The 20 Best Photobooks of 2021
ItThis selection of books is a great way to travel through visual art, even in a year where the pandemic made the world seem unstable and social media seemed a bit ephemeral.
This list was curated by TIME’s photo department. It is semi-personal and includes titles selected by editors after they were asked to reflect on the books that struck them the most in an year marked by COVID-19 isolation. The majority of these books deal with racial justice and examine economic inequality. Others, on the other hand, are a reprieve in these difficult times.
2021 also marks the 10th year we’ve shared our favorite photobooks, and it’s exciting to say the genre continues to flourish more than ever as photographers and brave publishers challenge the format in innovative ways.
These books, which combine a variety of works by historians and curators who are driven by the resonance of still images, sum up a lot of photographers’ work. Some books build upon traditional format, while others seek to create the most intimate and personal art experiences possible.
The Last CruzeLaToya Ruby FrazierThe Renaissance Society University of Chicago
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Last Cruze
The Renaissance Society University of Chicago
The Women’s Committee’s final meeting in the conference room of UAW Local1112 Reutehr Scandy Alli union Hall (left to right: Crystal Carpenter, Linda Hash and RaNeal Edwards; Pamela Brown, Marilyn Moore. Mary Ola Stemple. Tunisha Bell. And Frances Turnage), Lordstown OH 2019, 2019
LaToya Ruby Frazier—The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago
The Last CruzeThis extensive collaborative work by LaToya Ruby Frazier focuses on General Motors workers in Lordstown (Ohio) who are part of the United Auto Workers union. The plant’s abrupt shutdown in 2019 meant that thousands of workers needed to choose whether or not to relocate to other plants. Frazier sensitively documents the autoworkers and their families’ stories during this difficult time. Frazier shows the members of the union in black and white, along with personal testimonials, to explore themes such as resilience, solidarity, shared purpose, and advocacy for workers.
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PICKPOCKETDaniel Arnold Elara Press
PICKPOCKET by Daniel Arnold
PICKPOCKET – Daniel Arnold
PICKPOCKET is Daniel Arnold’s first monograph and an experimental meditation on his obsessive documentation of New York City streets from 2009-2020. Beginning with Instagram photos, the book was completed during Zoom meetings that took place throughout quarantine. He also met with Josh Safdie’s brothers and Sebastian Bear McClard, producer and director of the film. “I functioned as sort of a screenwriter and then got out of the way and let them direct,” Arnold told TIME.
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The Banda JournalFatris MF by Muhammad Fadli, Jordan, jordan Édition
The Banda Journal of Muhammad Fadli & Fatris FMF
Jordan, jordan Édition
Interior design of “The Banda Journal”, by Muhammad Fadli & Fatris MF
From “The Banda Journal” by Muhammad Fadli and Fatris MF, Jordan, jordan Édition
Muhammad Fadli and Fatris MF— Jordan, jordan Édition
The Banda Journal is a poignant retracing of the legacy of colonialism and violence in Indonesia’s Banda Islands—which were exploited for centuries by powerful Western countries in pursuit of endemic species, but have since faded into obscurity. Photographer Muhammad Fadli and writer Fatris MF, who collaborated on the three-year project, smartly weave photographs, text and research from several trips to the archipelago to tell an indelible and engaging story about “a place whose destiny was determined by a plant.” The book captures a desire to remember the islands’ importance and what they have endured from the perspective of those who live in and hold Banda dear.
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What She Said Deanna TempletonMack
What She Said, Deanna Templeton
Deanna Templeton, What She Said (MACK 2021), a journal entry
Deanna Templeton’s What She Said, MACK 2021
It can be triggering to go back through a teenager’s diary, while the idea of sharing it with others is frightening. It is possible to be introspective. What She SaidDeanna Templeton brings back the heartbreaking parts of her journals, and displays them with recent photos of teenage girls. The portraits, mostly made during chance encounters on the street, are of young women who Templeton says “either reminded me of myself when I was their age. Or how I wish I could have been like.” The pairing of her words from the past, alongside these young faces, creates a conversation across generations.
“I’m at a better place now so I can look back and laugh at how dramatic I was,” Templeton told TIME, “But, those feelings were super-intense and real to me then.” The book shows how time is essential to grow, heal and open a space where strength can be passed on to the next generation.
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Photographs from the Black Atlantic: As We RiseAperture
Photography From the Black Atlantic: “As We Rise”
Samuel Fosso, ‘70s Lifestyle, 1975–78
Samuel Fosso—courtesy JM.PATRAS/PARIS
The Book New Black Vanguard(Aperture 2019, Reflection on the Creativity of a New Generation of Black Photographers. As We RiseThe Wedge Collection presents an ingenious selection of Black artist’s work (Aperture 2021). Mark Sealy, cultural historian and curator of the Wedge Collection writes in his introduction that “as a…” “time trapping process, photography offers us the opportunity to reflect on the way we were and make real, in the present, what we have become.” As We RiseBeautifully connects and contrasts movement in Black art. This reflects how Black photographers create space, build community, and celebrate their power.
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Plain AirIrina RosovskyMack
Irina Rozovasky, In Plain Air
Untitled, Prospect Park (Brooklyn 2011-2016).
Plain Air is an ode to the communal experience of visiting Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Irina Rozovsy writes in the book about moving to New York and her initial attraction to the park, saying it is “susceptible to the brutality of the seasons, falls into disrepair, has its moods and temperaments, but never betrays democracy. It’s a melting pot bubbling over in all its glory.” Her photographs, however, see past the cracks to record a romance she feels for the place. The photos capture an intimate moment of joy shared that is Whitmanesque and more so as it lingers in isolation.
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American GeographyMatt Black, Thames & Hudson
Matt Black – American Geography
Thames & Hudson
Matt Black—Magnum Photos
American Geography is the culmination of photographer Matt Black’s six-year project circumnavigating the Lower 48 to document communities where 20% or more of the population live below the poverty line. Although the individual images create a gentle beat, they collectively make an audible boom, which exposes America’s harsh realities of inequality. Each chapter concludes with entries from Black’s notebooks, offering simple moments of reflection that reverberate around the pictures. You can read our complete review right here.
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Santa BarbaraDiana MarkosianAperture
Santa Barbara, Diana Markosian
The 2019 Arrival
Diana Markosian—Magnum Photos
Santa Barbara is an autobiographical reconstruction of photographer Diana Markosian’s surreal journey from post-Soviet Moscow to Santa Barbara, Calif., with her family. Markosian boldly intertwines fiction and reality by choosing actors to portray her family in scenes she reenacted. With a 1980s American soap-opera screenwriter, she co-wrote a script. Santa Barbara, which inspired Markosian’s mother to move to America. Markosian’s Santa BarbaraIt is both a compelling, moving story and a deeply personal one. The emotion conveyed feels universal yet specific.: the desire to understand and love one’s mother, as she is.
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We’re sorry about the War by Peter van Agtmael, Mass Books
Peter van Agtmael: Sorry for the War
Jennie Taylor, who was measuring a gravestone potential for Brent’s husband on September 17, 2017, the day prior to her first marriage anniversary without him, took this picture. Brent, an Army National Guard Officer who died while in Afghanistan was measured by Jennie Taylor. North Ogden, Utah, 2019.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Sorry about the War conveys an absurdist’s gaze upon the wreckage of the post 9/11-world. This book is a work of hallucinatory art that deals with the most grave of subjects, much like early Oliver Stone movies. It picks up from where van Agtmael’s previous book, Disco Night Sept. 11, left off, examining the newest chapters of the “Global War on Terror,” including the fight against ISIS in Iraq. You can read our complete review right here.
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Street PortraitsDawoud BetMack
Street portraits by Dawoud Bety
Street Portraits: Girl With School Medals. Brooklyn, NY. 1988.
Street PortraitsIt feels like a simple title for an early series portraits by Dawoud bey from the 1980s and 1990s. While in each frame, the subject simply connects with the camera’s lens, these intimate exchanges combined with Bey’s magnificent framing make the face feel singular, amplifying each person’s individuality. Writer Greg Tate cites how historically “mainstream media’s predominate stories about Blackfolk in that time were either about gang murders or drug selling and addiction.” Bey’s photographs intentionally served as an alternative to the story white America was telling itself on the evening news. These images have remained powerful reminders of the message they conveyed over time.
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What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999, 10×10 Photobooks
What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999
Germaine Krull’s “Métal,” featured in What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999
Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum/Estate Germaine Krull/ Museum Folkwang/10×10 Photosbooks
Marcia Resnick’s “Re-visions,” featured in What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999
Courtesy Marcia Resnick/10×10 Photobooks
The photobooks are a collection of photos by women that feels like an antidote for the male-dominated past anthologies. This book features many out-of print books, and the layouts of the original publications are contextualized to make it an endless source for visual inspiration for historians, image-makers and designers.
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Hello FutureFarah Al Qasimi, Capricious
Hello Future by Farah al Qasimi
Noora’s Room, 2020
Farah Al Qasimi
Hello Future is an entrancing collection of observations from Farah Al Qasimi’s photographic, performance and film practice. Al Qasimi explores power structures, gender, and aesthetics in the Persian Gulf through a variety of technicolor still lives and other moments from public and private life. Its sticker-sheet jacket and hardback in chrome are just two examples. Hello FutureThis is an engaging, thoughtful and highly intelligent visual experience.
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I can’t stand to see you cryRahim FortuneLoose Joints
“I can’t stand to see you cry,” by Rahim Fortune
Rahim Fortune—Courtesy Loose Joints Publishing
From “I can’t stand to see you cry,” by Rahim Fortune
Rahim Fortune—Courtesy Loose Joints Publishing
From “I can’t stand to see you cry,” by Rahim Fortune
Rahim Fortune—Courtesy Loose Joints Publishing
Rahim Fortune mixes photos from his daily life with social documentary images to create a journal-like experience. The combination of private and public amplifies the story of a young man’s life in the American South to something bigger. Photographs from a protest on the streets are followed by what appears to be the photographer reaching out from the camera and holding his father’s hand in a hospital bed. Fortune employs photography to keep time and people alive in ways that raise the spirits even in the face death. Photographs help us to remember the important things in life: our family and friends as well as our unique bonds.
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Spanish Colour, 1985-2020 by Cristóbal HaraPlague Press
Spanish Color 1985-2020 by Cristóbal Hara
From inside Spanish Colour 1985-2020 by Cristóbal Hara
A compilation spanning 35 years of photographer Cristóbal Hara’s archive, Spanish Colour is reminiscent of Víctor Erice’s 1973 filmIt Spirit of the Beehive taking us on a road trip through Spain’s dusty countryside to discover a funhouse of traditions and rituals. Hara is a vivid color-struck artist who finds beauty mixed with absurd humor. This makes it difficult to believe that Hara has any romantic ideas about religion, history, or machismo.
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Lesbians: Eye to eye PortraitsJEBAnthology Editions
JEB: Eye to eye: Portraits Lesbians
There is so much to be afraid of with cars. Cars are the ability to adapt and move around the globe. You’ll soon realize the extent of your potential if you learn how to do this. It doesn’t matter what you do, it is possible to achieve anything. Valerie Mullen, Lori. Washington, D.C., 1978.
JEB (Joan E. Biren).
JEB (Joan E. Biren) has proudly called herself a “radical lesbian feminist” for years. As a founding member of The Furies, a collective of like-minded members, JEB turned her passion for research and “absolute inability to find lesbian images” into a quest for greater lesbian visibility. She began her first novel because she wanted to share her vision with other lesbians. Portraits of lesbians: Eye to eyeThis book, which was originally published in 1979 by JEB and then republished by Anthology Editions, is called “The Original Self-Published Book”. Read TIME’s full interview with JEB here.
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Family mattersGillian LaubAperture
Gillian Laub – Family Matters
Jamie my cousin, captive audience 2003
Gillian Laub, artist has blurred lines between professional and personal lives. She often casts her friends and family in editorial and commercial assignments. An exhibition is inspired by every meaningful relationship.
She writes this monograph with her family photos. It is intimate and honest. The constant self-questioning over the complexity of familial bonds culminates in a memoir about reconciliation with one’s life and a journey towards love and self-acceptance.
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Encampment in Wyoming: Selects from Lora Webb Nichols Archive 1899-1948Fw. Books
Encampment in Wyoming: Selects from Lora Webb Nichols Archive 1899-1948
Spread from Encampment Wyoming: Selections of the Lora Webb Nickels Archive 1899-1948
Many popular portrayals of the American West of the 1920s feel predominated by cowboy mythology. It is not possible to tell the story of Laura Webb Nichols who was, among other things, a photographer, mother, entrepreneur and ran a southern Wyoming photo finishing business. In this collection of photographs by the little-known photographer, we see Webb’s images alongside ones she collected from customers, mainly amateur photographers, whose inclusion shows her curatorial eye for recognizing subtle, strange and austere image-making. Encampment, Wyoming feels like a film about a small town directed through Webb’s singular vision.
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It’s a Wish That I Never Saw the SunshinePacifico SilanoLoose Joints
I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine, Pacifico Silano
I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine is a detail taken from the interior by Pacifico Silano
Pacifico Silano—Courtesy Loose Joints
In Pacifico Silano’s It’s a Wish That I Never Saw the SunshineVintage gay porn and found imagery are scattered throughout the book. There is also a hint of an eye looking back at a piece of skin that explodes with eroticism by collage. It is presented in accordion-folded form and can either be used as one collage or as a collection of individual images. Retro color photos feel like a journey back in time, allowing you to reflect on gay men and life prior to AIDS.
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American MirrorPhilip MontgomeryAperture
American Mirror by Philip Montgomery
A Christmas eviction, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December, 2015
The collection of photos taken over nearly a decade across America conjures up a vivid vision about America’s past and future. The scenes, captured in Philip Montgomery’s nouveau noir style, feel as if they’re narrated over a crackling radio broadcast declaring hard truths about the state of the country. In the introduction, writer Jelani Cobb describes the sequence of images as “stations” in an ongoing “American crucible” where each photo is accompanied by a historical testimony leaving the viewer to reckon with themselves.
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Photo No-Nos Meditations on How Not to Photography Editor’s Note Jason Fulford, The Aperture
Jason Fulford, Photo No-Nos. Meditations on what Not to photograph edited
Gursky Gherkin is Just A Very Large Pickle 2001 Duane Michals
Photo No-Nos Meditations on How Not to Photography The book contains over 200 photographers’ thoughts and musings on the things that they should avoid. This book is an endless source of information, perfect for the nonlinear year. You can flip to any page, and open the wisdom as if you were a fortune cookie. Although there are very few photographs on the 320 pages of this book, it offers new and wonderful ways to see.
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