Best photography books of 2012

Sean O'Hagan applauds blockbuster retrospectives and innovative ideas

The trend for big and expensive limited-edition retrospectives continued apace with Bruce Davidson's Black & White and William Eggleston's Los Alamos Revisited (both Steidl, £220 each). Phaidon also weighed in this year with the even more expensive Joel Meyerowitz boxed set, Taking My Time, which costs £500 but at least comes with a signed print of one of his street photographs from the 1960s. A good investment if you can afford it, but you may need to move fast as only 1,500 have been printed.

At the other end of the scale, the boom in relatively cheap self-published photography books also continued. The ever-inventive Self Publish, Be Happy launched its own book club, whereby, for a subscription of £100, you receive three limited-edition books over the following 12 months, each adorned with an original Polaroid print. The first in the series, AB&OC by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (which could also be bought individually for £40), is already a collector's item. The second, which features highlights from art dealer Brad Feuerhelm's collection of strange and disturbing found photographs, is out now.

On a more traditional note, the Magnum photo agency trawled its extensive archive for two retrospectives: Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames & Hudson £95) and Magnum Revolution (Prestel £35). The former, brilliantly edited by Kristen Lubben, is the more illuminating, allowing us a glimpse of the creative process of some of the agency's greatest photographers, from Cartier-Bresson to Elliott Erwitt.

Another Magnum photographer, the prodigious Martin Parr, turned his acid eye on America for the first time with Up and Down Peachtree (Contrasto £25), a series of colour snapshots from Atlanta, Georgia of the garish and the intimate. French photographer Charles Fréger journeyed far and wide to catalogue the stranger reaches of Europe's surviving pagan folk traditions for the wonderful Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (Dewi Lewis £25). Demons, devils, bears, stags and straw men abound even in the digital age.

For visual anthropology of a more modern sort, check out Lucas Foglia's arresting and evocative debut, A Natural Order (Nazraeli £50). Foglia travelled throughout the rural American south-east for five years to uncover a network of disparate communities – from Mennonites to extreme environmentalists – who have fled the cities to live "off the grid" in the mountains and backwoods. A work that blends the observational and the staged, it says much about a strain of American libertarianism that is undergoing a revival in these nervous times.

Several years of painstaking preparation also went into Michael Marten's Sea Change: A Tidal Journey Around Britain (Kehrer Verlag £30), a visual record of key landscapes on Britain's shoreline at ebb tide and flood tide. There are diptychs of tidal estuaries, beaches, rocks and buildings that show the same subject surrounded by land, and hours later, by water. The results are surprising, and, as sea levels rise inexorably, sometimes ominous.

The austere, snow-covered landscapes of Finland and Norway loom large in Pentti Sammallahti's beautiful retrospective book, Here Far Away (Dewi Lewis £45). You can almost feel the cold and hear the silence in these grey-white landscapes of icy forests and towns. He is a great photographer of dogs and crows, too, and they feature in his pictures almost as much as the lone human figures who appear like shadows out of the snow.

The great Swedish photographer Anders Petersen continued his City Diary series with Soho (Mack £40). Petersen's forlorn eye renders contemporary, cleaned-up Soho as a remnant of what it used to be: sleazy, edgy and haunted by outsiders of every hue.

Finally, an altogether more brash and, some might say, vulgar urban landscape is brought to life in Maciej Dakowicz's Cardiff After Dark (Thames and Hudson £24.95), for which I wrote the introduction. Dakowicz took pictures in and around Cardiff city centre every Saturday night for five years. The result is by turns alarming, shocking, utterly hilarious and guaranteed to vindicate those who think that Britain has become a nation of dissolute drunks.


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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