Christmas Books Special: Photography books reviewed

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The Independent Culture

Extravagant in size, exorbitant in price, too many photography books contradict the century-long drift of the art toward lightness and spontaneity. Sometimes, however, quality justifies bulk, as with the landmark Oxford Companion to the Photograph (edited by Robin Lenman, OUP, £40). Written with all the authority and illustrated with the breadth you would hope for from its patron, this grand slab ranks alongside its definitive Oxford stablemates.

Geoff Dyer arranges more personal snapshots of the great figures of (mostly) US photography in The Ongoing Moment (Little, Brown, £20). This idiosyncratic study makes the most of a freewheeling, sharply-angled style that fits its subjects' work.

Year after year, the Magnum agency archive allows publishers to mine gem after gem, whether in compact format (Phaidon's Magnum Landscape, £9.95) or through the bigger picture (Brigitte Lardinois and Val Williams's Magnum Ireland; Thames & Hudson, £29.95: above, Stuart Franklin's Private Party, 2003). Magnum stars shine in Reuel Golden's Witness (Carlton, £25: below right, Susan Meiselas, Nicaragua 1978), a smartly selected anthology of photojournalism from Roger Fenton in Crimea to James Nachtwey at Ground Zero. And Magnum's Steve McCurry created the year's most haunting visual essay, at the temples of Angkor Wat: Sanctuary (Phaidon, £19.95; below).

The quirky, intimate eye of Life photographer John Loengard, from the Beatles duck-like in a Miami pool to interval picnickers at Glyndebourne, makes As I See It (Thames & Hudson, £18.95) a book to smile more than sigh over. After a life rich in both smiles and sighs, Lee Miller - the Surrealist icon turned wartime heroine behind the lens - attracts a serious, and gripping, biography from Carolyn Burke (Bloomsbury, £20).

Far from history's michief, I loved (if that's the mot juste) the richly-hued beasties who crawl through Piotr Naskrecki's survey of insects and mini-reptiles, The Smaller Majority (Harvard, £21.95). Less challenging to phobics, Light on the Earth gorgeously gathers winners from BBC's wildlife photography contest (BBC, £30: below left, Anup Shah, "First Encounter", 1999).

Back in the human - or possibly superhuman - realm, Helmut Newton's ability to make women into goddesses, monsters (or both) marks every page of A Gun for Hire (Taschen, £19.99), an anthology of his fashion shoots. Like Newton, the Japanese master Araki has invited controversy with his forays into the erotic. You will find them graphically present and incorrect in Nobuyoshi Araki: self, life, death (Phaidon, £45). Yet this massive self-portrait builds into a visual autobiography of rare depth, richness and scope, haunted throughout by Araki's images of his late wife.

Araki's honeymoon pictures crop up in Family, (edited by Sophie Spencer-Wood; Phaidon, £24.95), in which photographers from Cameron to Goldin frame their nearest and dearest. Margaret Walters's notes cite Araki as saying that "photographers have to love their subject". That love can look pretty damn tough.