Robert Delpire, Managing Editor of the series

Each paperback volume contains approximately 60 photographs, most in duotone.
Price: $15.95 each
Dimensions: 7.4” x 4.9” each
Published by Thames & Hudson

Thames & Hudson’s Photofile series - a sort of Reader’s Digest of coffee table books - offers well-produced paperbacks containing approximately 60 decent reproductions. Rather than review one at a time, I’ll review the series, as most are worthwhile, and the concept of these affordable and small packages is fantastic.

Quality photo books generally are priced too high for students (or anyone on a budget) to purchase with abandon. Additionally, they can be cumbersome and better suited to adorn a coffee table than to actually thumb through. Thus the Photofile series addresses an important gap in the marketplace. These portable and reasonably priced 'mini-monographs', allow readers to enjoy well-reproduced photos without breaking the back or the bank. They are to large art books what a high quality point and shoot is to the professional DSLR. Let’s go through some of their strong points.

They are easy to share

I was introduced to the series when a friend reached into his messenger bag and handed me the Saul Leiter volume as we rode on the subway. I had been totally unaware of Leiter’s work, and encountering it felt like a revelation. He captured quiet, intimate moments on 1950’s streets with a graphic designer’s compositional eye and a poet’s sensitivity to the telling detail: e.g., the image of two postmen, each lost in their own world, wearing grey uniforms and trudging down a snowy street against backdrop of vividly colored posters advertising soda. 

My friend, by passing me this small book, had initiated me into the world of Saul Leiter-devotees, and he would never have done so as effortlessly with a larger tome. The portability of these volumes also makes them suitable educational tools. A colleague of mine, when teaching high school photography, carries six copies of the Henri Cartier-Bresson volume and shares them with students as a reference and a source of inspiration.

They are informative

Each volume begins with a brief introduction, often by another photographer, curator, or historian. For the most part, these 10-12 page essays do a good job of putting the artist’s work in context. And often they also contain useful bits of biographical information. For example, photographer Henry O’Neal explains in the Berenice Abbott volume that she left the USA as a young woman of modest means, bravely set out to Paris during the 1920’s without any formal support structure, and quickly began to thrive as a photographer. And beyond being a major figure in her own right, O’Neal explains how she had the taste and the judgment to essentially rediscover Eugene Atget’s work and advocate for his place in the history of the medium.

In a few cases, the artists themselves provide an introduction. Magnum shooter Marc Riboud describes his artistic journey and sources of inspiration in an essay filled with personal recollections of colleagues including Capa, Chim, and Cartier-Bresson. In addition to the introductory essays, the books provide selected bibliographies and detailed chronologies.

They are well printed

Many of the photographs in the series are in black and white, and they are lovingly printed in duotone. For example, the range of tonal values in Ernst Haas’ iconic monochrome image of a woman desperately looking for a relative in Postwar Europe is clearly rendered and visible. The same Haas volume also illustrates how well the series handles color. The subtleties of hue, texture, range, and value are clearly evident in Haas’ geometric study of locksmith awnings against a cityscape backdrop.

They serve as an excellent introduction to a photographer’s oeuvre

Presenting approximately 60 key images from a photographer’s body of work, often including his/her most celebrated shots, these volumes provide a strong sense of an artist’s vision. Though it is very hard to sum up Cartier-Bresson’s work in so few images, the collection gives a clear sense of his style and breadth. Not every photographer is so artfully represented, however.

The volume on Jacques Henri Lartigue is an exception to this generalization about the series offering good overviews. Lartigue was one of the few prodigies of the medium, and most decent collections of Lartigue’s leave the viewer with the awed sense that he was blessed with a preternatural talent for near perfect composition, as well as an aristocrat’s access to the European high life of the era. With the omission of Lartigue’s experiments with color processes as well as his later work, the Photofile volume fails to capture his overall contribution.

But as with any series, a quibble here and there is to be expected. At this price, and with the series’ multiple strengths, what are you waiting for? Pick one up.

Current titles in the series: