Carlos Gallegos carried a pair of photographs with him during two tours in Iraq. One was of his young son, and the other was an idyllic snapshot of his parents from the late ’70s, the two of them just sitting together, hugging affectionately, happy. “This is the greatest photo ever taken,” he told photographer Zoe Strauss, who found him working the front desk at a hotel in El Paso, his marriage broken, suffering from posttraumatic stress and now back living with his parents. But the war vet could still cling to that picture as evidence of something better, of a fleeting moment of genuine harmony that might once again be attainable.

Strauss recognized something profound in the picture, and photographed it against the flowery, heavenly blue surface of Gallegos’ empty bed. It is a stirring image from her first collection of photographs, America, a kind of full-color, postmillennial reinterpretation of Robert Frank’s grim 1958 photographic milestone, The Americans. Strauss is a Philadelphia-based street photographer with her own point of view, but it’s just as raw and disturbing as Frank’s, with fresh images of decay and despair on both coasts and many states in between. In one picture, a gunshot victim is having a smoke as he’s strapped into a gurney. Another features a little boy showing off his first rifle. And one more has an ominous road sign by the New Jersey Highway warning, “Report Suspect Activity.”

The collection is just one of the many intriguing books of photography, art, comics and architecture released in these final months of 2008. California gets a similar, Larry Clark–like treatment in Tony Stamolis’ Frezno, lo-fi pictures of dried-out landscapes, empty pill bottles and shotguns in your face. It is Central Valley purgatory, with fresh blood droplets on the floor and feces in the easy chair. The book is dedicated to the woman who gave Stamolis’ father a job in Fresno “so that I could be spawned in such a sweet place.”

Life is sweeter but just as complicated in Danielle Levitt’s We Are Experienced, portraits that capture modern high school kids in their natural settings — with all the smoldering energy, frayed nerves, innocence and malevolence of adolescence. In one picture from 2003, awkward 15-year-old lovers in sneakers embrace on the grass. The photos are honest but sympathetic, wrangling another disaffected generation of metalheads, gangstas, punks, jocks, skate kids, freaks, winners and losers in beautifully crafted scenes as rich as epic romantic paintings.

Annie Leibovitz has published at least nine books in her career, but the newest is easily her best since Photographs 1970-1990, published nearly two decades ago. Annie Leibovitz at Work has relatively few images on its pages. It is instead a book filled with words, as the acclaimed photographer for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair recounts the key events of her career and the stories behind the pictures. It isn’t photo-philosophy on the level of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” but the book manages to enlighten anyone as interested in the process of portraiture as in her celebrity subjects. At Work also reaches back — notably witnessing the deposed President Nixon’s exit as his chopper lifted off from the White House lawn — to her early photojournalism, a medium she mostly abandoned as portraits and glamour increasingly defined her career.

Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives, 1961-1971 unearths the loving snapshots of a true country-music fan, before the C&W establishment began to resent its own twang. Kagarise photographed these singers and pickers casually in outdoor settings, taking it all in just a few feet from the stage and a buzzcut George Jones, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe or pretty ladies like June Carter Cash. And Kagarise wasn’t beyond bursting into tears at a particular moment of beauty or high musical energy.

In I Am My Family: Photographic Memories and Fictions, Rafael Goldchain explores a century of Polish-Jewish ancestry by photographing himself in character as members of his extended family, a kind of Cindy Sherman approach to replacing photo albums lost in the turmoil and murder of World War II.

Local artist Jeffrey Vallance first revealed himself in 1979 with “Blinky,” the supermarket chicken he laid to rest in a Calabasas pet cemetery, with a wake, coffin and headstone. His book Relics & Reliquaries collects the larger arc of his ouvre in the great tradition of serious art with a wicked sense of comedy. There is a follow-up with poor Blinky (the body exhumed, an autopsy, etc.) and new adventures and artifacts of Elvis, the Soviet Union, the King of Tonga and Richard Nixon, all meticulously encased in elegant reliquaries.

In Mythtym, writer-artist Trinie Dalton gathers some fave words and artwork from her zine projects, with contributions from Eddie Ruscha, Dennis Cooper and others about high and low art, pop culture and Shelley Duvall, mad dogs and werewolves.

Dope Menace by Stephen J. Gertz collects the lurid cover art of drug-themed mass-market paperbacks from the postwar years, with self-explanatory titles like Orgy Town, Narco Nympho and Marijuana Murder. Crusading Rep. Ezekiel C. Gathings claimed the books promoted “sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy.” (Something for everyone.)

Posters for the People: Art of the WPA by Ennis Carter reprints illustrations created at a time of genuine crisis by artists on the federal payroll to promote the goals of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The result was heroic imagery, challenging 1930s Americans to participate in the public good (“Are you doing your part?”) in ways we may hear again after Inauguration Day.

The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture is a monumental (18-x-12 3/8 inches) survey of the new century’s most adventurous 1,037 buildings across 89 countries. Big enough to require a carrying case (if not its own room), the Atlas includes maps charting population growth, carbon footprints and national wealth. Spread across oversized pages are photos and floor plans for radical new public and private spaces, from the elegant curves of a Qantas lounge at Sydney Airport to the massive steel latticework of China’s National Stadium. Closer to home, L.A. Modern presents vivid color photographs by Tim Street-Porter of forward-looking homes built in the city since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House was completed in 1920.

Life during wartime was never depicted with more clarity than in Bill Mauldin’s World War II–era strip Willie & Joe. His invention of the grumbling, world-weary dogfaces eclipsed nearly everything he did as an editorial cartoonist afterward. Willie & Joe: The WWII Years collects every known panel of Mauldin’s famous comics series in a two-volume Army-green slipcased edition. Art Spiegelman has hardly done better escaping his own acclaimed comics creation, the Holocaust graphic novel Maus, but the collected autobiographical strips in Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! offer some fascinating and hilarious self-analysis, expanded with a new introduction and afterword. Another comics milestone was Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, just reissued in a “special edition” that collects the original graphic novel, the shooting script from the 2001 film adaptation, early sketches, alternate covers, source materials, merchandising of Enid dolls, and other random bits and pieces to help you celebrate one more singular, inspiring vision between hardcovers.

AMERICA | By Zoe Strauss | AMMO | 192 pages | $30 hardcover

FREZNO | By Tony Stamolis | Process | 136 pages | $30 hardcover

WE ARE EXPERIENCED | Photographs by Danielle Levitt | Miss Rosen Editions/powerHouse | 144 pages | $55 hardcover

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ AT WORK | By Annie Leibovitz | Random House | 240 pages | $40 hardcover

PURE COUNTRY: THE LEON KAGARISE ARCHIVES, 1961-1971 | Foreword by Robert Gordon, text by Eddie Dean | Process | 204 pages | $35 hardcover

I AM MY FAMILY: PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES AND FICTIONS | By Rafael Goldchain | Princeton Architectural Press | 168 pages | $40 hardcover

RELICS & RELIQUARIES | By Jeffrey Vallance | Grand Central Press | 176 pages | $40 hardcover

MYTHTYM | Edited by Trinie Dalton | Picturebox | 204 pages | $30 hardcover

DOPE MENACE | By Stephen J. Gertz | Feral House | 254 pages | $25 hardcover

POSTERS FOR THE PEOPLE: ART OF THE WPA | By Ennis Carter | Quirk | 224 pages | $50 hardcover

THE PHAIDON ATLAS OF 21st CENTURY WORLD ARCHITECTURE | Phaidon Press | 800 pages $195 hardcover

L.A. MODERN | Photographs and text by Tim Street-Porter | Rizzoli | 248 pages | $75 hardcover

WILLIE & JOE: THE WWII YEARS | By Bill Mauldin | Fantagraphics | 600 pages | $65 hardcover

BREAKDOWNS: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@&*! | By Art Spiegelman | Pantheon | 36 pages | $28 hardcover

GHOST WORLD: SPECIAL EDITION | By Daniel Clowes | Fantagraphics | 288 pages | $40 hardcover

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