Something for everyone

From Burning Man and NASA's moon photos to James Bond posters and Marilyn Monroe, we recommend the best gift books for those hard-to-please people on your list.

By Salon Staff
Published December 19, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

There's always one person on every holiday gift list who stumps even the most imaginative would-be Santa. Either it's your sister-in-law -- who you still don't like much but, hey, you're stuck with her -- or your cousin who, last you heard, collects stamps only from the 1950s. But no matter how offbeat your problem recipient's pet interest may be, there's got to be a book about it out there somewhere. Here is our own eclectic, eccentric collection of picture-rich books, presented in hopes that it helps you to check off that last name.

If you're looking for a good novel or work of nonfiction, check out Salon Recommends.

Full Moon
By Michael Light
Alfred A. Knopf
232 pages
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Words aren't really necessary to the story told by the 129 photographs Michael Light has assembled in this moving volume, a compact (and more affordable) version of a book that was first published in 1999. Culled from 32,000 images taken by the astronauts of NASA's Apollo missions (with a few shots taken by Jim McDivitt of the Gemini IV spacewalk for good measure), they offer a composite account of humanity's venture into space and onto the surface of the moon. Part of the piercing beauty of these pictures comes from our understanding of how rare and precious they are, the only record we have, and perhaps the only one we'll ever have, of human beings standing on ground that is not of our own earth. The vast expanses of the lunar landscape, the velvet grayness of its thick layer of dust imprinted for the first time by the boots of the astronauts and the tires of the moon rover, are both unspeakably thrilling and terribly lonely. The astronauts and their gear are responsible for the few specks of color that appear in what you might at first mistake for black-and-white photographs, and their roving, faceless figures (their mirrored face shields reflect back the bubble-headed spaceman taking the picture), adrift in preternaturally clear and desolate panoramas, have a vulnerability that undercuts the hubris of the whole venture. And yet it's impossible to reach the end of the sequence of photos without feeling the passing away of the daring that made the Apollo program possible. So, no, words aren't needed, but nevertheless, at the end comes Light's accompanying essay, "The Skin of the Moon," a piece of writing that miraculously does justice to the act it follows. He describes the Apollo saga as "a leave-taking of such unprecedented grandeur and scale that it paradoxically doubles back on itself. Rather than embodying a linear progression to a new world that discards the old in pursuit of endless freedom and limitless bounty, Apollo's path is circular." We gained and lost the moon within the space of a few years, but, as Light suggests, we should not allow the new perspective on earth that Apollo gave to slip away.

-- Laura Miller

Visionaire 39: Play
Art Publishers
[Order here]

The flip book had its fluttering apex of popularity more than 50 years ago, before the novelty of seeing a Huckleberry Hound or Mickey Mouse animated for a few seconds was generally tuned out by television. But it had much headier origins. In the 1880s, Eadweard Muybridge's photographic innovations made rapid photography possible, and the way his photographs captured movement when flipped in succession proved a key precursor to film. When Muybridge learned to project these images, his "magic lantern" demonstrations in London were the envy of every salon, and drew audiences that included royalty.

Visionaire, the quarterly, luxury-label fashion/art magazine, restores the flip book to its proper origins with a collection of 16 books produced by an impressive array of photographers (Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh), directors (Spike Jonze, Baz Luhrmann, Pedro Almodóvar), and fashion luminaries (Karl Lagerfeld). The 2-by-5-inch books, produced in collaboration with Sony Playstation, are collected in a black wood case. They range from the hilariously naughty (Almodóvar), to the charmingly silly (a "Jackass"-inspired stunt by Jonze), to the truly enchanting (a lovely dancing nude by Lindbergh).

This is No. 39 for Visionaire, whose previous "books" have become collectors' items of sorts -- from the very first issue in 1991 to a 1997 issue that included a tiny, torn piece from the green Versace dress Madonna wore at the premiere of "Evita" -- and auction well into the six figures. Like previous issues, this one, titled simply "Play," has a limited production (roughly 4,000) and a limiting price tag ($175). And at a time of impending war and fiscal insecurity, it could not feel more trivial, more decadent. Which is, of course, what makes it so much fun.

-- Kerry Lauerman

Unseen Vogue: The Secret History of Fashion Photography
By Robin Derrick and Robin Muir
Little, Brown
352 pages
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This collection of photographs that, for one reason or another, never made it into the pages of British Vogue is more than just a visual treasure trove. There are times when a picture can't tell the whole story, and the captions here give us a sense of how these pictures came to be, as well as who's in them and who took them. That means, for example, that along with a 1962 David Bailey photograph of English supermodel Jean Shrimpton, we get a miniature snapshot of their relationship, culled from Shrimpton's autobiography: "I liked him the instant I arrived at his cluttered studio. I was much taller than him -- all our relationship was high heels for him and low heels for me -- but he was different and appealing and I found him very attractive." The book spans the 1930s to 2001, and features the dazzling work of the likes of Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Steven Meisel and Arthur Elgort, showing not just how fashion changed throughout the last century, but how styles of photography changed along with it. If the harshly lit, candy-colored '70s pictures don't do it for you, flip forward a few pages until you get to Nathaniel Goldberg's hauntingly soft 2000 study of milky-skinned, redheaded model Karen Elson, shot from behind a wire mesh screen. Or zip backward a few pages to Norman Parkinson's gorgeous, pink-tinged 1956 photograph of model Barbara Mullen, the fully bejeweled and body-painted elephant behind her almost eclipsing her elegance. There's no doubt that fashion photography can be art, and this lush book never lets you forget it.

-- Stephanie Zacharek

James Bond Movie Posters: The Official 007 Collection
By Tony Nourmand
Chronicle Books
208 pages
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Now that movie trailers tell you everything there is to know about a picture's story before you see it, and now that you can access those trailers on the Internet or find yourself watching them on digital billboards, it may be hard to remember that advance publicity once aimed to tease audiences. Posters were perhaps the most intriguing of teasers. I can remember as a 10-year-old, staring at the poster for the James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever" and wondering what the hell was going on. Why was Bond suspended on what looked like a giant wrench hovering in outer space? Why did he look so unconcerned by the explosions going on beneath him? And what about those girls clad in bikinis and high-heeled boots (one of my favorite fashion combos) proffering glittering handfuls of diamonds?

Tony Nourmand's new "James Bond Movie Posters: The Official 007 Collection" includes the posters from every official Bond movie through "The World Is Not Enough," and even includes the two unofficial Bond entries ("Casino Royale" and the wonderful and overlooked "Never Say Never Again"). Nourmand has chosen posters from all over the world, so you also get to see the narrow, graphics-laden style that Japan favors. (A small disappointment: Couldn't they have dug up some Polish posters? The Poles produce some of the most striking, enigmatic and original movie posters in the world.) The highlights are the work that Robert McGinnis did on the '60s entries, which captured the adult comic book tone of the movie, and the work of the great Bob Peak for the best of the later Bonds, "The Spy Who Loved Me," a lavish example of the spare images he created for other '60s movie posters like "Modesty Blaise." This is one of those gift books that cause the recipient to blip out on the surrounding holiday celebrations while they sit happily turning the pages, and maybe recalling all the pleasure the Bond films have brought them.

-- Charles Taylor

Drama in the Desert: The Sights and Sounds of Burning Man
Based on the images of Holly Kreuter
Raised Barn Press
144 pages
[Order here.]

Like the Burning Man festival it documents, "Drama in the Desert" is the sum of its many contributors. The annual event demands "radical self-expression" from its nearly 30,000 participants. For their trouble, it gives them a week to root around in the most creative city in America. Photographer and Burning Man staff member Holly Kreuter is primarily interested in the folky art and the temporary structures installed on the spectacular cracked-earth desert of Northern Nevada. Her often-beautiful 200-plus photos translate the fiery chaos of the event as well as some of its surreal stillness. In one scene, a mobile bed is parked in front of a raging fire, a mosquelike structure glowing in the distance; in another, sculptor Michael Christian's headless beast struts across the playa. The photos are redundant at times, and the printer seems to have knocked the light off a few pages, but as a collection they are as inclusive -- of good art and not-so-good art -- as the event itself. The writing is similar: Forty-odd writers and poets are featured in dozens of pieces that struggle to ascribe universal meaning to the event; few do, but that's kind of the event's point. Dave Eggers contributes a loving invocation in the foreword; an appendix identifies a lot of functionally anonymous artists. A DVD disc included with the book sets Kreuter's photos to music, and also features insightful interviews with eight Burning Man artists, including founder Larry Harvey.

-- Jeff Stark

By Larry Burrows
Alfred A. Knopf
243 pages
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Some of the photographs in Larry Burrows' "Vietnam" don't look real, or rather, they look staged. Partly that's because the colors in Burrows' prints are startlingly pristine. But also, it's difficult to imagine how Burrows, who covered the war for Life magazine for nine years, stood so close to a South Vietnamese guard brandishing a knife at a Viet Cong's neck, how he was privy to what looks like the shameful slaughter of a village, or how a young American soldier let Burrows observe his private weeping. Maybe that's it: What soldier, enemy, hero or victim wants a stranger witnessing his war so intimately? In his introduction to the book, David Halberstam writes, "[Burrows] knew the one great truth that the early generation of journalists and photographers who went there understood: that given the particular nature of this war -- small units fighting all over the country -- it was going to be, if you figured out how to go and look for it, amazingly accessible for a photographer." According to Halberstam, "more than any other photographer and print journalist, [Burrows'] work captured the different faces of the war." If that isn't endorsement enough -- and, understandably, some might think this an upsetting book to put under a Christmas tree -- Burrows' pictures bring home why Vietnam still rips our country apart, as well as the gravity of any war. What may come as a surprise is that Burrows' finely detailed photographs of death and destruction are often beautiful as well.

-- Suzy Hansen

Wild, Weird and Wonderful, The American Circus 1901-1927 as Seen by F.W. Glasier
By Mark Sloan
Quantuck Lane Press
128 pages
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Unlike many of the great photographers of the American circus' golden era, F.W. Glasier stayed in one place. For 25 years he shot every show that came through northern Massachusetts, from the epic spectacles of the Ringling Brothers to dog-and-pony productions and the mud shows of seven-car outfits like the Sparks Circus. "Wild, Weird and Wonderful" collects fascinating publicity stills of performers like the "Fashion Plate Equestrienne" as well as mucky shots of circus infrastructure, such as advance men postering billboards and roustabouts pounding stakes. No one really reads the essays in art books, and the two here are mercifully short, delivering a quick lecture on the history of the circus back to the Romans and some background on Glasier's methods. But Mark Sloan goes out of his way to work his circus scholarship into the captions. Here is Alexander Patty, cranial hopper, caught heels in the air; Sloan points out the act was part of "a brief fad that could only end badly." There is stately Chief Iron Tail, star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and model for the buffalo nickel. It's a rich collection, for looking at costumes in all their beaded, ruffled glory, for understanding what real itinerancy meant in the last century, or for just peering at human expression: The picture of topless belly dancer Coochee is a stoic and heartbreaking portrait.

-- Jeff Stark

Encyclopedia of Exploration to 1800
By Raymond John Howgego
Hordern House Press
1,168 pages
[Order here.]

In the works for roughly 15 years, British researcher Howgego has assembled an extensive catalog of expeditions spanning from 1800 B.C. to 1800. The encyclopedia offers biographical sketches of a wide variety of explorers, organized alphabetically, but wherever possible shifts the focus to their respective journeys. Therefore, the entry on Abraham, the first Hebrew patriarch, systematically lists only the events of his voyage ("built altar to God," "destruction of Sodom") from Ur through Canaan to Egypt, but Howgego does not dwell on their historical and cultural significance, instead, referring readers to bibliographical sources, in this case the Holy Bible. The travels of famed explorers like Columbus, Cortes and Cook receive lengthy treatments, but the detailed accounts of the more obscure travelers are what make this book most rewarding. One Bjarni Herjolfson, for example, is responsible for the first sighting of North America. In the year 986 A.D. he lost his way sailing from Iceland to Greenland, and days later came upon the wooded coast of modern-day Canada. He left without landing, but 14 years later returned to his native Norway and reported his findings to the Vikings who, after buying Herjolfson's ship, undertook the first planned voyage to the new continent. Before trying to impress anyone with your newfound knowledge, however, be aware that the author has included one fictional article among the many hundred entries, which so far has eluded publisher and editors alike.

-- Ewald Christians

The Marilyn Encyclopedia
By Adam Victor
334 pages
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Obviously, Marilyn enthusiasts will love Adam Victor's visual and anecdotal chronicle of her life, but "The Marilyn Encyclopedia" is universally dazzling in its earnest celebration of a beloved and captivating icon. The cover features Marilyn set against black, in all her glossy, red-lipped glory, shimmering in a plunging gold dress. I'm not quite sure what's glowing more -- the dress or Marilyn's skin. If you noticed that Marilyn was in the news more this year than usual, that's because 2002 was the 40th anniversary of her death (Victor's book came out in hardcover in 1999; this is the paperback edition). Victor arranges the details -- the messy and the glamorous -- of Monroe's 36-year life in encyclopedia form, including such entries as "Hoover, J. Edgar," "Sukarno, President," "Kelly, Gene" and "Cooking." ("Marilyn's many talents did not include culinary prowess.") You'll find her movies, her family, the Kennedys, drugs, the restaurants and bars that she frequented. Sometimes Victor just lists quotes beneath an entry. For example, Billy Wilder on "Lateness": "I don't think Marilyn is late on purpose. Her idea of time is different, that's all. I think maybe there's a little watchmaker in Zurich, Switzerland, he makes a living producing special watches only for Marilyn Monroe." And, of course, the encyclopedia is rich in lavish photos, both the posed and the candid. One wonders why Victor even needed an entry entitled "Sex Appeal."

-- Suzy Hansen

And When I Dream: Faces in San Francisco
By Bert Katz
DayBue Publishing
128 pages
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This extraordinary book matches portraits shot on the streets of San Francisco with short interviews. These are human stories and casual, sad pictures. Families, jobs, love, dreams: These are the things Katz's subjects talk about. It's the details that get me: blueberry stains, teardrop tattoos, apple schnapps, frozen waffles. Katz is a listener; his subjects speak of life.

-- Jeff Stark

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