Few things are as Yule-tied as oversize books. The seasonal connection is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the gift-giver has an almost limitless array of titles from which to choose. And a curse for the same reason: A wide selection makes choosing difficult. A few themes are discernible in the bounty this year: The 19th century is strong, pop music edges out pop art, and the hankering to hit the road and photograph the odyssey is making a comeback. Everything, it seems, exists not just to end up as a book, but to end up as a book on a coffee table. Among the season's best:
Images of War: The Artist's version of World War II
Edited by Ken McCormick and Hamilton Darby Perry; foreword by John Hersey
It's a little unnerving to discover that the most visually arresting gift book this season is devoted to war. Even stranger is the experience of looking at a recent war through painters', not photographers', eyes. And it's also a surprise to see scenes rendered from all sides of the conflict (some 200 artists from a dozen countries are represented here). If the viewpoints are disparate, however, the tone is nearly uniform: Desolation is the order of the day.
Photographs by Birney Imes; introductory essay by Richard Ford
Birney Imes takes us on a photographic journey through the black joints of music and merrymaking in the Mississippi Delta. Actually, there's not much merrymaking going on here. Most of the bars are empty; some have even been torn down since Imes took these photographs in the 1980s. Despite the work's artfulness, his approach is that of a tourist from the other side of the tracks. But he's an observant tourist, and the pictures are beautiful. Richard Ford's introduction is both delightfully philistine and strangely ruminative.
The Motown Album Foreword
Even if it were a botch job, this celebration of pop's golden age would be welcome as an antidote to the recent spate of ''What killed Flo?'' and ''Who slept with Smokey?'' tell-alls. As it turns out, however, the book is a beaut. The photographs of the Supremes many of them previously unpublished are priceless, especially one of the singers showing the famous ''Stop! In the Name of Love'' move to a group of geishas. The writers who contributed to the book (in addition to Gordy, Ben Fong-Torres, Dave Marsh, and Elvis Mitchell) are a guy group as formidable as any Motown act.
Remarkable Private New York Residences
Text by Chippy Irvine; photography by Alex McLean
This is probably not the most auspicious moment to bring out a book extolling New York's most palatial interiors. No doubt the project was conceived before the current economic downturn. And it must be said that the book's creators have attempted to be democratic: Their peep into 30-odd interiors includes not only the comforts of the very rich but also the homelier charms of a ''West Village One-roomer'' (though even the downtown digs boast a collection of Royal Bayreuth pottery). With the welter of magazines that regularly present this kind of thing, such a book could easily seem superfluous. Yet Private New York, whether approached as escapist fare, decorators' guidebook, or incitement to riot, is quite enjoyable. The prose is helpful, nicely textured, and the photos are crisply composed, though somewhat dimly reproduced.
The Story of Kodak
The book is basically a commercial, but an impressive one. Kodak is the sine qua non of everything photographic. George Eastman didn't invent the camera, but Eastman Kodak, the company he founded in 1892, popularized photography's most familiar form: the snapshot. The book's pictures snapshots, moving picture stills, early astronomical photo studies, aerial shots are exceptional. They make it difficult to concentrate on the text, which is professional, if somewhat pallid.
Romare Bearden: His Life and Art Myron Schwartzman
It's no fluke that work by the African-American artist Romare Bearden has been seen in the living room of TV's Huxtable family. Bearden's life (1914-1988) intersected with that of virtually every important figure in 20th-century black culture. The patchwork structure of his collages owes something to Cubism while retaining an unmistakable verve and originality. Ritual, jazz, and family are recurrent preoccupations. And his colors, as this book's reproductions remind us, are luminous. Schwartzman, a Baruch College professor who got to know Bearden during the decade before his death, provides a thorough, and thoroughly informative, discussion of the artist's life and work.
The Sky's the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers
Edited by Pauline A. Saliga; introduction by John Zukowsky
To pore over architectural photographs is to court nostalgia for what has vanished. When the pictures involve Chicago, a primary showplace for Louis Sullivan and Burnham and Root, among many other masters, such wistfulness can be unusually acute. Fortunately, the editor of and contributors to this volume let their information speak for itself. Sometimes the words ''now dismantled'' in a photo caption are more than enough. Of course, this book also elicits awe for Chicago-led technical advancements in the skyscraper field as well as for the many buildings that the city has preserved. Mostly, though, you close this book with regrets including one that there aren't more color photographs.
PhotoGraphing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn
Donna M. Lucey
In 1889 Evelyn Cameron and her husband forsook their genteel English world for the wilds of eastern Montana. When their attempt to raise polo ponies failed, she took up the camera. Cameron's late-pioneer-period scenes can seem posed and unadventurous in technique, but Donna Lucey was nonetheless correct in rescuing this photographer and her images from the dust bowl of history.