Books: Elvis and Pablo say cheese

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Good Photography books often come in an ample format, but this year the best Christmas present is a little volume that will fit into the pocket, Brassai: Letters to My Parents (University of Chicago Press, pounds 23.95). Actually, it doesn't contain many photographs. No matter: many of them haven't been published before, and all lovers of his art will wish to know more about the man who, more than any other, left us a visual account of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Perhaps he would not have produced his pictures, both subtle and wide- eyed, if he had been a native Parisian. Brassai, born Gulya Halasz in Hungary in 1899, moved to Berlin in 1920 and to Paris in 1924. His letters home explain his circumstances, describe the people he met and talk about his life as a busy photographer. These details have hitherto been obscure. The letters also reveal a tender, intelligent personality. Here's a fine book about the European emigrant experience. Brassai could have been a significant writer, an art critic too, although we're all glad that his most lavish talent was in the use of the camera.

There may be more to come from the Brassai archives. For instance, what happened to all the notes he made of Picasso's conversations? In Anne Baldassari's Picasso and Photography (Flammarion, pounds 40) we learn for the first time of the artist's love of camerawork. We already knew that he liked posing for photographs. This is something different. Baldassari, a curator at the Musee Picasso in Paris, has been through boxes of hoarded material and reveals that Picasso was a dedicated, gifted lensman and based dozens of paintings on his own photographs or on other people's pictures that pleased him for some reason. She may not reach to the depths of these reasons - but who could? This is a terrific addition to Picasso studies and photographic history.

Billy Kluver's A Day with Picasso (MIT Press, pounds 15.95) is a clever bit of detection. Researching the artistic community in Montparnasse, Kluver found 24 photographs of Picasso with such friends as Max Jacob and Modigliani. They were on four rolls of film with six photographs each and were all taken on the same day in 1916. By whom? Kluver has worked out that it was Jean Cocteau. The pictures aren't great - except that all photographs of the coal-eyed, Spanish-handsome Picasso gain a touch of greatness simply by association - but they are eloquent of an episode of bohemian history and, of course, of the equivocal position of non-combatants during the Kaiser's war. How empty the Montparnasse streets were on that summer day!

War is the subject of the deeply moving Requiem (Cape, pounds 40), edited by Horst Faas and Tim Page. It features the work of photographers who died in Vietnam and Indochina between the mid-1950s and the fall of Saigon in 1975. In all, 135 of them were killed or reported missing. Now we learn of their bravery, suffering and compassion. Part of the compassion is their feeling for the beauty of the landscapes of Cambodia and Vietnam. Then there's the terrible violence and destruction. I don't think I would let children look at Requiem, anyway not mine. They must grow up to it. This is the most harrowing book of war photography I have ever seen, and by far the most important photographic book of the year.

The self-importantly titled The Photography Book (Phaidon, pounds 25) is massive, so cheap for its price. It would be an excellent present for a teenager who is developing an interest in photography, and therefore in the world. Older people will have seen most of the images many times before. The idea is simple: 500 pictures by 500 photographers since the art form began 150 years ago, one to a page and alphabetically arranged. I would have included more sport and more sex, important topics for the modern camera.

The best sports photography arrives with Fausto Coppi: The True Story (Sport and Publicity, pounds 15.99). As everyone has suddenly discovered, cycling was the most photogenic of sports before the look of the riders and their caravan became influenced by Formula 1. As for sex, no publisher this year gives us a good photo book that takes on the subject of the human body. Furthermore, there seems to be less interest in photo portraiture. However, neat, stolen pictures of famous people, many of the prints with lascivious overtones, are to be found in Felicio Quinto's Studio 54: The Legend (Neuwes Publishing, pounds 12.95), which is about the NY club. Here are all sorts of stars, drunk and about to take their knickers down. This is paparazzi photography at its best (although in this genre there's not much difference between best and worst).

The adulterous campionissimo Fausto Coppi was probably the first victim of the paparazzi, back in the early 1950s. Mag-pix of celebrities were more decorous in the US than in Italy, as is shown in the likeable Life Faces (Thames and Hudson, pounds 12.95), portraits from the post-war period to today, taken from the American periodical, Life. I like Elvis and the glamorous Madonna best. The whole book is full of photographic riddles. We find that one thing, probably the only thing, in common between Presley and Picasso is that they never took a bad picture. I wonder if this was because of a common smoulder in their dark eyes. Note that black-and- white photography of both men was always more successful. Colour photography in Life is less memorable on the whole, although Veronica Lake is hilarious (posed in the midst of an inferno to show just how cool she was), and union leader Jimmy Hoffa, a man with whom you know you'd never wish to tangle. Finally, the last survivor of the Civil War (photographed in 1959, aged 119), makes this poor old patriot look as if colour itself was new to him.