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The Coffee Table

Photo by Edouard Boubat

Perhaps we should begin our roundup of the season’s coffee-table books from a lordly, even astral height — this is, after all, a time of year much preoccupied with the heavens. We should begin, in other words, from the stunning perspective of outer space revealed in the new Illustrated World Atlas (Weldon Owen, 352 pages, $30). I’m not a connoisseur of atlases, but this one is big, seems reasonably thorough, and includes marvelous satellite photographs of the world as seen from space at night. Heavily populated areas manifest themselves through the sheer power of their wattage. Western Europe and the eastern half of the United States, for instance, are ablaze with illumination, a mad scrawl of spinning fires, like van Gogh stars and suns dripping over an ultramarine canvas. The photograph of Europe, in particular, is utterly thrilling to look at — a cosmic view of earthly urbanization that’s unforgettable. But Africa and Australia are almost equally beautiful in their somber, unpopulated darkness.

 

EarthsongPhoto by Bernhard Edmaier

More aerial views can be seen in photographer Bernhard Edmaier’s Earthsong (Phaidon, 232 pages, $60), which offers strangely painterly, full-size color images of lava fields, mud pools, coral reefs, glaciers, canyons, ice floes and forests — in other words, all those unpopulated, electricity-free areas of the world that are dark in the satellite photographs mentioned above. Human (DK, 512 pages, $50), a visual encyclopedia of human life crammed with facts and figures and thousands of photos, takes care of the areas of human settlement.

Oscar Night: 75 Years of Hollywood Parties From the Editors of Vanity Fair (Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $75) brings us gently down to earth. The story begins with Irving Thalberg, Mary Pickford, Lewis B. Mayer et al. at the first Oscar get-together in 1929, and goes on from there, revealing more flesh and cleavage with each passing decade.

Oscar Night Photo by Dafydd Jones

The best demonstration of increased skin quotient is probably the photograph of a leering Tony Curtis squeezed between Anna Nicole Smith and the almost equally bodacious Jill Vanden Berg — a sandwich in which the filling is nothing, the bread everything. There’s also a terrific photo of Courtney Love posing for a pack of photographers in a shimmering, form-clinging sequin gown, looking ravishing and completely mad.

I was initially drawn to Paris Mon Amour (Taschen, 240 pages, $15), but then immediately felt embarrassed: Corny! Still, this book is pure nostalgia, filled with classic black-and-white prints by the usual suspects (Doisneau, Kertesz, Brassai, Bresson), along with some less familiar shutterbugs. There are a few surprises — particularly the inclusion of photographs of the student uprising of May 1968, though I suppose for all those graying soixante-huitards that is nostalgia now, too. Mostly this is just page after page of lapidary photographs confirming what we already knew: Mid-20th-century Paris was an amazingly beautiful place, and it’s pretty hard to get sick of looking at it.

As opposed to, for instance, the United States of the 1970s, of which this year’s crop of books yields two contrasting views. The first, James Lileks’ Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes From the Horrible ’70s (Crown, 176 pages, $24) is a hilarious tour of a decade’s worth of astoundingly poor taste. A collection of photographs culled from interior-design magazines of an era "when even rats parted their hair down the middle," this book is guaranteed to make you laugh, or at least go blind. A different view (not many interiors, thank God) illuminates Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (Aperture, 180 pages, $50), a collection of giant photographs taken during a trip around the country in the mid-’70s by a young photographer who had trained with Andy Warhol and was thinking along the epic pictorial lines laid out earlier by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Despite its title, Uncommon Places is a catalog of the utterly banal — tattered street corners, grimy parking lots, plain motel rooms, nondescript houses. Yet these deep-focus, full-color images are often magical in their effect. All photographs stop time, but Shore’s halt that slippery medium in its tracks so thoroughly that he ends up imbuing his work with the air of a mortuary. The old man in "West Fifteenth Street and Vine Street, Cincinnati, Ohio, May 15, 1974" — he can’t possibly still be alive. What of the young black man confidently setting out across the street — is he around? And if so, does he even know this photograph exists? What a pity if he doesn’t.

Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter (Princeton Architectural Press, 200 pages, $35) will appeal to any reader who loves books not just for their contents but for their look and feel as well. Novels that affect us profoundly sometimes do so even more because of the photograph or painting that happens to be on their cover and which is transformed, in our minds, into a symbol of all that lies within. Salter, a Berliner who emigrated to the States in 1935, worked for most of the major publishers and turned out hundreds of remarkably evocative and striking book jackets over the ensuing decades. Their style is of their time, but they still beguile. This handsomely produced volume shows what he did with classics (Brighton Rock and Lie Down in Darkness) as well as with the forgotten (East of Midnight and Juggernaut Over Holland).

Film Noir Courtesy of Taschen

 

In the late 1990s, photographer Douglas Levere had a simple but clever idea: to go around Manhattan duplicating, down to the tiniest detail, the famous black-and-white photographs Berenice Abbott took of the city in the 1930s. If Abbott took a photograph of the northwest corner of Broadway and Ninth Street, then he would too, from the same angle and at the same time of year and day. In some (a few) cases the resulting photograph matches the original almost exactly: Nothing has changed. In others, little is recognizable. The overall impression is, comfortingly, one of approximate urban continuity. New York Changing: Revisiting Berenice Abbott’s New York (Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pages, $40) is a treat for anyone fascinated by the changing face of cities.

 

 

There’s plenty more urban grit to be found in Film Noir by Alain Silver and James Ursini (Taschen, 192 pages, $19.99), a useful, lavishly illustrated compendium of the Hollywood genre that flourished between 1942 and 1959 and has never quite gone away. (Not that we want it to.) Another Taschen anthology, Movies of the ’60s, is a true doorstop at 640 pages ($39.99) and will provide ample reminders, as well as images and plot summaries, of films you love, not to mention some you might have forgotten or omitted to see.

Movies of the '60s Courtesy of Albert R. Broccoli & Harry Saltzman

 

Us & Them: What the British Think of the Americans/What the Americans Think of the British (Princeteon Architectural Press, 112 pages, $14.95) is a strange little volume, written and illustrated by London-based artist Paul Davis, who claims that all the comments in the book are 100 percent true. Basically, Davis went around asking Brits what they thought of America and Yanks what they thought of Britain. The remarks, which won’t win anyone the Nobel Prize, range from, "It’s so kinda like I dunno" (an American girl in a bikini) to "Awesome this, awesome that. Why is everything so awesome? It isn’t, is it?" (a Brit in a very striped shirt). What really makes the book memorable are Davis’ weird, wonderfully droll drawings, executed on odd scraps of paper — bank receipts, hotel memo pads and graph paper.

Internationalism of a much more academic sort can be found in Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, by the somewhat forbidding Canadian film director Atom Egoyan and British professor Ian Balfour (MIT, 544 pages, $35). This is a self-consciously cerebral tome in a wide-screen format that begins with Egoyan’s observation that "Every film is a foreign film, foreign to some audience somewhere." This theme is taken up obliquely by various essayists, including Frederic Jameson, Anne Carson and (from the grave) Jorge Luis Borges. For serious cinephiles only.

There’s yet more high-flown erudition in History of Beauty, which was edited by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli, 438 pages, $40). It’s one of those wide-ranging meditations on all things good-looking that includes pictures of a third century B.C. "Crouching Aphrodite" along with a rather more recent photograph of a bare-breasted Monica Bellucci. For the most part, this is a scholarly tour of the ages that endeavors to answer such puzzlers as "What is beauty?" "What is art?" "Is beauty something to be observed coolly and rationally or is it something dangerously involving?" Flicking through the book’s thick, glossy pages, I can’t say I came across the definitive answer to any of those questions, but the sumptuous illustrations and eclectic textual selections from hundreds of great writers make this a book about literature as well as art.

The Rarest of the RarePhoto by Mark Sloan

A rare pleasure is The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HarperResource, 192 pages, $23), a cabinet of curiosities which dates back to the 1700s and encompasses everything from Vladimir Nabokov’s collection of butterfly genitalia to "high society" tapeworms taken from the digestive tracts of upper-class 19th-century Bostonians. The text combines scholarship with narrative appeal, explaining the who, what, when, where and why of how all these strange objects and creatures were originally discovered. Thanks to the 70 color photographs by Mark Sloan, it’s also lovely to look at.

Art of the Japanese Postcard

Even more lovely are the hundreds of 19th- and 20th-century artworks in Art of the Japanese Postcard: Masterpieces From the Leonard A. Lauder Collection (MFA Publications, 288 pages, $45), some of which are absolutely gorgeous — graceful, funny, sexy and, as you’d expect, elegant. Far superior to anything we normally associate with the word postcard, these are superb paintings (not photographs) that range from the abstract to the densely figurative and happen to be postable. Many of them come with evocative titles — "Two O’Clock at Night in the Yoshiwara: Lonely night of the prostitute quarter at deep night" reads one, produced in 1906. This is an exquisite book. Buy it for someone and, er, forget to give it.

Uncommon Places:The Complete WorksPhoto by Stephen Shore

OTHER NOTABLE TITLES: The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, a laff riot — can’t go wrong with this one, unless you are seriously humor-impaired, in which case you should probably apply for some disability payments (Black Dog & Leventhal, 656 pages, $60); Treehouses of the World (Abrams, 224 pages, $35), arboreal living at its finest, from the quaint to the Gothic to the plain old quirky — but what do you do when you need to borrow sugar from your next-door neighbor and there is no next-door neighbor; Scene of the Crimes, grisly LAPD police photos — corpses ’n’ slabs (Abrams, 240 pages, $35); Manga, intricate Japanese cartoons (Taschen, 176 pages, $25); L.A.’s Early Moderns, L.A.’s modernist avant-garde — hard lines, smooth lawns, rich patrons (Balcony Press, 136 pages, $35); The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain, the wall that launched a thousand spy novels. Dissidents, double agents, broken hearts — Brian Rose’s photographs of the world’s most infamous ex-barrier, from its early beginnings to its joyful demise (Princeton Architectural Press, 144 pages, $40); American Cockroach, a decorative approach to the loathsome bug — photographing it makes a change from stomping on it, I suppose (Aperture, 96 pages, $30); Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3D: the silent movie star took thousands of such photos, and this selection of his voluptuous subjects includes a pair of 3D glasses (Black Dog & Leventhal, 160 pages, $25); Yours in Food, John Baldessari, David Byrne, Dave Eggers and others ruminate on food culture (Princeton Architectural Press, 139 pages, $25); Horror: Poster Art, a terrific collection of horror movie posters through the decades — gorgeous gals and bloodsuckin’ fellas (Aurum Press, 192 pages, $30); The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, a new, hipper thesaurus with mini-essays by David Foster Wallace, Stephin Merritt, Zadie Smith and other word mavens (Oxford University Press, 1,088 pages, $40).