is a very personal exploration of a culture. Calligraphy by Jao Tsung-I accompanies the photographs and enhances the book's exquisite design.
Several new photography books appeal directly to special interests: football, African safaris, dance, flying, cowboys, architecture and trains, among many others. A few do not require membership in a particular subculture and may be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates great photography.
Among the most serious--but accessible--volumes is Architecture Transformed: A History of the Photography of Buildings from 1839 to the Present by Cervin Robinson and Joel Herschman (Architectural League of New York/MIT Press: $50; 208 pp.; 186 black-and-white photographs). This incredible blend of art and information is superbly packaged, with particular attention paid to the quality of reproduction and design. Both a history of the genre and a history of the medium, this handsome book would be a cherished gift.