Photography: Flashes of inspiration

Charles Darwent peruses recent volumes dedicated to the work of serious artists and celebrity snappers

Given the 20-year decline in those traditional photographic genres of reportage and street photography, together with the commensurate rise of photography in the visual arts, the time was ripe for a book that explored the no-man's land between: ie, those artists who might as aptly call themselves photographers, and vice versa. Here, at last, is Photo Art: The new world of photography by Uta Grosenick and Thomas Seelig (Thames & Hudson £24.95). This handsome book contains, in alphabetical order, everything from the eldritch trees of Tacita Dean to Marco Poloni's boats on the water, the latter looking very much like shots from a holiday brochure. And why are they not? Grosenick and Seelig don't say, but they do provide us with a comprehensive body of evidence for answering that question ourselves.

If you still need help along the way, then The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford £19.99) is an excellent place to find it. Photo Art gets no entry in Robin Lenman's gazetteer, but everything else is there, from Abbe, Ernst to Zoo Photography. And I do mean everything. What do you know of Effluviography, Kaiserpanoramas and the Dufty Brothers? There you are, then. The OCtP is also cross-indexed thematically and by country, making it an invaluable aid to the puzzled layman.

Given its thoroughness, the OCtP's listing for Gerda Taro is tellingly short. Known, if at all, as the first female photojournalist killed in action (aged 26, at Brunete, in the Spanish Civil War), the German-Jewish Taro had a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Included in this habit was her relationship with Robert Capa, to whom the OCtP notes some of Taro's "photographs were probably credited". François Maspero's Out of the Shadows: A Life of Gerda Taro (Souvenir Press £12.99) sets this history straight, although Capa's listing in the OCtP is 10 times the length of Taro's even so.

This is largely to do with Capa's role in setting up Magnum, a photo-agency named, I see from the OCtP, after a champagne bottle. Thames & Hudson's Magnum Magnum, edited by Brigitte Lardinois (£35), is a scaled-down version of their 2007 sell-out first edition, and at a third of the price. Although known initially for its photo-reportage, Magnum has followed the trend in becoming ever more fine-art based. Thus, Robert Capa and his lesser-known brother, Cornell, share page space with the likes of the British photo-artist Martin Parr, a member of Magnum since 1994.

Not, however, with Richard Avedon, whose liking for the high life and subsequent personal celebrity probably sat badly with the Magnum taste for spontaneity, social realism and mud. Performance: Richard Avedon (Abrams £40) is as camp as Liberace's undies, from its cloth-bound double covers to its shots of Judy Garland and Rudolf Nureyev. Noticeably missing from the late American master's shots of actors, dancers and rock musicians is any true hint of showbiz vulgarity.

Like Avedon, Annie Leibovitz's celebrity means that she is beginning to resemble her own A-list subjects. Since these, notoriously, include HM The Queen, this is no mean feat. Annie Leibovitz: At Work (Cape £25) pulls back the curtains on the Queen of Photography's methods, among them the musty silk damask ones at Buckingham Palace. Thankfully, no one has told Leibovitz, pictured right, that royal conversations are Simply Not Reported, or perhaps, being American, she doesn't care. At any rate, you can't help feeling a lurch of pity for her as she relates setting up her shoot with Palace officials by phone: the silence that falls when Leibovitz says how much she liked Helen Mirren in The Queen; the disappointment when she is told that, no, Her Majesty will not be photographed mounting a horse. At the monarch's rejoinder to Leibovitz's suggestion that she remove her tiara so as to "look less dressy" ("I used the word 'crown', which was a faux pas," the photographer recalls, sadly) – you can only shut the book and move on.

Perhaps Leibowitz should have tried an easier subject – the war in Afghanistan, say. Robert Wilson seems to have met with nothing but kindness in making Helmand (Cape £30), his record of the British 52nd Infantry Brigade's six-month tour of duty there. An advertising photographer, Wilson used his Hasselblad to capture shots of the terrible beauty that unfolded in front of him: young men and women, British and Afghan, fighting a doubtful war across a lovely land.

A mere China away, Matthieu Ricard's Bhutan: The land of serenity (Thames & Hudson £29.95) shows what Afghanistan might have been like if only it had kept Westerners at bay. Ricard, the Dalai Lama's French interpreter, is a long-time visitor to Bhutan. His shots of the Dragon Kingdom's temples and rituals make you want to jump on a plane to Thimpu, although – Bhutanese visitor numbers being heavily restricted – you very probably can't.

You can always go to Korea instead, but would you want to? Korea: As seen by Magnum photographers (Norton £42) suggests that the answer to that may be yes. The Korea in question is, of course, South – North Korea takes the tourist-restriction thing a little too far – known to us mostly as an industrial powerhouse. But this book shows a land of gnarly trees and tile-roofed temples, apparently untouched by the legacy of war and industrialisation described by the historian, Bruce Cumings, in its intelligent introduction.

Christmas isn't Christmas without something weird under the tree, and my choice for the 2008 Oddball Present of the Year is Andrew Zuckerman's Wisdom (Abrams £30). For this, the US photographer took shots of 50 well-known folk over the age of 65 and got them to talk about what their long lives have taught them, in print and on an accompanying DVD. You can thus spend the bilious days between 25 and 31 December mulling over the wit and wisdom of the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Mary Quant, Nelson Mandela, Terence Conran, Teddy Kennedy and (eek) Henry Kissinger. Whether this will equip you to make better New Year's resolutions I cannot say, but Zuckerman's strange book does at least provide a number of conversational sallies for those long Yuletide moments when talk runs dry.

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