Some books about art that I've found very useful.

After I wrote my plea for a more well rounded education a number of people were curious to know what books I'd suggest to help understand art and photography's relationship to the continuing thread of culture over time.  I've put together a preliminary list and a few comments about why I like each one.  Almost all of the books costs about what a decent, dignified, sit down lunch will cost you in any of the capitol or not so capitol cities of the world so there's little excuse not to accession the knowledge contained in these little beauties.  You will have forgotten lunch in a few days but the ideas in these books will stick with you for a lifetime.  There are thousands and thousands more to mention but who would read through a whole catalog?  These are some of my very favorites.

Art and Fear, Ted Orland

This little book (more in the price range of a burger and fries...) is a wonderful book about getting started, developing a style and understanding the psychology behind our hesitation to commit to our art.  It's easy to read and remarkably accessible.  I pass it out like candy to my friends who can't get past shooting....everything they see.

The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe


If you truly want to understand 20th century fine art and all the bull shit surrounding many of the most famous manifestos then this slim paperback is just for you.  Abstract Expressionism?  Flatness?  How art gets sold?  It's all here.  And the illustrations are funny (just a few black and white cartoons sprinkled through the text).  Yes, it's the same Tom Wolfe who wrote "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test."  It's funny and sharp.  And you'll be ready to be insightful and pithy next time you go to a gallery opening...

From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Everything I said above, but about the role of architecture.  Devastating.  Funny.  Need to know stuff I you are surrounded by architecture snobs.  

Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams

A series of essays about famous photographers of the 20th century and what they brought to the table.  It's a small and personable book by one of the 20th centuries interesting photographers.  I like his writing; his photos are too hard for me to understand.  

In Defense of Beauty,  by Robert Adams

In another slender volume (the price of an espresso based coffee and a few organic pastries at Whole Foods Market) Robert Adams explains why our traditional ideals of beauty need not be overlooked in the rush to art historically cool.

Civilization, by Kenneth Clark

How did we get to this point in history? Why the Medicis rocked. How our understanding of art through the ages informs us.  This book is more about history of western thought than anything else but it's a great foundation for understanding the art that contained each age like a custom suit. And Kenneth Clark writes so well that it's as riveting as an action adventure movie.  Take a seat and catch up.

The Nude, by Kenneth Clark

How have we gone from the idea that the painting and sculpture of the nude was a glorification of God's work to today when our cultures censor any image of the nude?  This book explores the history and meaning of the nude in western art. It's a dense read but you'll be happy you covered it so you can appreciate nudes in all of their glory instead of thinking that nudes are just something people who live in their parent's basements (and who drive ice cream trucks through the neighborhoods) do.  It's a brilliant ally in justifying your own exploration of the nude.  Should you need a justification.....

Ways of Seeing, by John Berger

We think we know how seeing all works but do we? This book explores symbology, anthropology and the science of seeing as it relates to cultural communication.  This book is the core of a PBS show on the subject.  

History of Italian Renaissance Art, by Frederick Hartt

Beautiful book with beautiful color plates that show cases what may come to be known as the ultimate golden age of art from which everything in the past few hundred years has derived its power from.  It's got all the big names:  Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Pantormo, Michaelangelo and much, much more.  You ain't half smart if you don't know about the righteous dudes profiled in this eternal block buster.  Get your read on and join the art cognoscenti... Better than the Superbowl or the World Series for pure entertainment.

Leonardo da Vinci

The master of portraiture.  He invented it the way we wish we could do it.  Learn from the source.

Why Photographs Work, by George Barr

Famous writer and photographer takes 52 great images and interviews their makers about WHY and how they made these works. No step by step diagrams but insightful overviews.  Learn what's in the mind of the artist when they create.

The Photographer's Eye, John Szarkowski

The 20th Century's most famous and influential curator of photography writes brilliantly about photography and shows incredible examples. He pushed American and European photography in a direction from which most current work has evolved.  It's good reading for people who want to know what came before and why it's important today.

Looking at Photographs, by John Szarkowski

The world's greatest curator took about a hundred images from one of the world's greatest collections of photography and explains them for you.  Every art student should have this book before they head out the door to re-invent the wheel.  Again.  

From Honey to Ashes, by Claude Levi-Strauss

An anthropological treatise on the development of myths and how symbology becomes universal.  We all work with symbols, right?  Let's find out where the power of the symbols came from and how people have used it through the ages in art.

The Nuba of Kau, by Leni Riefenshahl

Yes. I know.  She worked for the Nazis.  But if you can separate that out in your head you'll find the work in this book amazing. It's a study of a nearly extinct tribe in Africa through the extreme telephoto Leica lenses of a brilliant see-er and it's well done.  How do you develop a style?  A year long immersion into a difficult project is one sure way...

Dog Dogs, by Elliott Erwitt

I found the benefit of passing time.  You're collected work comes together with an arc of cohesion.  This inexpensive by thick and hearty book counteracts several pervasive misconceptions.  You don't need glamorous subject matter to do good work.  Your style will emerge over time.  Going out and shooting all the time allows you to explore and explore and that exploration gives you style.  And a sense of what's possible. This is a "look at all the incredible images, I just need to get out there and get to work" sort of book.  No cutting edge, state of the art, state of the moment gear.  Just showing up and shooting.  Again and again.  And the images are really good.  This is my ooops. I ended up alone at this restaurant for lunch, I'm glad I have a fun book to look through and a copy stays in my car.  Elliott Erwitt is funny and so are his images.

Janson's History of Art

If you want to know about the majesty and potential of the culture in which you live and you can only afford to buy one book because you are too busy amassing a selection of lenses (most of which you will really never use) then just save up and get this one and take it a section at a time.  It's the history of art.  It's the book we all should have read as high school seniors.  Or we should have read it as college freshmen.  Or we should have read it on our last vacation.  It's a thick, image rich book that catalogs ART. 

I'll try to think of more but this is the first semester of Kirk's Art History for photographers who want to be better informed and more fully mentally functional.  Feel free to suggest your won favorites but let's stay away from gear books.  Or the new genre of feel good pop psychology books disguised as books about about finding your magic.

Happy Sunday.


  1. Kirk, Because I was one of those who asked for your recommendations, I am so pleased that you provided this awesome summary. My DNA is that of an engineer but I can also use the other side of my brain from time to time. I just need to take time to develop it! I went to an old fashion liberal arts college, but for some reason (40 years ago) I navigated my way through without any art or music courses. I'm trying to make up for that, with my photography and with my reading. Hey, I even played folk guitar for a while back in the 70's and was pretty good at it.

    I will definitely take advantage of your list, and will use your links, something I often forget about when ordering from Amazon.

    Peter F.

  2. In the vain of Orland and Adams I offer the following: "Advice for Photographers: The Next Step" by Al Weber. From the back cover: "... In brief chapters, Al sets down his thoughts on inertia, procrastination, change, planning, and a variety of obstacles to creative work. One section discusses "the dilemma of influence"...." I don't even think you can buy a burger and fries for the price of this book!

  3. Y'all (Texas dialect) may have noticed that I've started denominating some purchases in the prices of lunches or coffees. I do that because everything in life tends to be so contextual. We might think a $20 book is outrageously expensive until we compare it to the cost of a Happy Hour or a movie with popcorn and a soda. It's like thinking a fine art photo would be extravagant at $250 while spending the same amount in an evening on dinner for two and a bottle of wine. If we start contextualizing our long term educational expenditures it makes them seem like a bargain.

    By my new measure a copy of Steven Pressfield's "must read" book, The War of Art, is just a little over two Venti mochas at Starbucks. One purchase has the potential to launch valuable projects. The other purchase has XX grams of sugar and XX grams of fat and, in quantity, will go a long way toward launching diabetes. Plus, with the Pressfield book you need only buy it once and, bonus, it's not addictive.

  4. I attended a cinema class at UCLA, in the early 1970s, taught by Slavko Vorkapich. He was the expert on Montage, and based part of his work on Gestalt psychology.

    Do you know of any good books on Gestalt and art ?


  5. This is incredibly useful. Thank you.

    1. You are most welcome. I'll keep the list growing as I remember books I've enjoyed.

  6. Hey Kirk, I would definitely add Leonard Koren's book: Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers to the list.


  7. Thanks for the reading list Kirk. My photography needs to be much more informed. Looking forward to reading most of these.

  8. Great list, Kirk -- thanks! For those of us coming at photography from a non-art-school perspective (like Peter F., I'm an engineer), it's a good way to get a little remedial education.

  9. Great list, probably will give some of them a chance. My own recommendation comes from an unexpected source: Scott McCloud's classic 'Understanding Comics', which is of course focused on comics rather than art in general but gives very useful insight of how sequential art works -- and I've found this doesn't apply to just comics, but works wonders for video/film and photo essays.


    1. Thanks for the tip. Still and Motion photography is all about visual story telling, gear not so much.

      This is what I recommend for those getting started in Video. Steve D. Katz's "Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen" http://www.amazon.com/Film-Directing-Shot-Visualizing-Productions/dp/0941188108/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336418201&sr=1-1


  10. Thanks for the list Kirk! Another engineer here who doesn't need anymore books on how to make a camera work, I've been trying on my own to track down good books on art but had no idea where to even start. I'll be seeing if the library has any of these books in their collection.

  11. Amazing list, thanks. I own three of them, so I feel like I can trust your taste for the rest. First, the Erwitt, since dogs are always getting into my cameras.

  12. Thanks for the list, Kirk. I'm yet another engineer who has figured out the settings on his camera, but could use some help with composition and lighting. Maybe some of these books will help me with that. I wish I could print this post, but every time I have tried, I get a garbled mess on my printer....

    1. Try copy and paste. I had the same problem but copy and paste worked very well.

  13. I think 'Ways of Seeing' is better as the TV programme than the book. The four episodes are available on YouTube.

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