Books for Christmas: Photography: Life and tomes of a vanishing century

From rock'n'roll to rockeries; from puddings to prize-fights: Independent writers choose a sumptuous spread of books to give (and to receive)
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Biggest and best of many rival volumes offering a visual chronicle of the century is Phaidon's eponymous Century (pounds 29.95). Editor Bruce Bernard's captions are often intrusively banal - if a picture isn't "memorable", "classic", "timeless" or "telling", what is it doing here? - but that is a negative testament to the narrative power of the images he has assembled. Photographers from Magnum are well-represented, but any tendency to associate the agency nostalgically with the legendary heyday of Robert Capa is vehemently corrected by Magnum0 (Phaidon, pounds 39.95), a strikingly packaged portfolio of the finest photojournalism of the past ten years. A picture by Paul Lowe from 1994 or 1995 (depending on which caption you believe) is reproduced in both books. Showing bloody boot-prints in the snow of Chechnya, it offers a darkly contrasting view of the potential for progress suggested by another famous footprint: Neil Armstrong's on the Moon, in 1969.

A similar photo - of Buzz Aldrin's bootprint - is one of the better known images in Full Moon (Cape, pounds 35), Michael Light's selection from the massive haul of pictures generated by the Apollo missions. Digitally enhanced, the photos have a stark, grey clarity and the book's overall design - unnumbered pages induce a kind of narrative weightlessness - aims to simulate the experience and environment depicted.

If the moon landing was, in some ways, the climactic expression of US expansionist ideology, that is nicely suggested by compositional echoes of pictures from the dawn of American landscape photography - when the likes of Timothy O'Sullivan were employed by the great geological surveys aiming to map the nation's manifest destiny of westward expansion. Benefiting, in the mid-1860s, from the patronage of the California State Geological survey, Carleton Watkins took some of the defining views of Yosemite and established a specifically American vision of the sublime, an epic wilderness untouched by - and to be protected from - man. Carleton Watkins: the art of perception (Abrams, pounds 40) is exemplary, both in quality of reproduction and in its scholarly situating of Watkins in a tradition he virtually initiated.

More than a century later, Peter Brown, in On the Plains (Norton, pounds 25), transforms the ostensibly featureless expanse of the great plains of the American West into an infinitely varied photographic space subtly inscribed with memory and history. Brown's as-if-faded colours are reminiscent of Richard Misrach's desert scenes; certainly he takes his place alongside Misrach as one of the pre-eminent photographers of the American landscape.

The larger history of American photography in all its canonical richness is thoroughly surveyed in a revised and enlarged edition of An American Century of Photography (Abrams, pounds 60). More than anyone else, it was Alfred Stieglitz who established photography as an art in America. His achievement, as photographer and passionate advocate of his medium, is gloriously displayed in a monograph (Bullfinch, pounds 50) which immediately establishes itself as the best available edition of his work.

Stieglitz claimed that "the quality of touch in its deepest living sense" was inherent in his photographs; they are reproduced here with tactile fidelity and care. Having benefited from Stieglitz's encouragement and advocacy, Paul Strand went on to become an acknowledged master in his own right. A representative selection from the full range of his output - from the radically innovative, semi-abstract work of 1916 to the impersonal realism of his later work - is showcased in Paul Strand: sixty years of photographs (Aperture, pounds 22). Another, more recently venerated figure, Richard Avedon, assembles a collection of portraits of (mostly famous) figures from The Sixties (Cape, pounds 40). Whether it's Warhol baring his scars or a Black Panther bearing arms, all bear the mark of the photographer's various signature styles in a volume of extravagant minimalism.

There's nothing minimalist about African Ceremonies (Abrams, pounds 95), a stupendous two-volume selection of photographs by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith. In its marrying of the scrupulous and the aesthetic, the book represents a consummation of the National Geographic world-view. The images are amazing, the apparently limitless extent of the photographers' access to the rites of initiation, birth and death even more so. The scale of their undertaking is as nothing, though, compared to that of Yann Arthus- Bertrand's The Earth from the Air (Thames & Hudson, pounds 39.95), a phantasmagoric revelation of the shifting patterns of colour, form and human activity that adorn the planet.

The photographs of the Korean Boo Moon (Nazraeli Press, pounds 45) are not just from the air but I(it)of the air. His abstract, empty skyscapes are like blue Rothkos. His seas are icy, serene, and would have made an apt epilogue to Waterproof (Stemmle, pounds 55), a constantly revealing anthology devoted to the relationship between water and photography. The scope is epic and intimate, covering - and uncovering - rivers, beaches, pools, fish, boats, washing, bathing. These last two activities take on special resonance in Michael Ackerman's stunning first book, End Time City (Scalo, pounds 29.95), of photographs of Benares. To document the place with Ackerman's skill and sensitivity would be no small achievement, but he does something much rarer and (especially for a Westerner) infinitely more difficult, revealing the quotidian dream-space of the city.

Don McCullin has a tendency to look for what the great Indian photographer, Raghubir Singh, called "the abject as subject". His photos of India (Cape, pounds 30) are possessed of a beauty and dignity that is (as one has come to expect from McCullin) brutal, atrocious and searing.

The final stop on this photographic world tour is Paris where Bill Brandt "had the good fortune to start [his] career". Brandt (eds. Bill Jay and Nigel Warburton; Thames & Hudson, pounds 48) is the definitive edition of his brooding, shadow-hewn work. Brandt's images of London at night owe an obvious debt to Brassai's pioneering shots of the Parisian nuit, which make up a sizeable part of another impeccably produced monograph: Brassai: the Eye of Paris (Abrams, pounds 38). Brassai's Paris is instantly recognisable as the vision of a palpable photographic sensibility; the Paris of Eugene Atget (1857-1927) is no less so, though the identifying trait here is the felt absence of the photographer. Claiming only to provide "documents for artists", Atget photographed the deserted alleys and streets of Paris as if they were, as Walter Benjamin said, "scenes of crime". A slim selection from a huge archive of evidence is offered in Itineraires Parisiens (Paris Musees/Art Books International, pounds 35).

Finally, two famous Parisians change roles: Henri Cartier-Bresson's writings on photography are brought together in The Mind's Eye (Aperture, pounds 12.50), while Jean Baudrillard's lucidly composed photographs - his cool visual memories - are seen to great effect in Photographies 1985-1998 (Hatje Cantz/ Art Books International, pounds 35).