Pin It
Bettina Rheims
Modern LoversPhotography Bettina Rheims via Art Gallery

The photobooks that made us stop and think

Tracing gender fluidity, the explosive UK punk scene of the 70s and gaping poverty gaps, these are the photography books that shook up society

From art and film to music and photography – visual culture has highlighted moments of time which defined and changed the course of history, with photography used as a visual reference to remember moments passed that have changed or challenged the world. From the emergence of subculture colourfully detailed in Val Hennesy’s In the Gutter, to life in Thatcher-era 80s England with Martin Parr’s The Cost of Living, these photography books have challenged our thoughts socially and politically. As we step back in time, we’ve charted ten photography books which challenged our minds and the world.

THE COST OF LIVING BY MARTIN PARR

Known for his saturated images of everyday people and the scenes around them, Martin Parr’s The Cost of Living captures the essence of British social life. The unique pseudo-documentary style pioneered by Parr in this instance created images which observed the Thatcher-inspired middle class of 1980s England, serving as a social critique of classism in the UK that established him as one of Britain’s most pioneering living photographers. His bold imagery made statements regarding politics and the class­system, while allowing the viewer to question what it really means to be ‘British’.

LOOKING ASIDE BY PIETER HUGO

Pieter Hugo’s photography is sharp, clear and direct – his series Looking Aside evokes the same philosophy, while leaving the viewer questioning their own perceptions and prejudices. In this photo series, the South African photographer chose his subjects with various conditions, including albinism and blindness, and positions them directly in front of us. The poignancy of these images is partially what makes them so challenging, as they force us to address societal stereotypes, beauty ideals, cultural identity and how we truly feel about whether ‘beauty is on the inside’.

IN THE GUTTER BY VAL HENNESY

Imagine 1970s London in the midst of a counter-culture movement, fighting against the mainstream machine. Val Hennesy’s In The Gutter explores the emergence of subculture, particularly the punk movement of the 70s, emphasising its importance through a series of illuminating images. From proud and riotous youths to the continuous freedom that punk provided, In the Gutter explores the best aspects subcultures have to offer and why their preservation can make for an idiosyncratic artefact.

RICH AND POOR BY JIM GOLDBERG

Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is a shocking display of contemporary America, with a gripping and emotional look at the American dream told from two different social states. In this book, Goldberg photographs both the rich and poor, with the subject’s own handwritten comments about themselves on their images. What the series conveys is a detailed look into each individual subject: their hopes, aspirations and fears presented side by side with their portrait. The portrayal of the American dream as well as the income disparity between classes creates an honest and engrossing look into the class divide, which only continues to grow today.

DIANNA EVERY DAY IS DRESSED UP BY SANDER MARSMAN

Detailing the journey of a 78-year-old’s transition definitely makes for a personal and intimate look at the core of identity. In Dianna Every Day Is Dressed Up, photographer Sander Marsman photographs Dianna in her later life, which are then presented alongside images of Dianna’s self-portraits taken from the 1950s until the present. From the 220 articles of clothing in her wardrobe to her retrospective photos spanning five decades, Diana Every Day Is Dressed Up challenges our notions of identity while teaching us that it’s never too late to be yourself.

SUBCULTURE BY IAIN MCKELL

Iain McKell self-published Subculture back in 1979, and the photobook has gone on to be one of the most sought-after collector’s items. The stark black-and-white images captured skinheads who embraced the late 70s ska movement of the time. From hanging out on the streets of Brick Lane and Kings Cross, to trips to Southend, Subculture showcases a pre-gentrified London and is a visual document which is true to its history.

THE AMERICANS BY ROBERT FRANK

Considered as one of the most iconic photography books of the 20th century, The Americans exposes the hidden corruption, racism and complexities of American life during the 50s. The book documents a year on the road as Frank trails across the USA. From the factory workers in Detroit and transvestites in New York to the black passengers on a segregated bus in New Orleans, The Americans addresses racial and class differences behind the 1950s American dream propaganda, and hones in on a style of photography that truly changed the industry.

MODERN LOVERS BY BETTINA RHEIMS

Rheims' exploration of gender ambiguity is what makes Modern Lovers particularly memorable. The book, which features 30 black-and-white prints, explores androgynous teenagers – making it specifically memorable in light of the AIDS blight of the 1980s. Since its 1990 release, many photographers have captured androgynous and transgender models – but Rheims stands out as a pioneer during a time in which questions about gender were at an all-time high.

DELIA’S TEARS BY MOLLY ROGERS

In 1850, US naturalist Louis Agassiz commissioned a series of photographs of South Carolina slaves to support his theory of the supposed biological inferiority of Africans. Lost until 1976, when they were discovered at the Peabody museum in Harvard, the photos were used by Molly Rogers in her 2010 book Delia’s Tears to create a powerful narrative about race, (pseudo-)science and photography in 19th-century America. Adding brief fictional vignettes about the subjects’ lives, Rogers confronts us with the hard facts about one of the worst crimes in human history.

THE FOURTH SEX BY RAF SIMONS

Youth serves as a big inspiration in Raf Simons’ The Fourth Sex, and through this book the designer details the influence of adolescence in contemporary visual culture. Covering everything from adverts to designers, artists and filmmakers who’ve worked with youth, the inspiration seen through the series of images curated by Simons is endless – ranging from the oh-so-controversial Benetton advertisements of the 00s, to a touching letter in memory of actor River Phoenix who tragically died outside Hollywood’s Viper Room nightclub in 1993. The Fourth Sex showcases the impact that youth culture can have on all industries and its ability to transform our approach to the world and the defining visual trends within it.