As photo editors at Smithsonian magazine, one thing we really love about photography is that through this medium, freely extended to us, is a most extraordinary invitation—a front-row seat into a world we never even knew existed, let alone a world we might be a part of. Photo books, in particular, give us this wonderful opportunity to access these faraway worlds and personal spaces on an intimate level. As we set out to select our top ten photo books of 2022, this theme of windows into other worlds came up again and again.
Take for example, Tierra del Sol, by Carlos Jaramillo, which is a vibrant look into charrería, Mexico’s national sport, or Daniel Jack Lyons’ Like a River, a work that explores transgender and queer communities in the depths of the Amazon. In As It Was Give(n) to Me, Stacy Kranitz actively breaks down the stereotypical treatment of life in Appalachia, showing there is much more to this region than we have been shown again and again.
In the end, what we see in each of this year’s selections is a glimpse into a world, a space, a place that might not be ours. And what a gift that is, because when we can truly see someone else, we can see ourselves that much better.
Like a River by Daniel Jack Lyons
What makes Daniel Jack Lyons’ debut monograph, Like a River, so exceptional is not only that he shows us the tender “coming-of-age impulses to express and affirm one’s individuality,” as the Guardian’s Mee-Lai Stone puts it, through his portraits and images, but that we are allowed to view the work through a prism deep into the Amazon rainforest. This is work that, as Lyons’ publisher puts it, “empowers the trans and queer communities of the region, exploring how deep Indigenous traditions and modern identity politics meet in a celebratory, safe space, deep in the lush canopies and vegetation of the rainforest.” And while the viewer gets a special glimpse of another world, there is something so fundamentally familiar about these images at the same time: those looks of defiance, vulnerability and wisdom that youth, the world over, have as they are coming out and being true to themselves. Lyons’ work is made even more poignant as it happens against another background that his subjects have to contend with—the toxic mix of environmental degradation, violence and discrimination. —Quentin Nardi
Theatrum Equorum by Andrea Modica
At first, I couldn’t quite believe what I was looking at as I paged through Philadelphia photographer Andrea Modica’s latest book, Theatrum Equorum. It was as if I stepped into some private world that was not meant for me. But I took in the platinum prints, and what was once otherworldly became focused and clear. I was looking at the veterinarian care of large animals, specifically horses. Eight years in the making, Theatrum Equorum is a result of Modica documenting a range of medical procedures, including fracture repairs, dental work and emergency colic intervention, conducted at a renowned horse clinic in Bologna, Italy, all with her trademark 8 x 10 large-format camera. The approach is utterly confounding given the pressure and time restraints of both subject matter and process. This dramatic work is a thrill to take in, not only because of the craftsmanship that went into making the images, but also in bearing witness to these vulnerable and magnificent animals. It is a wildly unexpected collision that comes together beautifully. —Q.N.
Bird Planet by Tim Laman
The birds are the real superstars in National Geographic photographer Tim Laman’s new book, Bird Planet. From helmeted hornbills in Thailand to scarlet ibises in Venezuela and the Vogelkop superb birds of paradise in Indonesia, Laman’s feathered subjects span six continents and every shade of the rainbow.
Glamorous though these images may be, Laman, a field biologist as well as photographer, also provides insightful anecdotes that reflect the time, effort and research it takes to make them: like spending 14 hours straight in a photo blind to avoid disturbing a flamingo breeding colony so he could sneak out under the muddy cloak of darkness, or being dropped off by helicopter into the uninhabited Foja Mountains in New Guinea with three weeks of food and supplies, and no trails to speak of.
“I hope the book can be an inspiration for others to appreciate the wonder of birds,” says Laman, “whether in their own backyards, or to go on an adventure to see birds in remote and wild places.” —Jeff Campagna
Ice by Meghann Riepenhoff
Open Meghann Riepenhoff’s new book, Ice, and the reader is met with a series of abstract crystalline images that rouse the imagination, calling to mind everything from aerial surveys of alien worlds to tiny fern specimens sealed between glass. The title of the book is apt, as the fine art photographer created these camera-less large-scale cyanotypes by submerging or partially burying large sheets of emulsion-coated paper into freezing landscapes and then pulling them out to dry. “I’m fascinated by how water changes states,” Riepenhoff explains, “how ice forming and melting creates very different shapes, one structured and geometric, and one messy and runny and organic.”
Specific factors like temperature, humidity and sediment directly impacted the chemistry of the resulting intricate patterns. While Riepenhoff could manage how long she exposed a print, or where she buried it, nature was the ultimate wild card. “I try to embrace the idea of collaborating with wildness,” she says. Every plate in the book is a detail of a larger physical work, and those actual physical works are only partially fixed, so they’ll continue to respond to environments over time.
Riepenhoff made cyanotypes in waters ranging from the Great Lakes to Walden Pond. But her favorite spot was the confluence of the Genesee River and Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York—waters that Kodak contaminated over decades. “I loved working in an environment that was so relevant to the medium and its incredibly rich and complicated relationship to the environment,” Riepenhoff says. —J.C.
Tierra del Sol by Carlos Jaramillo
Carlos Jaramillo’s Tierra del Sol is a beautiful fine art documentary of El Clásico de las Américas, an annual weeklong charrería that takes place in Southern California. Think Mexican rodeo, with finely adorned male and female riders (charros and escaramuza charras) competing and showing off their equestrian skills in scored competitions, in what is the national sport of Mexico.
The Los Angeles-based photographer shot the rich, vibrant project on film, capturing gorgeous details in both formal portraiture and action shots. Though Jaramillo had seen videos and pictures of charrería before, it was his first time attending one in person in 2021. What was supposed to be one shooting day turned into five as he fell in love with the culture, especially the enthusiasm and confidence of the teens and young adults in the crowd. “I assumed it was something only adults participated in,” he says, “but seeing this passing of culture to younger generations was really beautiful.”
Jaramillo watched videos and planned how to shoot certain events, or suertes, in advance. He noted how the friction created by the charros’ ropes whirring around their saddle horns during the Piales en el Lienzo event generated puffs of smoke, creating perfect conditions for dramatic, super-tight portraits.
Visually, Jaramillo, a first-generation Mexican American, wanted to put charrería on a pedestal as an integral part of Mexican and Mexican American culture. “Part of me also did it for la raza, people from Mexico and Mexican Americans who grew up in American culture, to show that there’s so much more beauty to our culture than how we’re depicted in American mainstream media,” he says. “Most of us got raised to assimilate in American culture and act white to fit in and be successful, but we’re starting to realize that that’s not the case anymore.” —J.C.
The Rooted Heart Began to Change by Allan Salas
Allan Salas’ new book, The Rooted Heart Began to Change, is a beautiful, meditative series of black-and-white images. Family upheaval lays at the root of these photographs by this Costa Rican photographer. Salas was spurred to move to his childhood home by the sea following back-to-back familial shocks, the December 2020 death of his paternal grandmother and his father’s survival of a heart attack. He needed time to process his feelings of grief and his thoughts on mortality, and to make sense of things. “These two painful events led me on a ten-month journey where I wandered across the country, photographing the eerie landscape I encountered as a way to cope with the overwhelming feelings of sorrow and existential dread,” Salas told the blog “Booooooom.” “It is an open diary, illustrating an inward exploration of the spirit seeking to understand human anguish in the face of the unknown.” —J.C.
As It Was Give(n) to Me by Stacy Kranitz
Photographs, alone, have imperfect narrative capabilities. American photographer Stacy Kranitz comes to terms with that notion in her first monograph, As It Was Give(n) to Me, which chronicles her more than a decade-long stay in the Appalachian region of the United States. “I have a much deeper awareness of the limitations of photography and the failure of the documentary tradition,” she reflects in a 2019 article in the British Journal of Photography. Along with photographs of daily life, landscapes and details, Kranitz combines archival imagery and pressed flowers to tell the story of a place often misunderstood. Individual photographs, seen in isolation by Kranitz, arguably show the tropes of a region. But more often than not, the pictures go beyond the stereotypes of Appalachia, an area often overlooked, lampooned and reduced to its state of poverty. Kranitz inserts herself in this narrative with self-portraits at the end of each section. One photograph of her with someone else on horseback has their backs to the sunset as if to say, “We’ve arrived, and we’re here to stay.” —Donny Bajohr
Flint Is Family in Three Acts by LaToya Ruby Frazier
Flint Is Family in Three Acts from Chicago-based photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier captures the lives altered by the human-made water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Originally brought to Flint on assignment, Frazier found herself drawn to the community’s people. As the news cycle moved on, she stayed. Known for her collaborations with the communities she documents, Frazier worked with local poet Shea Cobb and others over the course of five years. Her images depict clean water protests, bottled water collecting, mothers and daughters, and communities coming together. In the last act, portraits show proud members of Flint collecting water from an enormous water filtering system, brought in not by government officials but by the community members themselves. —D.B.
Floridas by Anastasia Samoylova and Walker Evans
Anastasia Samoylova’s latest book, Floridas, is a collaboration with the late photographer Walker Evans (1903-75), known best for his work documenting the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Both outsiders—Samoylova, Soviet-born and now Miami-based, and Evans, born in St. Louis—have given their own interpretation of the Sunshine State. Samoylova has road-tripped up and down the state since 2016, and Evans photographed different parts during four decades of assignments. Together, their photographs record the then and now of one of the most environmentally vulnerable states. More than once, pictures show surreal locations caused by low-sitting water after a coastal storm. Weaving black and white with color photographs filled with layers and light, the sequence can often seem dreamlike, but the two versions of Florida documented in Floridas are very real. —D.B.
I Just Wanna Surf by Gabriella Angotti-Jones
Candid, fresh images of joy fill the pages of I Just Wanna Surf by California-based photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones. Motivated by a lack of inclusive representation in the surfing community, Angotti-Jones, a surfer herself, captures spirited moments in the sea—like one smiling surfer embracing the coldness of the water—and the quiet moments in between—with portraits of fellow surfers proudly posing with their boards. The book’s layout is influenced by skate and surf magazines of the 1990s, showing edges of film scans, and includes a poster insert with a collage of images that have an energy to them that will make any viewer want to jump in the drink and have the salt and sand in their hair. From Hawaii to New York, Angotti-Jones adds a new lens on surf culture not to be overlooked. —D.B.