Photography is a democratic, international and up-to-date art, yet many of us still feel that the classic masters of the camera come from France - just as everyone believes that the school of Paris represents the central strain of modern painting. This Christmas the leading photography book is Vicki Goldberg's Jacques-Henri Lartigue: Photographer (Thames and Hudson, pounds 45), a sumptuous record of his work from 1903 onwards, with an emphasis on the utterly French visions of the 1920s.
But not merely French; also strangely out of time, as though this photographer had no sense that he belonged to an historical moment. Perhaps that is because Lartigue was childish. Goldberg writes that he was that rare, even unique person in photography, a child prodigy. The idea makes one ponder the nature of Lartigue's medium. Child prodigies, awesome in accomplishment and often odious in character, shine in the executive rather than the creative side of art. They trill out tricky sonatas. Or they draw, but with "photographic" skill rather than true feeling. Can there be an equivalent in photography?
Or did Lartigue - who always felt that God gave him his first camera - simply strike lucky because the camera was his only friend and other kids didn't want to play with him? His wealthy, sheltered background affected his art. Lartigue is good at rich people because he assumes that everyone in the world is, so he doesn't make them special. His hymns to racing cars are marvellous. It's as though all cars were wonderful toys, for him alone to play with. Of war, love or the struggles of the human condition Lartigue knows nothing. But he's still a classic - a classic child.
A super book for boys, and girls too, is The Book of British Sporting Heroes (National Portrait Gallery, pounds 22.50), which contains around 150 pictures of champions, alphabetically arranged from Bobby Abel to George Young, with informative captions. Here are some famous shots, Gazza crying, Bobby Moore with the World Cup, but also a lot of images that I for one hadn't seen before. Just as one would expect, the cricketers tend to be over-dignified, the footballers over-dramatic. Pictures of the "minor" sports are invariably interesting (there's no such thing as a minor sport, only minority sports). These are not the best sports photos ever taken, but they are youthful, heartfelt and sometimes poignant - poor Beryl Burton, tragic Tommy Simpson!
Far more thoughtful, even solemn, is Erika Billiter's A Song to Reality (Lunwerg Editores pounds 60), a history of Latin American photography from 1860 to 1993. It's a useful survey, perhaps a little too respectful of studio photography. The most exciting part of the book describes the way that the Cuban Revolution transformed camerawork, producing glowing emblems of leaders - in effect, a new type of political portraiture - as well as sharp documentary in the streets and fields. All the colour photos are good. I wonder whether this instinctive use of colour is a Latin American characteristic?
The Silver Canvas (Thames and Hudson pounds 50) presents rare daguerreotypes from the J Paul Getty Museum and is the work of Bates Lowry and Isabel Barrett Lowry, who have a rather specialised interest in hand-coloured photography. A beautiful thing about daguerreotypes is the feeling that they were taken in the earliest minutes of dawn, so little wonder that people liked to enhance them with the pinks, azures and umbers of summer sunrise. This is not only a fine, scholarly survey of the early life of photography; it's a connoisseur's volume. The Lowrys have the most delicate appreciation of their materials, and no doubt of each other too. A photography book that is also a treasure.
Twin books come from the intriguing Gingko Press, both at pounds 12.99, America, photographs by Andreas Feininger, and London Yesterday, a composite report on the city by a number of unnamed photographers. Feininger shows a most dignified curiosity about his adopted country and is at his best when looking at New York in the 1940s. The London book is peculiar and will be new to almost everyone, for all its pictures come from an archive held by Swedish television. The photos must have been taken in the 1930s and 1940s. I like the costermongers, the woman selling the Daily Worker in the streets and the policeman helping a herd of pigs to cross the Camden Road. Everything seems slightly grimy. These are peacetime scenes, but life under the Blitz is not far away.
Back in America, Gerd Kittel's Diners (Thames and Hudson, pounds 8.95) present 68 colour photos of cheap and ordinary eating places. This would be a nice present for a homesick expatriate - though Americans in Britain never seem to be homesick, do they? Ansel Adams's California (Little, Brown pounds 20.95) is full of handsome landscapes with hardly a person in sight and not a single car. Therefore the book is pointless. I much prefer W Eugene Smith: The Camera as Conscience (Thames and Hudson, pounds 48), a dignified tribute to one of the best American photojournalists. The book also contains five distinguished essays by photographic historians.
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