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Andy Warhol at 8 (Phaidon Books)

There were steroids in the water supply at Phaidon and Taschen this year, it seems, judging from the heft of their recent crop of coffee-table books. The heavyweight is the fittingly titled Andy Warhol “Giant” Size (Phaidon, 624 pages, $125), a 15-pound, 442-square-inch visual biography that combines reproductions of artwork from across Warhol’s career with snapshots, ephemera and numerous essays, including an introduction by Dave Hickey. If there’s anyone who merits such bibliopictorial extravagance, it’s certainly Warhol, and if there’s any one image that justifies the scale, it’s the 15-by-12-inch reproduction on Page 8 of a small, tattered, water-stained photograph depicting the artist at 8 years of age. It’s an eerily prescient image, almost identical in format to Warhol’s later Polaroids, with a clarity of presence that the artist routinely captured in others but rarely betrayed himself. Here is one of the most photographed and least scrutable faces in all of art history, before its exposure to the world outside of working-class Pittsburgh, before the formulation of any concept of persona. In this picture, there’s an intensity, an intimacy and a poignancy to his visage that won’t appear again for nearly 50 years (or 468 pages), until the drag self-portraits he made a few years before his death. The effect in both is stunning.

Harmonia Macrocosmica (Taschen, 240 pages, $125) is one of Taschen’s big projects for the year: a large-scale reprint of an astronomical atlas first published in 1660 by Dutch-German cosmographer Andreas Cellarius. The book combines full reproductions of the original folio’s 29 celestial maps — each measures roughly 2 square feet when the book lies open — with numerous detail selections and text by Cellarius scholar Robert van Gent, translated into three languages. It would take a dedicated astronomy buff to wade through enough of the writing, which is thorough, dry and rendered in awfully small type, to appreciate what’s actually going on in these maps, but the maps themselves are spectacular: vast, intricate mandala-like compositions, painstakingly balanced but loaded with Baroque flourishes. If only today’s astronomical texts came with winged cherubim hovering in the margins!

Life: A Journey Through Time(Taschen, 304 pages, $50), by nature photographer Frans Lanting, is a biological treatise of sorts: a pictorial interpretation of the evolution of the planet arranged in six chronological chapters, beginning with the molten mineral mess that preceded life and moving through the single-cell era, the creeping-onto-dry-land era, the demise of the dinosaurs, the emergence of mammals, and the rise of the homo sapiens. (He tactfully concludes before that pesky business with the ozone becomes an issue.) All of the images are contemporary, taken over the past seven years in locations around the world, and gorgeous in a slick, skillful, National Geographic kind of way. It’s a romantic but nonetheless impressive endeavor: a crowd-pleaser complete with its own Philip Glass score, which is sadly not included with the book. (The score-slide-show performance premiered in Santa Cruz in July and travels to the East Coast this February.)

David LaChapelle is Frans Lanting’s worst nightmare, his Heaven to Hell (Taschen, 344 pages, $60) — the final installment of a trilogy that began with LaChapelle Land (1996) and Hotel LaChapelle (1999) — the antithesis to Life’s screen-saver sublime. If Lanting gives you a world with the effects of human folly airbrushed out, LaChapelle magnifies that folly tenfold, teasing and prodding it toward its natural, grotesque conclusion. What’s impressive about this volume, which has nearly twice the images of either of the last two, is its demonstration of LaChapelle’s actually quite formidable range. Just when you think you’ve seen one too many balloon-breasted, slick-skinned automatons spewing evocative substances around the room, he throws in a bevy of cellulite-dimpled middle-aged men, or a herd of taxidermied animals, or a startlingly bland photo of Hillary Clinton — or an electric chair, just sitting empty with a pair of high heels cast off nearby. The work is garish and gorgeous, shameless and eloquent, repulsive and mesmerizing — but never very far off the mark.

Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath (Phaidon, 304 pages, $75) charts a descent into a very different sort of hell: the pit of mangled iron and concrete at the base of the former World Trade Center in the months after the 2001 disaster. When Meyerowitz arrived at the site, several days after the event, he was astonished to be told that he couldn’t take pictures — “No photographs, buddy,” he recounts the police officer saying, “this is a crime scene!” — and he spent the next several weeks doing everything he could to beg, borrow and steal access, determined not to let that historical excavation go undocumented. He spent more than nine months on the site in all, and Aftermath is the heartfelt result. The pictures themselves aren’t especially dazzling — the light is consistently flat and the portraits tend, perhaps inevitably, toward the sentimental — but the magnitude of the subject overshadows such aesthetic concerns. It’s a tragic document, and an important one.

Not all of this year’s photo books require quite the arm strength that the last four do. The Black Panthers: Photographs by Stephen Shames (Aperture, 152 pages, $35), published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the founding of the party, is a modestly scaled but excellent survey of the Panthers’ early years, combining powerful photographs with a sharp, efficient design (the majority of photos are printed to the edge of each page, unimpeded by text) to present a lucid portrayal of the urgency, pride and determination, as well the love, friendship and occasionally even fun, that drove the movement.

Martin Parr’sMexico (Aperture, 88 pages, $40), a narrow tome with a splendidly gaudy holographic cover, is a sharp-eyed tour of Mexico’s material culture: a chorus of green-robed ceramic Jesus figures, each clutching a gold coin to his chest; a pile of rainbow-colored broom heads; a batch of unnaturally pink pastries against the backdrop of a woman’s green-checked frock; an arbor of red- and green-capped hot-sauce bottles; a pair of aged, sun-darkened hands tangled in the lavender fluff of a cotton-candy machine. The project is a study in color more than anything else — not the glossy, romanticized color of cookbooks and travel magazines, but the commercial, street-worn, often crass color of everyday life.

Also from Aperture, Richard Renaldi’s lovely first book Figure and Ground(156 pages, $45) isa collection of wonderfully unassuming portraits and landscapes taken over several years of travels around the United States. The cross-country tour is so familiar a trope in American photography as to virtually constitute its own genre, but it’s accomplished here with unusual sensitivity and care.

Two L.A. museums also put out significant photography catalogs this year:

Where We Live: Photographs of America From the Berman Collection (Getty Trust Publications, 192 pages, $50), a handsome volume with quite a few good pictures, many of which work better in book form than on the walls of the museum; and The Collectible Moment (Yale University Press, 344 pages, $65), a catalog of the Norton Simon’s photo collection, which is modest but compelling, enhanced by a valuable history — including many personal accounts — of the photography scene in L.A. in the 1970s. (Exhibitions of these works at both museums run through February.)

The heavyweight in the realm of architecture and design this year is Domus 1928­–1999 (Taschen, 6,960 pages, $600), Taschen’s 12-volume compendium of highlights from the seminal Italian design magazine. Each volume reproduces selections from the magazine page for page, with translations at the back but minimal commentary.

On the other end of the institutional spectrum is Design Anarchy (Adbusters Media, 416 pages, $65), a stridently chaotic — and thoroughly entertaining — visual screed by Adbusters founder and editor-in-chief Kalle Lasn. The book features scores of Adbusters-like layouts surreptitiously supplemented with a history of the magazine, political commentary and design theory, such as this eloquent take: “Modernism gave birth to abstraction in a fit of dread, a paroxysm of fear born in the unpredictable dead of night, in the threatening wilderness, in the aftershock of an earthquake, in the bloodied trenches of a World War. The Futurists, the Constructivists, the Bauhaus — all of them were ruled by the tantalizing image of standing victorious over the trees, the mountains, and the sun itself. To tame an insane and corrupt world, they had to perfect it with logic .?.?. This instinct still rules over us. But it does not have to be this way. Design doesn’t need to be terrified, precious, idealized, sanitized. It can be visceral, messy, chaotic, anarchic.”

Finally, for that brother-in-law, college buddy or co-worker on your list who just doesn’t go in for all this high-minded art stuff, there’s Steven Blush’s American Hair Metal (Feral House, 180 pages, $23), a shamelessly enthusiastic look at an illustrious moment in music history, packed with priceless fragments of rock & roll wisdom, like this jewel from Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach: “Puking is the second best release to orgasm. I dig it. When I puke, it’s totally righteous. It’s so great, it’s like a total release of heaviness. It’s like an orgasm coming out of your mouth.”

Other notable titles: Drawing From the Modern, Volumes 1-3(Drawing From the Modern, 1880–1945, 220 pages; Drawing From the Modern, 1945–1975, 228 pages; Drawing From the Modern, 1975–2005, 220 pages: Museum of Modern Art, $40 each), a three-volume catalog of the museum’s drawing collection, neatly assembled in a jazzy slip case; Materializing the Immaterial: The Architecture of Wallace Cunningham(Yale University Press, 160 pages, $50), an elegant little book featuring lovely photos of beautiful homes for very wealthy people; Magical Meteorite Songwriting Device: Collages by Exene Cervenka (Perceval Press, 50 pages, $35), a lively collection of recent collages from the former X front woman; Looking East: Portraits by Steve McCurry (Phaidon, 128 pages, $40), a high-finish book of hauntingly soulful photographic portraits; Butt Book (Taschen, 560 pages, $30), an entertaining collection of highlights from the first five years of the Dutch gay-culture magazine; Yosemite: Art of an American Icon(Autry National Center/University of California Press, 232 pages, $65) and The Modern West: American Landscapes 1890–1950 (Yale University Press, 315 pages, $65), two copiously illustrated, scholarly books about the art of the American West.