Christmas Books Special: Photography

That cute little seal looks a bit like Roland Barthes
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As Roland Barthes darkly observed, all photography is a form of killing. To record a subject is to encompass its death; not for nothing do photographers describe what they do as "shooting". Seaside postcards? Murder. Wedding photos? Murder. Kids' party snaps? Murder. Trust the French to look on the bright side.

So it seems apt to start this year's photo-book round-up with An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames & Hudson £24.95). If photographers are assassins, then Bresson was Lee Harvey Oswald. The man shot everyone: Samuel Beckett, Barbara Hepworth, Camus, Sartre, Pound, Matisse, Jung. He got to Martin Luther King before James Earl Ray did: HCB's 1961 portrait of the civil rights leader is oddly comic, a man so weighed down by paperwork that a pile of it has stolen his hat. Barthes, apparently intimidated by Bresson, never wrote about him. Bresson did photograph Barthes, though, big-nosed, chain-smoking and wearing a cardigan. As you'd imagine, he looks like a dork.

Unexpectedly, neither man makes it into In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century (Black Dog £29.95). Published as a companion piece to a show at the Barbican, this book prefers its Frenchmen pithy: thus Atget, Brassaï and Robert Doisneau, but absolutely no Bresson. Which is fair enough, given that HCB's imperial hauteur is exactly what In the Face of History isn't about. Rather, it is concerned with photographers caught up in the nitty-gritty of historical process, who got their hands dirty (and, occasionally, bloody) shooting in streets and bars. Where the distance Bresson put between himself and his subjects suggests a kind of objectivity, the work in In the Face of History makes no bones about being subjective. Emmy Andriesse's shots of Holland's Hunger Winter of 1945 feel as malnourished and ill-shod as their subjects. Her close-up of a cloth star marked Jood (Jew) makes you wonder if she was wearing one herself.

I'm not sure why Wolfgang Tillmans is included in this book, his street photography being of a much more expedient kind. (Lola Alvarez Bravo's insane shots of Mexican life would have been a much better fit (Aperture £27.50), but she, alas, wasn't European.) For all Tillman's guileful lack of guile, it's hard to be a real al fresco snapper these days.

Alex S MacLean has found it in pattern. The aerial shots in MacLean's squashy-covered Playbook (Thames & Hudson £14.95) turn America into a dystopian mosaic of swimming pools, golf courses and marching bands, uniform and uniformly mad. Something of that crazed order also runs through Donovan Wylie's The Maze (Granta £30), shot in the eponymous Belfast prison. Repetition is an instrument of social control and photography alike. The tiny calibrations of difference in Wylie's shots of cells in H-5, B Wing - one with floral curtains, others with stripes or prints - suggest both the tedium of imprisonment and the finickiness of Wylie's craft. As with Andriesse's star, you sense an empathy between the medium and its subject.

It's difficult to give a name to work like Wylie's and MacLean's, the comforting old divisions of photography - street, fashion, portrait, art - being currently up for grabs. Much of this year's most exciting work fell into the gaps between, Jeff Brouws's Approaching Nowhere (WW Norton & Co. £39) being a case in point. Once upon a time, Brouws would have been a landscape photographer pure and simple. Nowadays, though, his saturated shots of gas stations and Midwestern Santas don't really belong anywhere. This might equally be said of the lost America Brouws prefers to shoot, which gives his work its strength.

While on the subject of category-benders, the year's oddest crossover may well be the mono-named Rankin's TuuliTastic (Rankin Photography £20). Subtitled "A Photographic Love Letter", this oddity comes with no explanation for itself other than its name. Rankin, you'll remember, was co-founder of Dazed & Confused, a magazine devoted to blurring the line between fashion and art; Tuuli is his favourite model. I have no idea why he has published these shots of her clothed, naked or occasionally wearing false teeth, and I'd imagine I'm not meant to. My guess is that TuuliTastic is meant as a public declaration of love, which makes the book charming and, no doubt, collectable.

A big winner in the re-shuffling of the photographic pack has been wildlife or nature photography, now re-dubbed environmental photography. Of the hundreds of books looking at the Earth from above, below and Outer Space, the year's best was Philip Plisson's Ocean (Thames & Hudson £39.95). Maybe it's the memory of Boxing Day 2004, but Plisson's epic images of the sea - shallow, deep, covered in pack ice - suggest something very large and calm biding its time. His book is threateningly big, but then so is its subject.

More useful if you're thinking of stocking fillers is the BBC's 16th Wildlife Photographer of the Year portfolio (BBC Books £25). This is full of images of cuddly-looking things that purr, gurgle and, occasionally, bite photographers' hands off. I'm torn in the awww-stakes between Baard Naess's shot of a cute little seal poking its head through the ice or Edwin Giesbers' of a Costa Rican ghost frog. The seal looks like Roland Barthes. I'll take the frog.