Reading for pleasure? Our writers choose the titles they most admired and enjoyed this year; on the next few pages, a wide range of ideas about what to give this Christmas
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The Independent Culture
PHOTOGRAPHYPerhaps surprisingly, the photography book of the year is An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France (Buonpane Publications pounds 29.95), with a text by Philippe Brunel and pictures by a number of anonymous photographers, mostly staffmen at L'quipe, a paper long associated with the Tour. The book is unusual because people who take pictures of sporting events seldom see their work preserved within covers. And it's important because French reportage of leisure pursuits from around 1930 to the mid- Sixties has given us the best sports photography ever.

Those years were also the great era of the Tour, when it had an almost intimate relationship with its devotees. And this is an intimate book. Its images belong to a period before intrusive advertising, crass colour and television, modern developments which have conspired to rob sports photography of its humanity. These riders are seldom shown on their bikes. They are eating, weeping, praying. They are often pictured in the bath, or in the hated train transfers between stage towns. We know them to be beautiful, epic heroes. None the less it is clear how vulnerable they are, humble too (most cyclists of this generation came from peasant backgrounds), used to toil and pain rather than the accolades of publicity. It's appropriate that their photographers should be anonymous. We are reminded that in the old days the Tour was a shared national experience.

For a different kind of French photographer, Jean-Pierre Montier's Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art (Thames and Hudson pounds 50) offers a tribute to an aristocrat of the camera. If you appreciate the master's work, this long, thoughtful book is essential. I confess that Cartier-Bresson's view of the world is too much de haut en bas for me. One cannot exactly fault the way that he is superior. But I feel that anonymous pictures of racing cyclists belong to a vernacular photographic language, while Cartier-Bresson's pictures of France are no less aloof than his observations of Mexico or the Far East. He gave up photography to concentrate on drawing. Alas, Cartier-Bresson's work with pen and pencil is unconvincing. So are his aesthetic ruminations.

Photography and philosophy do not mix. The most interesting photography books often feature relaxed conversations between the person who took the pictures and a journalist or some other pal. In Nan Goldin's I'll Be Your Mirror (Scalo pounds 47.50) we learn about her practice of giving slide- shows, at first to friends, then to larger audiences, with a fast commentary on the images. This performance was called "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency", and in the late Eighties it gave her fame - especially among the drug- dependent hustlers or semi-artists of the Lower East Side who were her subjects. Goldin's casual but grabbing colour photos take us into a very sordid scene. But not out again. She's trapped, as Darryl Pinckney inadvertently reveals in a nostalgic essay.

Though they are already dated, Goldin's prints are still more vital than the images of another American photographer, Linda McCartney, whose Roadworks (Bulfinch Press pounds 45) seems ladylike in comparison. McCartney has been working with a camera for 30 years and the first photos in this book, from the early Seventies, are old-fashioned but pleasant essays in American regionalism. These are generally in black and white. The interest grows whenever she uses colour. Then a new strangeness enters her art. These prints might be by a different photographer, one with a feeling for life and death. There are many shots of life with the band Wings. I find them dull.

America, its spaces and peoples, is so generous with photographic subjects that one feels that its exploration has only just begun. It's good to have a reissue of Richard Avedon's classic In The American West (Abrams pounds 55), photos taken between 1979 and 1984. Surely this remains his best work, but you feel he could have dug a little further. Alex MacLean's Taking Measures Across the American Landscape (Tale pounds 30) is a remarkable and beautiful album. Aerial photographs are hardly ever inspiring, but these sing. They illuminate the vastness of a continent and its different cultures. There's a thoughtful, politically important commentary by the landscape architect James Corner.

Similarly expansive is Frederic Brenner's Jews/ America/A Representation (Abrams pounds 55), which has a strikingly elongated format and comes with a foreword by Simon Schama. Brenner (a Frenchman) has travelled the world for 17 years to record Jewish life. In America he visited 32 states. He gives us fine portraits of Isaac Stern, Barbra Streisand and so on, besides much less well-known people. More to be relished, since Jewish portraiture is familiar territory, is Brenner's depiction of groups. Some of these are startling, funny too. The band of Jewish Harley-Davidson owners on Miami Beach, for instance, or the descendants of the family of Levi Strauss, or the Las Vegas Jewish Academy, and especially the Nice Jewish Boys Removal and Storage Company, who are in existence to help the people of Florida.

Victoria Brynner has produced a nice tribute to her father in Yul Brynner: Photographer (Abrams pounds 27.95). Obviously the film star was much more than an amateur lensman. Equally obviously, he didn't really excel with the camera. So this is a present for movie buffs, with revealing behind-the- set snaps of Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand, Mia Farrow and many others. Margarita Tupitsyn's The Soviet Photograph, 1924-1937 (Yale pounds 25) is a short, competent survey of her subject. Sixties London (Lund Humphries pounds 25), photographs by Dorothy Bohm, keeps clear of the trendy aspects of the decade. Many of them could have been taken in the Fifties, as though Bohm were hoping to record a London that was fast disappearing.