So Pretty

26 Best Coffee Table Books of 2013

From a massive atlas of the world to Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings, here are the 26 most beautiful, expensive, and fascinating art and photography books published this year.

2013 was a banner year for the picture book—presenting a cornucopia of subjects in well-published paper and ink books that bespoke, despite the ill tidings of the clattering classes, of the good health of the book publishing trade.

From opulent volumes on the Beatles, to the entirety of Playboy magazine (or at least what could be fit into 6 slip cased tomes), picture stories by Ben Katchor and Art Speigeman, to monographs of old and new master photographers—Lartigue, Dorthea Lange, Elliot Erwitt, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Weegee, Bill Brandt, Garry Winogrand, a treasure trove of coffee table books (no longer a disparaging designation) were published. In fact, it cannot go unsaid—this year’s offerings were chosen with difficulty—for every volume listed here a good case could be made for two or three others. Which is why I suggest you hasten to your local book emporium and dip into the wide array of quality mini-art galleries to be found within the pages of real books.

Atlas of the World (20th edition)

Oxford University Press has published its authoritative world atlas for the past twenty years, each annual updated with important and arcane (you decide) information. The 448 page 15x12 atlas has a 48-page “Introduction to World Geography”- which acts a kind of user’s manual. This year’s update include a section on "The Future of The Oceans”, a spread on food production as part of the "Will the World Run Out of Food?” six new world thematic maps on water scarcity, immigration, refugees, refugee remittances, direction of oil trade, and globalization, new satellite images of London, Amsterdam, Riyadh, Cairo, Vancouver, Sydney, Panama Canal, and Rio de Janeiro, updated country descriptions reflecting the latest developments around the world.


Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories

By Ben Katchor

MacArthur fellow Katchor (Julius Knipfl, Real Estate Photographer, The Cardboard Valise) latest tome is a beautiful, full-color volume, collecting work from his long-running series (14 years) in Metropolis. For that venue Katchor was preoccupied with topics related to architecture and urban design. Still, many of stories in Hand-Drying exhibit the ways property influences and reveals our cultural values and in which rampant consumerism assumes a variety of religiosity—witness the Brotherhood of Immaculate Conception devoted to products that outlive their owners.

Across the Ravaged Land

By Nick Brandt

Across the Ravaged Land is the third and final volume in Nick Brandt's trilogy of books (On This Earth, A Shadow Falls) documenting the disappearing natural world and animals of East Africa. There are powerful portraits (almost as if shot in a studio) of elephants, lions, leopards. And for the first time Brandt includes a human presence—note the ranger holding up two huge elephant tusks on the book’s cover. Brandt’s project took the better part of a decade, which he outlines in two essays—one on his conservation work, describing what his Big Life Foundation is doing to preserve the Amboseli ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania. The other an overview of the technical aspects of this photographic project.

Raymond Pettibon

By Robert Storr, Jonathan Lethem, Kitty Scott, Byron Coley, Ralf Rugoff (Editor)

This 368 page slip-cased volume is, to date, the definitive collection of the darling of the contemporary LA art scene. Spanning thirty years, from his punk band flyers of the ‘70’s to his current countercultural political art, as well as previously unpublished material. Additionally included is a collaboration between Jonathan Lethem and the artist, commissioned specifically for the book.

Magic: 1400s-1950s

By Mike CaveneyJim SteinmeyerNoel Daniel 

Magic was long seen as distinct from sorcery as this 650-page overview shows. From medieval illuminated manuscripts to post WWII photos, over a thousand images taken from rarely seen vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings related to what is considered the oldest performing art fill this remarkable anthology. Over 500 years of powerful evocative visuals and a useful text connect medieval street performances to modern cinematic special effects.

The Great War: A Photographic Narrative

By Mark Holborn, Hilary Roberts

Interest in The WAR TO END ALL WARS has brought a spate of excellent monographs Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings,The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War by Peter Hart, Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I by John MosierThe War That Ended Peace: The Road to 914 by Margaret MacMillan and July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin. Photo editor Mark Holborn and the head of Collections of Imperial War Museums' photography archie Hilary Roberts culled nearly 400 photographs from the vast chronicles that document World War I from mobilization 1914 to armistice in 1918.

The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme

By Joe Sacco, Adam Hochschild

Cartoon journalist Joe Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel ) depicts the events of July 1, 1916 in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama. It is printed on fine quality accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet that includes Sacco’s annotations and an excerpt from Adam Hochschild’s World War I history, To End All Wars.  Accurate in its detail and impressionistic in toto, Sacco explains, “A few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality.” 

David Bowie Is...

David Bowie Is...

by Victoria Broackes (Editor), Geoffrey Marsh  Victoria & Albert Museum Harry

One can never tell what ends up behind the walls of art museums as aged pop music star David Bowie proved when he was honored with an  retrospective of his fifty years as a cultural icon with an exhibition at Britain’s Victoria & Albert Museum and an accompanying catalogue displaying more than 300 objects--including Ziggy Stardust bodysuits and original costumes, visual excerpts from films and live performances, album artwork, handwritten lyrics, fashion, photography, film, set designs, Bowie’s own instruments as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics, and more.


By Lelia Wanick Salgado, Sebastiao Salgado
Sebastiao Selgado’s newest opus Genesis (“In Genesis, my camera allowed nature to speak to me. And it was my privilege to listen”) forms a unique triad with two earlier long term projects; Workers (1993), recording the vanishing way of life of manual laborers, and Migrations (2000), a tribute to mass migration. It is the result of 30 voyages over an eight-year period expedition to rediscover the terrains and   life forms of a still pristine planet. Selgado points out, “Some 46% of the planet is still as it was in the time of genesis. We must preserve what exists.” Salgado speaks of the 520 pages of exquisite black and white photography, as “his love letters to the planet.” Both the Genesis Project and the Instituto Terra reveal his deep commitment to battling environmental devastation.

Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq

By Michael Kamber with Introduction by Dexter Filkins 

Photojournalist Michael Kamber interviewed photojournalists from Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, MagnumNewsweek, the New York TimesParis Match, Reuters, Time, the Times of London and the Washington Post to assemble a comprehensive visual and oral history of the nine year Iraq War using previously unpublished photos and a plethora of eyewitness frontline accounts.

Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans

By Keith F. Davis, Jane L. Aspinwall, and April M. Watson

Photographer Terry Evans’ first career retrospective exhibition appeared at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art included 100 color and black-and-white photographs spanning her career, beginning in 1971 to the present. The accompanying monograph features the landscape and people of the American Midwest, which have fascinated her since growing up in Kansas City. Also included are her photographs of diverse subjects such as natural history museum specimens, the city of Chicago, and the steel and oil industries.

Enrico Natali: Detroit 1968

By Jane Brown  
First published in 1972 accompanying Natali’s 1969 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, this new edition includes an introduction by Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City Is the Place to Be and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. As Art Institute Curator of Photography Hugh Edwards wrote then, “These scenes and incidents might have occurred anywhere in the United States in this time when regional characteristics are disappearing ... this is a view of a situation and condition, not a localization.” Here is Detroit just before the auto industry began its long decline, when it was beginning to lose half of its population.

Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps

By Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning holocaust memoir Maus legitimized established the graphic novel and his magazine RAW was a home and inspiration to a new generation of cartoonists and graphic artists. Co-Mix, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum (and a monograph), includes his earliest self-published comics through his New Yorker covers and recent books, and features essays by film critic J. Hoberman and MoMA curator and Dean of the Yale University School of Art Robert Storrs.


Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground

By Matthew Chojnacki

Film scholar Matthew Chojnacki, who has also assembled a 80s vinyl cover art compendium, Put the Needle on the Record, anthologizes over 200 astonishing posters for cult movies like The Big Lebowski, Blade Runner, and Pink Flamingos and annotates them with vivid commentary. Additionally, the book contains an interview with each of the 100 artists about their posters, art techniques, and favorite flicks.

Before They Pass Away

By Jimmy Nelson 

In an incomparable project that complements the recent work of Sebastio Salgado, Jimmy Nelson travels to 44 countries, using a large format camera to record the lives and traditions of the planet’s (the last) 29 surviving indigenous tribes—the Kazakh, the Himba, the Huli, the Kalam, the Goroka, the Amori, Gauchos and Asaro and more. It’s both a profound visual experience and an important document.

War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

By Anne Wilkes Tucker, Will Michels , Natalie Zelt , Liam Kennedy, Hilary Roberts, and John Stauffer

This weighty volume served as a companion to an exhibition at the Museum Fine Arts Houston. It is an impressive survey of 525 both known and newly discovered photographs dating back to 19th century conflicts like the Civil and Crimean Wars up to Iraq, and is authoritatively annotated with scholarly texts serving to illuminate the relationship between photography and armed conflict.

The Complete Don Quixote

BMiguel de Cervantes, Rob Davis (Illustrator).

Given the burgeoning movement to annotate works by Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank Baum, and Shakespeare, illustrator Rob Davis has taken up the challenge of adapting this well-known but rarely read classic with innovative paneling and an interesting color palette and rendering it accessible to whole new audience of readers. It’s a delightful iteration taking nothing away from Cervantes story.

The Universe Next Door

By Abelardo MorellElizabeth SiegelBrett Abbottand Paul Martineau  

Cuban born photographer Abelardo Morrell’s work has garnered international recognition and The Art Institute of Chicago mounted a mid-career retrospective (which traveled to LA’s Getty Museum) included his early black and white work, his explorations with the camera obscura and his innovative tent camera photos. Curator Elizabeth Siegal provides an essay explicating Morrell’s vision and there is also an interview with the photographer.

The Hunted Whale

By James P. McGuane 

The 250 photographs found here is not only a presentation of the majesty of the earth’s largest mammal but a lucid photo essay on the once thriving industry of whale hunting.  Included an enthralling first person account of a hunt, excerpted from naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy’s 1912 Logbook for Grace.

Peter Beard

By Owen EdwardsSteven M.L. Aronson (Author), Nejma Beard (Editor), David Fahey (Editor), Peter Beard  (Photographer)
There are a number of monographs of modern photographers recently published but this Peter Beard’s 706-page behemoth, previously published in 2 volumes in 2000, overshadows them with its sheer brute physicality. This volume showcases his life’s work through extensive use of his diaries, photographs, and collages which utilize “his photographs as a canvas onto which he superimposes multi-layered contact sheets, ephemera, found objects, newspaper clippings that are elaborately embellished with meticulous handwriting, old-master inspired drawings and often swaths of animal blood used as paint.”

Circus: Paintings and Drawings

By Fernando Botero. Introduction by Curtis Bill Pepper.

Along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Shakira, Botero ranks among the best legal exports from his native Columbia. This tome containing more than 180 works (130 paintings and 50 works on paper) anthologized for the first time, celebrating the festive entertainment we call the circus.

George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992

By Mark A. Vieira 

Referred to as the “Rembrandt of Hollywood,” George Hurrell’s photography epitomized the glamour of the Hollywood’s Golden Age as he created iconic portraits of its stars, both evanescent and eternal—Marlene Dietrich, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, and Joan Crawford, the Barrymores to Clark Gable and Gary Cooper to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Warren Beatty and Sharon Stone. Viera curates a vivid collection of Hurrell’s photos as well as providing a useful biography.

Lonely Planet's Beautiful World

By Lonely Planet 

Lonely Planet, the travel guide publisher, collects a cornucopia of over 200 lush full-color images in a 224 page book, containing of the world’s most spectacular, breath-taking places —a cityscape of Manhattan, New York, a sprawling aerial shot of the Lake District, a fiery volcano eruption or wind-sculpted icebergs, and awe inspiring photos of wildlife migration. These photographs are meant to inspire wanderlust and they are successful in doing just that.

Time and Tide: Photographs from Praia Piquinia

By Christian Chaize. Introduction by Jen Bekman.

Photographer Christian Chaize spent eight years, returning repeatedly over the course of that time, shooting Praia Piquinia a beach in the south of Portugal from the same vantage point—a long term time lapse photographic project. The results are a skein of 80 thought provoking images fusing various measures of light and weather and people that invite close inspection.

Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959

By John Elderfield

Painter Helen Frankenthaler, who passed in 2011, was considered one of the great American artists, is represented in museum collections worldwide. This last spring Gagosian Gallery, New York, mounted an exhibition devoted to 30 of Frankenthaler’s paintings from the 1950s.The accompanying catalogue includes an essay by John Elderfield and important historical texts by the poet and art critic Frank O’Hara and former Rose Art Museum director Carl Belz as well as a new chronology by Lauren Mahony, which draws upon previously inaccessible archival sources. The volume's title is taken from one of the paintings in the exhibition.