Photo books are a wonderful mainstay in the photographic practice. They allow a photographer to bring their images to life, and enable the consumer to touch, smell, and feel their presence. Almost every photographer has a photo book that inspired them and helped shape their photographic voice. I know I did. So did the Magnum photographers I spoke to when putting this piece together.
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I’d love to say the photo book that spoke to me most is an obscure gem few people have seen. The reality is that I took inspiration from a photo book that inspired countless other photographers.
Robert Frank’s The Americans is so influential that it’s used in schools and colleges. When I first held the book, I was hooked. It was the first time I truly felt how powerful photography could be. The images were all winners, and the storytelling was gripping. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend well over an hour turning the pages, analyzing the photos, and sipping on my favorite glass of whiskey. That book allowed me to pass the time effortlessly, and it encouraged me to pick up my camera and document in a meaningful way.
Robert Frank, The Americans: Buy now.
Magnum Photographers on the Photo Books That Inspired Them
I have always been interested in successful photographers and the photo books (and photographers) that inspired them. Magnum remains the leading photography collective in the industry: it likely always will. Whether you’re a nominee or a full member, you don’t become connected with the organization without a strong body of work. That’s why so many aspiring photographers seek inspiration from Magnum photographers. Flipping it around, I reached out to some members and nominees, asking how they got their inspiration to create.
Peter van Agtmael
Peter van Agtmael was the first to answer the question:
“It’s hard to choose a single book because there are thousands of influences that have shaped my life and work, many of them only tangentially related to photography. I’d probably give a different answer tomorrow, but I’ll pick “Magnum Degrees,” a shambling Magnum compendium released in the late ’90s. I’d just started taking photos when I found the book at Barnes and Noble, and would sit on the floor of the paltry photobook aisle several times a week and devour it. In its range of visions, the book showed me the beauty and complexity that photography was capable of, and that awareness helped define the course of my life. I was awed by the courage and the adventurousness of some of the photographers, but also by the mundane situations that were recognizable in my own life.
Regardless of the situation, the pictures transcended reality. It was an important lesson in possibility and aspiration. When I joined Magnum, it was interesting and strange to hear that many of the photographers seemed to hate Magnum Degrees.”
Magnum Degrees: Buy now
William Keo joined Magnum as a nominee in 2021. His work focuses on his family, their time as refugees, and other societal issues. Born in 1996, William is still in his twenties, yet documents in a way that reflects a man more mature than his years. Regarding his inspiration, he told me, “Some of my favorite books include Chris Kilip’s In Flagrante, Tim Hetherington’s Infidel, Luc Delahaye’s Winterreise, Gordon Parks’ Atmosphere of Crime, George Georgiou’s American Parade and Donna Ferrato’s Living with the Enemy.”
My follow-up question asked which photographer inspired William the most. He told me, “I think Chris Killip was the photographer who influenced me the most.”
Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime 1957: Buy now
Another photographer I greatly admire is Nanna Heitmann. She’s a Magnum Associate member who brings with her a powerful body of work. I asked her to kindly share a photo book and some photographers she gained influence from:
“I think there is no photobook or photographer that has inspired me most. It changes from day to day. But definitely, Joel Sternfeld (American Prospects), Alec Soth, Dorothea Lange, Alessandra Sanguinetti are some of them.”
Joel Sternfeld, American Prospects: Buy now.
I love photo books. In our ever-growing digital world, I hope they remain a strong influence for photographers, new and seasoned. Remember, they’re for inspiration, not imitation. Any photographer building their craft should aim to create their personal voice with a touch influence deep within.
Which photo book inspired you? Let us know the comments below. Thanks for reading.
All images are screenshots from Amazon marketplace.