17 photo books perfect for armchair travels

The world‘s best photographers reveal Greek beaches, the American heartland, poignant family scenes—and glamorous cats.

Friday, May 1, 2020,
By Sarah Leen
Photographer Massimo Vitali, in his photo book Entering a New World, trains his lens on places ...

Photographer Massimo Vitali, in his photo book Entering a New World, trains his lens on places where people gather, such as Sarakiniko Beach, on the Greek island of Milos.

Photograph by Massimo Vitali

If you’re doing your duty and staying home—but getting tired of binge-watching, baking, and seeing your friends on a screen—there’s a clever way to do some armchair traveling, meet cool animals, and discover stories that might touch your heart.

I’m talking about what my mother called “picture books.”

I’ve had a passion for photography since childhood, when I sat in our basement travelling the world through the pages of National Geographic. I made a life working as a professional photojournalist for 25 years before joining the staff at National Geographic as a senior photo editor. In 2013, I was named the first female director of photography in the magazine’s history.

For his photo book The Americans, Robert Frank hit the road in 1955, capturing scenes of life across the U.S., from diners to factories.

Photograph by Robert Frank

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that photo books are my addiction. My collection now numbers 606, and they can be found everywhere in my apartment, proliferating like the Tribbles in Star Trek. I get a delirious feeling—like a kid in a candy store—whenever I walk into a photography bookshop. My favourite for both new and used is the Photo-Eye Bookstore, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Every photographer I know wants their images published in a book. It gives their work the validation and permanence they just can’t get from a screen. You can’t fall in love with a website the way you can with a book. Here are some of my favorite books that you can order from an online bookseller. (Scroll down for a list of great photo bookstores.)

Armchair travel

Water, by Edward Burtynsky. In this epic 2013 book, master Canadian photographer Burtynsky examines water in all its beauty, variety, and, too often, scarcity. He made many of these images from above, yet they remain haunting and intimate in their depiction of our vital and precarious relationship with this most precious resource. All of his books are equally eye-opening, so if you don’t know his work this is a perfect place to jump in.

Robert Frank’s The Americans is one of the most influential works of photography.

Photograph by Robert Frank

The Americans, by Robert Frank. Who wouldn’t love a road trip right about now? In 1955 Robert Frank received a Guggenheim Fellowship and used the money to set off by car across America. He drove for two years, often with his family, creating one of the seminal photography books of the 20th century. The U.S. edition was published in 1959 with an introduction by On the Road author Jack Kerouac. This is a classic, and anyone interested in photography and photo history should consider adding it to their collection.

Entering a New World collects works from 2009-2018 by photographer Massimo Vitali.

Photograph by Massimo Vitali

Entering a New World, by Massimo Vitali. This 2020 book is like a faded memory of a time, not so very long ago, when we used to congregate on beaches, and at clubs and shopping venues. Vitali is from Lucca, Italy, and has been producing beautiful images and books that focus on where humanity gathers for pleasure and relaxation. Paging through the vivid, large-scale color images feels almost unreal and unimaginable now. You wonder: when might it look like this again?

Animal antics

Being Human, by William Wegman. Wegman has built a decades-long, fine-art career photographing generations of his amazingly cooperative Weimaraners, beginning with his first dog, Man Ray, in the 1970s. Many of his books and videos are especially produced for children.

For his book The Year of the Dogs, Vincent J. Musi spent a year in his studio photographing pooches, such as Peetrie, a toy poodle.

Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

The Year of the Dogs, by Vince Musi. This 2019 book by my friend and colleague at Nat Geo is pure delight. Vince is as good a writer as he is a photographer, and he is very funny. This is a book you can page through with the family. Read the dog bios out loud; they’ll make you laugh—or cry, with how moving they are. I’m a dedicated cat person, so you can trust me on this.

The Cat Photographer and Cats, by Walter Chandoha. So, cat books. First, it’s much harder to photograph cats than dogs. They do sleep a lot—which is one reason why there are so few really good photography books about cats. But long before cats became social-media darlings, there was Walter Chandoha. Chandoha, who died in 2019 at the age of 98, began his career photographing his own cat, Loco, in 1949. He went on to become a preeminent commercial cat photographer while also taking on work for LIFE magazine and National Geographic. Chandoha’s cats are photographed in highly stylized studio environments— usually the domain of celebrated movie stars. By the end of his career he’d made some 90,000 cat photos. These two books (published in 2015 and 2019, respectively) are a great introduction both to his work and his career, which was equally fascinating.

Felines of all forms get a fitting tribute in Walter Chandoha’s 2019 photo book Cats.

Photograph by Walter Chandoha

The Pillar, by Stephen Gill. Camera trap photography, or remotely trigged motion sensor imagery, is one of the go-to tools for any of National Geographic’s natural history photographers. English photographer Stephen Gill used this technique to make one of the most celebrated photo books of 2019. He focused on a fence post near his home in rural Sweden to capture the behaviour of birds who came and went from “the pillar.” The birds, as he says, “took” images of themselves as they landed on the post, sat quietly, and flew away. The photos are literal and magical, real and abstract. They are a vision of nature in all its spontaneity and wildness.

Much Loved, by Mark Nixon. Most of us can recall the plush teddy bear—or bunny or monkey or dog—that we had as children. (Mine was a dog called Crisco.) They were our first friends, our bedtime comfort, and our loyal companions. Photographer Nixon began making portraits of his son’s Peter Rabbit, and that image led to clients and friends bringing their own cherished toys to him for a portrait and to tell their stories. What began as a website exhibition quickly went viral and was published as a book in 2009. It remains in print today.

Malick Sidibé’s book Mali Twist, published in 2017, captures the youth of Bamako, Mali, circa 1969.

Photograph by Malick Sidibe

Portraits of us

Borne Back, by Victoria Will. This small book published in 2017 needs to be held in your hands to be appreciated. Borne Back is the first book by portrait photographer Victoria Will, featuring her tintype photographs of actors and directors at the Sundance Film Festival. Because of the complexities of working with wet-plate, where you have to process the image in an on-site darkroom immediately, many of these are the sole images taken of the sitter. The results are fresh, poetic, and surprising.

Photographer Malick Sidibé was nicknamed “the eye of Bamako.”

Photograph by Malick Sidibe

Mali Twist, by Malick Sidibé. Sidibé captured the vibrant popular culture of Bamako, the capital of Mali, from the 1950s–1970s in his photo studio, and at clubs, dances, and parties. His work evoked a hopeful time of dynamism and change in West Africa. Called “the eye of Bamako,” Sidibé died in 2016 but left a legacy that enhanced photography’s stature in the region and contributed to the growing African cultural movements of the time.

Family albums

The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss, by Nancy Borowick. This is a heartbreaking yet inspiring book from 2017 about a daughter confronting the loss of her parents. When both her mother and father were diagnosed with stage-four cancer, Borowick dealt with her feelings by photographing their lives. The book is assembled like a family album with snapshots, greeting cards, notes, and photographs. It is full of love, tenderness, and even humor—a lovely reminder of the gift of life.

Amelia and the Animals, by Robin Schwartz. Schwartz has been photographing her daughter, Amelia, who just turned 21, since she was three years old. This charming book features portraits of Amelia with an array of animals that make you feel you have entered an enchanted kingdom. The Schwartz family has never had less than three animals at any one time. Animals were always the subject of Schwartz’s photography. When she became a mother and saw how quickly Amelia bonded with the animals, this 2014 project was born. Her daughter, Schwartz says, “didn’t realize how unusual her encounters were until everyone started to tell her how lucky she was to meet so many animals.”

(Related: Hungry for more travel reading? Check out these 10 delicious reads for food lovers.)

Immediate Family, by Sally Mann. The pandemic quarantine has presented a perfect opportunity to document our families. Mann took domestic portraiture to a whole new level when she published Immediate Family in 1992. The photographs are taken on an 8x10-inch view camera at her rural Virginia home. There we see the lives of her children in an intimate vision of freedom and grace. There is a wild creativity and feral quality to how the children, willing collaborators in this sylvan fairy tale, present themselves. Note: Some images of nudity.

Off planet

Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography, by Mia Fineman. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 2019, this beautiful book honors the rich history of moon photography from rarely seen early daguerreotypes to contemporary art. The vintage imagery is especially delightful in all the various ways the moon has been portrayed in our popular culture. Actor Tom Hanks provides a thoughtful introduction.

Space Dogs: The Story of the Celebrated Canine Cosmonauts, by Martin Parr. Celebrated photographer, professor, and book collector Martin Parr has published an eclectic array of photography books of his own work, as well as others’. This small but fascinating book published in 2019 tells the story of the Soviet dogs who ventured into space before humans. It’s a compelling story and wonderfully illustrated with memorabilia from Parr’s own collection.

Alternative Moons, by Nadine Schlieper and Robert Pufleb. When I heard about this 2017 book, I just had to have it. Paging through you will see images of the moon, or moons, you have never seen before. You might start to wonder, where did these planets come from? Eventually, but very subtly, it is revealed that the moons are actually—spoiler alert—pancakes. The book even includes a recipe. It’s especially fun to watch people page through and see their reactions when they reach the punchline. Enjoy!

Picture-perfect bookstores

Artbook.com: This online bookseller stocks all sorts of art books, and their photography selection is especially strong. They sell both new and used books, and you can really lose yourself wandering through their online catalog. They have some physical locations associated with museums, but you can get almost anything through their website.

The Strand: This legendary New York City bookstore is fantastic for finding used or out-of-print books.

Many photo book publishers, galleries, and museums sell directly from their online sites, such as photo book publishers Steidel, Mack, Aperture, Damiani, and Kehrer Verlag; so do museums and galleries including MOMA, Tate, Fraenkel Gallery, Fotografiska, and International Centre for Photography.

What photo books are taking you on an adventure? Share with our well-read community by tagging us on Twitter with the hashtag #natgeotravelbookclub. Or email amy.alipio@natgeo.com and we’ll include some of your favorites in our weekly Travel newsletter.
Sarah Leen is the former director of photography for National Geographic Visual Media and the founder of The Visual Thinking Collective. Follow her on Instagram.
Updated April 27: The correct name of the Alternate Moons co-author is Nadine Schlieper.
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