Photography books tend to come in two distinct flavors: collections focused on a favorite subject or celebrity and those where authorship of the images is the essential point. Some of the best of this season fall squarely into the latter category — the more personal or provocative the pictures, the more lasting the result.
Larry Sultan, one of L.A.'s great conceptual photographers, left behind a rich but abbreviated body of work when he died in 2009. His images are the subject of a just-opened career survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the exhibition catalog, "Larry Sultan: Here and Home" (LACMA/Prestel, $50), collects pictures of wit and pathos that were close to his suburban roots.
His best-known series remains "The Valley," a look behind the scenes at our local porn industry, where borrowed private homes are used as sets for on-camera debauchery. It's a contrast that Sultan described as "a reciprocity of strangeness." In one picture, a blond actress in curlers shares a couch with two bored crew members, while outside the window yet another activity is being filmed. The sex acts are never explicitly shown, and they are barely visible within the larger scenes titled from the familiar San Fernando Valley streets where each was made: "Haskell Avenue," "Off Sepulveda," "Chandler Boulevard," etc.
A biographical essay by Philip Gefter serves as a warm and insightful remembrance of his late friend, tracking Sultan's evolution from his earliest conceptual work to later pictures of his parents in serene retirement and his final project, "Homeland," depicting migrant workers dreamy and adrift on the affluent streets of American suburbia.
Unlike Sultan, William Helburn is not a famous name in photography circles, though he was an accomplished contemporary of the masters Avedon and Penn, specializing in his own sophisticated take on New York fashion. His particular gift was in presenting his models within a larger urban landscape, like his picture of model Dovima standing beneath an elevated railway in a green dress with pastel rolls of fabric stacked beside her. In Helburn's pictures, the farther he stood from the model, the more spectacular she looked.
In "William Helburn: Seventh and Madison" (Thames & Hudson, $65), authors Robert Lilly and Lois Allen Lilly rediscover a photographer who worked for nearly two decades before drifting into the directing of television commercials, keeping still photography only as a sideline into the 1980s. His fashion work was playful and vivid. A black-and-white image has model Linda Harper in the heart of Penn Station with a pair of skis and a fur hat while examining a tangle of ticker tape, while the book's cover has Barbara Mullen on a Manhattan street raising a picnic basket as men secure a cherry-red canoe atop a Rolls — fashion fantasies made real on the streets of New York.
Essayist Robert Lilly argues in his introduction that Helburn's anonymity was entirely intentional, that he chose higher-paying commercial jobs over high-profile gigs that would have built his profile and legacy. Or perhaps Helburn suffered the same fate as many first-rate photographers working alongside better marketed names — without books or gallery shows of note, his work simply faded away over the decades. Some of the advertising photography is dated, but the best pictures here recall a time when even the most elegant fashion was somehow earthbound, before the overuse of Photoshop began digitally carving models into alien beings. A series of pictures with actress Sharon Tate for Esquire in 1967 and 1968 capture a stylish revolution in primary colors before the era went dark.
Martin Schoeller is a hugely successful magazine portrait photographer, most recognized for his ongoing series of extreme close-ups of movie stars and other famous faces lighted by fluorescent tubes. In the large-scale "Portraits" (teNeues, $125), the photographer showcases his flamboyant images of celebrity firepower of the moment: Katy Perry, George Clooney, Lady Gaga, Jimmy Fallon, Clint Eastwood and more.
Aside from captions, the only text here is a two-paragraph preface from art star Jeff Koons, who writes that Schoeller's interest is entirely in the "optimistic" side of his many subjects. That might suggest a vision limited to surface only, and much of the work is indeed more playful than probing, concerned with his subjects' performance of their public personas. Their secrets are safe.
There is a stately picture of Zach Galifianakis, his beard covered with breakfast cereal and tiny toy figures, and another of an airborne Donald Trump that is vaguely creepy. But Schoeller can also find the evocative moment, including a steely black-and-white image of late-career Jane Fonda, striking and unbowed in an otherwise simple head shot. Others — of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and lover man Barry White — suggest the reality behind the celebrity, even more so since their deaths. One revealing picture from 2001 is of rapper Trick Daddy, his face pressed between the thighs of two willing women, while his glazed expression suggests a young man numb before his time.
An entirely different type of portraiture is collected in "Chuck Close: Photographer" (Prestel, $65), which examines the artist's use of photography for experimentation and as source material for his paintings. The book, which reaches back to a pair of self-portraits Close made as a college student in 1958, gathers his deep and ongoing work in Polaroid and daguerreotypes, focused on the famous (Barack Obama, Kate Moss, Susan Sontag) and the permanently unfamous.
At every stage of Close's career, photography has fed into his paintings and vice versa, and for the artist, the distinction is essentially irrelevant. In the book's Q&A, he says: "I try to make any print as important as any of my paintings. ... I want to make ambitious photographs that reflect the same values and interests as the rest of my work. I don't see it as a lesser art form in any way, shape, or form."
Generations of ambition can be seen in the work of Magnum's legendary photojournalists. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Parr, Susan Meiselas, Steve McCurry, Inge Morath, among many others — are gathered in a new, expanded version of "Magnum Contact Sheets" (Thames & Hudson, $75). Editor Kristen Lubben offers both a history and an advanced class on reportage and portraiture. The proof sheets are enlarged and included for meaningful study. At their best, the pictures add to our understanding of the surface event documented and reveal something profound about the people pushing that history forward.