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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).

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